EAST LANSING — Before the Michigan hockey team’s 5-1 victory over Michigan State on Friday night, some of the Wolverine lines were changed up to relive an ailing defense.
Considering the 12th-ranked Wolverines (2-2-1 CCHA, 4-3-1 overall) gave up just a one goal in their first game against the Spartans, it seemed to work.
But on Saturday, the wheels came off yet again. Within the first seven minutes of Saturday’s game, Michigan trailed the Spartans (2-3, 3-5-1) by three goals and looked like it was just trying to escape East Lansing without too much embarrassment.
Any momentum gained or defensive issues fixed from Friday all but disappeared on Saturday. The Wolverines looked like the same team that gave up eight goals to Northern Michigan during last weekend’s series.
“I didn’t know that we would come out so poorly,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “It was poor defense, poor defensive play and there was no battle on this team tonight.”
The defensemen looked flustered all night, and during the first period when the Spartans tallied four goals, the puck was rarely cleared from the Wolverines’ own zone. Berenson has said all year that the blame is not all on the defensemen, but also the forwards who have missed just as many defensive assignments.
Michigan State’s line of Brent Darnell, Matt DeBlouw and Matt Berry did the most damage against the feeble Michigan defense. Berry completed a hat trick in the second period, and the line accounted for 10 Spartan points.
“I knew Barry is their top offensive player and we need to respect that when we’re on the ice,” Berenson said. “Your best players are supposed to be your best players, and theirs were tonight.”
Berenson said on Friday night that the decision to change up the lines was based on the Wolverines’ inability to get “more defense and defense responsibility.” That was exactly the opposite of what occurred on Saturday. Michigan State players were left open, and Michigan looked stagnant as assignments were missed.
The defensive issues aren’t a recent development either. Michigan came into the weekend allowing the second-most goals per game of any CCHA team. And despite the Wolverines top-ranked offensive attack in the conference, that firepower wasn’t enough to overcome the early deficit on Saturday.
The inconsistency between the pipes — freshmen Jared Rutledge and Steve Racine have been battling the entire season for the starting spot — has also been a factor in the defensive struggles, but Berenson said that Rutledge didn’t receive enough help from his teammates on Saturday.
When asked what the difference was between Friday and Saturday night’s performance, Berenson didn’t have an answer.
“That’s what sports are all about,” he said. “Whether it’s mental or physical, we had players running into each other and players taking the wrong guy. Literally, we (gave up) two breakaways in the first five minutes from the blue line in. Just poor play on our part and good plays on their part.”
Friday’s game was at Yost Ice Arena, whereas Michigan traveled to Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing on Saturday, which hasn’t been a very successful rink for the Wolverines over the years — the Wolverines are 44-62-9 all time in East Lansing. But Berenson insists that Michigan will need to be able to win on the road, no matter who it’s playing.
“Last night we were on our toes, tonight we were on our heels,” Berenson said.
Either way, the Wolverines’ defense that showed up on Friday was absent from East Lansing on Saturday. If the line switch was the secret recipe on Friday, then there are more serious problems plaguing Michigan. Whether Berenson keeps the new lines intact or alters them yet again, the defensive effort is not where it needs to be for Michigan to be successful in the CCHA.