Somewhere in the locker room of Yost Ice Arena, where that feeling of heartbreak hurts the most, is a list of goals for the Michigan hockey team.
They’re the same goals that have likely been posted in that same room all season: “Protect Yost, win the weekend, win the GLI, win the Big Ten.”
Saturday night, they had the opportunity to accomplish all of them.
The Wolverines were at home, having won the Great Lakes Invitational in December, with a chance to sweep Michigan State for the Big Ten regular-season title. And maybe, in the process, silence the criticism that has followed them this season.
They faced the pressure that comes when an entire season comes down to one game, the type of pressure you would feel sitting on a 17 in blackjack. Except, if they lost this hand, they would lose everything they worked so hard to avoid repeating.
They were risking that feeling of heartbreak.
* * *
Two years ago, when Michigan fell apart in the regular season behind a lackluster defense and lack of energy, it fought back into the CCHA playoffs for a chance to salvage the season. There was no chance at an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. If the Wolverines wanted to make it, they’d have to win out.
Sitting near the bottom of the conference, team after team fell to the Wolverines, even the ones that had defeated them earlier in the season, all the way to the conference final. They clawed back, but only to fall short in the final period.
They cried, then fell silent and vowed to never let that feeling happen again.
Last year, having started the season so well, Michigan fell apart at the end of the season, when it needed one win in the Big Ten Tournament to secure its fate in the postseason. The Wolverines had just defeated No. 1 Minnesota the weekend before, giving their postseason hopes new life.
And for 96 minutes, they fought and held on against Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. They stopped shot after shot and came inches — literally inches — away from doing so, only to feel that pain again. They had done everything they could, but they were left helpless once more.
They cried again, said even fewer words than the last time, and once more, they vowed to never experience that heartbreak again.
* * *
When the final horn sounded Saturday, they were heartbroken once more.
Junior forward Andrew Copp bent over with his stick on his knees, gliding from one end of the ice to the other. Michigan coach Red Berenson and the rest of the coaching staff shuffled off the ice without shaking any of the players’ hands.
Senior forwards Zach Hyman and Travis Lynch skated out to the ice to be honored on Senior Night, but with forced smiles. They hugged teammates, waved to the crowd and kissed the ice — only out of tradition. They were still hurting.
For 60 minutes, the Wolverines played perhaps some of their best hockey of the season. Maybe they could have passed the puck more sharply or cleared the puck quicker. But they attacked the net, held onto the puck and didn’t stay in the penalty box.
But when Michigan thought it had a chance, the Spartans were there with bodies flying everywhere. Michigan State goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who has had a quiet season, played perhaps his best game, as if to personally say, You shall not pass.
“I told them they did everything they could to make it happen,” Berenson said. “We had the chance, the opportunity.”
There are periods of silence when Berenson speaks, not because he doesn’t know what to say but because it hurts to say it. He looks down and around and then finally, he says, “It is what it is.”
And right now, it’s heartbreak. It’s the feeling they have after playing one of their best games and still losing.
* * *
Now, as the Big Ten Tournament looms, the Wolverines’ past follows them once again. They arrive at the conference tournament needing to win it all to make it to the NCAA Tournament.
They vowed to end this feeling, never to go back to that feeling of heartbreak. It’s a vow they’re sick of making, but it’s one they’re going to have to make once again.
This feeling, whether they like it or not, is on them. Next weekend, it’s a chance, as Berenson puts it, “to salvage our so-called status.” It’s time to see whether this team is ready to break its streak.
They weren’t headed to the NCAA Tournament regardless of the result Saturday night. And it won’t matter how far they go in the tournament, so long as they make it.
After 22 years of making the postseason followed by two consecutive years of missing it, the heartbreak has become all too familiar.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Garno can reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @G_Garno.