Freshmen are supposed to carry equipment bags, not carry their team. They’re supposed to tighten up in big games and be overwhelmed in opposing rinks.

J. Brady McCollough

But somebody must have forgotten to tell Michigan’s Jeff Tambellini that. This weekend he stepped onto the ice for two must-win games against Michigan State, and he skated like he was on the pond, just playing shinny with his friends.

Pressure? Nerves? Forget it. Tambellini was Michigan’s lifeblood this weekend, scoring four of its six goals in a split with the Spartans. And Tambellini has stepped up in important games before – most notably his four-point showing in Michigan’s split with first-place Ferris State two weeks ago.

Tambellini led the Wolverines to victory against the Spartans on Friday, but almost more impressive was his play in Saturday’s loss. Michigan fell 5-3 after Michigan State’s empty-netter in the final two minutes, but without Tambellini, the Wolverines wouldn’t have been close. The Spartans blew open a one-goal game in the third, and Michigan found itself down three goals with 11:33 to go. Michigan State’s fans woke up from their second-period naps (they must have been sleeping – why else was Munn Arena so quiet for lengthy stretches?) long enough to think the game was over.

But Tambellini was just getting started.

He chased down a puck in the right circle and flipped it by Matt Migliaccio on the powerplay. The rink announcer could barely give him credit for the goal before Tambellini had followed up his own rebound and poked it into the net. Suddenly, it was a game again. In a span of 20 seconds, Tambellini used two quick flicks of the wrist to single-handedly turn the game from a blowout into a nail-biter.

The smooth-skating winger has now scorched the net 22 times this season for a team-leading total of 32 points. He has twice as many goals as any other Wolverine.

Tambellini just doesn’t play like a freshman.

This weekend against the Spartans, Michigan was trying to keep its fight for the league championship alive. In his first taste of the intense rivalry between the two Michigan schools, Tambellini seemed unfazed, unaware of any extra pressure on him as the Wolverines’ most consistent offensive force. He started by giving Michigan the quick start it needed Friday when he scored 13 seconds in, and then breathed life into the Wolverines in Saturday’s third period.

Michigan coach Red Berenson compared him to Brett Hull – the Detroit Red Wing whose rocket shot has terrorized goalies – and Tambellini has pure skating ability and a nose for the puck to go along with his wicked shot.

He has shown the confidence all season to fire off more shots than an AK-47. That, and the fact that he said he has been “dying” to play Michigan State since he attended the Cold War last year, tells you that he has a hunger to play in big games and a willingness to be the player Michigan depends on when there’s a lot on the line.

That is a desire that the rest of the Wolverines need to pick up on, because as special as Tambellini is, he couldn’t pull out a win by himself Saturday, and he is not going to be able to deliver any banners by himself either. Michigan briefly found balanced scoring for the last couple weeks, but that vanished against Michigan State.

“Obviously you need more than one player or one line that can score,” Berenson said after Saturday’s loss, adding that the Wolverines “can’t walk out of here feeling that we gave it everything we had.”

Tambellini, appropriately, took two final shots as the clock expired in that game, trying until the end to salvage the game for Michigan.

A few minutes later, Michigan State coach Rick Comley said, “I’m not sure how big an adjective I have” to describe Tambellini.

You can start with “money player.”

– Courtney Lewis can be reached at cmlewis@umich.edu

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