With the start of the NCAA Tournament just days away, Michigan coach Red Berenson reflected on one of the best comebacks he’s witnessed in his tenure as coach of the Michigan hockey team.
His thoughts turned back to a different tournament — a game against Denver in 1999.
With the Wolverines trailing by three, Berenson called a timeout midway through the second period to try and put some life back in his squad.
“I just talked to the team,” Berenson said. “Just reminded them why we came here, how we have to play to be a good team.”
Michigan left the bench a rejuvenated team and went on to trounce Denver, 5-3.
So, where was that same sense of comeback during Saturday’s CCHA Championship game against Western Michigan, a contest in which No. 2 Michigan trailed by three for most of the game? According to senior forward David Wohlberg, it’s always there — the Wolverines just had a little difficulty unearthing it.
“It’s tough to dig a hole for yourself and then have to come out of it,” Wohlberg said. “Coaches really stress about getting a jump-start on teams, getting a first goal and then playing with a lead and growing that lead.”
Those aren’t empty words — the team has stats to back them up. Michigan has a commanding 20-6-4 record when scoring first this season. The Wolverines’ problem isn’t necessarily giving up the first goal — it’s letting too much time pass between when that first goal is scored and when they find twine.
“It doesn’t rattle me (when the other team scores first), and I don’t think it rattles our team,” Berenson said. “(But) the longer you go without scoring, the longer you start pressing. You’ve got to create momentum, and one way is to score. The one way to lose momentum is to give up a goal.”
That was the team’s biggest problem on Saturday. The Broncos scored midway through the first frame, and the Wolverines didn’t respond until 35 minutes later. Even then, they were in the midst of a five-minute penalty kill.
The team also knows how to make a distinction between work ethic and luck. On Friday night, Michigan trailed Bowling Green by two in the second period. With 10 seconds left in the frame, sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill got a lucky bounce that fumbled its way past the Falcon goaltender.
But Michigan would rather play not have to rely on quirky bounces or lucky breaks. Wohlberg was definitive that the team becomes beatable the instant it doesn’t come out and play for the full 60 minutes. It’s a point that the coaching staff routinely emphasizes.
It starts with the team coming out focused and in the right mindset. But after that, it all comes down to grittiness and mental toughness.
“We’ve got to earn it,” Berenson said. “We’ve got to work harder than the other team and then you’ve got to be a little patient, too. You can’t go out and try and do it all yourself. We’re a team, and let’s do it together.”
The Wolverines recognize Saturday’s loss as the exception rather than the rule. So, even with the first round of the NCAA Tournament looming, they’re not worried about any more repeat performances.
“Hopefully, we won’t be in (a hole), and that’s the most important thing,” said junior defenseman Lee Moffie. “I think we have a lot of confidence in ourselves because we’re able to come back and get over the obstacles.”