Jon Merrill strode into the Michigan hockey team’s pregame meal on Friday, and as senior forward David Wohlberg explained, “he was all smiles.”

The meal was Merrill’s first pregame meal all season, but not because he hasn’t eaten. After all, you can’t have a pregame meal without a game afterward.

Finally, after a three-month suspension, Merrill could eat.

On the ice, it didn’t take long for the sophomore defenseman to get in the box score, as he collected two assists in a 4-2 win over Lake Superior State on Friday.

For those keeping track at home, Merrill’s two assists put him even with fifth-year senior goalie Shawn Hunwick on the team’s points list. It’s a start.

And it’s certainly fair to expect many more, as Merrill will make an immediate impact in all facets of the game, all parts of the ice and especially on the special teams units.

But Merrill’s biggest impact may have nothing to do with being the team’s best defender. The Wolverines got Merrill back at just the right moment.

With its sweep of the GLI in December, Michigan grabbed some momentum for the first time in a long, long while. The Wolverines came back to reality at Yost this weekend.

Their severely underperforming power-play unit severely underperformed. They still lack a true finisher. That became painfully clear in an overtime period on Saturday that featured a barrage of shots but no goal, and in the shootout in which five of six shooters failed to get the puck on cage.

And there’s the little fact that Michigan lost its most important player (Hunwick) and one of its most effective scorers (Alex Guptill), and the team hasn’t revealed the extent of the injuries.

Yet looking at the Michigan players, you wouldn’t know any of that. You’d see players that were calm, loose and confident.

Merrill has already made an impact.

“He was probably our best defenseman last year, and to get him back is great,” said senior forward Luke Glendening. “But it’s also just the guy he is to have around in the locker room. He keeps guys loose. His confidence — he just has an aura about him that breeds confidence. And that’s the guy you want in the locker room.”

***

A hockey game is a strange beast. The team with the best players, even the team that actually plays better in any given night, often doesn’t win.

A hockey game has moods and flows and rhythms, and at its best, Michigan can dictate those moods and flows and rhythms.

A team can’t exactly control whether or not the puck goes in. Michigan coach Red Berenson said the Wolverines failed to capitalize on their best scoring chances on Saturday, yet they scored their first goal when the puck hit off a defender’s skate and into the Lakers’ own net.

Berenson calls it puck luck. You could call it that. You could call it serendipity. Or you could just call it life.

The team won’t say what Merrill did to warrant his suspension. Many outside the team have their suspicions, some of them even educated suspicions.

What the team will say is that Merrill handled his punishment with dignity. Many assumed he’d bolt for the OHL. He didn’t. He has kept quiet and has silently practiced with the team since November despite not knowing when he would play.

“He’s been terrific,” Berenson said. “When you make a mistake and you have to pay for it, you can either complain about it, you can walk away, you can quit or whatever. He’s been terrific. Right from day one.”

A team, a player, a person is a lot like a hockey game. They have moods and flows and rhythms and you can try to dictate these but sometimes, they get out of control.

How you respond is what matters.

Merrill made a mistake, and if you believe Berenson and the rest of the Michigan hockey team, he’s taken responsibility and can now move forward.

The first half of the Wolverines’ season was, let’s face it, a mistake. What matters is whether they can take responsibility for their own problems — the lack of resolve, the weak power play, the lack of finishers — and move forward.

***

Before even stepping onto the ice on Friday night, Merrill dictated Michigan’s play.

Merrill was not made available to speak to the media, but that didn’t matter. All you had to do was look at the faces of his teammates after the game, see them laughing and smiling, to see what his presence did for them.

Wohlberg even cracked a joke on Friday, a treat rarer than a glimpse of the Michigan sun in winter. He cut in on a question addressed to junior forward Chris Brown, who earlier had lost the puck on two breakaways and missed his first empty-net opportunity before finally making the second.

“I’d like to answer that one,” Wohlberg cut in. “I don’t think (Lake Superior State) would’ve pulled the goalie if (Brown) could’ve handled the puck tonight.”

Brown laughed, Wohlberg grinned, and they momentarily forgot about the underlying truth behind Wohlberg’s joke: Friday’s game could have been a blowout.

The questions, though — the power play problems, the injuries, the offensive struggles — those can wait. Merrill’s back, and the team is feeling good. In hockey, moods, and flows and rhythms matter.

And right now, despite it all, it’s all smiles.

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