For a program that endured a miserable 2012-13 season, the first two months this year were a cause for celebration, as the Michigan hockey team raced out to a 10-2-1 start. But something has gone terribly amiss for the Wolverines since.
Over the last five games, U-M is 0-4-1, and that record does not include a 5-4 exhibition loss to the U.S. National Development Team - a squad of elite talents, sure, but 18-year old high-school seniors.
On the Yost Post, the concern level among the hardcore hockey following we have at TheWolverine.com is escalating, especially after the Maize and Blue were swept this past weekend by Wisconsin.
"It's TIME to get serious and in panic mode," z_for_three penned. "Captains need to step up. Seniors need to step up. We have fallen off a cliff fast. All of that down time and practice time has eroded our confidence and game."
While his reaction may have been a bit over the top, it seems to accurately represent a fan base that was dreaming of a Big Ten title and a Frozen Four berth just a few weeks ago and is now just hoping Michigan can eke into the NCAA Tournament.
Former U-M goalie, and TheWolverine.com analyst, Noah Ruden is not among those panicking. Not yet.
"All is not lost because of one weekend or one bad stretch," he said. "You're not OK with being swept but you have to realize that the season hasn't ended either. It's Jan. 13, and they've played four of 20 Big Ten games. The schedule hasn't been kind to them, and they're out of rhythm, but this team didn't just become a bad team overnight.
"The players that were beating all those good teams in the first half of the year are still here. They just need to get back in rhythm."
A Challenging Schedule
While senior captain Mac Bennett had no desire to use the Wolverines' schedule as an excuse - a sentiment echoed by head coach Red Berenson and alternate captain Andrew Copp - it has had a dramatic impact on this team.
In the first eight weeks of the season, Michigan played 14 games (including an exhibition contest). In the most recent six weeks, U-M has played six total games (including another exhibition).
Over the last 30 years, the Wolverines enjoyed, on average, a 16-day break before the Great Lakes Invitational (this year it was exactly 16 days) but then jump back into action in early January. However, this season, Michigan played the GLI Dec. 27-28, had a weekend off, played at Wisconsin Jan. 10-11, and now has another weekend off before starting an eight-week, 16-game stretch in which it plays at least two contests every seven days.
Since U-M played Ferris State Dec. 11, it has played just four games in 41 days before meeting Michigan State Jan. 23.
Michigan's five contests in January (all league games) are the fewest of the six Big Ten teams: Minnesota (nine total, five league games) Michigan State (seven, all league games), Ohio State (seven, all league games), Wisconsin (seven, five league games) and Penn State (six, five league games).
This team has gone cold from inactivity.
"When you're playing a lot, it helps you get in rhythm and provides structure for your week," said Copp. "When you don't play as much, you end up with more time on your hands than you know what to do with, and I think having all this time off, especially coming at the same time as having two or three weeks off from school, you can develop bad habits. You end up being way too leisurely away from the rink and I think that carries over to the rink too."
The youth of Michigan's team - eight of the Wolverines' 10 freshmen were in the lineup against the Badgers - can exasperate the problem.
"You give a young team the time off this team has had over the last six weeks, that momentum halts, and I think you're seeing that young, inexperienced team trying to figure out how to recapture the momentum it had in the first half of the season," said Ruden.
"They've only played four games in the past six weeks, and that's tough for any team, but especially a young team, to come back and play at the same intensity and urgency you have when you're playing every weekend. I think once the season gets going again, they have a pretty steady schedule, I think you'll see them come back to the way they were."
Berenson said it is critical that the veterans lead during this agonizing stretch of down time, but then, that's a big part of the problem.
Michigan's Best Players Are Not Playing That Way
This team was always going to rely on its freshmen to play big roles. Rookie center J.T. Compher is, arguably, the second-best forward on the team and one of the top-five players. Defenseman Michael Downing consistently plays on U-M's No. 1 blue-line pairing while goalie Zach Nagelvoort has started 12 of Michigan's 18 games.
However, there are 14 sophomores, juniors and seniors that must set the pace, and outside of Bennett and Copp, the majority of players are not playing their best hockey.
It's not all about offense, but senior Derek DeBlois (two goals, eight-game goalless drought), junior Alex Guptill (six goals, four-game drought), junior Phil Di Giuseppe (four goals, eight-game drought) and sophomore Boo Nieves (one goal, 15-game drought) were expected to be consistent contributors for the Maize and Blue and they're too often coming up empty.
"When Red says your best players have to be your best players, that is even more true with a young team that is struggling," Ruden said. "The older guys have to show them how to relax, create chances and bury them. And not stress.
"The freshmen don't really know how to react to this much time off, but the seniors and juniors are used to having that holiday break - maybe not this long but usually you have two weeks before the GLI and one week after the GLI - and they need to lead in practice, and in games, step up and be that calming presence."
Though the offense has been downright miserable - five goals in U-M's last four games (1.30 per game) and seven in its last five contests (1.40 average) - the defense is not without blame; the Wolverines have allowed 14 goals during their four-game losing streak (3.50 per game).
"You're not going to win many games with that kind of offense, but we have to be stingier defensively," Berenson said. "To give up the kind of goals we've given up - soft goals, unearned goals, fluky goals. Right now we don't have the answer for that. We have to play better defensively, and then better offensively."
"It's the defense," Bennett iterated. "That's what we're worried about first and foremost. Time and time again, Red has said, 'Defense wins championships.' You look at the teams that make it to the Frozen Four and it's usually the teams with the least goals against. For us, we're not outscoring our mistakes right now. Until we're able to do that, Red is going to keep harping on us to be better defensively."
Nagelvoort started both games in Madison, and showed a few cracks in his armor, allowing a pair of soft goals, including the first one of the weekend that immediately put Michigan in a hole.
"I think he was like our team, he had his moments he was really good, and moments he wasn't," Berenson said. "I thought for Zach he was just OK during the weekend. Against a team like Wisconsin, in their building, you have to walk out of the arena saying our goalie was a factor."
Wolverines Remain Confident
Michigan has slipped from fifth in the Pairwise rankings to 14th. The Maize and Blue were third in the polls before the Great Lakes Invitational and now sit 13th.
The good news is that a lot can change in one weekend's time. And with four games remaining against No. 1 Minnesota (in both the polls and Pairwise) and two against No. 10 Wisconsin (Pairwise), the Maize and Blue can jump back into a comfortable position quickly.
U-M is not out of the running for the Big Ten title either, but it will probably have to go 4-2 against the Gophers and Badgers the rest of the way while posting a mark of 7-3 or better in its 10 games against Michigan State (four contests), Penn State (four contests) and Ohio State (two games).
If Michigan were to go 11-5 or even 10-6 down the stretch, getting to the 20-win mark, it should be an NCAA Tournament team.
"As frustrating as it is for the team to come off a hot start and lose all four games after that, we're just starting the core of the Big Ten schedule," Ruden said. "Every game moving forward is a Big Ten game and it will pick up pretty quickly. They'll have plenty of time to make up for this poor stretch here.
"I'd really expect Red next week, when the schedule goes into full-time drive, to play up that this is the start of the Big Ten season and it's time to play with that sense of urgency and desperation."
Michigan has to play that way, has to regain its scoring touch, solidify its defensive-zone coverage and eliminate the bad goals allowed if 10 or more wins is even realistic. The Wolverines believe themselves capable, but understand it's time to prove so.
"We have too much skill and talent, and work ethic on this team to not make it to the postseason," Bennett said. "This has been the ebb and flow of the season. You have high points and low points. Ultimately, what this does for us now will benefit us later, once we get into playoffs this can be a time where we look back and say, 'We battled through this. We're going to be OK.'"
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