There was a stark contrast Saturday night as one team celebrated a victory over Texas and a berth in the Sweet 16, and another, its NCAA Tournament hopes on life support, were hoping and praying for teams to lose so they could extend their season.
By the time the Wolverine hockey team went to bed Saturday night, though, they knew their season was over with, and worst of all, as they acknowledged Sunday morning, it never should have come down to a wing and a prayer.
"We basically controlled out own destiny. We had to beat a team that we should have beaten, and we didn't," said senior captain Mac Bennett, who began his career playing in the national championship game and ended it without playing in the NCAA his final two seasons. "The goal was to make the tournament and we didn't reach that. Is it better or worse than last year? I couldn't tell you."
Frankly, he didn't care to think about. And he shouldn't. It's irrelevant.
After Michigan lost to Penn State Thursday in a Big Ten quarterfinal (more on that in a minute), the Maize and Blue sat around knowing a lot of breaks had to go their way. They didn't, as the teams U-M needed to lose kept on winning, pushing the Wolverines further and further down the Pairwise Rankings and closer to the brink.
When North Dakota won Saturday, it took the final at-large bid, snatched away from Michigan, but U-M didn't deserve to sneak in, its coach noted.
"Let's face it, you have to win your way into the tournament. Not lose your way in and once we lost that game against Penn State - that was our last hope and then two or three things had to happen," said Berenson, who confirmed he will return next year. "There was still a glimmer of hope but we didn't deserve it and obviously it didn't happen."
Berenson said there were four or five games that could have changed Michigan's fate had the Wolverines won, but really it was as simple as one game - beat the Nittany Lions on Thursday like they should have, and U-M is dancing today. But then beating Penn State proved overly difficult for the Maize and Blue this season as they went 2-3 against a PSU squad that went 5-24-2 against everyone else.
"We lost games you can't lose, and that starts with the coaches," Berenson said. "We can't lose those games to Penn State, at home with a two-goal lead, and at Michigan State with a two-goal lead. Another home game to Ohio State we lost in a shootout.
"You have to win your home games and then win the games you should win. I could name you at least four games that those games cost us a tournament bid. Too many. That's why it wasn't close. We didn't deserve to be in."
People will look at numbers for answers - the 2-3 record against Penn State; the 5-7-2 mark in February and March; the one spot needed in the Pairwise Rankings to get in - but numbers don't tell the story. Michigan's inability to bring its 'A' game or even its 'B' game consistently tells the story.
This is a team that beat three of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament but it went 5-5 against Michigan State and Penn State teams that had a combined .298 winning percentage in games not against the Maize and Blue. Had Michigan just taken care of business like it should have against the worst teams in the Big Ten, it's making travel plans today.
"There's not an easy answer right now," sophomore alternate captain Andrew Copp said. "We were 10-2-2 at Christmas time and then it goes down the drain in the second half. Consistency, I guess. We could have beaten every single team we played. You look at the top three teams in the regions and we beat all three of them. It's a matter of finding consistency and a constant desperation where we don't come into games just thinking we'll win if we show up."
For years, all it took was Michigan showing up, but college hockey has seen a tremendous increase in parity, and the Wolverines are trying to figure out how to reclaim their place atop the NCAA field.
Berenson admits the losing is taking its toll, but he's not ready to step away, and he shouldn't be forced to. No one will work harder to rectify the program's struggles than the future Hall of Fame coach. He's not letting himself off the hook, but he's confident he and his current staff knows what it will take to lead Michigan back.
"We never made [making the tournament] close for 20 years, and we have to start all over again, and we can't make it close," he said. "Every team plays to make the playoffs and win a championship, but you have to get in the tournament. You can't back in, and we just found that out.
"I like our team. I think we'll take a step next year and one reason is the players we have. [Freshmen] JT Compher, Tyler Motte, Michael Downing on defense, Kevin Lohan, all these kids will grow and get better. [Freshman goalie] Zach Nagelvoort asserted himself. We had some good things going and then some older players that didn't have a good season should take a step next year.
"[Ferris State coach] Bob Daniels once told me, 'People are really expecting a lot from us' after they had a good year, and I told him, 'Bob, that's the way it is at Michigan every year' and that's the way it should be. With a good program, you should be there every year, and that's what we're trying to do."
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