It's probably premature to say Michigan hockey is in a tailspin, but the Wolverines have now lost three straight after being outplayed and outclassed by Minnesota in a 4-1 loss Saturday night.
U-M was swept for the second time this season, going 0-4 against the Big Ten's No. 1 (Minnesota) and No. 2 teams (Wisconsin) in the Gophers and Badgers' home rinks, leaving many to wonder how good this Michigan team is.
That's a fair question after the Wolverines fell to 4-5-1 since Jan. 1, dropped to 12 points back of first-place Minnesota in the Big Ten race, and were outscored 9-4 this weekend, probably winning less than 20 of the 120 total minutes the Maize and Blue squared off with the Gophers.
"It's not much to brag about with one goal," head coach Red Berenson said. "We've only scored four goals in the last three games. We had good chances, but we didn't capitalize on our best chances. We gave up goals to easily. Goals are precious this weekend, and we couldn't get another one."
Ironically, U-M led 1-0 in this one, scoring 1:31 into the contest on a shot from defenseman Andrew Sinelli, but Minnesota controlled the rest of the period, outshooting the Wolverines 10-4 and evening the score at 1-1 with a marker at 17:46.
Michigan held a 14-9 shot advantage in the second but in the only stat that mattered, lost the goal margin 2-0, entering the second intermission trailing 3-1. A consistent source of frustration this season has been the Maize and Blue's inability to put the puck in the net despite an abundance of quality chances, and that scenario again plagued U-M in the second period.
Outside of forwards Andrew Copp, Zach Hyman and J.T. Compher, and defenseman Mac Bennett, everyone else is performing below expectations, in some cases, dramatically. Sophomore forward Boo Nieves, who was expected to rank among the team's top offensive players, hasn't scored a goal since Oct. 12, going 24 games without a marker now and has just been a ghost on the ice while junior Phil Di Giuseppe has also vanished from the box score over the last seven games.
Those two are symptomatic of the larger fundamental issue of players that simply are not playing to their potential, especially during this three-game losing streak.
And whatever hope the Wolverines had of clawing back into Saturday's game was undone when rookie blue liner Michael Downing was cited for his second five-minute major penalty in as many nights, this time whistled for an elbow to the head that led to a Minnesota power-play goal.
Downing has developed a penchant for the big hit, but at what cost? Two majors and a lack of emphasis on his defensive-zone play, which was especially poor Friday night in U-M's 5-3 loss.
Add it all up and Berenson cannot be happy. He thought after a 10-2-1 start he had both a Big Ten and NCAA title contender, but the Maize and Blue are 4-7-2 since and have regressed considerably.
With eight games remaining, Michigan would likely have to go 8-0 to have any chance at a conference crown, but this is not a team peaking when it needs to, but slumping, and while Berenson won't hit the panic button, he knows that something has to change. Immediately.
"You have to play teams like this. I told our team -- that's a measuring stick. That's what we're up against," he said.