Michigan is doing exactly what it hoped to avoid at this time of year.
With just four games remaining before the CCHA playoffs begin, the Wolverines are treading water.
With last weekend’s split against Lake Superior State, Michigan completed a stretch of 11 games in 26 days in which it went 5-4-2. At no point during that span did the Wolverines reel off more than two straight wins. They have not had a weekend sweep since defeating Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 9-10.
But for all of its inconsistency, Michigan still sits at second place in the CCHA. And if the Wolverines win out, a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs awaits them. But they have yet to separate themselves from the middle of the conference pack.
Michigan is just one point ahead of third-place Michigan State. The Wolverines have a three-point lead over fourth-place Lake Superior State and Nebraska-Omaha.
But treading water seems to have a direct correlation to how Michigan begins its games.
Nearly every time the Wolverines jump out to an early lead, they win. And in games in which they allow the opposition to score first, they are far more likely to lose.
To be exact, Michigan is 12-2-1 this season when it scores the first goal of the game. When the opposing team gets the initial tally, the Wolverines are a mediocre 6-9-2.
The series with Lake Superior presented a perfect example of what a good start meant to the Wolverines. On Friday night, Lakers forward Steve McJannet notched the game’s first goal seven minutes into the first stanza and propelled Lake Superior to a 3-2 overtime victory at Yost Ice Arena.
But on Saturday night, the Wolverines scored four first-period goals to put the game out of reach early and cruised to a 4-2 win. The senior duo of captain Andrew Ebbett and Brandon Kaleniecki highlighted the scoring outburst with a combined three goals.
“They had a great first shift, and they were all over (Lake Superior),” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “That just translated into the rest of their games.”
Throughout the season, scoring early has had a domino effect on other players on the team. After Ebbett and Kaleniecki tallied their goals, the fourth line of freshmen Danny Fardig, Tyler Swystun and Brandon Naurato teamed up for a rare goal to cap off the first period for the Wolverines.
Quick starts were much more prevalent for Wolverines in the beginning of the season. When Michigan started off the year 9-1-1, all but one of its wins began with scoring the first goal.
The team has yet to grasp what made it a fast-starting squad in October and November. The recent off-and-on struggles in the first period are something the players are concentrating on with just four games remaining in the regular season.
“I’m not really sure if it’s preparation, or other teams are just ready for us,” Ebbett said. “I think we really need to worry about ourselves and focus on that consistency right now. Everyone has to put as much as they can into that first period because, obviously, that’s playing a huge factor in the games right now.”
In all sports, teams looks for a fast start because it sets the tone for the remainder of the game. But in any given hockey game, only one team can start fast. Michigan hopes that Saturday’s quick beginning is a sign of things to come.
“When we get off to a good start, we are a totally different team,” Ebbett said. “That’s huge for the rest of the season for our team.”