Red Berenson, the image of the great tradition that embodies Michigan athletics, fiddled with his 1998 National Championship ring as he answered questions after the Great Lakes Invitational championship game Saturday night.
But it seemed like a new kind of tradition was surfacing from the legendary coach’s carefully planned answers — a losing one.
The 4-1 loss to No. 14 Michigan State at Joe Louis Arena made it a decade since the Wolverines men’s hockey team last won the Invitational. They were last crowned GLI Champions in 1996, the final year of their record nine consecutive GLI Championships.
“We had a pretty good team here,” Berenson said. “We thought we had some momentum — but we just didn’t do it.”
Prior to this year’s tournament, the 42nd edition of it, Michigan had the most GLI Championships of any team. But with the Spartans (7-5-1 CCHA, 11-7-1 overall) taking home the trophy, the archrivals are now tied with 11 titles a piece.
Michigan State made it clear it was bound for the trophy from the minute the puck hit the ice. The Spartans bolted from the gates with a handful of big, physical hits and maintained control in Michigan’s zone with ease.
Wolverine netminder Billy Sauer, who helped defeat Michigan Tech 4-1 by stopping 27 shots the night before, withstood the flurry the Spartans fired his way during the first half of the opening stanza.
But the sophomore goaltender could only stand so long. With No. 10 Michigan (8-5, 13-8) playing a man down, the Spartans struck with a well-placed wrister from Tim Crowder.
The Wolverines tied it up with a power-play goal of their own the next period. Sophomore Travis Turnbull looked to hit Brandon Naurato waiting in the slot, but instead the puck bounced off the inside of a Michigan State defender’s knee and right past goalie Jeff Lerg.
But that would be the only time the puck found its way behind the tiny Spartan. The Wolverines tried to feed off the momentum from their lucky bounce, but the referee’s whistle killed their energy fast.
The procession to the penalty box started with the lone Michigan goal scorer, Turnbull, who was called for hooking. Next was a double-minor for junior Chad Kolarik, followed by penalties to freshman Chris Summers and senior Jason Dest.
Again, Sauer did what he could to protect his goal, but the Spartan power play crashed his net relentlessly until Crowder delivered an almost exact replica of his first goal.
“We started to play well,” Berenson said. “We carried the play in their zone, and then we took the penalty. It was four on four, all of a sudden it was four-on-three, five-on-three, and the game turned the other way.”
Michigan State sucked out any remaining life from the Wolverines, making it 3-1 on a shorthanded goal from GLI Most Valuable Player Bryan Lerg. Michigan senior Matt Hunwick bobbled the puck at the blue line, waiting to set something up for the lifeless Wolverine power play. Lerg saw the vulnerability, pounced on it and then streaked down the ice to jam it past Sauer.
“Our power play is struggling to score, you give up a shorthanded goal, the timing of it, the big game — that’s a game breaker,” Berenson said.
Michigan’s power play was without two players from its top line, standout sophomores Andrew Cogliano and Jack Johnson. Both were in Sweden representing Canada and the United States, respectively, at the IIHF World Junior Championship tournament.
But Berenson said missing two of the team’s stars was no excuse for the disappointing performance, especially for a squad with seven seniors getting one last chance at a GLI Championship.
The night before, Hunwick had said how much a triumph over an archrival in the championship game would mean to him.
“Every game against Michigan State’s huge,” the captain said. ” But this one’s not just a regular season game; this one has something on the line. We have to play in this arena a few more times this season – it’d be nice to have our banner hanging in the rafters.”
But that desire didn’t translate onto the ice Saturday night.
Instead, the two banners hovering in the Joe, one from the GLI and one from the 2006 CCHA Tournament, are green and white.