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Alejandro Zúñiga: Acceptable result, unacceptable performance

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 23, 2014

When Michigan takes the ice at Yost Ice Arena, it’s introduced with a video that boasts an extensive list of accolades: Nine national championships, 24 Frozen Four appearances, 35 NCAA Tournament appearances — all the most in college hockey.

But the players who started that NCAA Tournament run aren’t these ones. The teams that won those championships aren’t this one.

And facing Penn State Friday night, the worst team in the Big Ten, this Michigan lost. Plain and simple.

“(The Nittany Lions) were the hungrier team — you could see it,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.

He was right. The Wolverines blew a pair of two-goal leads. They gave up the game-tying goal with fewer than five seconds left in regulation. They allowed the sudden-death winner in front of a stunned and silent Children of Yost student section.

All that to a program that has existed for less than two years. To a team that can’t win a conference game, except when the opponent dons a winged helmet.

Michigan, which is fighting for the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, was outworked by a team that had nothing but pride to play for.

“When you come to a place like this, with all the tradition, all the history, the legacy, playing for Coach Berenson, for us to be putting forth this effort is unacceptable,” said sophomore forward Andrew Copp, a look of disgust plastered on his face.

Why unacceptable? Because the talent is there. The Wolverines climbed all the way to No. 2 in the nation for a reason. They beat Boston College and Boston University and passed a road test at New Hampshire. They lost freshman defenseman Kevin Lohan and sophomore goaltender Steve Racine to injuries, but they didn’t lose games. That’s what’s keeping this team’s NCAA Tournament hopes alive, but it’s also what makes the sudden incompetence all the more maddening.

Michigan, despite all the tradition and pregame pizzazz, sits dangerously close to the bottom half of the Big Ten and to missing the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year.

Before last season, the Wolverines had made every NCAA Tournament since 1990.

A championship team doesn’t lose to Penn State because it couldn’t be bothered to play hard, even with so much on the line. It doesn’t split the season series to the conference cupcake. If Michigan needs an attitude change, the time is now. There are no more games left to give away.

“This is flat-out unacceptable,” Copp repeated.

Yes, Michigan won Saturday to salvage a home split, but the problems were still there. The Wolverines took a penalty 20 seconds into the game. They committed mind-numbingly obtuse turnovers in their own zone. The Nittany Lions actually outshot Michigan on the first three Wolverine power plays and then cut a four-goal deficit in half to turn a blowout into a somewhat competitive contest.

Afterward, Berenson and Michigan praised the change in attitude and bemoaned the previous night.

“We kind of got embarrassed in our own building last night, and that is unacceptable being at Michigan,” said senior forward Derek DeBlois. “We knew we had to bounce back.”

And to give them credit, they did, holding a trigger-friendly Penn State offense to just 20 shots. When the final horn sounded, the Children of Yost yelled, “The Victors” blared, and for a moment, everything was OK. But it’s not.

Thanks to their own failures, the path to the NCAA Tournament isn’t easy, and the Wolverines may have to navigate it without senior captain Mac Bennett, the heart and soul of the team and the thread that holds the patchwork defense together. He suffered an upper-body injury in the first period Saturday.

Upon taking the hit that knocked him out of the game, Bennett lay on the ice staring up at the roof of Yost, where the banners hang.

The 32 pennants are memories of those championships and the moments that created them. They’re the lore and tradition that Michigan flaunts so boldly in its pregame video. There is room for a 33rd.

“It’s time to set our place in Michigan history,” Bennett’s voice resonates in that video.

The Wolverines are flawed. They’ve lost half of their games this calendar year. They could very well finish the inaugural Big Ten season closer to the bottom of the conference than the top, especially if they play with the same mindset as Friday.

DeBlois said it. Copp said it. This is unacceptable.

So where will their place in history be?

Zúñiga can be reached at azs@umich.edu and on Twitter @the_zuniga.


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