Last season was a bitter finish for the Michigan Gray Wolves, who collapsed in the season’s final month to finish out of the West’s top two for the first time. This season, they hoped to prove that last year’s stumble was an anomaly. Instead, they’ve struggled to clear the .500 mark, and they’re threatening to be left behind in the division race by red-hot Anchorage and Portland.
Coach Ron Wright minced no words following Tuesday’s embarrassing 3-2 home loss to the Washington Galaxy, who are sitting in last place in the East. “We were just going through the motions out there, and it makes me sick,” Wright told reporters. “It seems like we were taking this win for granted, but the way we’re playing lately, we shouldn’t be taking any wins for granted. There was no drive out there tonight, no intensity. That needs to change.”
In the past, Michigan’s players have generally accepted the truth of Wright’s rare public critiques. This time, however, some Wolves pushed back. “We work twice as hard and twice as long in practice as any other team,” said one anonymous player. “And then [Wright] wonders why we don’t have any energy. It’s because we waste it all in morning skates.”
This is Wright’s fifth season with the Wolves. In that time, the team has produced tremendous regular-season results. However, they’ve only made the Finals once, in the coach’s debut season. And some team sources wonder whether Wright’s trademark intensity is starting to wear out the players.
“The drill-sergeant routine only holds up for so long,” said one player. “It works okay when you win, but when the winning stops, your patience for running a million drills does too.”
Why are the Wolves struggling? Part of it is the same problem they’ve long struggled with: generating offense. The team’s top line is producing in line with career norms, but the bottom two lines, and the bottom blueline pairing, are struggling badly. Wright has tried giving more ice time to the team’s reserves, but they aren’t producing either. And the constant lineup shuffling may be interfering with the team’s ability to gel.
But offense isn’t the team’s most troubling issue. Rather, it’s the underperformance of the player widely regarded as Michigan’s rock: goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist. While it’s true that many big-name goaltenders have struggled this season, Lundquist isn’t just another goaltender. He’s been the SHL’s standard of netminding excellence since its inception.
Lundquist has been so consistently brilliant over the years that it’s easy to assume that he is immune to slumps. But this season’s results prove otherwise. After never posting a GAA above 2 or a save percentage below .932, this season’s marks are 2.58 and .919. It’s reached the point where some fans are calling for backup Brandon Colt to get more starts.
“It’s definitely frustrating for me,” said Lundquist. “I’m used to the team counting on me to bail them out, to make the impossible saves. Now, I feel like I need them to bail me out, and that’s not a situation I ever want to be in.”
Wright remains adamant that Lundquist is the Wolves’ starter. “He’s proved his worth over the seasons,” the coach said. “I’m not worried about him pulling his weight.”
But if Michigan doesn’t rediscover its typical winning ways, will there be changes in store? Will Lundquist lose the unquestioned starter’s mantle? Will Wright lose his job? Will the Wolves become trade-deadline sellers for the first time ever? As unlikely as those possibilities may seem, they become increasingly realistic the longer that Michigan stumbles.