Four weeks ago, the Michigan Gray Wolves looked unbeatable. Literally. Twelve games into the season, they had yet to lose (or tie) once. It looked as though the Western title was all but assured, and the rest of the season would be a race for second place.
What a difference a month makes. Since their 12-0-0 start, Michigan has stumbled to a 4-7-5 record. This week, they lost three games in a row for the first time in three years, and they ended the week in second place for the first time in almost a season and a half. The team’s performance was so concerning that coach Ron Wright took the rare step of publicly chiding his team.
The week began on Sunday in Kansas City against the struggling Smoke. The Wolves fell behind 2-0 before rallying with a pair of goals in the third period to salvage a tie. After the game, the players expressed disappointment in their performance. “We definitely didn’t play our best hockey today,” said D Max Madison. Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, it would be Michigan’s best performance of the week.
On Tuesday, they headed west to take on their strongest challenger to date, the Seattle Sailors. The Wolves were thoroughly outplayed by their rivals. Seattle outshot Michigan 17-7 in the first period, setting the tone for the contest. Although netminder Dirk Lundquist stopped all 17 to keep it scoreless, the dam burst in the second as the Sailors scored three times. In the end, the Wolves were outshot 37-23 and outscored 4-0.
The Wolves then flew coast-to-coast for an interdivision game against the New York Night on Thursday. The Night have scuffled recently, but the Wolves found no reprieve in the Big Apple. New York dictated the tempo of play, and although Michigan outshot them 37-36, goalie Jesse Clarkson stymied them for a second straight shutout, 3-0.
On Saturday, the Wolves showed up at Centre Citadelle to face the Quebec Tigres. The Tigres are built in the same deliberate, defense-first mold as the Wolves, and the game was a taut and close affair. The game remained scoreless until the third period, when Tigres RW Sindri Pentti bulled his way into the slot and jammed a rebound past Lundquist. Unfortunately for the Wolves, they were unable to come up with the equalizer and lost 1-0. It was their third defeat in a row and dropped them a point behind Seattle.
After the Quebec loss, Wright critiqued his squad during his postgame press conference. “I’m not going to lie, I’m a little concerned by what I’m seeing,” Wright told reporters. “The first three weeks of the season, they were a thing of beauty. We were tight, we were winning the battles along the boards, our passes were on target. But I think we’ve gotten complacent. We started believing our own headlines a little too much, acting like we’d already clinched. The intensity level isn’t where it needs to be.”
The coach cautioned that his team can’t take the postseason for granted. “Last season was basically a cakewalk,” Wright said. “But this year is different. Seattle’s playing out of their minds. Anchorage is coming on strong. Even Saskatchewan’s right in the mix. We better not let it slip too far, or we might not even make the playoffs.”
Wright concluded on a hopeful note: “Fortunately, we know we’ve got plenty of talent, and we’ve got time to get things back on track. And I think we’ll be better off having to work for it, rather than waltzing through the season. We’ll be sharp, and we’ll need to be if we’re going to win the Vandy.”
The players generally agreed with their coach’s assessment. “We’re not playing the kind of game we need to play,” said C Warren Marlow. “I think we’re all pretty disappointed. But like Coach Wright said, we’ve got time to turn it around.”
Marlow noted one key factor that might explain Michigan’s recent struggles: the absence of C Hunter Bailes, one of Michigan’s top scorers. Bailes is currently on the disabled list with a lower-body injury, his second ailment of the season. The Wolves have gone 4-6-1 without Bailes, and 12-1-4 with him in the lineup. “Once we get Hunter back, we’ll be in a lot better place,” said Marlow. “He’s the guy we need.”