“When I look at our team this year, we could have a good team.” So says the master of understatement, Michigan head coach Red Berenson.
Good? Try great. Try if-we-don’t-win-a-national-title-we-haven’t-reached-our-potential great.
As scary-good as they are on paper, the Wolverines backed into the CCHA regular-season title last year, relying on — children, cover your ears — the Ohio State Buckeyes to secure the championship. After losing 1-0 to Michigan State in the final game of the regular season, the Wolverines had to sweat out a tough 30 minutes until the Buckeyes beat the Miami RedHawks in their last regular-season contest.
Had Miami won that game, they would have finished the season one point ahead of the Wolverines in the standings. Instead, the Buckeyes scored with less than two minutes to go — in the very last two minutes of the regular season — resulting in a very funny radio spot local to Ann Arbor and a Michigan championship.
Of course, the Buckeyes denied the Wolverines their third consecutive Mason Cup in the 2003-04 Super Six, but as Michigan has earned five postseason CCHA titles in the past 10 years, who’s counting?
Well, Michigan, I’d bet. “We seem to have a surprise team every year,” says Berenson, “and again we’ll wait and see what happens this year.”
Don’t think that the loss to OSU in the Super Six and Boston College in the NCAA East Regional isn’t motivation to this highly talented squad and its legendary coach.
The Michigan offense is loaded. Early in 2003-04, the Wolverines were a little concerned about their seeming inability to score five-on-five, but by the end of the season Michigan had the league-leading offense and the second-best power play.
The Wolverines return three double-digit conference goal scorers, more than any other CCHA team: T.J. Hensick (10-24-34), Milan Gajic (11-13-24), and Brandon Kaleniecki (11-8-19). Hensick is a sophomore, Gajic a senior, and Kaleniecki a junior; this is a balanced team with firepower in all classes.
Junior Jeff Tambellini (8-8-16), who would like to see a performance this season closer to that of his rookie year, when he amassed 26 goals in overall play.
The depth alone of the Michigan offense is enough to give the Wolverines an edge in league play.
Junior goaltender Al Montoya (2.23 GAA, .918 SV%) had a shaky start to his sophomore season but regained his poise in the second half to look every bit the first-round draft pick that he is.
There was some talk of Montoya signing early with the New York Rangers, but after much speculation Montoya decided to return for his junior year, and the city of Ann Arbor could sleep through the night once again.
This, of course, was pleasing to Berenson on more than one level. “I think he made a good decision coming back. It’s not just about the money, but about development and education. I’m still a strong advocate of a four-year career in college hockey.”
Red or Blue?
How about both? With a bevy of forwards sure to find the net and an outstanding goaltender in their own end, the Wolverines have advantages on both sides of the puck. That doesn’t mean, however, that Michigan isn’t vulnerable. The Wolverine defensive corps is young, and last year that inexperience was exploited more than once.
Senior Brandon Rogers (4-13-17) will lead the defense, joined by fellow senior Eric Werner (3-11-14), and sophomores Matt Hunwick (1-11-12) and Jason Dest (1-3-4). “We have youth and experience on defense,” says Berenson. What he doesn’t say is that Michigan’s defense is transitioning towards the stay-at-home variety, something the Wolverines can afford to do with all that talent up front.