This is a special series, as part of USCHO.com’s partnership with CSTV, dedicated to previewing each week’s Friday Night Hockey game of the week.
The first weekend of the season was certainly wild, and it’s only going to get wilder as CSTV’s Friday Night Hockey heads to Ann Arbor for a big match up between No. 3 Michigan and No. 8 New Hampshire. With a sellout crowd on hand at Yost Ice Arena for the Wolverines’ home opener, there’s sure to be a party atmosphere in the stands on Friday night. It’ll be a party on the ice, too, with incredible end-to-end action between two offensive-minded teams who aren’t afraid to show it, but it remains to be seen who will still be celebrating when the dust settles.
The Wildcats got their season off to a fast start last weekend, winning the Ice Breaker tournament in front of the home fans in Durham. Dick Umile has always tight offense first and foremost, and as Ohio State and St. Lawrence both found out last week, this year’s Wildcats are no different in that regard. Could Michigan be another victim? Strong performances in three key areas could help the Wildcats make it happen.
SENIOR LINE: The Wildcats’ offense starts with the senior line of Justin Aikins, Sean Collins and Preston Callander, all 35-point scorers or better last season. These three have only been together for one week, but they looked perfectly natural at the Ice Breaker. The trio racked up nine points in UNH’s first two games including Collins’ game-winner against St. Lawrence. Umile told them that they could be one of the great lines in college hockey this season, and we’ll look for more big goals at key times from them. They won’t be alone, though — look for big things from a sophomore line of Dan Winnik, Jacob Micflikier, and Brett Hemingway. They had six points at the Ice Breaker, including three goals by Hemingway and could take some pressure off of the seniors.
YOUTH MUST STEP UP: Yost Ice Arena is one of the toughest places to play in all of hockey. With 16 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, the Wildcats need to be sure that the younger players are not fazed by the rabid Wolverine crowd. Umile has acknowledged that young players will be called on to fill important roles on the team, but has stressed that this is not a rebuilding year for the Wildcats. To make that happen, UNH’s younger players will need to step up, and show they aren’t intimidated. Umile has said that he’s not teaching the system too much right away, stressing conditioning and solid defense and making sure that his players aren’t thinking too much on the ice. Make no mistake: if you think too much against Michigan, you will get hurt.
DEFENSE: This game has the earmarks of an offensive battle, which will make things plenty tough on the defense. The Wildcats will be well served if they can handle Michigan in the UNH zone. The Wolverines will attempt to use their speed to attack from the weak side, and UNH will need to stop them from doing so. Much of this will fall on the shoulders of goalkeeper Jeff Pietrasiak. After two years as the understudy to Mike Ayers, Pietrasiak has been thrown into the fire with all of six career starts under his belt. Pietrasiak has accepted the challenge with gusto, though, and Umile has complete confidence in him, and with good reason: he’s a tall, aggressive goaltender who was a two-time New England Prep Goaltender of the Year at the Berkshire School, and is gaining confidence in net for the Wildcats. He’ll need to show that confidence in the hostile environment of Yost for New Hampshire to leave with a win.
THREE KEYS FOR MICHIGAN
Wolverines coach Red Berenson said that his team’s season-opening loss to Northeastern was either a blessing in disguise for his team, or an indication of an underachieving squad. He’s obviously hoping that it’s the former, and signs do point that way. Where the Wolverines played on the wrong side of the puck against Northeastern, and paid the price, Michigan came out the next day and clobbered BU. We’ll learn a lot by watching to see which Michigan team comes out against UNH.
Red sees similarities between this team and the 1997-98 team that lost its home opener to Western Michigan, then went on to win a national championship, and he’d certainly love for his team to come out and play like champions against New Hampshire. How can they do that? There are three hallmarks of a champion that Michigan has, and the Wolverines need to show them.
DEEP BLUE: This is a very deep hockey club. The Wolverines have depth at all positions, and that gives Berenson the ability to play all four lines and try to wear down the opposition.
New Hampshire wants to match its senior line against Michigan’s best line, but figuring out which line that is could be tough. On paper, it could be Jeff Tambellini, T.J. Hensick and Mike Brown. Tamebellini is coming off of a “subpar” year in which he scored just 15 goals, but he has one of the best shots in college hockey, and Berenson would like to see a lot more of it, especially in high-traffic areas. Hensick is playing into shape after a September groin injury, but he is a special player, especially with the puck as he handed out 34 assists in his freshman campaign.
On the other hand, the so-called second line of Andrew Ebbett, Kevin Porter and Milan Gajic is pretty scary in its own right. Gajic is an opportunist, and has an outstanding shot to go with his other NHL-level puck skills, but has been vastly inconsistent through his Michigan career. Of Gajic’s 33 points in 2003-04, 25 came in the second half of the season, which may be a sign that he’s becoming the player Wolverine fans expected when he came to Ann Arbor in 2001. If he scores consistently, and becomes a goal-per-game player, it gives Michigan yet another weapon to spread the defense.
And we haven’t even mentioned team captain Eric Nystrom, who missed Michigan’s first two games but is expected to return on Friday or freshman standout Chad Kolarik, who came with Porter from the US Under-18 Team. Overall, Michigan has a good mix of offense, physicality and aggression that Berenson would love to turn loose on UNH.
SENIOR LEADERSHIP: A conversation about Michigan’s leadership starts with Eric Nystrom, but it certainly doesn’t end there. There are 10 seniors and five juniors on this team, and they’ve been through an awful lot together. The seniors have been to the Frozen Four twice (2002, 2003), and lost to Minnesota both times by 3-2 margins. After last year’s overtime heartbreaker against Boston College in the Northeast Regional Final, the seniors know that this is their last chance to win it all.
Of course, the Wolverines do have excellent individual leadership. Coach Berenson says that Nystrom is just like another coach in the locker room, and that he truly is in sync with Michigan. Nystrom missed last weekend’s games with an injury, but should be back for Friday’s game. Look for him to play center instead of wing, as Red wants to see if he can become the power center that Michigan doesn’t have.
HELLO, MY NAME IS AL MONTOYA, YOU SHOT THE PUCK AT ME, PREPARE TO DIE: CSTV’s first two games of the season feature the top best goalies in college hockey. Last week, it was Maine’s Jimmy Howard — although that didn’t go too well for him. This week, it’s Al Montoya, the first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers. To the relief of thousands in Ann Arbor, Montoya decided not to sign with the Blueshirts in the offseason, returning to Michigan to wear their “blue shirt.” Montoya is a special goaltender, who wanted to continue his development at Michigan. Montoya came back in better shape than ever, and according to Berenson, still has something to prove at Michigan and wants to do it.
We will see who proves what when the puck drops on Friday night, but one thing you can count on is a fantastic game between two of the nation’s best teams. This is one game you do not want to miss a minute of.
Billy Jaffe serves as a hockey analyst for CSTV. He is a former college player at Michigan and has served as a broadcaster and an on-ice official for CCHA games.