There was a time when Michigan’s place atop the CCHA standings was a given, the Wolverine presence in postseason play even money. With six league tournament titles since 1994, two national championships and five Frozen Four appearances, the Wolverines were to college hockey what the New York Yankees were, at the same time, to major league baseball: consistent, excellent, dominant.
Not, of course, if you’re a Wolverine fan, and no one should find fault with the dynasty that coaches Red Berenson, Mel Pearson and Billy Powers have built in Ann Arbor. For the past decade or so, Michigan has been the team to beat and emulate in the CCHA, a script seemingly pre-written and replayed season by season, with a few new actors entering and exiting yearly.
But not this season. If in the past the Wolverines have dished repetitive excellence, in 2006-07, they’ve finally given their audience a little bit of drama to follow, a dash of mystery.
Unaccustomed to chasing first place, Michigan sits at No. 4 in the CCHA standings, six points behind first-place Notre Dame and a point behind archrival Michigan State, with Lake Superior and Ohio State knocking on the door.
Then there’s the Wolverine goaltending, struggling to hit .900 while the Michigan offense is tied for third-best in the nation.
And sophomores Andrew Cogliano and Jack Johnson just returned from the IIHF World Junior Championship bearing bronze medals for Team USA.
So what’s the most interesting thing about Michigan hockey this season? Says head coach Red Berenson, “Right now, David Rohlfs is our best story.”
Strong words, considering Berenson also coaches Hobey Baker contender T.J. Hensick and another of the nation’s leading point men, Kevin Porter.
In his years at the University of Michigan, Rohlfs has quietly gone about the business of being a team player. A three-time University of Michigan Athletic Achievement award winner and two-time Academic All-Big Ten Conference member, Rohlfs, a forward, spent his junior year playing defense because his coaches asked him to. He never questioned. He never complained.
Playing forward in his senior season, Rohlfs has 12 goals in 24 games, equaling the total he had in 77 games through his first two years at Michigan, two goals shy of his career total through his junior season.
“He’s earned every one of them,” says Berenson. “The big guy is working hard.”
Big is a word that is key to understanding not only Rohlfs’ style of play, but his on-ice achievements these past two seasons. At 6-3, 239, Rohlfs is built like an old-style hockey player in a game increasingly geared toward smaller, quicker players; his size is an advantage, but that look can be deceiving.
“He’s just so big and strong. He gets into the corners,” says Porter, “but he’s fast. He gets in the corners first or second.”
“He’s usually the first one in on the forecheck,” says Hensick. “He uses his size to turn the puck over.”
Rohlfs played on line with Hensick and Porter for the first half of the season, and it would be easy to dismiss his numbers this season as luck of the line draw. It would also be incorrect. Hensick is the consummate playmaker and Porter has a golden touch with the puck, but they’re the first ones to acknowledge that Rohlfs was a key ingredient for their first-half success as well.
“He’s a great defensive player,” says Porter, “so in an offensive zone, he knows where to be. He’s so fast that he beats the ‘D’ wide.
“He’s a great skater. Until you see him manhandle a couple guys in the corner, I don’t think you realize how big and strong he is.”
“It’s usually Porter and me making the offensive highlight plays,” says Hensick. “He’s not so flashy. He’s willing to do the dirty work. He’s able to get the puck from the corners and boards.
“His hockey sense is one of the reasons he played with Porter and me to start, being aware of what might happen on a turnover and a breakdown.”
That time spent on the blue line was well invested for Rohlfs, a native of Northville, Mich., and a fifth-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2003.
“Going into last summer, I tried to piece together everything, what I learned from playing defense,” says Rohlfs. “I had to study defense to play defense. Just learning about how defensemen tried to position themselves against offense [taught me] how to counteract that.”
Rohlfs says that he made a conscious effort to further improve his game in the offseason between his junior and senior seasons. “I tried to emphasize getting stronger and working on my shot.”
The result has been a dozen goals and an appreciation for his final year as a Wolverine. “It’s fun coming to the rink. The puck’s finding the back of the net.”
For such a big guy, Rohlfs is rather soft-spoken. Not surprisingly, he’s as steady off the ice as he is on.
“He’s definitely a team guy first,” says Hensick. “I think that’s one of his biggest attributes. He doesn’t care what it takes to get the team to win. Whatever you ask him to do, David’s going to do it.
“He’s more of a leader by action than by words. If David says something, everyone listens because he doesn’t speak up very often.”
Both Hensick and Porter agree that the one person who deserves credit for Rohlfs’ performance this season is David Rohlfs.
“He trains all summer,” says Hensick. “He doesn’t care about who scores the goals. I think the hard work has caught up to him and it’s paying off.”
“All you have to do is put the puck on his tape,” says Porter. “I think his hands and shot have gotten a lot better this year.”
Recently, Rohlfs has been playing with sophomores Tim Miller and Brandon Naurato in an attempt to provide a better checking third line. While they were together, though, the trio of Hensick, Porter and Rohlfs was the brightest spot in Michigan’s game for the first half of the 2006-07 season.
“That’s the line,” says Berenson, “that was carrying us for most of the year. Porter, Hensick, and Rohlfs, and he was the forgotten man.”
Forgotten? Not any more.