Last year, the Michigan Wolverines found themselves someplace unfamiliar for the second round of the CCHA playoffs: on the road.
After finishing in seventh place, Michigan swept Lake Superior State at home in the first round of CCHA playoff hockey before having to play through East Lansing to advance to the league’s championship tournament in Detroit.
Then the Wolverines became the lowest-seeded team in league history to win the Mason Cup — which was the only way they could advance to the NCAA tournament, given their seventh-place CCHA finish.
Then the Wolverines went to Fort Wayne and beat Bemidji State to face off against Miami in the Midwest Regional final. It took the RedHawks into the second overtime to finally finish off Michigan’s miracle run.
The experience was new for coach Red Berenson and every player on the team; as Michigan made its 20th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, no one on last year’s team had ever even thought about watching the tourney from the stands … until Michigan found itself needing to win six in a row — including the CCHA championship — just to go.
“I like the fact that they experienced some success in the stretch run of the season,” Berenson said, “but a year ago we were sitting here being picked for first or second place, like we are again this year, and look where we finished.”
Berenson, who began the 2010-11 season one win shy of 700, has a way of putting so much into perspective.
“You can take the preseason polls with a grain of salt,” Berenson said. “I really like the returning team, I like the confidence level, and I like the character.”
One thing in particular that Berenson and every Wolverines fan likes is that seniors Louie Caporusso, Carl Hagelin and Matt Rust all chose to return, making this the first season in 13 in which the Wolverines aren’t having to reshuffle a lineup because of early departures.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Berenson said. “I think all three of these kids’ heads are screwed on straight. They’ve seen that other kids have left early and really have found themselves struggling in the minors for the most part, and why give up your senior year when it could be your best year?”
Michigan finished seventh last season because of inconsistent play in front of goaltender Bryan Hogan. When Hogan was injured, the untested walk-on, Shawn Hunwick, became the feel-good story of the CCHA. Hunwick carried Michigan through the playoffs.
“We see ourselves as a team with two starting goalies and we’ll see how they play,” Berenson said. “I think the competition will be good for them. Shawn Hunwick took advantage of a late-season injury to Bryan Hogan that thrust him into a position that we weren’t sure he was ready for but he proved that he was, so he’s given us a reason to think we have two starting goalies.”
On Dec. 11, the Wolverines will host The Big Chill at the Big House, an outdoor game against Michigan State in the Michigan football stadium, a game that likely will shatter all hockey attendance records.
“I think as the season wears on there will definitely be a big buildup for that event,” Berenson said. “We’re looking forward to it, but in the meantime we have some important games to play.”