When you look at the brackets for the Frozen Four, there’s a lot of interesting symmetry.
Two CCHA teams, two WCHA teams. Both representatives from their leagues spent much of the season fighting for first place, with the teams on one side eventually claiming first.
You also have one semifinal featuring two teams that have captured the most NCAA titles, and the other semifinal with two teams that have never won an NCAA title.
Of course, when you look further at one of those teams, the Michigan Wolverines, you see another interesting balance. The Wolverines are led by a deep senior class that made the Frozen Four as freshmen before falling short in the regionals as sophomores and juniors.
“It’s an honor to be at another Frozen Four, especially as a senior class,” senior assistant captain Louie Caporusso said. “It was an honor as freshmen, and it was unfortunate that we were unable to make it the next two years, and I think we learned a lot from that. I know the whole senior class is pretty thrilled. This is definitely new to most guys on the team. Only one class has been to the Frozen Four before.”
That class that last made it to the Frozen Four had two other members who departed Michigan early for the pros, Max Pacioretty and Aaron Palushaj. Of the Wolverines’ current seniors, four are NHL draft picks, including leading scorers Caporusso and Carl Hagelin.
After losing a heartbreaking double-overtime game to Miami in the regional final last year, none of the players considered leaving for the pros.
“Well, I think if you know our seniors, they aren’t the kind of kids who had one foot out the door, and I think that’s what a lot of kids, they get ahead of themselves a little bit,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.
“We lost two players from that class to pro hockey prematurely. Pacioretty left after his freshman year, and Palushaj left after his sophomore year. I think these remaining players, they were juniors at the time, they saw what happened to the other two and knew what was going on here, and I thought they had their priorities straight, so it wasn’t even an issue with them leaving.
“I think they wanted to do it right. As I said, they saw what happened to other guys, and they saw what happened to players before them that had left early and weren’t ready and were still playing in the minors, so why would you give up your senior year at Michigan to play in the minors? I think that was their mind-set. Plus, I think they wanted to graduate; these are good kids, good students, and good players.”
Both Caporusso and Hagelin echoed Berenson, stating that getting a degree was important in their decision to remain, but that they also felt they had a lot to learn as players.
“I knew I had a lot more to learn from Coach Berenson and the program,” said Caporusso. “It was a great decision and I’ll be glad to graduate and get my degree this spring.”
“First of all, getting a degree from the University of Michigan is really important for me,” said Hagelin. “I think my dad is really proud as well. In terms of hockey, being the captain of the team has given me a lot of experience. Coach demanded a lot from me before this year, but he demands a lot more. When you’re a senior you have to lead by example, and you can’t take any games off. You have to show up every night and be one of the key players on the team. Being around my senior class for one more year is something I’ll look back at and be very proud of them for all staying. We’ll be friends for the rest of our lives.”
After losing to the Wolverines in St. Louis, Colorado College coach Scott Owens commented on Michigan being “a veteran team.” The Wolverines have eight seniors, including starting goalie Shawn Hunwick, and leaders like Scooter Vaughan, who started the season as a defenseman before moving to forward, where he has flourished.
Those seniors played a crucial role in Michigan advancing out of a quarter where, by Berenson’s own admission, “a lot of people are surprised with who came out of that region.”
Down 2-0 and being outplayed after one period in the first game against Nebraska-Omaha, Caporusso jump-started the Wolverines with a goal early in the second. In the game against CC, Vaughan scored a beautiful single-effort goal early in the first period, beating a Tigers defenseman on the rush and lifting the puck far side over Tigers goalie Joe Howe.
“It’s not just one player,” said Berenson. “If you watched our team on Saturday, you saw the way Matt Rust played, killing penalties and winning faceoffs. There are guys doing things on a regular basis that are setting a good example for the rest of our team. Ben Winnett had probably his best weekend of the season, and he didn’t show up on the scoreboard. And of course, Caporusso and Hagelin continue to be dominant players. So we’re getting, I think, a real good lead-by-example.”
Both Berenson and Caporusso acknowledge that the Wolverines are an underdog in the national semifinal game against North Dakota on Thursday. However, the depth of that senior class, plus its prior experience in the Frozen Four as freshmen, gives Michigan a plus under intangibles.
“I think this team has been an above-average team led by its seniors,” said Berenson. “They’ve been talking about that [the Frozen Four] on a regular basis, but they made it clear, this isn’t about the seniors; this is about the opportunity for the whole team, because they had a chance in the Frozen Four when they were freshmen. The senior class was in Denver, and they got beat in overtime by Notre Dame, and that was a game they would have liked to play again because they would have had a chance to play in the championship game. Who knows; it might be the only chance anybody on this team will have to play in a Frozen Four.”