For the 19th consecutive time the Michigan Wolverines head to the NCAA tourney, seeking a third title during Red Berenson’s tenure as head coach. While dominant at times and heavy favorites at others, Michigan has had some losses in recent years at the NCAA tourney level that have left the Ann Arbor faithful speechless.
That brings us to this season and while the team is still focused on the CCHA playoffs this weekend, the bigger dance lies ahead. This is where veteran leadership must come through.
“Being in the Frozen Four last season helps us because we know what to expect,” said senior Tim Miller, who Thursday night was honored with the CCHA’s Best Defensive Forward Award. “We won’t be happy just being there this season and that has been a theme for us.”
Travis Turnbull, another of Berenson’s important senior leaders who has scored his share of big goals for the Maize and Blue looks at his class and the supporting juniors and helping to set the tone.
“There are a bunch of players back from the team that played in the Frozen Four and that has helped us all understand and focus on what it takes to get there and what it takes to win there,” said Turnbull as he relaxed in the players’ lounge at Yost Arena on Wednesday.
“Last year we had no adversity; we just rolled. This year we have had adversity and we have had to work through it and that has been a big part of why we feel we can make a run at it this season.”
Last season seems a million miles away, but this is the time of year old wounds can open. Notre Dame is a likely opponent in the CCHA finals, barring an upset by Northern Michigan or Alaska (and don’t count out that possibility). The Fighting Irish ended the Wolverines’ season last year — a season many felt was headed towards a national title for UM.
Make no mistake, the Wolverines’ minds are on Alaska today, but they also look at the CCHA tournament as the perfect challenge to get in synch for the NCAA tourney.
“Last season we just brought it too late against Notre Dame. We weren’t prepared to face what they brought,” said Turnbull while teammate Miller sat by and looked like he was reliving the nightmare in Denver. “We got back in that game against Notre Dame, but we just brought it too late. We can’t let that happen again.
“We learned our lesson.”
The youth on the team got a great lesson on how close you could come to winning it all only to see someone else do it. This year they came back with reckless abandon and have carried the team through many tough stretches. In the process, they have become important voices in the dressing room as well as key components on the ice.
“Carl Hagelin played as well against Western last weekend as I have ever seen him play,” said Turnbull. “Since the World Juniors Matty Rust has been great. Palushaj is a offensive machine. The freshmen have contributed like they always do here.
“We have secondary scoring, balanced scoring and depth and the emergence of our younger guys makes so much stronger. They are also a vocal and funny bunch and they keep it light when they have to.”
What was set up to be a great start by Michigan was ruined early by injuries. Mark Mitera and Steve Kampfer were both sidelined in much publicized events which turned Chris Summers back into a defenseman from a forward.
As the old line goes, The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry; at Michigan they did early. Tons of road games and the loss of departed seniors Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik compounded the effect of the injuries on the backline and Michigan had its hands full early in an ever-competitive CCHA.
“Look at the start of the season,” said Miller. Kampfer gets hurt, Burlon gets hurt, Mitera gets hurt, Summers has to change positions again. We had guys all over the place and a hard road schedule.”
Then came the turning point.
“We got clobbered at BU. I was just so embarrassed because we’re Michigan and we just got smoked. The entire team took that game as a wakeup call,” said Miller. “We are still upset with that game. The PK was awful and after that game we looked at each other, especially the PK guys, and we decided ‘that’s enough.’ From then on we really started to relax, focus on details, and play better.”
As always the Wolverines got it going as uncertainty lessened and bodies returned. Kampfer was out of danger from a health perspective and destined to return to the lineup. Whispers that Mitera could return for the postseason also were heard.
While that was happening, Louie Caporusso and the sophomores went about scoring goals and sophomore goalie Bryan Hogan won the goaltending battle with incumbent Billy Sauer.
“We learned from Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter last season that you have to bring your best game every night and maybe we didn’t do that early on,” said sophomore Aaron Palushaj. “You think back to what you learned from them, from being at the Frozen Four, from losing there. On the other hand, you have to think forward and that is what we have been doing and it’s working.
Now the challenge starts as Michigan stares down the ghosts of playoff failures past. Whether it be the 3-0 lead that disappeared against Colorado College, the 7-5 loss to North Dakota that saw captain T.J. Hensick get ejected (which might have cost him the Hobey Baker Memorial Award), or last season’s loss to Notre Dame in the national semifinal, the body of work in recent years indicated that Michigan seems to get tense as the pressure mounts or isn’t strong enough to finish off an opponent.
“Miller and I were talking about that the other day, some of those games we lost in the regionals,” said Turnbull. “When we were freshmen, we were in Grand Forks when Holy Cross beat Minnesota and all we talked about in the dressing room was that we’ll get Holy Cross in the finals and we totally forgot that we had to play North Dakota.
“We learned that year that this is a step-by-step process and just to focus on the game at hand and not what lies a game down the road. It has worked for us this season; it has kept us loose.”
Continuing to play well while having fun is part of the solution.
“There is far less pressure this year than last year. We’re not perceived as a top team like we were last season,” said Palushaj. “However, we are still Michigan and there are expectations from within and from the outside and we realize that.”
Miller and Turnbull also acknowledged the fun Michigan has had this year, and one of the jokers happens to be the team’s leading scorer in Caporusso. The quick-witted Toronto native is one to toss the one-liners when he feels the team needs to burst the tension bubble.
“The key to this game is to enjoy it. Why do something if you can’t find a way to look forward to doing it?” said Caporusso. “You have to be accountable, you have to do your job, but you also have to have fun and we are. That’s what happens when you win you have fun and we are enjoying winning. We are also winning because we are having fun.”
Caporusso is the guy that when you take a weak shot on goal, he’ll joke with you on the bench like “gee, how did that stay out?” Or if you work to get a chance and miss the net from close in, he’ll be in your ear laughing “nice 10-foot dump-in.”
He is the one who through humor and with a smile will get in a teammate or linemate’s ear after a bad shift and put it in perspective with something like, “Gee, think we can try to go out there next shift and actually accomplish something?”
It’s a great combination to have: a team that is skilled, well-coached, and having fun. Sounds like the combination winning teams have ridden to great success in the history of college hockey.