This Week in Big Ten Hockey: Michigan facing familiar challenge from Minnesota Duluth at upcoming IceBreaker Tournament

Michigan’s Kent Johnson collected nine goals and 27 points in 26 games during the 2020-21 season (photo: Jonathan Knight).

Their roster makeup is quite different, Mel Pearson hails from Canada and Scott Sandelin is from Minnesota’s Iron Range, and nobody is going to confuse Ann Arbor and the Twin Ports.

Even if not much else is the same, Michigan would probably like to emulate Minnesota Duluth’s season-ending results from the last half-decade or so.

The Bulldogs are coming off a “disappointing” season where they simply made the Frozen Four after bringing home the title the previous two opportunities in 2018 and 2019. Michigan has won nine national titles but getting to double digits has eluded them since before the turn of the millennium.

The last time Michigan appeared in the final game of the season was in 2011 when it lost in overtime to, you could probably guess this even if you didn’t know, Minnesota Duluth.

The Wolverines will get another crack at the Bulldogs this weekend when they square off in Duluth as part of the IceBreaker Tournament.

We get two Ice Breakers in one season this year due to the tournament being scrapped last year. Michigan replaced fellow conference member Minnesota in the tournament field after the Gophers couldn’t make it work with this year’s schedule. No. 1 Minnesota State and No. 10 Providence will join No. 3 Michigan and the No. 5 Bulldogs in Duluth this weekend.

The Michigan and Minnesota Duluth rivalry does have some history aside from the 2011 championship game, but it has been mostly mothballed recently. The two faced off as WCHA foes from 1966-81 and Michigan owns the 23-18-1 series lead. Duluth has won the last two, the 2011 game in St. Paul and another 3-2 win at the Maverick Stampede in Omaha.

A decade after their last meeting, this isn’t the Michigan of yesteryear. It has been well documented that the team with the most high-end draft picks doesn’t necessarily equate to winning a championship, but Michigan is going to try and change the narrative this year.

The season-opening act that was a home sweep of Lake Superior State had a lot of positives, aside from giving up four unanswered goals after taking a 2-0 lead on Saturday.

The names that Michigan needs to consistently show up on the score sheet to find success, did just that. Brendan Brisson and Owen Power each had five points over the weekend, Thomas Bordeleau had four and Kent Johnson had three. On Saturday, the team got solid production from upperclassmen like Michael Pastujov, Jimmy Lambert and Luke Morgan.

With the Bulldogs on Friday and either the Mavericks or Friars on Saturday, the competition will be stiffer this weekend. Another way to look at this weekend is that simply playing tournament-style games in Duluth this weekend could serve as a learning experience for the Wolverines.

With all the hype surrounding Power, Johnson and Matty Beniers after the NHL Draft, it’s easy to forget that they actually played college hockey last year. Their freshman year just happened to be arguably the most unusual season in the history of the game.

They’ve made the NCAA tournament but have yet to play an NCAA tournament game after being sent home from the Midwest Regional due to COVID protocols before being able to play their first game against, of course, Duluth.

This weekend’s tournament doesn’t exactly mirror a regional, especially with the new day off added to the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, but any opportunity to convene in the same building with three other teams that expect to be one of the final 16 teams playing in late March should be a cherished opportunity for the Wolverines.

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