College Hockey Showcase looms as statement weekend once again

BY MICHAEL EISENSTEIN
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 25, 2008

In a display near the Yost Ice Arena entrance sits the Mariucci-Renfrew Coaches Trophy. It's dedicated to last year’s seniors, who led the Wolverines to their first win over Minnesota since 2002.

Said Alsalah/Daily

There’s no question it’s going to be much more difficult for the No. 14 Michigan hockey team to keep the award this year.

The Wolverines travel to No. 1 Minnesota (6-1-3 WCHA, 7-1-4 overall) on Friday for the first leg of the 16th Annual College Hockey Showcase. Michigan hasn't beaten the Gophers twice in a row in a decade. They battle Wisconsin (5-5-2 WCHA, 5-7-2 overall) in Madison the following night.

Last year’s win over Minnesota sealed then-No. 2 Michigan’s sweep of the College Hockey Showcase and avenged the Wolverines' loss to Minnesota earlier that season, their lone setback to that point in the season. More importantly, it validated Michigan as one of the nation's top teams.

“I personally hate Minnesota,” sophomore defenseman Tristin Llewellyn said. “I played juniors, played with all those sort of guys. Minnesota was godly. They always called it the ‘U.’ That really got under my skin.

“We hate them as much as we hate (Michigan) State.”

The exchange of the trophy, named for legendary Michigan coach Al Renfrew and Minnesota coach John Mariucci, turned out to be a crossroads of fates last season. The Gophers ended a disappointing season with a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. Michigan went on to the Frozen Four.

This season’s matchup will still be a “statement” game for the Wolverines (5-5-0 CCHA, 8-6-0 overall), but it's a reversal of roles from last year.

Just 14 games into the season, Michigan has already matched its loss total from 2007-08. The Wolverines split their series with Alaska and Western Michigan and were swept at No. 6 Miami in the last three weeks.

Minnesota lost its first game last Saturday at No. 10 Denver.

The Gophers have allowed more than three goals just once, magnifying the importance for Michigan to overcome its scoring slump. Last weekend, the Wolverines scored just one goal against the RedHawks — their worst offensive output during Michigan coach Red Berenson's 25-year tenure.

"The biggest challenge is being able to play Minnesota tight,” Berenson said. “Their goals-against are really good. They’re going to be tough to score on."

Berenson tweaked the lines again this week, hoping to spark some offense. He moved sophomore forward Carl Hagelin back to left wing alongside sophomore center Matt Rust. The two were successful together on the second line last season, and are now joined by freshman right wing Robbie Czarnik.

Berenson made the move to create a sound defensive line that can match up with Minnesota’s top three.

But that’s just one of the tweaks Berenson hopes will have an impact this weekend. Earlier this week, he compared coaching this team to “driving an old car” — certainly much different than last year’s fast, and seemingly flawless, start.

“You just fix one thing, and something else goes,” Berenson said. “That’s how our team is right now.”

And that’s what makes this weekend the biggest yet this year in many players' eyes.

They’ve been crushed at Boston University. They’ve been swept at Miami. They’ve even lost at home to Western Michigan, a team with just one other win this season.

“It’s going to be a huge test for us,” acting captain Chris Summers said. “I think we’re going to define ourselves as a team this weekend.”

Without a doubt, the Showcase defined Michigan last year, and with this season’s early struggles, it may just do that again this year.