History has a way of repeating itself.
In the 2017-2018 season, the Michigan hockey team got off to a rocky start with a record of just 7-7-2 at the break. But in the second half of the season, the team surged. The Wolverines finished the final stretch 11-6-1, winning their last six regular season games. They lost in overtime of the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and subsequently earned a two seed in the NCAA tournament.
This season, Michigan went 5-5 before Christmas break, but proved to be much stronger since it returned. The Wolverines went 9-4-1 in the second half of the season, lost in overtime of the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and were given a two seed in the bracket that was revealed on Sunday.
The similarities run beyond that. In the 2018 tournament, Michigan was placed in Worcester, Massachusetts, less than an hour outside Boston. Boston University, Northeastern and Cornell — all New England-based schools — were also in the Wolverines’ region. But Michigan got out of that bracket and made the Frozen Four.
Upon first glance at this year’s bracket, Michigan is at a similar geographical disadvantage. The University of North Dakota’s campus is just 80 miles from Scheels Arena in Fargo — the site of the midwest regional. Minnesota Duluth, Michigan’s first round matchup, is 246 miles away. The Wolverines, meanwhile, will travel nearly 900 miles from Ann Arbor.
After playing in mostly empty stadiums all season, all the venues for the NCAA tournament will be at 25% capacity — around 1200 fans. This will be the biggest crowd Michigan has played in front of and based on proximity, its opponents could have the home ice advantage.
But maybe the Wolverines are actually right where they want to be. Some of them have been here before.
“It’s a lot of similarities,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We’ve been there, we’ve done that. I think our seniors will relay some of that as the days go by.”
Those seniors Pearson mentioned were freshmen when the Wolverines made their Frozen Four run — where they lost to Notre Dame on a goal scored with just five seconds remaining. In that semifinal game, forward Michael Pastujov scored what was, at the time, a game-tying third period goal with forward Jack Becker getting the primary assist. Fast forward to today and those two forwards are part of the leadership brass.
They’ve been giving advice to the current crop of freshman.
“Their main focus is just playing 60 minutes,” freshman forward Matty Beniers said. “We’ve had a tendency this year to just come out hot or we’ve been really hot in the first game, and then not so in the second game. So we’re just really trying to work on our consistency here. I think that’s kind of been everyone’s main focus with talking to the younger guys.”
The youth across the Wolverines roster is a key difference to the 2018 team. That year, the Wolverines had just five freshmen, and only defenseman Quinn Hughes went on to be a first-round pick. This year Michigan had ten freshmen, with four players who made the Big Ten All-Freshman team. And that lack of experience could actually work in its favor.
“I’ve been around teams that are young and loose, and they just don’t know any better,” Pearson said. “They just go play. That’s why sometimes it’s okay to have those young guys, and I think you’re gonna see that from this team.”
The Wolverines may have the perfect recipe for a successful tournament. They have seniors with tournament experience who still have a bitter taste in their mouths from their last-second loss to the Fighting Irish. They have freshmen who aren’t afraid of the moment. They have a team that knows they can go into hostile territory and win big games.
Now, it comes down to putting it all together. And if it can do that, then this Michigan team can write a little history of its own.