Last Sunday, the No. 8 Michigan hockey team sat uncertain about its future.
Based on their resume alone, it looked like the Wolverines would be set for an NCAA Tournament bid. But in the COVID-19 season, and without the PairWise Rankings as an objective measure of a team’s quality, anything was possible.
But moments into the selection show, Michigan found out it would be traveling to Fargo, N.D., for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Considering the Wolverines will open against back-to-back defending champion Minnesota Duluth — and, with a win, catch either Atlantic Hockey champion American International or No. 1 North Dakota in the second round — Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s reaction was understandably mixed.
The Bulldogs’ postseason pedigree is probably the largest part of what makes them so scary to face in the first round. Relative to its past three seasons — where it won two national championships and went a combined 76-37-7 before the pandemic hit — Duluth is actually undergoing a bit of a down year. The Bulldogs finished third in the NCHC after posting a 14-10-2 record and finishing the season on a 2-5 skid.
But don’t be fooled — Duluth is postseason ready. Many of the same players who helped the Bulldogs to those national championships are still around, as the starting lineup features seven juniors and six seniors.
“Their juniors and seniors are the guys who make them go,” Pearson said. “They’ve been around, they know what it takes to win, they’ve done a lot of winning there.”
One of those seniors is First-Team All-NCHC forward Nick Swaney, who finished fourth in the conference with 27 points on 13 goals and 14 assists and netted a hat trick on Feb. 27 against St. Cloud State. Swaney heads a first line for Duluth that features three NHL Draft picks — and no freshmen.
The Bulldogs’ list of strong upperclassmen doesn’t stop there. Right below Swaney on the NCHC scoring leaderboard is junior forward Jackson Cates, who’s tallied 10 goals and 16 assists on the season. One spot below Cates is senior forward Kobe Roth, with 13 goals and 10 assists.
That many high-level upperclassmen on the roster creates a team that both knows what it takes to win in the postseason and doesn’t abandon its game when the going gets tough.
“They don’t beat themselves,” Pearson said. “They’re blue collar, hardworking, stick to their systems, they don’t deviate when things are going good or bad. They just play the same way, and I think that it’s a big attribute to their coaching staff and their program that they do that.”
To pick up a win on Friday, the Wolverines will have to be willing to play the same way. Much ado has been made about Michigan’s freshman class this season — and rightfully so, as five of the team’s six top scorers are freshmen. But they’re still freshmen, and that’s shown at some pivotal moments this season.
To avoid a first-round exit, the underclassmen will have to play like upperclassmen, and the upperclassmen will have to step up if they can’t. Pearson feels confident entering the game because of how many times he’s seen the Bulldogs in the past.
With a win, of course, things don’t get any easier on Saturday. If Minnesota Duluth is a hurdle for the Wolverines to clear, North Dakota is a brick wall. Remember how Swaney was the NCHC’s fourth-leading scorer? The top three all play for the Fighting Hawks.
But therein lies the beauty of postseason hockey. From here on out, Michigan’s season could end at any moment.
Or, with just four wins, the Wolverines could etch their names in college hockey history.