When the Michigan hockey team saw its 2021 schedule, a specific game stood out:
“We get another crack at Minnesota-Duluth,” senior forward Garrett Van Wyhe said. “And they scheduled us for a reason, just because we weren’t able to get them last year.”
The Wolverines should have played the Bulldogs last March in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but COVID exposures cancelled caused Michigan to leave its regional without playing a game. That leaves a significant hole in its postseason experience.
“When you get to that one and done tournament, it’s a different baby,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said on September 27. “And we’ve had one player play in that so all the pressure is going to be on him to provide that leadership if we get to the tournament.”
Heading to Duluth for the Ice Breaker Tournament this weekend, the third-ranked Wolverines will play three other top-10 teams — the fourth-ranked Bulldogs, No. 1 Minnesota State and No. 10 Providence. All look like shoe-ins for the NCAA Tournament, if not the Frozen Four.
Essentially, Michigan’s playing what look like postseason matchups just two games into its 2021 campaign. And despite the tournament’s early timing, the Wolverines can’t afford to fumble this valuable opportunity to gather experience against tournament-caliber opposition.
The rest of Michigan’s schedule looks rather manageable, especially in non-conference play. The only remaining non-conference road game is part of a home-and-home with No. 19 Western Michigan. No. 9 Massachusetts, the defending NCAA champion, will have to come to Ann Arbor to play the Wolverines. Those home games, while against tough opponents, can’t offer the type of playoff environment that Michigan will see this weekend.
“We’re not going to see any better opponents than we are this weekend the rest of the year,” Pearson said. “So I think it’s going to be another good matchup, another good learning lesson especially for our young players, first time we have to go on the road and play in someone else’s rink with their fans.”
Even the juggernauts of the Big Ten — Wisconsin and Minnesota — can’t give the Wolverines the kind of experience they’ll find this weekend. There’s a sense of familiarity between the Big Ten teams, who play four times apiece each season. That kind of understanding of another team’s tendencies removes the kind of one-and-done, learn-on-the-fly experience that typifies the NCAA Tournament.
All of that isn’t to deny the Wolverines’ strength of schedule — playing the Badgers and Gophers will be a fantastic measuring stick for this team’s ability. But on a team where just one player — fifth-year senior forward Michael Pastujov — has experience in an NCAA Tournament game, playing contending teams in a foreign environment gives them the closest thing to the postseason experience they’re lacking.
Michigan’s experienced tough matchups against Minnesota and Wisconsin last season, and it fought well against the older, highly-skilled teams. But even when those top Big Ten teams went to the NCAA Tournament, they proved no match for the one-and-done atmosphere, with the Gophers falling in the quarterfinals and the Badgers losing in the first round. They simply didn’t offer the kind of gritty challenge that the Wolverines will see this weekend.
It’s also important to see Michigan’s true underdog status in some of these games. Minnesota State is the top team in the country, while Minnesota-Duluth checks in at No. 5. While the Wolverines get a date with the Bulldogs guaranteed, it’s likely they’ll face the Mavericks if they win. These are the kind of high-skill games Michigan will play if it wants to pursue a national title.
Simply put, it’s an invaluable opportunity, a once-in-a-season chance just two weeks in. While it’s still dangerously early to judge if teams are legitimate-postseason contenders, the quantity of future chances for the Wolverines to gauge their performance falls somewhere between slim and none.
It’s not that the weekend will make or break Michigan’s record — it’s got plenty of winnable games on the schedule. It’s that no one will give it a playoff test like the teams this weekend, two of which came a goal away from the National Championship Game.
It’s a weekend of put-up-or-shut-up, and one whose results will stick with the Wolverines all season. Michigan’s mantra is to control what it can control, and the Wolverines have a golden opportunity to manage their familiarity with a playoff environment this weekend.
“This will be a playoff game,” Van Wyhe said. “And it’s nice to get one of these types of games under our belts really early in the season.”
The conversation surrounding Michigan’s experience in the postseason hangs like an albatross around its neck. The Wolverines can cast it aside in Duluth, or it can keep drooping from their shoulders all season, a reminder of their unknown fate come March.