The Michigan hockey team is on a roll heading into the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines have won four of their last five games and just capped off their first weekend sweep of the season against No. 15 Penn State.
With Michigan getting set to take on the Nittany Lions again Thursday in its first-round matchup, it would be reasonable to assume the Wolverines are prepared for the familiar opponent. But almost immediately after Michigan beat Penn State 4-0 on Saturday, senior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort was quick to say that Thursday could be completely different.
“We’re going to talk about this Monday when we show up to the rink; what we played tonight, the game is going to be so much more intense than that next Thursday,” Nagelvoort said. “It’s just a whole different animal when you get to the playoffs. We’ve seen it every year when we’ve gotten to the Big Ten (Tournament). So that’s what we’re looking forward to. Yes, we’re playing the best hockey, but we’re going to continue to grow and play even better hockey if we want to make it last longer than a game.”
Most of the Wolverines have experienced the change of pace that comes with playoff hockey. Yet, as has been the narrative all season, the freshmen on the team are expected to contribute heavily. For them, this weekend will be the first time they’ve played in the conference tournament.
According to Michigan coach Red Berenson, whether or not the freshmen, and as a result the whole team, will be ready for Thursday depends on their preparation up to this point.
“This time of year, you just can’t turn on a switch and say, ‘I’m going to turn on last year’s switch,’ ” Berenson said. “You’ve got to build up momentum during the year, and even this week. This is a time to just focus on this one game. Like, we might only have one game left, and we’ve got to be ready for it.”
A few of the freshmen have their own playoff experiences from their time playing juniors. Forward Jake Slaker tallied 12 points in 10 playoff games with the Bloomington Thunder in the United States Hockey League last season.
But just as the transition from juniors to college hockey requires some adjustments, Slaker knows that the Big Ten Tournament will bring an intensity he hasn’t seen yet.
“I know it’s a whole different game,” Slaker said. “Right now we have some confidence with these last few weekends. We got some big wins against some better teams. I think right now we know it’s a new season.”
For those who don’t have experience, this weekend will not just bring a competitiveness they haven’t experienced before, but it could also bring a larger workload than what they’re used to. After all, if things go how the Wolverines want them to, they will be playing in three games in three days.
To prepare for this potential stress on their bodies, Michigan has put an emphasis on making sure its conditioning is where it needs to be.
“Our goal is to play three games this weekend,” said freshman forward Will Lockwood. “… We’ve been taking some time out of the weight room and focusing on being on the ice, being in good shape, but being well rested at the same time. So just having that confidence coming into the weekend and knowing that we’re going to want to play three games, everyone’s got to take care of themselves and be ready.”
All of this has been discussed all year, though. The Wolverines have known throughout this tumultuous season that they need to improve, and this week is no different.
“I don’t think we have to do a lot of scouting,” Berenson said. “It’s more about understanding our opponent, but really getting the most out of our group. We know that we can play better, and we have to play a lot better. … They’re a really good team, and we have to play better.”