When the No. 9 Michigan hockey team hosts No. 14 Penn State this weekend, it will the be the last tune-up before the Big Ten Tournament, the last home stand for a small core of seniors and, quite possibly, the last time Wolverines coach Red Berenson will ever stand behind the bench for a game at Yost Ice Arena.
The long-tenured coach is in the final year of his contract and is undecided on his plans for next season.
“I don’t know if this will be my last weekend at Yost or not, so I’m not going to worry about it,” Berenson said. “My last game in the NHL, I couldn’t have told you, I don’t even remember when it was. It didn’t matter.
“I just want us to have a good weekend at Yost.”
The series features two of the top three teams in the Big Ten, and two of the highest-scoring offenses in the country. In a previous matchup this season, which took place at Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena and at Madison Square Garden, Michigan (10-5-3 Big Ten, 20-7-5 overall) outscored Penn State, 13-7. Both games were closely contested, but the two-win weekend jumpstarted the hottest stretch of the Wolverines’ season.
When the puck drops Friday night, each team will be in a very different place than it was a two months ago. The Nittany Lions (10-7-1, 20-10-4) have faltered after a hot start and has not swept a Big Ten series since mid-January.
Michigan tore through the middle of the regular season before dropping three of its last four contests against Minnesota and Ohio State, respectively.
For the Wolverines, the timing seems abysmal. They all but cemented an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament two weeks ago, but the sense of excitement surrounding the team has collapsed into something resembling trepidation as the losses mount.
It’s not that the offensive production has slowed down — Michigan has 17 goals in the last four games — but a combination of poor timing and defensive meltdowns have hobbled the team.
Penn State is led by senior David Goodwin with 33 points. Also creating a strong impact is freshman Chase Berger, who has netted 13 goals on the season. The Nittany Lions generally rotate netminders throughout the weekend, though freshman Eamon McAdam has a far superior save percentage at .924.
On the other side of the ice, three Wolverines’ — forwards Justin Selman and Boo Nieves, and goaltender Steve Racine — will play at home for the last time in their careers.
Selman and Nieves took somewhat divergent paths in their hockey career when they arrived at Michigan, but both have grown into major roles on the team, becoming close friends in the process.
Selman struggled in his first two seasons before recommitting himself and becoming a jack of all trades for the Wolverines.
“I don’t know if it’s always been the best thing for him, but it’s definitely been a good thing for the team,” Berenson said. “When (freshman forward) Cooper (Marody) was out and we needed (Selman) at center, he came out in New York and had a dynamite game.”
Nieves is an obvious natural talent with tremendous speed at 6-foot-3. He had a phenomenal freshman season, but struggled to elevate his game in the two following years.
“He got off to a good start, and then he’s been pretty good and very good at times,” Berenson said. “I think this is his best, consistent season.”
Racine has been perhaps the most discussed players on Michigan’s roster over the last two seasons. He has caught the brunt of the blame for struggling defensive units, while his own play has fluctuated between phenomenal and somewhat disappointing.
“Racine’s always been a goalie that can win a game, but he’s also a goalie that might lose his focus or not be as ready,” Berenson said. “But I think he’s matured to the point where he can play back to back games and play well.”
Berenson’s quite adept at capturing the heart and soul of his players when he talks about their time about Michigan, but he’s not ready just yet to contemplate what it might mean to coach his final weekend behind the bench at Yost.
After the practice Thursday, he immediately dismissed the thought that Senior Day on Saturday night affects the way the team approaches the game.
“If our team lays an egg, then the seniors are going to feel terrible no matter what,” Berenson said. “If we win, they’re going to feel good.”
It’s not hard to imagine that Berenson feels the exact same way.