The wait is finally over for the Michigan hockey team. Sunday, the NCAA Selection Show revealed that the second-seeded Wolverines will travel to Worcester, Mass. to battle No. 3 Northeastern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The matchup will take place March 24 at the DCU Center, and if the Wolverines advance, they will face the winner of No. 1 Cornell and No. 4 Boston University in the quarterfinal game at the same location Sunday.
Heading into the tournament, Michigan (20-14-3) is tied with the Huskies (23-9-5) at No. 8 in the PairWise Rankings. Northeastern runs a high-powered offense, with an average output of 3.62 goals per game — good for fifth in the nation.
When it comes to special teams, the Huskies shouldn’t be underestimated. They run the third-most effective power play in the nation, holding a 27.22 goal percentage with the man-advantage. The Wolverines, in contrast, are 36th in that same category.
Given this, Michigan coach Mel Pearson noted that special teams, and in particular the penalty kill, will be a major focal point as the Wolverines prepare for their upcoming match.
“We have to work on special teams,” Pearson said following the Selection Show. “… Our pace and tempo have to be good this week. We have to make sure we’re doing a lot of things defensively, with the zone coverage and a lot of back pressure and just getting ready to play hard without the puck. We’ll pay hard with it. But we have to make sure we have the mindset that we make sure we play extremely hard without the puck.
“I think it’s a good matchup for us.”
Michigan was one of four Big Ten teams to make the tournament, as Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State all received bids. The competitiveness of the conference this season was highlighted in the seeding — the Fighting Irish and Buckeyes both earned No. 1 seeds, in the East Regional and Midwest Regional, respectively.
The Northeast Regional is one of four separate regionals, each with a single-elimination format. The winner of each secures a spot in St. Paul on April 5 for the Frozen Four, meaning there are only four games between any team and the national title.
Despite the high stakes, single elimination nature of the tournament, the atmosphere of the selection show viewing was anything but tense. A beaming Mel Pearson addressed his team, the Children of Yost and other attendees before the show even began, making it clear that any location would be a good location — he was just thrilled that Michigan has made it to this place this season.
And while over the past couple weeks the Wolverines have been expecting a spot in the tournament, this was not always the case. Over the first half of the season, Michigan had just about as many wins as losses, so it is not lost on the team that what it has accomplished over the past two months is no small feat.
“I’m extremely proud of them,” Pearson said. “They’ve done a lot of heavy lifting. We had to improve on some areas — it started with our goaltending. We got good goaltending down the stretch. We had some of our younger players step forward and are getting a lot of contributions from different players. … Once you get in, anything is possible. I’m extremely proud of these guys, especially since they stuck together.”
While the team’s accomplishments were underscored with a No. 2 seed and the opportunity to extend its postseason, Pearson received an honor of his own. During the Selection Show, he was recognized as the first ever collegiate hockey coach to consecutively take two different teams to the NCAA Tournament, as Michigan Tech earned a bid last season with him at the helm.
Though Pearson wasn’t aware of this accomplishment beforehand, it again reinforced Michigan’s quick transformation, growing from an underwhelming team last season to now inarguably one of the best in the nation.
Before the show started, highlight reels from games at Yost Ice Arena were played for the team and spectators to watch. These clips were yet another piece of evidence of the team’s brightest accomplishments, particularly over the past two and a half months.
“I think (the clips) say a lot,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “It shows some of the big games we won, and looking back on that, it shows that we can beat anyone in the country.”
And truly, what could be a better message for the Wolverines as they head into the final stretch of the postseason?