For the last three years, the same narrative has been written about the Michigan hockey team’s postseason.
Each of those years, the Wolverines entered the Big Ten Tournament as an underdog with their season on the line. There were two options — win and go to the NCAA Tournament, or lose and go home. And each time, they have been faced with the latter.
But now, that ultimatum is gone.
Michigan is entering its conference tournament as the No. 2 seed, with an NCAA Tournament berth already locked in place. Despite that guarantee, though, the Wolverines still have plenty to play for.
“We’ve got three seniors who haven’t won the tournament,” said freshman defenseman Nicholas Boka. “It’s a big thing for them and for all of us. (We all) want to win the tournament for them.”
After maintaining the No. 2 seed with a dominating sweep of Penn State last weekend, the seniors’ pursuit of the previously unattainable hardware became a little bit easier.
The seeding guaranteed Michigan a first-round bye, meaning it will play its first game Friday against No. 3 seed Penn State, which defeated No. 6 seed Wisconsin on Thursday, 5-2. The Wolverines then had less than 24 hours to prepare for their semifinal matchup.
“This is kind of as much as we’re familiar with all the teams in our league,” Berenson said. “There’s not going to be any surprises. So it’s not who we’re playing, it’s how we’re playing.”
The biggest concern for the Wolverines may be the simple fact that they have a target on their back. Though they finished second in the Big Ten regular-season standings, they are also the only team with a guaranteed bid to the national tournament.
That, combined with the fact that every other team is in desperation mode to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, could land Michigan in the middle of two dogfight matchups before it can hoist the Big Ten Tournament trophy.
The Wolverines are entering the tournament at the perfect time, though, and there’s no denying that they have the talent to turn a dogfight into a blowout very quickly.
Michigan is fresh off its sweep against Penn State, in which the Wolverines outscored the Nittany Lions by an aggregate total of 13-2. One weekend after conceding nine goals to Ohio State, the Wolverines’ defensive effort against Penn State was one of their best this season, and senior goaltender Steve Racine returned to elite form. Penn State likes to play fast, but all year, it has seemed Michigan is plenty capable of beating the Nittany Lions at their own game.
“Based on how we’ve played against Penn State, it would probably be them (that we would prefer), but it’s so hard to beat a team five times in one year,” said sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski. “It’s the Big Ten Tournament, I think most teams are fighting for an automatic bid in the (NCAA) Tournament. They have a lot to play for. Going into the weekend, I think we’re just going to stick to our game. We’re going to look at them a little bit, but it’s mainly about us, how we play.”
The story has finally changed this year. After an NCAA Tournament drought that seemed to last forever when stacked up against Berenson’s historic resume, Michigan is finally entering its conference tournament with that monkey off its back.
Frankly, the Wolverines don’t need to win the Big Ten Tournament. If they don’t, their season will go on. But they aren’t content with that. Michigan isn’t flying to Minneapolis for a participation trophy. After all, the seniors have had that experience three times too many.
“We don’t want to come home with our tails between our legs from St. Paul and then expect to regroup for the NCAA,” Berenson said. “We want to go there and come back with a championship.”