After thrashing Toronto, 8-1, two weeks ago, the Michigan hockey team looked geared up and ready for a run at the NCAA Tournament, somewhere it hasn’t been in three years.
But that game against the Varsity Blues was an exhibition, a meaningless contest.
Friday night, when the Wolverines face off with Mercyhurst at Yost Ice Arena, their regular season will begin, and every game becomes important.
After losing forwards Andrew Copp, Dylan Larkin and Zach Hyman in the offseason, one of Michigan’s biggest question marks was how it would replace the 132 points between the three departed players.
The Wolverines may have found their answer in freshman forward Kyle Connor, who amassed 80 points with the United States Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms on his way to being named the USHL Player of the Year.
Though Connor’s first college hockey appearance may induce nerves, skating on a line with senior forwards Boo Nieves and Justin Selman, both assistant captains, should ease the transition from junior hockey to college.
“We’ve kind of taken him under our wing, and he’s a really skilled player,” Nieves said. “He knows what to do out there, and we’re just trying to help him get on track to how we play here at Michigan.”
Another line Michigan will look to for scoring will be that of junior forwards JT Compher, Alex Kile and Tyler Motte. The trio finished with a combined 81 points and will need to surpass that point total to help fill the void of the departed.
But there is one area of Michigan’s game has little doubt, and that is the defense.
Once a point of concern, the unit returns sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski, who was drafted seventh overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets of the National Hockey League this past summer, as well as the rest of a young blue line that played substantial minutes last year.
On the other side of the ice, Mercyhurst comes into Ann Arbor after already playing four games this season.
After splitting a series at home to Colgate, the Lakers traveled to Bentley and swept two games.
With at least one goal in each game he has played, forward Taylor Best, a teammate of Connor at Youngstown, will look to continue his streak when the two face off this weekend.
In between the pipes, Mercyhurst will start Brandon Wildung, who has three wins already this season, despite giving up 11 goals in four games.
“(Mercyhurst) will come in as the underdog, supposedly, because we’re at home,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “But they’ve already played four games, and they’ll have their game legs, and we have to get our game legs. I think they’ll be better than people think.”
After winning just two of its first seven games last season and narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament, Michigan knows all too well the consequences of a bad start.
Its task this year is to avoid that, and it all begins this weekend.
“Things happen really fast in (college hockey),” Nieves said. “We have to make sure we’re ready from the get-go. We have to make sure we start hard and finish hard to keep the momentum going.”