Going into the season, the expectation was that the No. 2 Michigan hockey team would compete for a national championship.
Throughout the season, the Wolverines have proved more than capable of doing so. They have been a mainstay atop the national rankings, consistently garnering top five nods. They are loaded with NHL draft picks, veteran leaders and excellent goaltending.
But that isn’t to say that Michigan had just one goal in mind. Before the NCAA Tournament has even begun, the Wolverines have already accomplished a major feat.
On Saturday, Michigan captured its first Big Ten tournament championship since 2016 and first under coach Mel Pearson; besting No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 5 Minnesota on the way, the Wolverines have emerged as the conference’s top dogs.
And winning the conference title means another rafter in the banners at Yost Ice Arena.
Erik Portillo articulated its importance.
“I think it’s huge to put something in the roof for the whole group,” the sophomore goaltender said.
With much of the national attention focused on the Frozen Four and beyond, it’s a feat that may be overlooked. But these heightened expectations are warranted. Michigan has lived up to the hype this season and deserves to be at the forefront of the title conversation.
The win over Minnesota was convincing. Aside from a disastrous opening shift, the Wolverines thoroughly outplayed the Golden Gophers at their own rink. It was the type of performance necessary to compete in the NCAA Tournament. The next challenge is doing that consistently in a single-elimination bracket.
As sweet as the victory over Minnesota was, Michigan still has work to do. While it’s tempting to cherish the conference crown and wear it proudly, the Wolverines have to refocus for their upcoming challenges.
“You have to enjoy it, you have to build on the good things,” Pearson said after the game, before quickly shifting his tone. “But, there were a lot of things we didn’t do very well and we have to grow. We’ll let them enjoy it and have fun, but it could be a real quick turnaround.”
This sentiment is not secluded to Pearson. He should savor the conference championship as much as anyone — particularly since it’s eluded him during his time at the helm.
“[Pearson] does so much for us,” Portillo added. “He’s such an important person for our team.”
Yet, that doesn’t mean he’s allowed his team or himself to overvalue that trophy.
Now is not the time for Michigan to get complacent. Yes, it’s rewarding to win the conference. Yes, the Wolverines have fought through a gauntlet to get to its current position. But, with the ultimate goal suddenly within its grasp, now is the time to ramp up the intensity — not the opposite.
“A lot of these guys came back for a reason, they came back to have the college experience and have a chance to chase championships,” Pearson said. “They won the Icebreaker. They won the Duel in the D, won the Big Ten championship.
“They’re dialed in. They’re driven.”
The coming weeks will prove just how dialed and driven Michigan truly is. The Wolverines could use the Big Ten championship as a springboard for their postseason run.
Or, they could get complacent and falter on the biggest stage.
Michigan can’t afford the latter — or else that Big Ten championship banner will grow lonely.