Three seasons ago, it was hard to imagine the Michigan hockey team would end up here. Three seasons ago, the Wolverines missed the NCAA Tournament with a loss in their last game of the season, and then it happened again in 2014, and again in 2015. All of a sudden, none of the players on their current roster have played in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve never had a taste in the tournament, and I’ve been here almost four years now,” said senior forward Boo Nieves on Wednesday. “It’s definitely harder, because every year it feels like I’ve been getting farther and farther away. We need to make sure we do things right the first time so we don’t find ourselves digging ourselves a hole.”
That three-year skid is a dubious one, but if you’ve followed the program at all, you know about the one that came before it. From 1991 to 2012, Michigan reached 22 consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
There’s a fine line between trying to forget that streak and trying to emulate it. It can be the Wolverines’ worst enemy or their best friend. On the one hand, it seems more than anything like the elephant in the room. On the other, it’s part of the tradition of the program, and it’s better to have that tradition and try to build on it than not to have it at all.
“We don’t want to over-dwell on last year or the year before,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “This is a new team, a new season and a new schedule. But we know as coaches we’ve got to get off to a better start, and we’ve got to be a better team for the whole season.”
But no one on this year’s team has played on an NCAA Tournament team, and if that remains the case next spring, the senior class will be the first one in a quarter-century to graduate without an appearance. Six players on the 2015 roster were 14 the last time Michigan played in the NCAA Tournament, and that statistic will only get bleaker if the streak continues.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, the brighter days aren’t too far in the past yet, and the coach at the helm knows how to get them back there. The biggest key Michigan has talked about so far is taking care of business in early-season non-conference games, which it hasn’t done in recent years.
“It’s been tough trying to wait until the last minute the last three years,” Nieves said. “This year, it’s my last year, so I want to make sure that we get off to the right start so we’re not stuck on our heels in the Big Ten Tournament.”
Nieves remembers those situations well, as they have come in the past two years (before that, it was the CCHA Tournament that decided Michigan’s fate). The Wolverines know what forced them to go down to the wire: They didn’t win the non-conference games they should have.
In the past three seasons, when Michigan missed the tournament, the Wolverines were 19-13-2 outside their conference, excluding postseason contests. In the previous four years, when they made the tournament in each one, they went 22-10-3 in the non-conference.
One game per season might not seem like a big difference, but when you consider the margin by which the Wolverines have missed the NCAA Tournament, it’s all the difference. Sure, Big Ten Tournament losses to Penn State (2014) and Minnesota (2015) were the immediate causes, but Michigan’s struggles dated back far earlier. The Wolverines can’t win the Big Ten Tournament in October or November, but they can put themselves in a good position by winning games against non-league opponents.
“I think I can speak for pretty much anyone that’s played for Michigan hockey that you’re not going to take a game for granted,” said junior forward JT Compher. “That’s the way we’re playing this year — you’re not taking any game for granted.”
That emphasis shows up in several areas. Michigan is working harder to score first this season, but also to win the third period and hold down leads. The Wolverines also know they have to protect their home ice, where they dropped games to New Hampshire, Penn State and Michigan State last season.
Nieves said that new mindset has made a difference in the team’s energy so far this season. No longer can the Wolverines lose focus early in the season and make up ground in March.
Through two weeks of the season, they have avoided danger. They escaped Mercyhurst at home twice, 3-2 and 6-4, and then came away from upstate New York with a 5-5 tie against Union and a 5-2 win over Rensselaer.
None of those results will put the entire country on notice, but Michigan has taken its new attitude and used it to avoid a potentially résumé-killing loss in the first two weeks. Maybe that’s good enough for now.
Berenson doesn’t have to go back far in the history books to find a time when they failed to do even that. Last year, a talented team dropped the opener at Ferris State, lost at Boston University three weeks later and then suffered two blowout losses at Michigan Tech.
At that point, the Wolverines were 2-5, and as Berenson said Wednesday, “All of a sudden, we were on our heels. We really never recovered from those.”
Two years ago, Michigan went 8-4-2 in non-conference play but fell to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, dropping out of the NCAA Tournament field.
“That’s how one game can change your whole RPI and your season,” Berenson said. “We’ve got to worry about every game.”
“Every game counts” is an old adage that almost every coach uses, but the Michigan hockey team knows it better than anyone else. Three years of heartbreak will teach you that.