In the week leading up to the Michigan hockey team’s NCAA Regional in Worcester, Mass., Mel Pearson has three words to describe the atmosphere in the locker room.
“Light, energetic, excited.”
For the majority of the team, any pre-tournament jitters are a first.
With one of the youngest teams in collegiate hockey, well over half of the Wolverines weren’t present when Michigan made its most recent NCAA Tournament run two seasons ago. For most of the team, it’s their first taste of the postseason, their first chance to claim a national title.
But of course, this isn’t the case for everyone. Despite having a youthful team, the Wolverines possess a five-man senior class — the second-largest leadership unit they have seen since the 2010-11 season.
These seniors remember the 2016 tournament. And it wasn’t so easy.
In the NCAA opener that year in Cincinnati, OH., Michigan eked by Notre Dame with a nail-biting victory in overtime.
“I remember how hard that first game was,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “Every season, each game is tough, but you get to the tournament and it brings it to a whole new level. Everyone is competing, it’s do or die, so that atmosphere makes it that much more exciting.”
Then came the Regional Final. Michigan suffered a 5-2 loss to then-No. 3 North Dakota the next day. And just like that, the season was over with the Wolverines just missing a spot in the Frozen Four.
“It was terrible,” Calderone recalled. “You see the seniors, it’s their last game, they’re pretty emotional throughout the whole locker room. So you try to put that feeling off for as long as possible.”
This senior class now finds itself in the same daunting position. Lose any game, and your time putting on a Michigan jersey is up. This makes the impending tournament all the more meaningful for this veteran class, and makes the ‘one game at a time’ mentality even more important.
Not only do the seniors therefore view the upcoming Northeastern matchup with heightened significance, but as the past has shown, their leadership can truly make or break a postseason.
The last time the Wolverines won a championship was 1998. What does Pearson believe that year’s somewhat unforeseen postseason success can be attributed to? The team’s solid senior leadership.
And there has been no shortage of upperclassmen leadership from Michigan this season, with initiative from the veteran players becoming even more apparent over the last few weeks. Their ability to step up is even more critical due to the fact that these seniors have experienced the high stakes of the tournament before and are more in tune with what to expect.
“Just practice habits, how they handle themselves away from the rink, and they are usually our best players in practice, too,” Pearson said. “They’re excited to be back in the tournament, this is their last kick at the can, so they are making everybody aware of that. It’s hard to get to there and this is only the second time they’ve been there. … But they want to make the most of this.”
Added Calderone: “You can’t take it for granted. You only get four years here, so you might only be in (the tournament) once or twice.”
The Wolverines’ youngest players won’t be entering the tournament completely blind to its format, and the seniors can take credit for the valuable lessons provided thus far.
Due to Michigan’s success in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, it was able to advance to a single-elimination semifinal game with Ohio State. Though the team fell to the Buckeyes, it is now familiar with the all or nothing nature of the game it will encounter on a bigger stage this weekend.
At the same time, one thing that no one player on the team is familiar with is a Frozen Four appearance. The seniors, who came close once before, are yearning for the opportunity to take the Wolverines to a place that consequential in the postseason before sealing their legacy at Michigan.
“We were just a couple goals away from being in the Frozen Four (in 2016),” said senior forward Dexter Dancs said. “And obviously, coming here my goal was to play in the Frozen Four as many times as I could, and unfortunately I haven’t yet. So there’s a lot of motivation for me, my class and the rest of the guys to get in the Frozen Four.”
So what it comes down to is finding the right balance. The oldest class wants to focus on each individual game, but also holds high expectations for how far the Wolverines can go. And if these mindsets find an equilibrium, Michigan will be more likely to find success in its NCAA opener.
“(The seniors) have two numbers in their head,” Pearson said. “Number one, which means we just need to win one more game to move on, and then four. If you can put four together then you have a banner so they understand we’ve got a maximum of four games left, but we are guaranteed one.”