It was always fair to expect an adjustment period.
First-year interim head coach, tons of talent departing for the NHL, a class of 12 freshmen — plenty of whom the No. 7 Michigan hockey team immediately thrust into top-six roles. The list goes on and on as to why the Wolverines faced an uphill battle early in the season. It showed as they rode an up-and-down first half to sixth place in the Big Ten.
Still sitting in sixth, though, time is running out on the adjustment period. Michigan coach Brandon Naurato and his team filled with freshmen have gained plenty of essential in-game experience, and it’s time to take the next step forward if it wants to meet its lofty preseason goals.
But Naurato is confident that his team is ready to make that jump.
“I got this crazy feeling that this is all for a reason down the road,” Naurato said Monday. “I don’t know if it’s this year or next year or whatever, but we’ll definitely be stronger for it. Our guys, I think we’re ready to take a step.”
After the past weekend’s series at No. 2 Minnesota, Naurato believes the pieces to take that step are starting to fall into place. His new-look top six found immediate success, while the revamped defensive pairs weren’t too shabby either. As a result, the Wolverines played their most complete series of the season and walked out of an incredibly hostile environment with a much-needed three points.
“It’s not like we caught them on a bad weekend or anything,” Naurato said. “That was awesome hockey. You play with those guys, you can play with anyone.”
Naurato’s logic holds for the most part. Few teams come close to the Golden Gophers’ talent level, and just three have managed to pull out a win at their home rink. The poise, the talent, the urgency that Michigan displayed in the split are positive signs moving forward.
But the Wolverines problem isn’t talent. Instead, they have spent the entire season trying to find consistency. Losing on Friday and winning on Saturday led to Michigan splitting five straight Big Ten series, but it needs to do more than split to climb the conference standings.
Needing that consistency, other teams might consider turning to players with more experience to stabilize the team, rather than the volatility that freshmen bring. But bitten by the injury bug and limited to just 12 forwards and seven defenseman to work with, the onus is once again on the freshmen to take that key step.
Even so, Naurato believes that they can handle the load. He floated the idea Monday that the mistakes they’ve made are a product of never seeing that situation before, that they have the right intentions but just need to learn. To Naurato, that first half — filled with teaching moments — is helping make all of them better.
“How many freshmen come in and play 18 minutes as a forward?” Naurato contemplated. “For those guys to do that, you can see what’s happening now in the second half, they’re getting comfortable in those positions.”
The dividends of in-game experience are already paying off. Freshman forward Gavin Brindley, now on the top line, is getting hot at the right time with four points over the last two games. Freshman forward Adam Fantilli is back from World Juniors and reasserting himself with four points of his own. Behind those two at the top, the rest of the freshman class is completing the adjustment to college hockey as well.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll be great and we’ll roll over everybody and win a national championship,” Naurato said with a smile. “I think guys are in a good place. They’re learning how to compete and be harder.”
With those adjustments, the next step should be coming. Nineteen points behind the Gophers with 10 games left, capturing an elusive Big Ten regular season crown is a distant goal as of now. But even if the Wolverines can’t win the conference, any advancement is crucial toward making a run in postseason play.
“Every year since I’ve been here, we’ve been notorious for having a really good second half,” senior forward Nolan Moyle said Tuesday. “I think it’s just trusting each other and sticking to the process.”
Moyle and Naurato think Michigan is ready for that jump. With just 10 games left in the regular season, time is of the essence to make that leap.