Twenty years later, Michigan finds itself in similar situation
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
Entering the 1997-98 season, the Michigan hockey team was left without arguably the greatest class in program history. The offseason saw nine seniors — known as the “Michigan Nine” — graduate. The Wolverines were without six of their top eight scorers from the previous year.
Gone was three-time All-American, two-time CCHA Player of the Year and 1997 Hobey Baker winner Brendan Morrison. Gone were future NHL players John Madden, Jason Botterill, Warren Luhning and Blake Sloan, who combined for 187 points in their final seasons in Ann Arbor.
Gone was the core of the 1996 national championship team that ended a 32-year title drought and gone was the heart of the 1997 group that infamously fell to Boston University in the national semifinals.
Sure, star goaltender Marty Turco, forward Bill Muckalt and captain Matt Herr returned for their senior campaigns. But 11 incoming freshmen, including highly-touted forwards Josh Langfeld and Mark Kosick, needing to replace nine upperclassmen with offensive prowess was a thankless task.
“I think there was a lot of pressure,” said Michigan head coach Mel Pearson, who was then an assistant coach. “Everybody said, ‘Ah, we lost the best class ever in the history of Michigan hockey.’ The freshmen were good, though. They contributed, but it wasn’t the same.”
And to start the season, it wasn’t.
For the first time in 36 games, the Wolverines lost at Yost Ice Arena, 2-1, against Colgate. Then, they lost the Great Lakes Invitational for the first time in a decade. In their last six regular season games, they went a meager 3-3, including a sweep by Michigan State, winner of all four games between the two that year.
But through the toils came a veteran presence from the likes of Muckalt and Turco that helped the newcomers adjust to college hockey.
“It was the senior class, the class of Billy Muckalt, Matt Herr, Marty Turco and Chris Fox,” said then-Michigan coach Red Berenson. “Those four in particular were big-time college players and brought those freshmen along as the year went on to make them feel like they had a chance. And they did, they got better as the year went on.”
Added then-sophomore forward Andrew Merrick: “I think a big part was that there was not a lot of panic in that senior leadership. If you look at a guy like Marty Turco, not only was he an outstanding goaltender, he was calm all the time, even when we struggled as a team.”
In the first game of the season against Minnesota, Herr was injured and hope for a victory all but lost. But Muckalt and Turco took over, leading by example and showing the young players how to work hard and win.
“I think the older guys, my class included, who played with the guys before like Morrison, just taught us that losing was unacceptable,” Merrick said. “You were expected to win every time you went into the rink playing for Michigan.”
Michigan finished the regular season 27-9-1 with a 22-7-1 record in the CCHA, good for second in the conference, only one point behind the Spartans. The Wolverines were then upset by an up-and-coming Ohio State team in the CCHA semifinals.
“We didn’t win the regular season, we didn’t win the postseason, we didn’t win the GLI,” Pearson said. “We had an okay year and a pretty good team, but we didn’t win anything until we put it together.”
Added Merrick: “We were struggling heading into the NCAA Tournament, struggling to find an identity. I think the national people didn’t expect much. But I think as a group, we felt like we had a pretty good team and though we stumbled at times, we had a lot of talent. We had good players there, so it was a matter of coming together at the right time.”
After late regular season losses to Michigan State and a postseason blunder against the Buckeyes, Michigan settled for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA West Regional.
The NCAA West Regional that happened to be at Yost.
To this day, Merrick doesn’t think it was a check from behind.
But after Herr was handed a slashing minor toward the end of the first period of the West Regional Semifinals against North Dakota, Merrick was called for a check from behind with 13 seconds left in the frame. The result: a five-minute major and ejection.
After squeaking by six-seeded Princeton, 2-1, the previous night in the quarterfinals, Michigan found itself in trouble again. Going into the first intermission, the Wolverines trailed North Dakota, 2-0, with five-on-three play for the first 34 seconds of the second period and another 4:13 playing a man down. This against a defending national champion Sioux team that was No. 2 in the USCHO poll and 20-0-1 on the season when leading after 20 minutes.
All the cards were stacked against Michigan.
“We were down, 2-0, going nowhere,” Pearson said. “We took a five-minute major, so here we are, down, 2-0, we’ve got to kill five minutes of a penalty. We think we’re done, that’s it.”
Following the game, North Dakota coach Dean Blais told The Michigan Daily: “We had them, basically. If we would’ve went (up) 3-0, then game over.”
A devastated Merrick went upstairs to the locker room, showered and returned to watch the rest of the game from the stands.
“I thought not only did I hurt the team, but that was the momentum to really put us away in that game,” Merrick said. “At that moment, you thought that would be the killer blow for us. But it ended up doing the opposite for our team, which is credit to our team for digging deep and battling through that.”
After a diving glove save by Turco 40 seconds into the second, the puck trickled out to Michigan forward Justin Clark in between the circles.
That’s when Herr jumped out of the penalty box, alone behind the cheating Sioux defensemen.
Clark’s stretch pass off the boards careened its way to Herr at the opposite blueline, leaving the captain with a one-on-one breakaway against North Dakota goaltender Aaron Schweitzer. One quick hesitation later, Herr’s wrist shot was in the back of the net and Michigan was right back in the hunt.
Turco conceded another Sioux goal and the Wolverines needed to again inch their way back from a two-goal deficit. But even down, 3-1, Herr’s shorthanded tally would prove the only thing necessary for Michigan to shift the momentum in front of the home crowd.
“It galvanized our group,” Merrick said. “And I’ve been to Yost a lot of times and I think that night was the loudest, when we started to come back. … We took their best punch, we hung in and got the bounces and our good players really stepped up.”
Added Muckalt: “The crowd was electric here at Yost. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it like that. The locker room was shaking before the game, it was just an electric game.”
In the face of elimination, the Wolverines roared back to tie the game at three in the third period. With 2:54 remaining in regulation, Herr found center Bobby Hayes streaking down the left side of the ice. The junior teed the puck up and rifled a wrist shot that found the top-right corner of the net. The eventual game-winner sent Michigan back to the Frozen Four for the fourth time in five seasons.
“What jumpstarted ’98 was having the regional (at Yost),” Berenson said. “And when we won the regional here, that gave our team a ton of momentum and a ton of confidence. … It was an unbelievable game and people still talk about it who were there. I think getting that experience just brought our team up to another level.”
This new level sent the hot Wolverines to the Frozen Four in Boston, ready to defy all odds and win it all. Michigan made short work of New Hampshire in the semifinals, cruising to a 4-0 victory.
It was onto the national championship game against Boston College — the de facto home team at the supposedly neutral site of Boston’s Fleet Center. With the Wolverines trailing, 2-1, after two periods in a goaltending battle, Kosick added his second goal of the night in the third to send the game into overtime.
Late in sudden death, Langfeld scored on a breakaway to win the game, 3-2, along with the title that had eluded Michigan a year ago. Appropriately for a team that relied on underclassmen stepping up throughout the season, all three goals came from freshmen.
“We didn’t win anything that year and we got in the Tournament,” Berenson said. “We got some puck luck and some bounces and ten freshmen and next thing you know, we win a championship. Anything’s possible, just the way you watch it.”
Added Merrick: “I do have three kids now and they’re the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. But that goal from Josh Langfeld was (up there).”
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
After 33 years with Berenson at the helm, Pearson was named head coach to begin the 2017-18 season. Under an unfamiliar coaching staff came new systems and the daunting undertaking to merge a strong — yet inexperienced — six-player freshmen class with 21 returning skaters.
Highly uncharacteristic for the storied program, Michigan was coming off its first losing season since 2012-13, a dismal 13-19-3 campaign. On top of that, captains Alex Kile and Nolan De Jong’s four years elapsed, leaving the Wolverines without their previous leading goal-scorer and defensive mainstay.
Michigan was projected to finish second-to-last in the Big Ten Preseason Coaches’ Poll. No one gave the Wolverines a chance to survive the gauntlet of conference heavyweights, especially with the new addition of Notre Dame.
At first, it looked like the prediction would be true.
More than halfway through the year, Michigan was unranked at 8-10-2, with a GLI loss and an NCAA Tournament berth far from the realm of possibility. A season-ending injury to sophomore forward Will Lockwood in January took away one of the Wolverines’ offensive focal points.
The third-youngest team in the country looked its age and was on a downward spiral into college hockey oblivion. Maybe second-to-last in the Big Ten was a fair assessment for a program enduring major transitions.
There were obvious growing pains for a team lacking an identity. There were countless metaphors from Pearson about all players having to take a shovel and help dig, not being the weak link in the chain. Not to mention the repetitive mantra about skaters needing to buy into the system.
At first, it was senior forward Tony Calderone and junior forward Cooper Marody leading the way. Along with senior forward Dexter Dancs, their line accounted for almost 40 percent of the Wolverines’ total points on the season. And when “DMC” went silent, Michigan didn’t have anyone else to lead.
“We’ve had some adversity this year,” Muckalt, now one of Pearson’s assistant coaches, said. “And sometimes where — I don’t want to say we failed — we realized that it’s not working.”
Then something clicked.
First came the sweep against then-No. 9 Minnesota — the Wolverines’ first in Minneapolis in 41 years. Then another against then-No. 12 Penn State.
Then came help from secondary scorers. With Calderone and Marody contributing only one point between the two of them over a three-week span, it was rookie forwards Dakota Raabe, Michael Pastujov and Jack Becker and defenseman Quinn Hughes who rose to the occasion with timely goals and assists throughout. As Pearson put it, “We need everybody, they aren’t freshmen anymore.”
Goaltender Hayden Lavigne solidified the starting job with continued consistency in net. The sophomore won 10 of the last 16 regular season games with a 2.31 goals against average and .915 save percentage over the span.
Michigan went 10-3-1 in its last 14 regular season games, including another sweep against then-No. 1 Notre Dame and a nation’s-best eight-game unbeaten streak. After sweeping Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals’ best-of-three series, the Wolverines then fell in overtime to Ohio State in the semifinals.
From being out of contention early in the season to one of the hottest teams in the country, Michigan is now primed to make a run in the Tournament, perhaps even destined for its 10th national championship and first since 1998.
A No. 2 seed in the Northeastern Region, the road to postseason glory starts in Worcester, Mass., only one hour from where the Wolverines last won the title.
As Michigan prepares for Saturday’s NCAA Tournament regional matchup against Northeastern, the eerie similarities between this year and 1998 are aplenty.
The teams were both underestimated entering this season yet strived to dismiss skeptics. And coming down the stretch, both iterations of Michigan hockey started to fire on all cylinders when it mattered most.
It’s also noted by those who have been around the team the past 20 years that current players inexplicably mimic the play of those who led the Tournament run in 1998.
Calderone has been compared to Herr and Muckalt by Merrick and Berenson, the fearless leader posting career numbers and a team-leading 23 goals.
Marody shows shades of Hayes and his wicked right-handed shot. He mirrors the Michigan great who was “very good with the puck, smart, stealthy,” according to Merrick. Now a color commentator for Michigan Hockey Radio, Merrick added, “(Hayes was) not the quickest guy, but deliberate and makes smart decisions with the puck, so there are similarities there.”
Senior defenseman Sam Piazza is like Fox in Pearson’s eyes, both prize students of hockey and in the classroom. Fox is now a neurosurgeon, Piazza a finalist for the Senior CLASS award, recognizing student athletes who thrive on and off the ice.
Junior defensemen Joseph Cecconi and Nicholas Boka reflect blueliners Mike Van Ryn and David Huntzicker, skaters who Merrick called “a little unheralded, but could play.”
Then there’s Lavigne. Pearson, Berenson and Merrick agree he’s no Marty Turco — arguably the greatest goaltender in Michigan history and a player who entered the 1998 Tournament with a previous national championship under his belt. But albeit status or previous postseason experience, all mentioned Lavigne’s resurgence in the back-half of the season and how he quickly turned into the backbone of the Wolverines.
“You’ve got Hayden Lavigne coming into his own since Christmas,” Berenson said. “You don’t have a Marty Turco who’s coming off an unbelievable career. But you definitely have a chance … and I think this team has got a chance.”
Pearson and his coaching staff — all “Michigan Men” with postseason success — have continuously drawn on the comparisons of the 1998 team and 2018 version to remind their team they can win it all, too.
Maybe this team won’t have the same success as the 1998 national champions. But the parallels can’t be ignored.
And it’s the 1998 team’s mindset that Pearson hopes his current players will emulate heading into the Tournament.
In many interviews with The Michigan Daily, Herr was quick to point out that Michigan may not have been the nation’s most talented team, but it would always be the hardest-working.
Pearson concurs with the confidence exhibited that season and says the same holds true this year.
“Yeah, maybe we weren’t the best team, just like this year,” he said. “We didn’t finish first in our conference, but can we beat Notre Dame in one game? Yeah. Can we beat Northeastern in one game? Yeah. Can we beat — yeah, absolutely we can. And I think that’s the beauty of the NCAA, whether it’s basketball or hockey. It’s one game. You don’t have to beat someone in a series, you don’t have to play a 24-game league schedule. It’s just one game.
“I don’t think personnel-wise we have the best team. … (But) you have some special teams and I think this is one of them.”