Anna Marcus: Final stretch leads back to Ohio State
Predictions are a funny thing.
Of course, they must first be based off some prior knowledge, otherwise they would have little credibility.
Before the season started, the odds were not in the Michigan hockey team’s favor. After an ugly 2016-17 season, in addition to a head coaching change for the first time in 33 years, the team seemed likely to head into a transition year. In that regard, the Wolverines’ projected finish of second-to-last in the Big Ten Preseason Coaches Poll was a fair one.
At the same time, predictions are, at best, guesses.
And with a season as long as that of collegiate hockey — a late-September to April marathon for teams who make the postseason — these forecasts seem even more arbitrary.
But from the start, despite scrutiny, this team was always the biggest advocate for itself.
“Coming into the season, we knew we were going to be good,” said senior forward Dexter Dancs. “I know a lot of people in the media and outsiders were kind of saying ‘This is a transition year.’ ... But that’s not what we were thinking. We were thinking we were going to be in the spot that we are now.”
And ‘transition’ certainly wasn’t in this team’s vocabulary. Come January, any remaining critics had been quieted after Michigan rattled off four straight wins against ranked opponents in Minnesota and Penn State. Come February, it had swept Notre Dame, the then-No. 1 team in the nation, and become a relevant player in the NCAA tournament conversation.
The Wolverines have done what they came to do this season, all while shocking those who watched an accelerated transformation unfold, particularly with the offensive unit.
Tony Calderone led the Wolverines’ offense last season with a mere 15 goals. This year, the senior forward has already scored 23 goals among his 39 total points. Calderone is bested by junior linemate Cooper Marody who led the Big Ten with 44 points — an amount over double that of any individual on the roster last season.
Michigan, which finished 37th in the PairWise Rankings last season, now sits tied for No. 7 — a position that almost assuredly locks in a tournament bid come the Selection Show on March 18.
But make no mistake — while the Wolverines’ season won’t come to an end regardless of what happens this weekend, by no means does that make it any less important.
There is only one Big Ten team Michigan hasn’t defeated yet this season. It is the same team it will face Saturday in the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament. Oh, and it happens to be the Wolverines’ most notorious rival, as well.
Don’t get me wrong, Michigan doesn’t have to do anything more to prove itself this season. It will, barring an unforeseen circumstance, have a chance at a run in the NCAA Tournament. An exit in the semifinal round of the conference tournament certainly would not mar their already rewarding season.
But defeating Ohio State this weekend would put the Wolverines over one final hump. A victory in the first round of single-elimination play would undoubtedly spur postseason momentum. A victory would put them one game away from a Big Ten Tournament championship. And as Michigan has defeated both the Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish this season, claiming the title would hardly be inconceivable at that point.
Getting through this weekend, though, is going to be a taller task. The Buckeyes have defeated the Wolverines in all four of their meetings during the regular season, mostly doing so with ease.
But as the cliché goes, the postseason is a whole different ballgame. At practice this week, Mel Pearson provided his team with a personal anecdote to highlight this phenomenon.
During his tenure as an assistant coach for Michigan, Pearson recalled the senior year of Brian Wiseman and Steve Shields — two members of his current coaching staff. The Wolverines had played and defeated Lake Superior State five times during the regular season.
“We played them again in the regional final, up at Munn Ice Arena in Lansing, and the winner went on to the Frozen Four,” Pearson described. “And they beat us in overtime. … Lake Superior went onto win the national championship, and we had beaten them five times.
“We know we haven’t beaten (Ohio State), but we get another kick at the can.”
Maybe the fifth time will be the charm.