Wolverines relish underdog role en route to Frozen Four

Sunday, March 25, 2018 - 10:58pm

Sophomore forward Jake Slaker and the overlooked Wolverines used an underdog mentality as motivation this weekend and all year.

Sophomore forward Jake Slaker and the overlooked Wolverines used an underdog mentality as motivation this weekend and all year. Buy this photo
Zoey Holmstrom/Daily

WORCESTER, Mass. — Entering Northeast Regional play of the NCAA Tournament, few eyes were on the Michigan hockey team.

There was talk about No. 1 Cornell and its sterling 25-5-2 record. Northeastern’s lethal top line of two Hobey Baker finalists and a senior captain was emphasized all week. The deep roster of Boston University and its 12 players drafted by NHL teams was heavily discussed.

Not much was said about the Wolverines.

But after the first weekend of the Tournament, Michigan stood above its competitors and claimed a berth no one thought was possible earlier this year. For the 25th time in program history and first since 2011, the Wolverines advanced to the Frozen Four with wins over Northeastern and Boston University on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

“I think it says a lot about our team,” said senior forward Tony Calderone after Sunday’s 6-3 victory. “We’ve been the underdogs all year, no one was expecting us to be here. I don’t think that fazed us too much, I think maybe it gave us a little fuel. But we were ready to play, we knew what we were up against and we just played Michigan hockey.”

Right as Calderone finished his comment in the postgame press conference, sophomore forward Jake Slaker — sporting a newly-fashioned “2018 NCAA Men’s Regional Champions” hat — interjected a declarative statement about being overlooked heading into Worcester.

“I have one more thing to add: We loved it.”

All season long, Michigan wasn’t at the forefront of college hockey. At face value, it was the third-youngest team in college hockey with a new coach and a mix of veterans and newcomers. A meager 8-10-2 start validly kept the Wolverines out of the conversation for the first half of the season.

“The expectations weren’t really high,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “And up until Christmas, we didn’t look good. The resiliency to stick with it, the patience with a new coach and they found a way.”

Three series sweeps of top-15 teams going into the season’s homestretch pushed the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament in what Pearson called “a remarkable turnaround.”

Saturday’s NCAA Regional Semifinal draw against Northeastern had proverbial odds-makers giving Michigan, the underdog once again, little chance for victory. After all, they were majorly overshadowed by the Huskies’ star line of Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura and Nolan Stevens. Would an upset, and, therefore, recognition ever arrive?

All week, the Wolverines’ top line of Calderone, senior forward Dexter Dancs and junior forward Cooper Marody bugged Pearson to play against Northeastern’s “Big Three” to silence Huskie admirers — and Michigan critics, too.

The “DMC” line went on to score all three of its team’s goals — one from Dancs and two from Marody, including the game-winner — and held Northeastern’s heavies to a minus-three rating in the 3-2 win.

Marody and company outplayed arguably the best forward trio in college hockey and cemented themselves as a force to be reckoned with. But then came the questions of stopping a full arsenal of Boston University weapons. To match the Terriers’ depth, who other than “DMC” would step up to contribute?

Before Sunday’s game, Pearson was confident in his secondary scorers, mentioning freshmen and sophomores who have shown signs of improved offensive capabilities.

Then it was time to answer the skeptics. And players like junior forward Brendan Warren, junior defenseman Nicholas Boka and Slaker did just that when the stakes were at the highest. Only one goal Sunday came from “DMC,” a wicked snipe from Calderone to reclaim a 2-1 lead late in the first period. The other five came from relatively unheralded players, just as Pearson preached all season.

“You need good players to take advantage of opportunities and I think we did that tonight,” Pearson said. “Nick Boka hasn’t had a goal all year, and I don’t know what the hell he was doing jumping up in the play. But he found a chance and saw an opening. It’s what we do at Michigan, we let our players play.”

Maybe that was the key to Michigan’s second-half surge. Letting players play through the trials and tribulations, all while flying under the radar.

On Selection Sunday last weekend, the Wolverines anxiously waited to see where they were headed for the first two rounds of the Tournament. Almost all the players were convinced they were going to the West Region in Sioux Falls.

That was when they were handed the No. 2 seed in a dangerous Northeast. But Pearson didn’t mind.

“We’re playing Northeastern — in Massachusetts. We’re playing BU — in Massachusetts,” he said. “So again, it fit right into our mantra and how we wanted to play. So, I thank the committee for putting us here.”

Top line in the nation? Stifled. Depth and weapons up and down the lineup? Quieted. Two teams with de facto home advantage? Knocked out of the Tournament. And all by a team no one expected would amount to more than second to last in the Big Ten as predicted by a preseason coaches’ poll.

“All throughout the year, we didn’t get much love in the polls, which is okay,” Pearson said. “We didn’t deserve it at the time. But we knew we had some things within the team, and we had a chance if we could figure them out.”

The next stop: a national semifinals showdown against No. 1 seed Notre Dame in St. Paul, Minn. During the regular season, they split the matchups, 2-2, with the upcoming tiebreaker determining which team will move on to the national championship game.

Pearson and Slaker know the Wolverines won’t be favored against the powerhouse Fighting Irish, led by goaltender and Hobey Baker finalist Cale Morris.

But that’s exactly where they want to be.

“We’ve had four really close games, so I think it’s a toss-up,” Pearson said. “They were expected to be there, they were the No. 1 seed, so it fits right into where we want. I like the matchup, I really like the matchup.

“We have 10 days to get better, and when we get on that ice in St. Paul, they better be ready to go.”

Added Slaker: “I think we’re the only ones in the nation who expected us to be here at this point right now. … I think it’s been motivation for us. We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the year, but the best time to play the best hockey is at the end, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The underdogs are barking, and their noise is starting to be heard.