- Nick Williams/Daily
By Michael Laurila, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 10, 2012
When the No. 3 Michigan hockey team opens up its season against the Rochester Institute of Technology on Thursday, the Wolverines will be without junior defenseman Jon Merrill.
Merrill was checked into the boards during Tuesday’s exhibition versus Windsor, and according to Michigan coach Red Berenson, he cracked his seventh vertebrae, which is at the bottom of the neck and top of the spine.
There is no timetable on Merrill’s return, but a hopeful estimate from similar injuries in the past is six weeks.
With or without Merrill, the Wolverines face a Tigers team that they’ve never faced in the history of the program. The unknown sometimes can pose problems for teams in preparation, especially considering Michigan only has one day between games.
But Berenson has never put too much stock in watching opposing team’s film. Michigan is usually ready for any style of play.
“(Berenson’s) always been a guy who’s said ‘control what you can control,’ ” said senior forward A.J. Treais. “We don’t really have to worry about (opposing teams) as much as we have to worry about us.
“If we show up and play our game, he thinks we have a good chance to win. If we’re worrying about the other team than that’s a little bit different.”
Merrill’s absence will affect the starting lineup and the line combinations, especially defensively. Berenson said that the duo of juniors Kevin Clare and Mac Bennett will be split up — Clare will skate with freshman Jacob Trouba and Bennett will pair with sophomore Mike Chiasson.
Along with the unanticipated roster changes, the Wolverines have waited patiently for one of the four goalies on the roster to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. The graduation of netminder Shawn Hunwick last year left a gaping hole in the position, but Berenson announced freshman Jared Rutledge as the starting goalie for Thursday’s game with freshman Steve Racine backing him up.
Rutledge started in net for the United States National Team Development Program last year, where he compiled a 17-8-4 record and a .904 save percentage. Behind both freshmen is junior Adam Janecyk, who saw limited playing time last season.
“We have two solid goalies that can play, even three,” Treais said. “It’s good to have trust in your goalie and I think we’ve established that with our two guys. They’re both quiet, steady goalies. They don’t really ask much of us. They’re just out there to stop the puck and that’s what we need.”
RIT became a Division I program in 2005, which is likely why the two sides have never played. The Tigers play in the Atlantic Hockey Association, and last year, despite missing the NCAA Tournament, they did manage to defeat CCHA winner Ferris State and Lake Superior State during the regular season.
But despite the youth of the Tigers program, Berenson still sees them as a potential threat. He said that Michigan would watch a little bit film after practice on Wednesday, but that would be the extent in the scouting.
“(RIT is) well coached,” Berenson said. “They’ve got a good coaching staff who does a good job with the team and they’ll be a good opponent.”
One thing which the Wolverines will need to work on before Thursday is the performance of their special teams. The penalty kill gave up two power play goals on five attempts against Windsor — well below last season’s 84.2 percent success rate. But the power play was successful, scoring on three of seven attempts compared to last year’s 13.3 percent.
The power play will likely be a factor on Thursday as the Tigers’ 84.7 penalty kill percentage was good enough for 10th nationally last year. When asked about what would need to change from Tuesday’s exhibition, Berenson had a clear answer.
“We have to forecheck well,” he said. “We have to back-check better than we did (Tuesday). We have to be better on the special teams. … I think we can be better, just in a nut shell. We can be better with the puck and better without the puck, no matter who we play.”
The Wolverines start off the season with three non-conference games – two this weekend against RIT and one against Bentley on Oct. 19.