Though Bowling Green is just over an hour south of Ann Arbor, the Michigan hockey team isn’t making a day trip this weekend. Instead, it will leave on Thursday for the weekend series, hoping to return as league champions.
But don’t expect the Wolverines to throw pillows and blankets into their bags along with their sticks and gloves. Michigan coach Red Berenson has pounded the message into their heads all week: Don’t sleep on Bowling Green.
As far as Berenson is concerned, the Falcons’ last-place standing in the CCHA is far less important than the gigantic target that will replace the standard block ‘M’ on the Wolverines’ jerseys. With Bowling Green already having locked up the bottom seed for the conference tournament, this weekend’s series gives the Falcons a chance to play spoiler. With nothing to play for, Bowling Green would love to dash Michigan’s title hopes, however slim they may be.
“You know (Bowling Green’s) going to give you your best because they’re looking up at you,” Berenson said. “These are the games you have to win. It’ll be a good test for us.”
A lot would have to go right for Michigan to claim a share of its 12th CCHA regular-season title. The Wolverines must take all six points from upset-minded Bowling Green and hope that Western Michigan sweeps first-place Ferris State. The Bulldogs have already clinched at least a split conference championship and need just one point to win it all for themselves. But the Broncos did sweep Ferris State in a home-and-home series earlier in the season.
There won’t be much scoreboard watching going on this weekend under Berenson’s watchful eye. During Wednesday’s practice, Berenson emphasized that if his team wants to be viewed as one of the best teams in the country, then it’s time it starts doing what those teams do — take care of business late in the season.
“For example, we talked to them (on Wednesday) about how, if you’re going to be a good team — a winning team — you’ve got to win the games you should win,” Berenson said. “Those are the toughest games to play.”
And though Michigan finds itself in the season’s last weekend, the Wolverines aren’t looking to stumble into the playoffs. Berenson still seeks improvement, knowing that stagnant teams rarely fare well as the calendar turns to March.
“We’ve got to play better than we played last week,” Berenson said. “We’ve got to keep moving forward. We can’t stay the same … we’ve got to play better.”
Both special teams units enjoyed a perfect evening last Friday against Northern Michigan. The power play capitalized on both of its opportunities, and the penalty killers held the Wildcats to a fruitless man advantage six times.
Saturday, the special-teams units made another statement, capitalizing on 50 percent of power-play tries and keeping the Northern Michigan power play off the board once again.
Sophomore forward Derek DeBlois, whose presence on the penalty-kill unit has been impressive, knows that Bowling Green is no slouch despite the Falcons’ four measly conference victories.
“It’s like any other weekend,” DeBlois said. “They’ve been doing pretty well in the second half. … You can’t look past any team. You’ve got to prepare like any other weekend (and) control our own destiny, also.”
The Wolverines seemed particularly focused in practice this week. Though each player seemed to know of the weekend’s playoff implications, nobody seemed too preoccupied about what goes on at Western Michigan’s Lawson Ice Arena and Ferris State’s Ewigleben Ice Arena. If their heads are in the right place — not somewhere northwest of Bowling Green — everything will take care of itself.
“If the team talk is right, we’ll be right,” Berenson said.
NOTE: The Wolverines have already locked up a first-round bye for the CCHA playoffs. Michigan needs two points this weekend to clinch home-ice advantage during “The Road to the Joe,” earning a home series the weekend of March 9-11.