FORT WAYNE, Ind. — This team has discipline. It’s not the father-with-a-belt type of discipline, but there’s no denying that Michigan is a well coached hockey team.
Actually, both of the teams on the ice this weekend were well coached. Michigan coach Red Berenson and Notre Dame coach Dave Poulin both spent over a dozen years playing in the NHL. They both had illustrious careers with a handful of different NHL teams. While playing 12 years for the Flyers, Bruins and Capitals, Poulin compiled more than 500 points. Berenson played for even longer and put up well over 600 points in his eighteen pro seasons. Both coaches helped to lead their teams to the Stanley Cup finals multiple times, and they each left their mark on the NHL record books. Poulin scored goals on each of his first two shots in the league, and Berenson once scored six goals in a game and four in a single period.
So when each of them came back to coach their alma maters after their pro careers were over, they were more than qualified to be college coaches.
Poulin is a great coach. Even though this season has been less than stellar for the Irish (3-18-5 CCHA, 5-23-6 overall), Poulin was a finalist for CCHA Coach of the Year just last season. But the standard in CCHA coaching is right here in Ann Arbor.
This weekend, Berenson picked up his 556th and 557th collegiate wins. He is now the eighth-winningest collegiate coach of all time, and all of his wins have come at Michigan. Eighteen years ago, Berenson took over a struggling Wolverines team. And now, over the last 14 years, Berenson has been the winningest coach in the NCAA. Michigan’s 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances over that period is an NCAA record. He has two national titles and nine Frozen Four appearances. And Michigan has been first or second in the CCHA in each of the last 14 seasons.
Those are some impressive numbers, but what makes Berenson such a good coach?
Talent is certainly part of it. Michigan has 14 players who have already been drafted by NHL teams, including three first-round picks.
“I’ve been really fortunate when you think about it,” Berenson admitted after Friday’s dismantling of Notre Dame. “Look at all the good players we have at Michigan.”
But part of it is the coaching of Berenson — along with his two stellar assistant coaches Mel Pearson and Billy Powers. Michigan is the most disciplined team I have seen this year. They seem to do all of the little things right. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the team is flawless on line changes. It’s a simple thing to get right, but other teams that aren’t coached as well occasionally mess it up. Twice this season, other teams have been hit with “too many men on the ice” penalties, and I can’t even count how many times Al Montoya has thrown a pass up the ice on a power play to catch the other team on a line change. Just last week in Omaha, sophomore T.J. Hensick helped push Michigan over Nebraska-Omaha by getting behind the Mavericks defense.
This week, Michigan had control of the puck in Notre Dame’s zone with an extra man. As the time in the power play ran out, the Michigan defenders took turns backing way out of the zone. They didn’t want to give up any breakaways out of the box. Against Michigan State just two weeks ago, Michigan’s Jason Dest came out of the box in the second period. The Spartans’ defense hadn’t moved back, and Dest was one-on-one with Michigan State goalie Dominic Vicari. If Vicari hadn’t made a fantastic play, Dest could have given Michigan an insurmountable lead. Dest’s heads-up play is a perfect example of good coaching, but the defensive lapse by the Spartans is something that doesn’t happen with a Berenson-coached Michigan team.
On Saturday, Michigan’s Kevin Porter got hit with a five-minute major. And three minutes in, defenseman Tim Cook picked up another two-minute penalty. So Michigan was faced with killing off two whole minutes of 5-on-3 play. They did it perfectly. A lot of the credit has to go to the intensity of the penalty killers; they didn’t want to lose this game. But the three guys rotated perfectly, and Notre Dame — which had scored on each of its last four 5-on-3’s — could barely get shots off.
Most of the drills for special teams are run by Pearson and Powers, but it’s the little things that Berenson does that make him a special coach. A few weeks ago, he took aside all of the forwards to talk about how to win faceoffs. The next week, he took Montoya aside just to talk. I’ve seen him take aside just about every player on the team. He’s in touch with his team. When Hensick was struggling earlier this year, Berenson sat him for a game against then-No. 2 Wisconsin. Now, Hensick is a Hobey Baker finalist. A few weeks ago, Berenson sat junior Andrew Ebbett because he wasn’t pleased with Ebbett’s effort. Ebbett responded and his play has been on a new level since he came back. This week the coach decided to sit senior defenseman Nick Martens because of inconsistent play. We’ll have to wait to see how Martens responds, but I trust Berenson’s decision.
As a team, Saturday’s performance was lackluster at best. Notre Dame was more physical and seemed to out-hustle the Wolverines for about 45 minutes. But I’m not worried. Berenson’s done it before and chances are the team will be refocused by the time it heads to Bowling Green in two weeks.
One more win for Michigan gives it another regular-season CCHA title. And the Wolverines are pretty much a lock for their 15th consecutive NCCA Tournament appearance under Berenson. It’s just one of the many ways he’s left his mark on college hockey.
Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.