Five games into this season, the No. 1 Michigan hockey team has once again established itself as a national power. A win over then-No. 5 Boston College and a tie with No. 10 Michigan State have highlighted the team’s 4-0-1 record and resulted in a climb in the polls from No. 7 to the top.
But those five games all had something in common – they were all played at Yost Ice Arena. This weekend, the Wolverines will go on the road for the first time all year – and this is no quick bus ride. Michigan will travel to Alaska to take on No. 20 Alaska-Fairbanks for their first test away from Ann Arbor.
“It’s a four-hour time change,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “There’s no question it’s a tough way to make your first road trip.”
The Nanooks (2-1-1) offer a unique road challenge besides the usual rowdy fans and unfamiliar surroundings. Alaska-Fairbanks plays on an Olympic-sized rink, which features different dimensions than Yost.
“The rink is wider, not longer,” Berenson said. “You have to make sure you don’t get caught out of position, especially defensively.”
The wider rink allows Alaska-Fairbanks coach Tavis MacMillan to build his team around speed to create a deadly offensive attack. If Michigan finds itself out of position, it may also find itself behind on the scoreboard.
“Tavis MacMillan has put his own style in there, and they are more of an offensive attack team,” Berenson said. “They still have a big team, but now they have a skating team.”
Despite skating to two relatively easy 5-2 wins over the Nanooks last year, the Wolverines are aware that this year’s Alaska-Fairbanks team is very dangerous. The Nanooks brought in a large freshman class last year. Now sophomores, they provide a strong base for an attack that has already knocked off one No. 1 team this year – Alaska-Fairbanks beat Minnesota 4-3 on the road to begin the season.
“That big freshman class are now all sophomores,” Berenson said. “They have a good nucleus.”
The most important sophomore for Alaska-Fairbanks is undoubtedly goaltender Wiley Rogers. He posted a solid 2.88 goals against average last year and has improved that number to 1.97 early this season.
“They have good goalkeeping,” Berenson said. “Wiley Rogers is as good as anybody in the league.”
With half the team playing its first road game for the Maize and Blue, it will be up to the Wolverines’ more experienced players to step up their games and provide leadership in a hostile environment.
“We’ve got some veteran players on this team that have been on this team when we’ve been really good on the road,” Berenson said. “They’ll be counted on more on the road than at home.”