How different would this year’s Michigan hockey team be if its leading goal-scorer, Mike Cammalleri, hadn’t missed 10 games in the second half of the season because of mono?
“You never know how things would have evolved if Mike would have been here,” Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson said.
Even if Cammalleri hadn’t missed those games, things couldn’t have turned out much better for the Wolverines, who advanced to the Frozen Four and will play Minnesota in tomorrow’s semifinal round.
But could Cammalleri’s illness have actually benefited the team?
The junior’s absence not only gave others an opportunity to step up, it also forced them to make plays. It forced Junior John Shounyeia to emerge as a leader on the team. It forced freshmen like Eric Nystrom, Dwight Helminen, Michael Woodford and Milan Gajic to find an offensive rhythm. And it forced the Wolverines to develop depth that had been non-existent with Cammalleri in the lineup. All of these things happened, and Michigan went 7-1-2 in 10 games without him.
“We found out a lot about our team when Mike went down,” Pearson said. “Everybody had to pitch in a little more and step up, and I think we met the challenge. The guys had an opportunity to take bigger roles on the team. Shouneyia is one example who filled a leadership role.”
The passes that Cammalleri would have made came from Shouneyia, who picked up 10 assists in Cammalleri’s absence. Shouneyia currently leads the team with 40 assists, an average of just under one per game.
The goals that Cammalleri would have scored suddenly came from other sources. It was Helminen who scored the game-tying goal in the third period against Michigan State on Jan. 19. It was Nystrom who scored an overtime goal against Nebraska-Omaha on Feb. 8 to give Michigan the win. And finally, it was defenseman Eric Werner who scored Michigan’s lone goal in its 1-0 win over Lake Superior on Feb. 2.
When Cammalleri returned, it seemed certain that this depth would continue to show and the Wolverines would be very difficult to beat. Not only did they now have one of the best players in the country back, but they also had a supporting cast that was producing rather than watching.
But this wasn’t the case, as the depth disappeared and Cammalleri had to once again carry the team through the first two rounds of the CCHA Tournament. He scored five goals in two games against Lake Superior to help Michigan escape the first round. Then he scored both of Michigan’s goals against Ohio State to lead them into the championship game.
But in the CCHA title game, the supporting cast re-emerged. In their last three games – wins over Michigan State, St. Cloud and Denver – Cammalleri hasn’t scored a goal, but his teammates have picked him up.
“Teams get better as you go on,” senior Craig Murray said. “Mike put in his chances then. But lately, he’s been getting checked tightly, and he has to fight for every inch he gets.”
Cammalleri will be watched very closely in the Frozen Four by opposing defensemen. The Wolverines know they cannot wait for him to generate all of their scoring chances. To win, they will need to demonstrate the depth and consistency that they have shown in their past three games and in the 10 games when Cammalleri was out.
“We have preached to our players that you have to be ready as an individual in every game,” Pearson said. “It might be you who gets the one chance to make the difference.”