When Michigan coach Red Berenson and his staff secured one of the most decorated recruiting classes in program history last year, it seemed like just a matter of time before the Wolverines returned to their dominant form of the mid-1990s.
After all, it’s rare that a college hockey team has a first-round draft pick coming to school rather than joining the major junior circuit or minor leagues. So with No. 3 overall pick Jack Johnson and No. 25 selection Andrew Cogliano jumping into maize and blue sweaters last year, it looked like Michigan hockey was back.
Since the pair began skating for the Wolverines, however, things have been far from rosy. Once they hit the ice last season, Michigan jumped out to a 9-1-1 start and an early season No. 1 ranking, but then things started to slide downhill.
The Wolverines lost both College Hockey Showcase games at home to Wisconsin and Minnesota. Then they failed to win the Great Lakes Invitational while Cogliano and Johnson played in the World Junior Championships. And once playoff time rolled around, Michigan fell to rival Michigan State in the CCHA semifinals and lost its first round NCAA tournament game against North Dakota.
As the season began, both Johnson and Cogliano were optimistic, with a year of experience under their belts. But once again, things weren’t going as planned. The team struggled to win both games of a weekend series throughout the first half of the season. When Michigan fell to Northern Michigan three weeks ago on Saturday night, it seemed like the issue of inconsistency was here to stay.
But the team’s emerging sophomore leaders, Johnson and Cogliano, decided to take matters into their own hands.
This past weekend’s series against Ferris State was the perfect picture of why the pair was brought here. The sophomores combined for 13 points, leading the Wolverines to two victories over the Bulldogs. Cogliano unleashed his lethal shot and stealthy passing skills, while Johnson demonstrated his unique combination of soft hands and raw power with five goals.
There couldn’t have been a better time for newfound confidence among the sophomore stars. Berenson believes this will carry over as the Wolverines jostle for playoff positions and possibly the CCHA regular-season championship.
“Cogliano has scored in, I think, every game except one or two since he has been back (from the World Junior Championship),” Berenson said. “And you can just see that Jack is now regaining his form – he is sharp, he is hungry, he is confident and he is strong. He and Hunwick play in 20-something minutes every game and in all key situations. And you can just see what a difference it makes.”
Johnson had struggled to find the back of the net over the previous few games, an unusual problem for a defenseman who had scored relatively often throughout his career. Instead of becoming frustrated and turning to headhunting – for which he is equally well known – Johnson kept working until the pucks started going in.
Seeing Johnson come out of his offensive slump was a welcome sight for Cogliano, who understands the value of blue-line help in the opponent’s zone.
Over the past few weeks, Cogliano and Michigan’s forwards have focused on contributing more to the team’s defense, which has resulted in a 6-1 record for the Wolverines in January. Cogliano knows now that the defense’s ability to make the same effort at the offensive end or not will be the key to where Michigan’s season heads from here.
If last weekend was any sign, things look good.
“Jack (Johnson) had eight points this weekend,” Cogliano said. “You don’t see that every day of the week. And Hunwick is doing a good job. He is trying to pick it up offensively. . When they are scoring, we can score, and that shows that we have to keep pushing and keep them in the plays also. They do a good job and can probably score on their chances or get a shorthanded rush.”
With Cogliano and Johnson maturing and performing well, Berenson’s vision when he recruited two eventual first-round picks has finally been realized. The Wolverines might have finally turned the corner they’ve been standing on for months.