After Michigan’s NCAA West Regional draw against Nebraska-Omaha, senior forward Louie Caporusso said that in order for Michigan to make it to the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn. the younger Wolverines would need to mask their youth.
“Your freshmen have to play like they’re not freshmen,” Caporusso said early last week. “That’s the key if you want to win. And the seniors have to play like pro hockey players. Everyone’s got to up their game, they’ve got to leave their comfort zone. That’s how you win games, getting out of your comfort zone.”
And now that they’ve made it to St. Paul, the Wolverines are setting even higher expectations for their younger players.
In last weekend’s NCAA regional matchups against Nebraska-Omaha and Colorado College, No. 2 Michigan played two freshmen forwards — Luke Moffatt and Derek DeBlois — and three freshmen defensemen — Jon Merrill, Mac Bennett, and Kevin Clare.
Now, with two NCAA Tournament victories under their belts, the underclassmen have not only gotten a taste of the playoff atmosphere but are ready to make these victories contagious.
“It’s kind of wild, but now that we’re here, this is what we expect the rest of the way,” Bennett said. “The rest of my three years, if we don’t make it to the Frozen Four, it’s a disappointing season.”
Added Merrill: “It’s pretty crazy, it’s pretty lucky. Some of the other guys were talking how spoiled we were to come in as freshmen and go to the Frozen Four right away. It’s pretty awesome.”
While Michigan’s seniors are the only class to have made a Frozen Four appearance on the current roster, the 5-4 overtime loss to Notre Dame in 2008 has been used as motivation to help prepare the younger Wolverines for the game — potentially two games — ahead.
The freshmen know every part of the game is under a microscope during the Frozen Four, and that they will need to find a way to make their play virtually flawless.
As Caporusso alluded to on Selection Sunday, each player needs to elevate his individual game, regardless of prior experience, for Michigan to have a collective chance.
“Once we hit the playoffs, there’s less room for error,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I need to be able to trust them when they’re on the ice, that they can be responsible defensively, that they’re not going to get out muscled or out hustled. I’m not worried about if they score or not, I want to make sure they don’t’ get scored against and they know exactly what they’re doing out there, that’s huge.
“They can walk around and their eyes are like, ‘Oh, wow.’ Well never mind the wow factor, let’s get over that and play the game.”
Merrill and Bennett have locked down spots on defense, but Clare, Moffatt, DeBlois and sophomores Lindsay Sparks and Jeff Rohrkemper are fighting for the last remaining lineup spots, even at this point in the season.
While the Frozen Four isn’t an ideal time to have to wonder whether or not they’ll be on the ice, the level of competition this uncertainty has brought out in the freshmen in the week leading up to St. Paul is a good thing.
“Really, I need to trust them,” Berenson said. “That they can play the game at this time of year against this type of competition and not hurt our team. And they should play well, that’s why we brought them to Michigan, but in the meantime, that’s the bottom line.”
Leading up to the Frozen Four, most seniors have tried to convey to their younger teammates how special the experience truly is. From a Frozen Four loss in 2008 to two consecutive NCAA regional and regional final exits, the seniors are taking their last crack at a national title seriously — and making sure the rest of the Wolverines do as well.
“(The seniors) said they were there when they were freshmen,” Merrill said. “And they ended up losing the first game there. But something like this is something that doesn’t come around often, so really take advantage of it. Before you know it, you’ll be a senior too.”
Added Bennett: “Everyone just says, ‘Be ready.’ With playoff hockey, I don’t think it matters what level you’re playing at, everyone steps it up. We saw that this weekend, we saw that in the CCHA playoffs. You’ve just got to be ready to play every night and you’ve got to give it your all because you never know which shift could be your last.”