Rankings don’t mean anything.
It’s a cliche that’s used often in sports. But it fits like a glove with the Michigan hockey team.
Coach Red Berenson and the Wolverines entered last weekend ranked first in the nation. Unfortunately, the team held to its recent form when it owns the top ranking. It dropped both games in the College Hockey Showcase in disappointing fashion to then-No. 7 Minnesota and then-No. 2 Wisconsin at Yost Ice Arena.
When atop the national polls, Michigan has posted an abysmal 2-6-1 record over the past two seasons. Though the Wolverines have been considered the best team in the country on several occasions, they’ve never played like it when they’ve been expected to.
Michigan’s failure to live up to its hype might very well be a reflection of the competition it faces throughout the season. Players and coaches will argue the merits and strength of the CCHA until they’re blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is that it can’t be considered an elite college hockey conference anymore.
Take a look at last year’s NCAA Tournament: Just two CCHA teams, Michigan and Ohio State, made the 16-team bracket. But that’s not all. The Buckeyes failed to win a game, and the Wolverines lost to Colorado College in their second game of the postseason. Meanwhile, the WCHA monopolized the Frozen Four, with Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado College and Denver composing the sport’s premier field. So was it really such a big surprise that the Gophers and Badgers – who also belong to the WCHA – beat up on the Maize and Blue over Thanksgiving weekend?
Maybe it wasn’t. But it should’ve been.
After all, Michigan should face high expectations each and every year. This is a program that won two national championships in three years in the 1990s. The squad consistently wins the CCHA crown, sends more players to the NHL than just about any other school and revels in a long and storied tradition of greatness (the Wolverines have captured an NCAA-record nine national titles).
So Michigan’s performance in the Showcase over the past three years should be cause for concern. Dating back to the 2003-04 season, Berenson’s teams have been routinely trounced en route to a horrifying 0-6 record against Minnesota and Wisconsin, Michigan’s traditional tournament foes. The Gophers and Badgers have outscored the Wolverines by a combined score of 24-10. Ironically, Michigan was ranked higher than both teams heading into the Showcase each of the past three years. The Wolverines’ last win in the tournament came way back on Dec. 1, 2002, in Minneapolis. That should be unacceptable for this team.
Sure, there are 11 freshmen on this year’s squad. The departure of 10 seniors after last season and the sudden losses of star goalie Al Montoya and leading scorer Jeff Tambellini, both of whom bolted school early for the NHL over the summer, were crushing blows. But this year is simply a continuation of a growing pattern. The same thing happened last year, with the most experienced team the Wolverines have fielded in a long time – maybe ever, for that matter. And the year before that.
If weaker competition in the CCHA is to blame – a quick look at the rankings shows only two conference teams in the top-15, while the 13 remaining teams all belong to the WCHA, Hockey East, or the ECACHL – there’s not much Michigan can do about it. But if a look in the mirror reveals additional problems, then Berenson and his players need to do something to fix them.
This is an unbelievably young team. And I’m definitely not writing this year’s Wolverines off, by any means. Down the road, and even as soon as this season, this group is capable of great things. The talent level is extremely high, and, at times, Michigan has played at a caliber that has exceeded its fans’ most exaggerated hopes.
But right now, the Wolverines’ play leaves a lot to be desired. Allowing Minnesota and Wisconsin to hold the puck in the offensive zone for seemingly minutes at a time, committing costly turnovers deep in their own territory, failing to execute on the penalty kill and letting in weak goals are just a few examples.
Keep in mind, this is a team that has won all but eight of its home games over the past three years combined. This season, after just 13 contests, the Wolverines have two losses and a tie at Yost. The team is currently ranked No. 3, but it’s pretty hard to justify even that lesser spot.
It’s an exciting time for Michigan hockey. The team has the potential to be the best it’s ever been.
I can’t wait to see when the limitless promise translates into results.
–Gabe Edelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.