It’s clear from Jeff
Tambellini’s words and the inflection in his voice that
he’s eager to put last season behind him.

Ice Hockey
Sophomore T.J. Hensick, left, and junior Jeff Tambellini. (TONY DING/Daily)

“I don’t like to make excuses for anything,”
the junior forward said. “The way you play on the ice is up
to you.”

After scoring 45 points to lead the team in his first year in
Ann Arbor, Tambellini suffered through a much-publicized drop in
production during his sophomore campaign — tallying just 27
points. But this year, the newly minted alternate captain expects
to use his past difficulties to his advantage.

“I think you learn a lot when things don’t always go
your way,” Tambellini said. “You’re not going to
walk through life and not have any obstacles in the road. Good or
bad, I try to learn from every experience and take what I
can.”

Michigan coach Red Berenson doesn’t like to dwell on
Tambellini’s struggles either.

“I look for Jeff to have a real big year this year,”
Berenson said. “He’s got the skill, he’s got the
speed and he’s got a great shot. I think every player grows
each year. Sometimes it shows up in the statistics, and sometimes
it doesn’t.

“(Tambellini’s) game is growing. He’s
physically stronger. He’s mentally stronger. He’s more
mature. He’s more confident. You never know when you’re
ready to have your best game, but I think he’s a lot closer
now than he was a year ago.”

 

 

One year ago, T.J. Hensick was a highly-touted incoming
freshman. This time around, the forward is Michigan’s
reigning scoring leader, with 46 points last year, and he’s
quite a bit wiser.

“I learned to take each game as it comes, each shift as it
comes,” Hensick said as he reflected on the knowledge he
gained from his first year as a Wolverine. “You can’t
get frustrated when you have a bad shift or a bad game. You can
redeem yourself the next night or the next weekend. I think I play
the best when I’m more relaxed.”

Hensick surprised some observers last spring when he decided
against entering himself in the NHL Draft. Such strong freshman
numbers — good enough to earn Hensick the 2003-04 CCHA Rookie
of the Year award — piqued the interest of pro scouts and
would have motivated most young skaters to dip their toes into
big-time waters.

“I thought I was a player who never fell back on my
progress,” Hensick said. “I thought I had a good
freshman year, but I thought I could have a better sophomore year.
That was a huge factor in my decision not to enter the
draft.”

Nobody respected Hensick’s choice more than his coach.

“T.J. is a driven player,” Berenson said. “The
draft wasn’t a big thing for him one way or the other last
year. He said, ‘I’d just as soon play another
year.’ Just by doing that, he’s saying, ‘I know I
can have a better year this year.’ ”

 

Tambellini and Hensick are two players with something to
prove.

Will Tambellini regain the form that made him a first-round
draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings after his stellar opening
season at Michigan?

Will Hensick be able to build on an impressive debut and avoid
falling into a Tambellini-like sophomore slump?

Will either of these players — whose speed, vision and
knack for putting the puck in the net make fans swoon over every
slapshot, breakaway and nimble cut — step up to become the
“go-to-guy” for a highly ranked Michigan team without
an obvious lead lamp-lighter?

“We’re not a proven offensive team,” Berenson
said. “We only have one 20-goal scorer from last season, and
that was (Brandon) Kaleniecki. Who’s going to score on this
team? We need to be better than we were last year. A lot of guys
have to step up.”

If Tambellini rises to the occasion, he will do so in a more
visible role. The ‘A’ on the junior’s sweater has
given him a tangible mark of leadership on this senior-laden
team.

“I think anytime you’re given an ‘A’ or
a ‘C,’ you have to bear down and take a big leadership
role,” Tambellini said. “It’s an honor to wear a
letter at the University of Michigan. It’s a big role, but
I’m excited to take part in it.”

On the other hand, Hensick is entering the season with a fresh
outlook and humble expectations for his own performance.

“I think my offense is going to take care of itself if I
work hard,” Hensick said. “(The fans) are going to
expect me to go out and put up numbers like I did last year. If
that happens, it happens.”

From the season’s outset, Tambellini and Hensick will have
more in common than just high expectations and limitless potential
— they will also play together on the same line. Berenson
paired his shooting stars for the beginning and end of last season,
and the two developed a healthy familiarity with each other.

“I think we complement each other well,” Hensick
said. “He’s got one of the best shots in college hockey
and a quick release. I like to look for him to get the shot.
I’m more of a playmaker. We’re both skilled players who
like to use each other and have fun out there.”

Tambellini believes the pair’s chemistry has become more
intuitive as the players have gotten used to one another’s
tendencies.

“We can see each other and find each other even when
we’re not looking,” Tambellini said. “Once you
get to the point when you know where they’re going to be,
it’s easy to play out there.”

Despite the pair’s astronomical level of talent, Berenson
would still like to see some improvement in certain areas.

“I think both Hensick and Tambellini will be fighting for
consistency,” Berenson said. “They’re both good
players. The question is, ‘Can I play better every
night?’ ”

 

Due to draft camps and other obligations stemming from his
decision to test the pro ranks, Tambellini was forced to neglect
certain areas of his normal offseason regimen after his freshman
year. This time around, he pushed himself hard over the long break
to improve his conditioning and focus.

“I just paid attention to getting my body to a point where
I could handle a long season at a high pace,” Tambellini
said. “(The offseason) is always a time to get bigger,
stronger and faster. (But) the draft did provide a lot of
distractions. You don’t have the summer to do your own thing.
I couldn’t get down to the weight room for off-ice
training.”

Luckily for Hensick, he did not have the kind of hectic schedule
Tambellini was faced with following his selection in the draft. By
excluding his name from consideration, Hensick was able to focus
solely on having an even better year at Michigan in his second
go-round. Tambellini also believes the return of most of the squad
will facilitate Hensick’s growth and acclimation to his role
as a point-earner. By comparison, Tambellini entered his sophomore
season without high-scoring leaders Jed Ortmeyer, John Shouneyia
and Mark Mink — three players who graduated after
Tambellini’s first year — as well as promising
defenseman Danny Richmond, who left the program after just one
season.

“I think it’s good for (Hensick) this year that
he’s not losing too many linemates,” Tambellini said.
“It will be easy for him to jump right back in. That’s
a luxury I wish I’d had after my freshman year.”

Hensick’s transition into his sophomore season will also
be aided by Tambellini’s tutelage last year.

“(Jeff) paved the way for me,” Hensick said.
“He talked to me when things were going good and when things
were going bad. He was a good mentor. I (look at) the way he
conducts himself both on and off the ice. He’s a classy guy,
and his work ethic is amazing. He’s one of the last to leave
the locker room and one of the first to get there.”

 

If the first few games of the year are any indication,
Tambellini and Hensick will both have stellar seasons. Tambellini
currently leads the Wolverines in points with four (all assists)
after just two games, while Hensick — who had a hat trick in
the Blue/White Intrasquad game in the preseason — has
accumulated two assists thus far.

Tambellini’s effort and maturation have not gone
unnoticed. Senior forward Milan Gajic, who leads the team with
three goals, is impressed with the junior’s development from
last year.

“He’s a great player,” Gajic said. “I
don’t think he feels the pressure of putting the puck in the
net like he used to. He looks a lot more calm out there. He used to
fire the puck any time he had it. Now, he holds it a split second
longer to see if there’s anything, and if there’s not,
he shoots it. It makes him more of an all-around threat.”

Still, both Tambellini and Hensick will have to prove to their
coaches, teammates and fans that they can maintain a high level of
performance over the course of an entire season. Berenson, for one,
isn’t yet convinced.

“You expect your so-called ‘best players’ to
be your best players,” Berenson said. “Every player on
our team has to get better between now and the end of the
year.”

Tambellini and Hensick included.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *