The Michigan hockey team came into the year with 12 freshmen and a load of questions about how good it could be.
The USA Today poll voters apparently think those questions have been answered. When the paper released its top 25 poll Monday, the Wolverines graced the top spot. It’s the first time the Wolverines have been No. 1 in any poll since Nov. 21, 2005.
During practice Tuesday, players still hustled for loose pucks, listened intently to Michigan coach Red Berenson’s every word and stayed on the ice well after practice ended to work on passing and shooting.
There was no indication during Tuesday’s practice the Wolverines had let their new ranking inflate their egos – a frequent problem for young teams that receive such high praise for the first time.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Michigan has placed so little emphasis on polls and other outside influences that many players weren’t aware the Wolverines were the current top-ranked squad in the nation.
“Actually, I hadn’t seen that yet,” freshman Scooter Vaughan said. “It’s great for the program and everything, but it’s a little undeserving.”
If Michigan is indeed undeserving of its No. 1 rank, it has solely to do with the fact that the Wolverines have yet to prove they can compete with top-tier talent.
Michigan has comprised a 9-1 overall record against opponents that boast a dismal 16-29-6 combined record (.313). And the Wolverines have gone 1-1 against teams with winning records – Minnesota and Boston College, which are just two and one games above .500, respectively.
“It’s not like we’ve played anyone with an 8-1 record,” said Berenson, who emphasized their opponents’ less-than-stellar record to his team after Monday’s practice. “We’ve won the games we should’ve and won some that maybe we shouldn’t have won . I think we’ve got to take the polls with a grain of salt.”
The schedule gets much tougher with the bulk of conference play and series against No. 11 Notre Dame, No. 3 Michigan State and No. 2 Miami (OH) still looming.
To maintain the top spot, the Wolverines need to learn how to play a full 60 minutes, both Vaughan and Berenson said.
Michigan generally plays well in the first and third periods. The third stanza, in which the Wolverines are plus-11, has seen arguably their best play. In a game against Alaska last Friday, Michigan went into the third with a 1-0 lead, and eventually went on to win by four goals.
But there is definite room for improvement in the second period, Berenson said.
“What’s the attitude like when you have a good start?” Berenson asked. “Is it how good we’re doing or how bad the other team is. Or is it, ‘Hey, that other team is going to come out harder, so we have to come out harder.’ So there’s a little bit of a between period attitude adjustment that I think we can make.”
For Vaughan, the team can use the No. 1 ranking as motivation for the future.
“A lot of us aren’t used to playing at such a high level with so many fans and people watching,” Vaughan said. “It could affect how some people play, but hopefully we don’t let it get to our heads. Hopefully, we go out to prove that we can be No. 1. I think we have a lot to prove.”