At this time last year, nearly 20 games into the CCHA season, the Michigan hockey team had its boxing gloves on. Michigan was in the ring, knowing it needed to knock out any opponent in its way just to have a chance at the postseason. The Wolverines were seventh in the CCHA, and that’s only because they gritted out four conference wins in their first six games in 2010.
Michigan held a 9-8-1 CCHA record when it headed into its 19th game of the season against the Spartans in late January last year.
We all know the Wolverines’ incredible story of last year’s improbable postseason run, but we also know the agony that came along with Miami (Ohio)’s 3-2 double-overtime win to move onto the Frozen Four.
But it’s 2011 — and this Michigan squad just won its 14th conference game.
This year’s Wolverines are ranked sixth in the nation.
Michigan sits atop the CCHA and looks poised to receive a conference tournament first-round bye and an NCAA Tournament berth, barring some major train wreck in the remaining nine games.
This year’s Wolverines are good, so the odds of that trainwreck happening is about as likely as Tate Forcier declaring a major in Organic Chemistry at his next school, but in its remaining nine games, Michigan can still get better.
And for it to do so, the Wolverines need to dig back into their closets and dust off those old boxing gloves.
To avoid a second helping of that bitter taste that the loss to the RedHawks gave the Wolverines in Fort Wayne last year, this year’s squad can’t get complacent.
Last year, Michigan was the underdog and it very clearly had something to fight for. The consequences of losing were spelled out loud and clear near the end of January last season — win the CCHA tournament or sit at home during the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years. Seventh place in the CCHA or not, last year’s Wolverines had a dogfight in front of them, and they embraced that role.
But in a conference where in one weekend — last weekend — the No. 1 and No. 2 teams switched places, the No. 5 team dropped to eighth and the eighth-place team moved to fourth, anything can happen.
And atop the CCHA, it’s not the most comforting of news when you know your first-place lead rests upon just a two-point lead.
There’s a simple solution though. Just keep fighting … and winning.
The Wolverines are coming off back-to-back weekend sweeps against Ferris State and Alaska — the first time Michigan has accomplished that this season — and are finding ways to win despite the fact that they aren’t firing on all cylinders yet.
The Wolverines just won their season-best fifth game in a row, due in large part to their recent surge of Friday night victories. For much of the season, the Wolverines struggled to find a way to win on Friday nights, to the tune of a 4-4-1 record in game one of a CCHA series, compared to a 9-0-0 record in CCHA series finales.
After Michigan’s recent 2-0 shutout against Alaska last Friday, Michigan coach Red Berenson echoed this sentiment.
“I know we can play better than we played tonight,” Berenson said. “I think that’s a challenge after a lot of Friday games. You haven’t played for a week … we’ve got a lot of players that have to play better, and our team has to play better.”
And though he’s playing a strong center on Michigan’s second line, senior forward Louie Caporusso — last year’s leading goal scorer with 21 lamplighters — only has seven goals to his name so far this season, with the last one coming one month ago.
Senior forward Matt Rust recently got the monkey off his back, scoring his first goal since November in last Saturday’s game against Alaska. Rust scored 13 goals for the Wolverines’ last season, and while he is a power forward on Michigan’s top line, he only has four goals this season.
Michigan needs Rust and Caporusso — and others, as well — to break their scoring funks and chip in on offense, especially as they face four of the CCHA’s top offenses in their five remaining series.
As the Wolverines face Miami (Ohio) in two weeks at their own rink and the nation’s top-two goal scorers in RedHawks Andy Miele and Carter Camper, the Michigan offense will undoubtedly be tested in this game.
But don’t worry, the fact that they aren’t quite playing their best team hockey yet is a good thing. It might be just the motivation these Wolverines need to regain that same gritty attitude from 2010.
It just might keep them in the ring.