After 30 minutes, Michigan was up 4-0 at Yost Ice Arena on Oct. 2nd.
Forwards Louie Caporusso, Scooter Vaughan and Matt Rust all scored glamorously in the opening game of their final campaign as Wolverines. They scored on the power play, at even strength and even netted a shorthanded tally.
But, in this critical first game, the seniors — and the rest of the team — made a crucial mistake. There were still 30 minutes of hockey remaining — a memo the Mercyhurst Lakers received, but one the Wolverines forgot to open. Shawn Hunwick let up four consecutive Mercyhurst goals, and the Wolverines were lucky to have left Yost with a tie, as the Lakers won the exhibition shootout.
It was a mental lapse by Michigan that cost it the first win of the season.
But so much has changed since that early season mistake.
The fourth-ranked Wolverines are currently awaiting a Friday matchup with No. 14 Nebraska-Omaha. This Friday in St. Louis marks Michigan’s 21st consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, as the Wolverines are the No. 2 seed in the West region, with Boston College and Colorado College rounding out the bracket.
And for this team to get past the Gateway to the West and into the Twin Cities, Michigan needs to work hard to get its mind right.
“Obviously you want to prepare yourself for the team coming up, and Nebraska-Omaha is a really good team,” Caporusso said. “We can’t look past that Friday game. Everyone’s got to be going. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. Mentally, we’re going to be focused. I mean, there’s only so much you can do physically.”
The talent is there.
Hunwick has gone on a tear since securing the starting job with his play in the ensuing month after The Big Chill at the Big House. The netminder, who will use his extra year of eligibility and return next year, holds a 17-5-0 record since the outdoor phenomenon. He also nabbed the CCHA Best Goaltender honors last week in Detroit.
The offense has had flashes of brilliance, too, a la Carl Hagelin’s game-winning heroics against Western Michigan on Senior Night just over one month ago. Michigan has scored five or more goals in a game 12 times this season, and the Wolverines rank 12th in the nation in team offense.
And the smart defensive play by freshman Jon Merrill and Mac Bennett has contributed to make up three solid defensive pairs for the Wolverines.
The experience is there.
Michigan’s roster boasts seven seniors, plus Hunwick. This is the group that started their careers as Wolverines off with a 4-3 overtime win over Boston College on a Caporusso game-winner.
The seniors have collected various accolades over their four years in maize and blue, and have lived the reality that was rollercoaster of going from a Frozen Four appearance as freshmen to almost missing the tournament as juniors.
But there was no question on Sunday that Michigan was in the NCAA Tournament this year, even after dropping the CCHA Tournament semifinal game to Western Michigan, 5-2, last weekend.
The entire team weathered various storms this year, from Mercyhurst to losing second-leading scorer junior forward David Wohlberg, who was red-hot at the end of the season, two weekends ago to a season ending collarbone injury.
This Michigan squad has experienced its highs and lows, to the tune of bad Fridays and good Saturdays, throughout the season.
They’ve taken penalties they’d like to have back (namely a few at Joe Louis Arena) and seen a few too many power play shifts gone for naught.
But still, talent and experience have propelled this team for much of the season.
As the matchup with the Mavericks looms, one grey area remains: Will the Wolverines be mentally up to the challenge?
After all, there are two teams waiting to ruin Michigan’s hope of making it to St. Paul.
“We can’t turn a different switch on on Friday,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We’re having a good week, we’re ready for this. We’re having a good season. It’s got to be a balance between confidence and desperation and focus.”
If they want to leave their mark on Missouri, this year’s pack of Wolverines needs to prove from the time they hit the ice in St. Louis that they are mentally in it to get the job done.