At the end of practice yesterday, Michigan coach Red Berenson rallied his team together at center ice.
The straightforward Berenson reminded his players that they”re “heading for the stretch run” and that they”re going to have to “pay the price and win the battles” in their final seven games in order to have a chance at the coveted CCHA title.
The Wolverines still trail first-place Michigan State by three points going into this weekend”s series with visiting Northern Michigan.
Before Berenson spoke, something else happened at the practice that reflected the team”s emotions going into this weekend.
Two seniors, forward Josh Langfeld and backup goaltender L.J. Scarpace, tangled in a couple of fights following a routine shooting drill.
“If you”re ready to fight one of your own teammates, you”re sure as hell ready to fight a guy from Northern,” senior Bob Gassoff said.
It started when Langfed hit Scarpace in the unpadded part of his leg with a wrist shot. Scarpace took offense as words were shared, and then tempers flared before the two were duking it out as teammates looked on.
“Especially for a big game like this, your intensity often rises a lot,” Scarpace said with a grin. “That tends to show up in practice and the drills.”
Langfeld was unavailable for comment after practice because of a scheduled exam.
The two laughed off their scuffles afterwards, and teammates feel the Scarpace-Langfeld bouts represented something entirely more beneficial than an act of team dissension.
“I”m glad guys are showing emotion,” said Gassoff, who mentioned the importance of setting the tone early with that competitive fire to avoid a Friday night letdown.
The Wolverines have been susceptible this season to losing games they”re expected to win. Case in point: Their first ever home-loss to Alaska-Fairbanks along with embarassing defeats to Michigan Tech, Ferris State and Ohio State the four teams combine for a 39-54-14 overall record this season.
This display of intensity by the two seniors forecasts both the importance and nature of this weekend for both teams.
While Michigan is attempting to overtake the Spartans for the league title, the Wildcats are “desperately” fighting for their playoff lives accoring to Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson.
Three points separate the eighth-place Northern from third place in the CCHA, and the Wildcats face multiple must-win games on their ensuing five-game road trip in order to secure the important home-ice advantage for the conference tournament.
Due to Northern”s dreary No. 25 position in the Pairwise Rankings, which simulates the NCAA selection process, the Wildcats know they most likely have to win the conference tournament in order to get a bid in the 12-team field.
“If you don”t win, you don”t have a chance,” said Northern coach Rick Comley, who emphasizes that a high check-to-turnover ratio has been a factor in many of his team”s games.
“It will be tough for us to move up.”
What”s especially tough for the Wildcats is the continued absence of their leading scorer, Chris Gobert, who averages nearly a point a game for a Northern team that only tallies 2.7 goals per game.
“It effects us a lot,” said Comley, who compares Gobert”s loss to Michigan playing without Mike Cammalleri. “If you lose a goal a game, it definitely hurts you.”
But in the last four games Michigan has played the Wildcats, three of them have ended in ties and Berenson emphatically stated that the results from the expected “hard-fought, physical and emotional games” could have unmeasurable effects on both teams.
“Late in the season, there”s always more of a sense of ugency,” Berenson said.