Now, it matters.
After more than five months of regular-season games, Michigan starts the postseason tonight in the best-of-three CCHA quarterfinals – two weeks removed from its last game.
For its opponent, Northern Michigan, the games started to matter last weekend. The Wildcats bounced back from a Friday-night loss to Ohio State with wins Saturday and Sunday to advance, while the Wolverines had a bye.
The matchup raises the classic sports debate of who has the advantage: the well-rested team or the team with momentum?
For sophomore Travis Turnbull, he hopes that this debate is handled on a case-by-case basis. In the World Series, the Chesterfield, Mo., native’s St. Louis Cardinals carried momentum against a fresh Detroit Tigers squad and triumphed in the end.
Now, his team is in the opposite position.
The Wolverines haven’t played since splitting a two-game series with Ohio State two weeks ago, but Turnbull believes his team will be ready.
“We have had a lot of time to prepare,” Turnbull said. “We have had a lot of good practices. I think the coaches have done a great job of preparing us for this weekend.”
Before last weekend, Northern Michigan hadn’t won a game in Columbus since 1981. On Friday night, it didn’t look like that streak would end anytime soon. Starting goalie Bill Zaniboni was pulled after giving up three goals in 27 minutes, in favor of freshman Brian Stewart, who stepped between the pipes and allowed just four goals in the next two nights to propel the Wildcats past the Buckeyes.
Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle will probably stick with the hot hand and play Stewart tonight. But that decision won’t affect Michigan’s preparation.
“We don’t focus on the other team’s goalie,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “You play the game to get scoring chances. You play the game to not give up scoring chances.”
Playoff hockey can be a completely different game than regular-season hockey. The intensity ratchets up, and the effect of every mistake is magnified.
Berenson said he worries his team won’t adjust to that intensity quickly enough.
“They’re right up to par in terms of playoff hockey,” Berenson said. “We’ve got to get caught up real quick. The first the shift, the first period, the first game are going to be important.”
Some of the team’s freshmen, who will get their first taste of playoff hockey, are going through extra preparations ahead of tonight’s contest.
“It means that much more,” said freshman Brian Lebler, who is healthy for the first time since Feb. 12. “That extra skate or that extra bike ride, you just do it because it’s crunch time.”
The winner of this weekend’s series will advance to the semifinals at Joe Louis Arena next weekend. The Wolverines have reached Detroit every season since 1989, and Northern Michigan has done the same for the past five seasons.
Notes: The CCHA announced its all-conference teams Wednesday afternoon. As expected, the squads were full of Wolverines. Sophomore defenseman Jack Johnson, senior defenseman Matt Hunwick and senior forward T.J. Hensick garnered All-CCHA First Team recognition. Junior forward Kevin Porter made the second team, while sophomore forward Andrew Cogliano received honorable mention. Hensick is the first four-time All-CCHA forward. . The CCHA announced the three finalists for its end-of-season awards yesterday, and Wolverines are in the running for all but one trophy, rookie of the year. Hensick, the league leader in scoring, is a finalist for the player of the year award; Berenson for the coach of the year; senior forward David Rohlfs for best defensive forward. Johnson is up for the conference’s best offensive defensemen. His defensive partner, Hunwick, is a candidate for the best defensive defenseman.
Northern Michigan at Michigan
When: Tonight, 7:35 p.m.
Where: Yost Ice Arena