When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, Western Collegiate Hockey Association teams have steamrolled the competition. Hogged the spotlight. Monopolized the winner’s circle.
What’s the word for that?
“I guess they’ve dominated,” Michigan senior captain Matt Hunwick said.
Ah, there it is.
Six of the past seven National Champions have been from the WCHA, a power conference boasting the likes of Minnesota, Denver and Wisconsin.
And then there’s the CCHA, the Wolverines’ stomping grounds. The last CCHA team to claim the nation’s college hockey crown was Michigan in 1998. The last CCHA team to make it to the Frozen Four? Michigan in 2003.
Since then, CCHA representation in the Tournament has been downright pitiful. Last year, the only squad from the CCHA’s four Tournament teams to survive the first round was Michigan State. Of course, the Spartans were axed in the second round, so even then, the results were not becoming for the conference.
In 2004, when the CCHA had a record five teams in the 16-team field, the Wolverines were the sole representatives from their league in the second round.
Tomorrow, No. 8 Michigan begins another quest to slay the WCHA, facing off against college hockey’s hottest team, No. 6 North Dakota (13-10-5 WCHA, 22-13-5 overall) at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
“We’ve had to listen to all the propaganda about the WCHA being the best league,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I’d like to see the teams that come out of our conference advance. That’s been the weakness that teams from our conference have shown over the last 10 years.”
Three other CCHA teams (Northeast No. 4 seed Miami (Ohio), Midwest No. 3 seed Michigan State and Midwest No. 1 seed Notre Dame) join Michigan in the Tournament. For the Wolverines to book a ticket to the Frozen Four in St. Louis, they first have to get past the Fighting Sioux, and then possibly WCHA Champion Minnesota. The Golden Gophers take on No. 4 seed Air Force in the first game tomorrow.
Various reports have identified the NCAA West Regional in Denver as the toughest bracket in the Tournament, mostly because of its two WCHA juggernauts.
Last season, Michigan opened the Tournament against North Dakota and didn’t stand a chance in a 5-1 loss on the Fighting Sioux’s intimidating home ice. And though the Pepsi Center is technically a neutral arena, don’t expect this year’s crowd to be too welcoming, either.
“Whether it’s in North Dakota or not, it’s WCHA territory and everyone’s talking about North Dakota and Minnesota being the teams,” Berenson said. “So maybe they don’t know we’re in the region, but hopefully we can do something.”
The Wolverines (18-9-1 CCHA, 26-13-1 overall) go west after an encouraging CCHA Tournament that didn’t bring a conference title, but did include a resounding sweep of Northern Michigan, a victory over archrival Michigan State and a toe-to-toe contest with the top-ranked Fighting Irish, a 2-1 loss.
Senior alternate captain T.J. Hensick was a big factor in that success and leads Michigan and the CCHA in playoff points (4-6-10). The Hobey Baker Award finalist and the rest of his senior class may have the most motivation this weekend. If they don’t emerge victorious from the regional, they will be the first class of Wolverines to graduate without a Frozen Four appearance since 1991.
“That’s our goal, to get to the Frozen Four,” Hunwick said.
Said Hensick: “We’re sure we’ll have WCHA fans out there against us. But it’s a chance to go out there and see what Michigan hockey is all about.”
Michigan at NCAA Tournament
Matchup: North Dakota 22-13-5; Michigan 26-13-1
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Pepsi Center
TV/Radio: Comcast Local/WTKA 1050