When Michigan (23-3-2 CCHA, 30-7-3 overall) left the ice following its November matchup with Wisconsin (16-9-3 WCHA, 23-13-4), the Kohl Center crowd taunted the then-No. 1 Wolverines with a chant of “overrated.” Michigan coach Red Berenson agreed with the fans evaluation. But the Michigan team that faltered in the College Hockey Showcase is rolling into the tournament on a 14-game unbeaten streak.
“I think we were looking too far ahead in the future when we were in November, assuming that we would be in the position that we’re in (now),” sophomore T.J. Hensick said. “Once we realized that things aren’t going to be given to us, then we went out and played 10 times better.”
In November, as Wisconsin handed Michigan a 3-1 loss, Hensick and senior Eric Nystrom were sitting a few hundred feet above ice level. Watching from the stands, the senior captain — who had been vomiting on the bench the night before — and the team’s co-scoring leader sat helplessly as the Wolverines stumbled to the lowest point of the season.
“It (was) disappointing not to get in that game,” Hensick said. “Especially a Big Ten rivalry like that. But you get a second chance, and, hopefully, I can come out and play hard.”
During that road swing, Michigan lost to Minnesota, 5-1, on olympic-sized ice before the loss to Wisconsin on a larger-than-usual surface. Aside from being at a vastly different point on the momentum scale, the Wolverines will not have to overcome the spacing differences on Van Andel Arena’s regulation ice.
“It’s nice to get them in Grand Rapids on smaller ice,” Nystrom said. “But I have a feeling they’ll be ready for us, and we’ll be ready for them.”
Most of the Wolverines seemed thankful for the chance to face Ohio State — the only other CCHA team in the tournament — during the conference finals.
Despite the close 1-0 win over Notre Dame, Hensick said where the level of play was the only game up to par with the NCAA tournament.
“(It will be) a battle,” freshmen Chad Kolarik said. “That’s how I would describe it, a battle. Maybe even a war. It’s going to be much tougher than Ohio State and Alaska. We’ve got to be ready for anything.”
Adding to Michigan’s drive during this year’s playoff run are the memories of an early exit from last year’s NCAA tournament. A quarterfinals loss to then-No. 4 Boston College marked the first time this year’s seniors didn’t play in the Frozen Four.
“You never want to get too high and you never want to get too low,” junior Al Montoya said. “Right now, we’re at the point that we know what it takes. Last year was just a piece of the puzzle”
“They’ve had a tough, tough schedule,” Berenson said. “We’ve had tough games, but, on paper, the teams they’ve played are a lot better than the teams we’ve played. So, that’s why I say they’re a lot better than their record.”
The Wolverines skated in Grand Rapids yesterday and will get in a gameday skate before tonight’s game.