Michigan’s toughest opponent in this Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game might not be North Dakota. In fact, the Wolverines’ foe might be something that isn’t even there.

Scott Bell
Sophomore Jack Johnson and his teammates may have to play fewer minutes to acclimate to the high altitude in Denver this weekend. (BEN SIMON/Daily)

Michigan’s biggest struggle this weekend might be with oxygen – or the lack thereof.

Denver’s air density is about 15 percent less than sea level, meaning each breath players take in contains less oxygen than normal.

Part of getting ready for this weekend’s NCAA West Regional is going to be adjusting to the altitude. That’s one reason why the Wolverines will fly to Denver on Wednesday night, a day earlier than normal for a Saturday game.

Michigan coach Red Berenson expects the extra day of practice in the Mile High City to make the altitude difference relatively inconsequential.

“I don’t think you notice it,” Berenson said of playing hockey at a higher altitude. “I think it’s just a matter of being acclimatized to it.”

But it’s hard to imagine the lack of oxygen won’t at least slightly disrupt Michigan’s high-powered offense.

Most teams traveling to play in Denver, or a similarly elevated locale, start each line off with 30-second shifts, as opposed to the regular 45-second or even one-minute shifts. As the game progresses and players adjust, line changes can become less frequent.

“I think it’s important we take some shorter shifts at the start of the game,” said Mel Pearson, Michigan associate head coach. “We talked to some former players at Michigan who’ve played out there, and we got some tips from them on what might help us.”

Shorter shifts could be a disadvantage for Michigan. Players like senior alternate captain T.J. Hensick and defenseman Jack Johnson regularly take minute-and-a-half or even two-minute shifts, especially on the power play.

Science and experience say that will be more difficult this weekend, but don’t tell Johnson that.

“Yeah, definitely,” said Johnson when asked if he could log his usual 25 to 30 minutes of ice time on Saturday. “Especially because of the magnitude of the game.”

Having played at high elevations before, Johnson added that the issue is more psychological than anything else.

Michigan’s Saturday night opponent, North Dakota, isn’t used to playing at altitude either. The Fighting Sioux’s campus sits at an elevation of 843 feet above sea level, just three feet higher than Ann Arbor.

Ironically, the only team in the West Regional that won’t have to worry about altitude is the fourth seed Air Force. As the lowest-ranked team in the region, the Falcons should be the sacrificial lamb to top-seeded Minnesota, but they train and play their games just an hour south near Colorado Springs, Colo., so they might have an advantage in stamina, at least at the outset.

As an added bonus, the Falcons will essentially be the home team this weekend, with Michigan, North Dakota and Minnesota each flying in for the regional.

“(Air Force is) used to the altitude and also being closer to home they don’t have to travel,” Pearson said. “It’s a little bit easier on them, no question about it.”

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