OMAHA It”s often said that after the first few months of a season, there is no longer such a thing as a freshman. That may be the case.
But be it September or April, there are always seniors to fill the roles of leaders with proven abilities and postseason experience.
The Michigan hockey team has very little time left to recognize and appreciate this adage.
Four weeks from this past Friday night, the team will be in East Lansing, playing its final regular season game at Munn Ice Arena. In order to end this roller-coaster season on a high note, the team is going to need to draw a long line in the sand.
And the team”s eight seniors need to hold the stick.
“We”ve all been here, we”ve all done this,” senior Josh Langfeld said after his goal on Friday night was not enough to get past Nebraska-Omaha and the Wolverines suffered their seventh loss of the season. “We need to come together and work as a class.”
In its freshman season, the current senior class won the national championship. To defeat Boston College in the championship game, the Wolverines relied on their freshmen, with Mark Kosick scoring two goals and Langfeld capping the game in overtime for the 3-2 win. Current senior Scott Matzka assisted on the championship-winning goal. It was the Wolverines” second national title in three years.
But since then, the road has not been so flowery. Tough breaks caused tough times, from defenseman Dave Huntzicker missing six weeks earlier this season with a knee injury to Kosick being benched by coach Red Berenson for an inability to produce.
But the class is starting to resurface. After netting the tying goal in a come-from-behind thriller at Western Michigan, Kosick scored a hat trick against Notre Dame. And in Omaha, Langfeld was, as Berenson dubbed him after the team”s victory on Saturday night, “our best forward for the weekend.”
There aren”t too many weekends left in the season. Every team”s goal is to play in the national title game in Albany, N.Y. on April 7, just over two months from now.
But the class that was on top of the world in Boston on April 4, 1998, knows that time is running out to reclaim the greatness into which it was thrust.
“I have 16 games left in my career,” Matzka said, calculating a Wolverines” run to the title game. “I want to make the best of them.”
In order for him to do that, the eight seniors are going to have to bend down a little bit and allow their teammates to climb onto their shoulders.
The seniors need to lead by example. Players like Langfeld and Kosick need to keep coming up with goals in clutch situations. The Bill Trainors and Dave Huntzickers of the team need to keep finishing their checks and breaking down powerplay units in stride.
Players and coaches are all throwing around the notion that the team can”t afford to lose another game, making the entire home stretch seem like a playoff situation.
And these seniors know a little something about success in the postseason.
They know about a team from which few people expected much noise. They know about coming to Michigan the season after one of the most talented teams in school history fell to Boston University in the semifinals. And they know about shoving championship rings in the faces of all the naysayers.
This team is certainly talented enough to send the seniors out the way that they came in. Matzka called it the most skilled team he”s seen since coming to Michigan. He also said that this team is capable of getting back to the promised land.
“We”ve been around the block a few times,” said Huntzicker, one of the team”s assistant captains. “Seniors should be leading the way. We”ve got to do whatever we can.”
The senior class that graduated after the 1998 championship game left Berenson two pieces of the most sought-after hardware for his office. This year”s seniors can do the same.
But the clock is ticking.