In the south end of Yost Ice Arena on Thursday evening, the team with its back to the wall didn’t show it.
In the north end of Yost, in the home locker room, the team that has been there before spoke with a wary wisdom.
Though the No. 17 Notre Dame hockey team knows it must keep winning to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, they practiced on Thursday as if it were any other practice. They skated hard — sprinting between each up-tempo drill — but they also skated loose. In between shifts, players would jokingly fire a slap shot at the boards to scare a spectator, try to flip a puck off the mesh netting under the giant scoreboard, or laugh and derisively slap sticks on the ice when a player took a fall.
And though the No. 4 Michigan hockey team has to like its odds to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines spoke cautiously about the Fighting Irish. Maybe that’s because in Michigan’s best-of-three matchup with Notre Dame in the second round of the CCHA playoffs, Michigan will play a version of itself.
“It’s kind of where we were (in 2010), where we had to win to keep playing,” said junior forward Chris Brown. “All the pressure just feeds into energy that we used on the ice just to play well. And I think having that desperation helped us get to where we were (in 2010), and we probably should’ve went on to the Frozen Four after that.
“Notre Dame’s going to come out with that same desperation, and we have to match that.”
Or, as Hunwick put it: “A team with a back against the wall is a dangerous team.”
In 2010, Michigan’s worst start in years put it out of position to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines needed to win the CCHA Tournament or they would’ve become the first Michigan team in two decades to miss The Dance.
Led by Hunwick, Michigan tore through the conference tournament and secured a spot in the NCAA field. This year, the Fighting Irish sit at No. 18 in the pairwise rankings — the rankings used to determine the 16-team NCAA Tournament.
“I remember (Michigan’s run) well because that was the year we were hoping to host the regionals in Fort Wayne,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “And when we played Michigan at the end of that year, I thought they were the best team we had played all year.
“Certainly, I’d love to be able to emulate them. … When I started at Notre Dame, one of my goals was to try to emulate what Michigan does.”
Notre Dame stumbled into the eighth seed in a deep CCHA field, and an upset by last-place Bowling Green over Northern Michigan in the first round of the playoffs set up the series with Michigan. It was a decidedly difficult draw for both teams.
“I think this is what we’ve been waiting for,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “This is the kind of playoff challenge that you’re going to get, whether you get it now or get it later.”
There has been something a little different in practice this week. The players and coaches have tried to maintain a sense of normalcy, but still, the difference is there.
Berenson said his players will feel it before ever stepping onto the ice on Friday.
Associate Athletic Director Bruce Madej smiled and told of a saying Berenson’s wife, Joy, has been known to say: There are three different Reds. Offseason Red, in-season Red and playoff Red.
Well, it’s playoff time. And not just the playoffs — the playoffs against Notre Dame, no less.
Hunwick said that Yost comes alive for the playoffs, but it’s always electric for good teams.
Michigan can count on facing a good team this weekend. Notre Dame played Michigan as tough as any team this season in a late-January series split in South Bend.
During that series, some Michigan players took exception to what they perceived as Notre Dame players running into Hunwick. After the series finale, freshman forward Alex Guptill called the tactics “dirty.” He backed away from the accusation this week.
“I think it was just a really emotional series,” Guptill said. “Obviously, you go through games like that, and you’re a little bit pissed after the game.”
Jackson said he never wants his players to bump an opposing goaltender, and noted that he pulled a player from the game during a series against Miami when he “took a couple foolish penalties.”
Notre Dame points-leader T.J. Tynan said he isn’t bothered by Guptill’s comments.
“I don’t know,” Tynan said. “I thought it was a great physical series. Two good hockey teams playing good hockey. But if he felt that way, that’s his own opinion, but it doesn’t affect us.”
The Fighting Irish didn’t seem affected by anything during their skate at Yost on Thursday. Tynan said that though the squad feels pressure, they’ve always been a loose team.
As for Michigan, the Wolverines aren’t trying to change much. Some players — notably Hunwick — have their superstitions, but none have admitted to any special superstitions just for the playoffs.
Except for one, revealed by senior forward David Wohlberg on Monday.