Who will own the CCHA?

OK, no one team can own a conference. But come March 23 when the CCHA crowns its last-ever tournament champion at Joe Louis Arena, which of the 11 teams best deserves to keep the Mason Cup?

There are two teams it’s historically been easiest to argue for.

One is Michigan State. The Spartans’ 10 Mason Cups outnumber any other team in the league. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cup’s namesake, Ron Mason, left his legacy in East Lansing as the winningest collegiate hockey coach in NCAA history with 924 career wins.

And then there’s No. 6 Michigan — nine Mason Cups and 11 regular-season championships.

There’s little doubt in Michigan coach Red Berenson’s mind about who the CCHA belongs to.

“I think Michigan … (has) been a big part of the backbone of the CCHA,” Berenson said. “It’s been our league. That’s the league that we play in and every year we talk about trying to win the CCHA title.”

You know winning the conference is in the back of each coach and players’ mind. But how realistic is one last Mason Cup for Michigan?

There’s a lot about this team to like.

There’s the defensive corps with decent depth. Forget the injury to junior Jon Merrill for a minute — the team survived half of last season without him just fine, and it’ll do it again this year.

You’ve got two captains who proved last season they can lead the blue liners in points. There’s freshman Jacob Trouba, who’s already shown he’s able to slam opponents into the boards and score goals.

Yeah, there’s going to be a learning curve for some of the other defensemen. But that’s where having Mac Bennett and Lee Moffie around comes in handy.

As for the forwards, it’s hard to judge who will be the go-to guy after just three games. But already there’s A.J. Treais, the epitome of the Michigan grind-it-out work ethic, who usually manages to find the back of the net.

The offense will take care of itself — somehow, it always does.

So, what does this final Michigan CCHA squad have to do to potentially make it to the Joe?

The Wolverines are blessed with enough talent that they don’t have to rely on one player too much — they never have.

That will be especially clear this season, with two freshmen competing to start between the pipes. Until Steve Racine and Jared Rutledge get more comfortable in goal, it’s unrealistic to expect them to be able to stand on their heads for the team, at least at the beginning of CCHA play. You can, though, expect the rest of the players going to extraordinary lengths to protect the young goaltenders until they’re fully at ease in the crease.

You can talk about skill and experience all you want, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the team’s want-to mentality.

Michigan will enter this season with a huge target on its back because of poll rankings, because it’s Michigan fergodsakes, because the Wolverines’ decision to leave for the Big Ten kick-started the collapse of the conference, and there’s animosity about that.

Whether or not you see the Wolverines hoisting up a trophy at Joe Louis Arena comes down to how well they respond to that pressure.

The players say all the right things about expectations they put upon themselves, that they embrace Michigan’s winning tradition within the conference, and that anything less than a CCHA title would be a disappointment.

Mentally, the team is where it needs to be, and it’s usually pretty stable as the season progresses.

Physically, though, that’s where the Wolverines have to prove themselves the most.

After only playing non-conference games, it’s hard to predict how Michigan will react to the slap in the face that is CCHA hockey. But a lot will change from now until March. With some conference wins under their belts, the Wolverines will hopefully find Michigan Hockey.

Playing Michigan Hockey isn’t something that just happens. The team has to make a conscious decision to go out every night and grind until the goals are in its favor and the final whistle blows.

When the Wolverines play a full 60 minutes of hard-hitting, blue-collar Michigan Hockey — well, that’s the kind of team you saw win the Mason Cup in 2010 after coming up from the conference cellar.

The Wolverines can own the CCHA if they want to. But that’s just it — they have to want to.

— Vukelich can be reached at elizavuk@umich.edu or on Twitter @LizVukelich

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