NOTRE DAME Halfway through the conference slate, there are many reasons that the Michigan hockey team should be buried in the middle of the rat race that has become the CCHA standings.
With 12 freshmen on their 27-man roster, the Wolverines should have been paralyzed by their inexperience early in the season. Playing 11 of their first 15 conference games in opposing arenas should have been too much for this young team to overcome. And this weekend against the Fighting Irish (5-5-4 CCHA, 7-8-5 overall), when Michigan took the ice without four of its top players, it should not have left Notre Dame with three points.
But with the odds against them, the Wolverines persevered as they have all season, skating to a 3-3 stalemate in Friday night”s game and squeaking by Notre Dame 2-1 Saturday night.
Virtue of its gutsy performance, Michigan will welcome back Mike Cammalleri, Mike Komisarek, Dwight Helminen and Eric Nystrom who have been competing at the World Junior Championships to a first-place team.
The eighth-ranked Wolverines (9-3-3, 12-6-4) moved into a first-place tie with Michigan State, which swept a nonconference series with Quinnipiac this weekend.
“In the fall, when I looked at our schedule and our team, I would have been hard pressed to say we”d be tied for first place after Christmas,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “When you look at it, (Saturday) was our 11th game on the road, and we only have three games left away from home, so this team has done a tremendous job of finding a way to win on the road.”
Said junior forward John Shouneyia: “It”s huge. We had a rough start, and it shows a lot of character to fight back and actually be tied for first. Now we have to do something with it.”
Saturday night”s game was a defensive struggle, characterized by missed opportunities on the offensive end for both teams. Michigan took a 2-1 lead with just 52 seconds left in the second period on a strong shift from its first line. Freshman walk-on Charlie Henderson, who has established himself as a threat over the past five games, skated in with the puck and fired it on net. Notre Dame goaltender Morgan Cey stopped the shot, but couldn”t corral the rebound, allowing Shouneyia another attempt to score. Cey managed to stop his shot, but the puck squirted out of his grasp and junior Mark Mink took advantage, putting the Wolverines ahead for good.
Shouneyia also contributed to Michigan”s first goal of the game as the Wolverines were down 1-0 and looked lifeless on offense. With the Fighting Irish on the powerplay, defenseman Andy Burnes sent an outlet pass to Shouneyia, who found himself in a two-on-one opportunity with forward Michael Woodford. Shouneyia skated down the right side and, as the defender committed to him, fired a pass to Woodford who scored a shorthanded goal his fifth goal in his last three games.
“Coming back from break, I think I”ve made a huge step confidence wise,” Wood emergence of the unsung freshmen: “They stepped up, and obviously were given more opportunities. They helped our depth out this weekend, that”s for sure, and they gave our team a huge boost.”
In Friday night”s matchup, the Wolverines seemed to be in control, leading the Fighting Irish 3-1 in the third period. But Michigan collapsed defensively in the final stanza, surrendering two goals to Notre Dame, which sent the game to a scoreless overtime.
“Having a 3-1 lead, all you want to do is play good defense, but we just let it slip,” said freshman defenseman Brandon Rogers, who scored his first goal of his career. “(The goal) felt pretty good for about three minutes, but unfortunately we let that second goal in.”
But Saturday, the Wolverines performed as well defensively as they have all season, giving up just one goal to the Fighting Irish. After Michael Chin gave Notre Dame the lead just one minute into regulation, the defense tightened up and thwarted all of Notre Dame”s attempts at a comeback.
“I think we did a much better job at going back into our zone and identifying our man,” Vancik said. “We didn”t give up many odd-man rushes.”