Last year, the Michigan hockey team lost 8-5 to North Dakota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Denver. That year’s seniors were the first group of Michigan hockey players since 1991 to finish their college careers without making a Frozen Four.

Having just seen some of his best friends fall short of their ultimate goal in their last chance, Kevin Porter tried to put on a brave face.

“I feel so bad for them,” Porter said after the loss. “It’s a bad thing, and hopefully we can make it there next year. We’ve got a bunch of good guys coming in, we’ve got to get them to buy in right away and I think we have a great chance of making it.”

Despite the words, Porter wasn’t speaking with much conviction then. But one year and four days later, the captain’s words are starting to sound prophetic.

The Michigan hockey team starts its road back to the Mile High City, the site of this year’s Frozen Four, tonight against Niagara in the NCAA East Regional semifinals in Albany, N.Y.

This year, Michigan’s path to the championship weekend is clear of North Dakota for the first time since 2005. Niagara is the College Hockey America auto-bid entry, and while a good team, the Purple Eagles probably won’t keep up with the Wolverines’ speed. The same can be said for Michigan’s potential regional final opponents, St. Cloud State and Clarkson.

If Michigan lives up to expectations and wins both games, Porter’s words could finally become more than hopeful speculation.

But a trip to the Frozen Four wasn’t always a question mark for the Michigan hockey program.

When Porter and his classmate Chad Kolarik were recruited to Michigan, making the Frozen Four wasn’t so much a question of “if” as it was “how often.”

Between 1992 and 2003, the Wolverines made the final weekend nine times, winning two National Championships. Since 2003, Michigan has fallen short of those incredibly high expectations. But that hasn’t stopped Porter and Kolarik from striving for those heights.

“When you’re wearing the Block ‘M’ on your chest, there’s a lot of pressure,” Kolarik said. “But you’re recruited here for a reason and you’re given a full scholarship for a reason.”

The Wolverines have already surprised many this season, capturing accolades and championships that had often eluded them in recent years. After winning the CCHA playoff title last weekend, freshman Louie Caporusso seemed more relieved than excited.

“It feels like we’ve lifted something off the shoulders of Michigan hockey,” Caporusso said. “To get some of the trophies that we haven’t had for a couple years feels unbelievable.”

Caporusso and his teammates know the biggest weight still remains: a National Championship.

But before the Wolverines can shed that last burden, they have to take care of business this weekend.

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