In the Michigan hockey team’s locker room, a large board tracks the CCHA standings.
In years past, the Wolverines have hovered close to the top of the board, but this season Michigan has kept the person responsible for changing the standings very busy.
The team was as low as 10th place after a 5-3 loss to Ohio State early in December. But now the Wolverines find themselves in sole possession of fourth place in the conference. And with a measly six points (two wins) separating the Wolverines and the 10th-ranked Buckeyes, Michigan has little breathing room.
“We’re not out of it at all,” junior forward Louie Caporusso said. “We’re a good team, and we’re going to be fine if we play up to our potential.”
This weekend, the Wolverines travel to Omaha to take on Nebraska-Omaha in a pivotal late season series.
If Michigan (12-9-1-0 CCHA, 17-13-1 overall) sweeps the Mavericks, it could jump into a third-place tie with Michigan State, which is idle in conference play this weekend. But, if the Wolverines get swept, they could potentially fall right back down to 10th place.
To make the task a bit more challenging for Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha is 11-2-2 at home this season, averaging 4.5 goals in its last seven games.
The Mavericks (10-11-3-2, 14-12-6) boast one of the more balanced offensive attacks in the CCHA. Nebraska-Omaha may not have a single individual player among the top 20 in scoring in the conference, but it boasts nine guys with 17 or more points.
“What it comes down to is the line that you’re playing against, you have to be plus,” assistant coach Billy Powers said. “If you’re not plus, and they outplay you, there’s a chance that we could lose this game. Essentially, when you look at the matchups there won’t be much separating guys on paper. It’s going to come down to the performance on the ice.”
In Ferris State and Miami (Ohio), Michigan has faced elite teams with singular talented scoring lines. The fifth-place Mavericks, on the other hand, have three solid scoring lines that have to be accounted for.
But the Wolverines have surged back into the top of the conference scene thanks in part to improved defensive play. Michigan is 7-2-1 in conference play since the turn of the calendar year and has three shutouts during that span, including a 4-0 shutout of Bowling Green last Tuesday.
Powers credited the improved defense to a total team effort.
“There’s no question that when our forwards are coming back as hard as they were last night and with purpose, it makes our game a lot easier,” Powers said. “Because we can stand up, we know we have support and we’re not feeling like we’re isolated and we have to back in. When we start backing in and giving teams room to get to the hash marks that’s when you can get into trouble.”
The Wolverines have made it clear that one of their goals is to finish in the top-four in the CCHA to gain a first-round bye in the conference tournament. This weekend could determine that, especially since there are only four games left after this weekend’s series, two against Notre Dame and two against Northern Michigan.
For now, Michigan is glad to be in the driver’s seat.
“If we get ahead of ourselves we’re going go right back to where we were,” Powers said. “We realize what these points mean. So, we just want to keep moving forward. We know that if we win, and take care of what we’re capable of, then we have a great chance of finishing in the top two, three or four. … Destiny is in our hands.”