In the opening game of this weekend’s College Hockey Showcase, the Michigan hockey team will take the ice against Minnesota — a team Michigan coach Red Berenson knows well.
After all, the teams have played 258 times and used to square off as conference rivals in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, until the Wolverines moved to the CCHA in 1981.
When Berenson played at Michigan under coach Al Renfrew in the early ’60s, the rivalry was one of the most intense in college hockey.
“(Then-Minnesota coach John) Mariucci would complain about all the Canadians playing for Michigan, and he was priding himself (on) playing all Minnesota and all U.S. kids,” Berenson said. “I heard that when I was playing, ‘Berenson, you goddamn Canadian.’ So there’s been a pretty good rivalry going on for a long time.”
As Michigan changed conferences, the College Hockey Showcase was created to keep those rivalries alive. And the intensity isn’t lost among the current Michigan players.
“I think it just goes along with the history of the two programs, the games we’ve had and the tradition with both teams,” junior forward Matt Rust said. “I know back from my freshman year until now, we’ve had some tough games against them. It’s an important series for both teams.”
Even with the progams’ storied histories — Michigan is first and Minnesota is fifth in national championships and both are among the top in terms of putting players in the NHL — this game will have a slightly different feel from their previous meetings. For the first time in College Hockey Showcase history, both teams will be under .500 when the puck drops.
“We’ve played them when we’re both up in the top 10 in the country,” Berenson said. “Looking at Minnesota’s schedule, they’ve played in North Dakota, they’ve played in Wisconsin, they’ve played some tough games. I think they’re like us, they’re probably better than their record.”
Michigan snapped a five-game losing streak last weekend against Bowling Green, its longest skid since 1988. The Wolverines’ usual strength — their offense — has largely failed to deliver this season. Minnesota has had a similar problem. Like Michigan, the team is in the bottom half of the country in scoring and power play percentage.
In the Showcase, wins over Minnesota on Friday and Wisconsin on Saturday would give Michigan its first consecutive wins since Halloween weekend. The Wolverines have lost to every ranked team they have played, and have been outscored 16-6. A strong showing this weekend could help salvage what has been a disappointing season so far.
“If there is a big picture at the end of the season, these games will really be important games,” Berenson said. “Just in terms of our momentum, when we play Ohio State and Notre Dame in the upcoming games in our conference, we have got to be more ready than, let’s say, we were against Bowling Green. So these games hopefully will get us there.”