DETROIT — After Friday night’s semifinal win, junior Jeff Tambellini said what everyone in the room was thinking. When talking about the possibility of playing Ohio State in the finals of the CCHA tournament, the forward mentioned that a lot of the guys on the team still had a bad taste in their mouths from last year’s title game. The worry throughout all of this season has been that Michigan would fall back into old habits from last season.
Last year’s squad was, by almost all standards, disappointing. The Wolverines limped into the postseason, going 5-4-1 in their last 10 regular season games. On top of that, they didn’t win a single game in either of their last two series. Then, in the best-of-three series to open up the CCHA tournament, Michigan lost a game to Nebraska-Omaha at home, and Michigan just doesn’t lose games at Yost. Plus, with their season on the line, the team was down 2-1 to the Mavericks heading into the third period of a game they eventually won.
But when Ohio State beat the Wolverines in the finals of the Super 6 one year ago, the Wolverines were left with that “bad taste.” After playing well in the Northeast regional, Michigan failed to make it to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2000.
So that was the fear. It was the feeling that I had at the beginning of the season, it was what I was thinking at the end of January when Michigan went 2-2-2 in a period of six conference games and it was definitely what I had come to expect when I went into Joe Louis for the rematch against Ohio State.
And the Michigan icers clearly wanted to get rid of that feeling.
And boy have they — not just in this weekend’s CCHA championship victory over the Buckeyes but also throughout the season. Michigan has righted every wrong from last year, and the Wolverines have impressed where last year’s squad disappointed.
Last year, Michigan struggled on the road, to say the least. Maybe it’s the fact that playing in an environment as rowdy as Yost hurts big-time when they take their game on the road. The Wolverines of last season were sluggish on the road and couldn’t pick it up in big situations. They were 4-5-2 in actual conference road games (I’m not counting the game against Michigan State at Joe Louis that was technically a “road” game). This season, Michigan is 9-2-0 — an impressive turnaround for a team with most of the same players.
Like I said earlier, the Wolverines limped into the playoffs last year, and failed to get it done in the Super 6. This year’s team is on a roll. Michigan has won 10 straight games and hasn’t lost a contest since January. That’s the way you want to be playing heading into the big tournament — the NCAAs. The highest-scoring team in the nation has allowed only one goal per game in its final four games, and that’s the way you need to play when getting ready to dance. Al Montoya has been a wall, making incredible save after incredible save on Saturday. And everyone knows what a good goalie can do for a team in the tournament.
But what is it that has made them play better this year? Why is this year’s team — one that has just two freshmen and lost just two regulars from last year — performing so much better than the squad from a year ago. The truth is that I don’t know. But these Wolverines are definitely working harder.
“They’re good. They’re very, very good,” Alaska-Fairbanks coach Tavis MacMillan said. “They’re not only skilled, but they work very, very hard.
“Bottom line is there four guys outworked our five (on the power play). They just flat outworked our five, and that was very disappointing.”
So it’s true. It’s not just fans that have noticed the difference. Opposing coaches have made note of the change as well. Before the year even started, senior captain Eric Nystrom talked about the value of working as a team. With 10 seniors by his side, the captain knew that his class would have to lead.
“Our class is (much better) when we are working together, when we’re working hard, when we’re playing for the team,” Nystrom said. “If we’re not doing that, its like we are just a bunch of individuals.”
And that’s basically the gist of if. I still can’t put my finger on why, and I don’t think anyone can. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? The point is simple: This is a different Michigan team from last year. When the 10 seniors take the ice next Friday in what could be their last collegiate game, don’t expect the old Wolverines. Don’t expect a team that will fold at the end of the year and won’t play well on the road. Expect this year’s Wolverines, and all the hard work that comes with them.
Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.