After the Michigan hockey team was swept by Northern Michigan at Yost Ice Arena on Oct. 27, dropping its record to 1-3-1 in the CCHA, many people were blaming youth and inexperience for the Wolverines” poor start to the year.
Six weeks later, after their second straight weekend sweep, the Wolverines don”t have much higher to climb, and the 12-member freshman class has been instrumental in that resurgence.
Michigan has vaulted from the depths of the CCHA to sole possession of second place just three points behind Michigan State.
“After the Northern series, there were some issues with the team obviously,” associate head coach Mel Pearson said. “Part of it was we were playing on the road, but we weren”t winning our home games. There were some concerns, so to be in second place at this time is a compliment to this team.”
The Wolverines have had no choice but to throw their freshmen into the fire this season after nine seniors graduated and two underclassmen (Andy Hilbert and Jeff Jillson) jumped to the pros. But now the freshmen have become an integral part of the Maize and Blue.
It took some time for most of the freshmen to adjust to the fast pace of college hockey, but Berenson expected these growing pains to occur.
“Every young player that comes to Michigan goes through some type of transitional period,” Berenson said. “Some players really don”t get it together until the second half, and some don”t get it together until the second year.”
The freshman class has met the challenges that have arisen thus far, and will have a tremendous impact on how far the Wolverines go in the postseason.
Michigan knew that its three prize recruits from the U.S. Under-18 National Team Dwight Helminen (6 goals, 3 assists and 9 points), Eric Nystrom (7-6-13) and Jason Ryznar (6-4-10) would be the most prepared to contribute this season. So far, they haven”t disappointed.
“It”s more of a college environment over there with Team USA,” Pearson said. “They”re on the ice five days a week like we are, they”ve got a tremendous strength and conditioning program, so it”s almost like a college program. That gives them a big advantage coming to a place like Michigan to come in and play.”
Nystrom, whom Berenson tabbed as the hardest worker of the class, has been paired primarily with Mike Cammalleri and Jed Ortmeyer on the first line. His work as a “grinder” has also been crucial to the powerplay”s rejuvenation over the past three weeks. His biggest goal of the season was his overtime game-winner in the finale of the Nebraska-Omaha series. Nystrom caught fire again Saturday at Miami, as he led the Wolverines to a 5-2 victory with two goals and two assists on the evening.
Helminen, who was just named to the 2002 U.S. National Junior Team, has manned the third-line center spot since the first minute of the year”s first practice. His tireless skating, speed and physical style have been major parts of the Wolverines” recent success on the penalty kill.
Ryznar made a splash quickly with one goal and one assist in the “Cold War” against Michigan State, his first collegiate game. He now works on the second line with John Shouneyia and fellow freshman Milan Gajic. Ryznar, much like Nystrom, is strong and physical along the boards and has contributed on the second powerplay unit.
Where”s the net?
Michael Woodford and David Moss join Helminen on the third line, forming the Wolverines” lone all-freshman combination of forwards. While Helminen has established himself as a legitimate threat, Moss and Woodford haven”t found their scoring touch thus far.
But it”s not because they haven”t had the chances.
“They”ve had their scoring chances, they”ve had good chances to score,” Berenson said. “Ironically, they had more chances up in Alaska than they did in all the other games. They just showed they weren”t ready to put the puck in the net.”
Moss (1-3-4) and Woodford (0-5-5) have not had the luxury of playing with Cammalleri, Ortmeyer, or Shouneyia, which could be a factor in their lack of production.
“They haven”t had that upperclassman stability to help them night in and night out,” Pearson said.
But the coaches certainly have not lost faith in their young third-liners, and expect that more opportunities will open up for them during the second half of the season.
“Woodford is making a lot of nice subtle plays,” Pearson said. “He”s giving us some speed. I think he”ll have a big second half. He”s just getting used to the college game. I see the strengths of David as his smarts and his hands. I think he”s learned a lot about the game, and I expect him to be better, too.”
Most improved Wolverine
A dominant performer in his British Columbian junior league last season, Milan Gajic was not meeting the coaches” expectations in the beginning of the season. Berenson then moved Gajic from the fourth line to the second line with Ryznar and Shouneyia because Gajic admitted that he was feeling a lot of pressure to score.
Gajic”s success in last Saturday”s 6-1 victory over Ferris State was more than enough to restore Berenson”s confidence in the natural scorer, as he tallied two goals one on the powerplay and assisted on another.
“Milan Gajic really struggled in the early going, and now he looks like he”s finding his confidence, and finding the net doing the things he did in juniors,” Berenson said.
Freshman blueliners traditionally have the toughest transition from junior league to college hockey.
“There”s a lot of pressure on you, you”re sort of the last line of defense, and if you make a mistake, everybody sees it,” Pearson said.
But you wouldn”t know it was a tough transition by watching Eric Werner, whom Pearson tabbed as one of his most improved freshman.
Werner”s ability to jump into the play and add some offense have been illustrated best by his performance on the first powerplay unit. Controlling the point with Cammalleri, Werner has recorded one goal and seven assists on the season overall.
“Werner has really played well,” Pearson said. “He”s only playing at 155 pounds against 200-pound guys. I think he”s made some significant improvements.”
Brandon Rogers began the season in the top defensive pairing with Mike Komisarek, but was pulled from the lineup after the Northern Michigan series because he was committing too many turnovers. Rogers has recovered well, and found his way back into the lineup in last Saturday”s game against Ferris State.
Nick Martens received his first minutes in the Wolverines” 5-3 win over Wisconsin. Martens played well throughout Michigan”s sweep of Ferris State last weekend and impressed Berenson with his smooth transition into the lineup.
“For the most part, I think he”s in-sync with the rest of the team,” Berenson said. “For a guy that hasn”t played at all and the rest of us have played all these games, for him to step in and not be out of sync is really important.”
Hitting a brick wall
Three of the Wolverines” freshmen have yet to sport the maize and blue sweater this season.
Reilly Olson, a highly-touted recruit out of Alberta, Canada, has not adjusted as quickly as Berenson expected. The last time he saw time on the ice was in the exhibition game against the U.S. National Under-18 team when he scored on a shot from the point that was deflected by a Team USA player.
“He”s really run into a wall,” Berenson said. “It”s been a bigger jump for him than it was for Eric Werner.”
Charlie Henderson, a walk-on who made the team this fall in open tryouts, will most likely get his chance in the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 28-29 with the departure of Cammalleri and Helminen for the World Junior Championships.
“His strengths are his skating and his puck-handling ability,” Pearson said. “We”ve talked a lot about Charlie and he”s almost been in the lineup here and there, but because of the way we started off we chose the experienced players.”
With seniors Josh Blackburn and Kevin O”Malley returning between the pipes, Michigan”s third-string goaltender Justin Spurlock has not seen any ice time this season. The walk-on was the only goalie who tried out for the spot, and came in with a lot of work to do.
“Spurlock has looked better and better every week,” Pearson said. “He”s battled and learned to make himself a better player.”