So what does Mark Mitera’s return really mean?
First of all, it means another ‘C’ on a Michigan hockey jersey.
And it created two Wolverine goals in Saturday night’s 4-0 win over the Bulldogs, too.
But it also directly caused Ferris State’s lone tally of the series, which occurred just three minutes and 11 seconds into Fridays game after Mitera turned over the puck.
A major question heading into Mitera’s post-injury debut was simple. With other defensemen looking impressive in his absence, is a less-than-100-percent Mitera still deserving of a roster spot?
And the long-awaited return of Mitera, the team’s senior captain, isn’t over yet.
His official comeback won’t be complete until he’s back to playing like one of the top defensemen in collegiate hockey.
And according to Michigan coach Red Berenson’s evaluation of Mitera’s play this weekend, that re-emergence might not be too far off.
“You’re starting to see the Mark Mitera, the real Mark Mitera,” Berenson said. “At the start of the year, he would have been our best defenseman, so he’s got to grow (back) into that. But you saw glimpses of that this weekend.”
And those snapshots of Mitera’s talent grew more frequent as the series continued.
Mitera tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the first period of the team’s season opener on Oct. 10. He didn’t play again until this weekend, the team’s last regular-season series. During each of this weekend’s periods, he felt like he was improving.
“It’s tough to adjust to situations and see plays developing,” Mitera said. “As (I) get more and more time on the ice, everything’s starting to come back to me a little bit — where I should be anticipating plays, stepping up, trying to read forechecks — small things like that are starting to come back.”
But even as he returns to form, Mitera’s not just your average shutdown defenseman. He’s a first-round draft pick for the Anaheim Ducks. Last season, Inside College Hockey named Mitera the Defenseman of the Year, and Mitera also earned Michigan’s Vic Heyliger Award as the team’s outstanding defenseman. He posted career highs in points (23), assists (21) and plus/minus (plus 30).
He’s a smart player, and he’s got three full seasons of experience under his belt. He’s also likely learned from taking on a captain/assistant coach-type role this season, analyzing practice and games from the bleachers.
Even in his six periods of play this weekend, his on-ice adjustments were sharp. His turnover on Friday that led to the Ferris State goal quickly became a lesson, and Berenson said Mitera had fewer giveaways than all other Michigan defensemen in the series overall.
Mitera provides a big, physical presence for the Wolverines on the blueline, even if he’s not totally back in game shape yet.
And just seeing him in uniform provides a spark for Michigan, an emotional boost that could carry into the playoffs.
Mitera’s teammates have seen that in a variety of forms — from his determination during rehab to his surprising goal in Saturday’s second period, and most importantly, his behavior at practice.
“Him being on the ice the past month has been awesome,” junior defenseman Steve Kampfer said. “Just giving pointers here and there to the freshmen, the younger guys and even myself. It’s been great. He’s our captain. He’s our leader. He’s been showing it these past few weeks, and he showed that this weekend.”
Kampfer said he expects an even stronger and more confident Mitera to emerge after a couple more weeks of practice.
That works out quite conveniently for the Wolverines, who finished second in the CCHA and received a first-round bye in the conference tournament. They won’t play again until March 13.
By then, Mitera still might not be 100 percent. But his impact on the team isn’t simply measured by assists or blocked shots.
—Auerbach can be reached at email@example.com.