Just one year ago, Jon Merrill was celebrating with his teammates after slipping a puck past Michigan’s then-junior goaltender Bryan Hogan in the waning seconds of the first period at Yost Ice Arena.
But when this year’s No. 3 Michigan hockey team faces off in an exhibition match against the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 team tonight, Merrill will try to block shots for Hogan, not score on him.
Merrill, now a freshman defenseman for the Wolverines, is one of 10 current Michigan players who are alumni of the U.S. Hockey program now getting a chance to play on the other side of the matchup.
“It’s a little bit different of a feeling this time,” Merrill said after practice on Monday. “Last year we had a lot of nervous energy going out then. But this year we’re trying to learn from the game and have good habits.”
The Wolverines have played some interesting exhibition competition since the program’s first season in 1922, including matchups against the Detroit Red Wings, the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams, and groups from Poland, Russia, Japan, Czechoslovakia and Western Germany.
But the longest-standing matchup is against the Ann Arbor-based developmental team — an exhibition foe that the Wolverines have faced 10 times in program history.
Many of the games have been surprisingly tight, and though Michigan has a perfect record in the series, several of the games have come down to the wire.
When the two teams faced off in 2004, the Wolverines battled to a 6-5 win, and future Wolverine star defenseman Jack Johnson recorded a goal and an assist for the USNTDP.
“The year Jack Johnson was playing with them they nearly did beat us,” Berenson said. “Jack said after that he wasn’t sure he did want to beat Michigan — he wanted to play well, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to win.”
And two years later, it was Johnson — then a Michigan player — who forced overtime with a last-minute goal. Teammate T.J. Hensick got the game-winner with 0.4 seconds left in the extra frame.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the exhibition game is that it gives players and coaches a better opportunity to view potential incoming freshmen.
Entering last year’s game, Michigan had received verbal commitments from the USNTDP’s Merrill, Kevin Clare, Jacob Fallon, Luke Moffatt and goaltender Jack Campbell.
The first four players found their way to Ann Arbor for their freshman seasons, but Campbell, the 11th pick in last June’s NHL entry draft, chose to play in the OHL.
But none of the members of this year’s USA U-18 team have committed to Michigan, so Berenson is using this game to focus on the younger players already on his team. Clare and Fallon will get their first ice time tonight.
“We’re going to try to get everybody into the loop,” Berenson said. “They’ve got to get up to game speed, game shape and game timing.
“They look good in practice, but you get in a game and it’s a whole different animal. I’m hoping they’re good — I’m hoping they have great games — that’s why we brought them here.”
Although this year’s exhibition game comes after the start of CCHA play, Berenson still considers the matchup as something of a tune-up for the Michigan team, as it will head to New Hampshire this weekend to face the eighth-ranked Wildcats.
“This is a good time for this game,” Berenson said. “We only play one game this weekend, so it’s a good fit, and hopefully it helps us a bit to get ready for New Hampshire.”
INJURY NOTE: After suffering a lower body injury in a 4-2 win against Bowling Green last Saturday, senior forward Matt Rust won’t play tonight.
According to Berenson, X-ray tests were negative, and contrary to the coaches’ initial worries, Rust may be able to start skating again later this week.
“We’re thinking after a couple days we’ll see how he is,” Berenson said. “We might be able to get him back sooner than we thought. We thought it was going to be a lot more serious than it is.”