Despite an excellent opening weekend, things are far from settled for the Michigan hockey team.
Though the sixth-ranked Wolverines surprised many with their performance at the Ice Breaker Invitational, they are not satisfied. Practice this week continued to be an intense affair.
For the team, things are still in flux. Going into this weekend’s CCHA series at Northern Michigan, position battles are in full force.
With four freshmen defensemen and just three available roster spots on any given night, the first-year blue-liners have been working hard all week to set themselves apart.
A number of the goals Michigan allowed last weekend can be traced to errors by the freshmen defensemen, but the veteran blue-liners are confident the young guns can offer solid contributions.
“They have experience playing,” sophomore defenseman Steve Kampfer said. “With them coming in now, it’s helping us out big time. With each one of us paired with a freshman, it’s helping us out and we’re all doing pretty well out there.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson has been impressed with each member of the group, but sat Kevin Quick on Friday night against Boston College and Tristin Llewellyn in the Saturday night loss to Minnesota.
“I think they have all shown us they can play, and we wanted to get them in a game, but we didn’t necessarily want to dress four in either of those games,” Berenson said.
The defense will play a big role again this weekend at Northern Michigan. Goals are harder to come by on the road, and Michigan must stay ahead to keep the parents-weekend crowd out of the game.
Though it’s early in the season, Michigan knows it can’t allow for a let down.
“Especially in the CCHA, you can’t afford to lose games,” junior goalie Billy Sauer said. “You never know – a game here is just as important as a game down the road.”
Sauer has played well against Northern Michigan throughout his career, including a sweep in Marquette early in his freshman year. Sauer benefited from solid offensive support that weekend and expects the same this time around.
His expectations will likely be met as the forwards are working hard to solidify their ice time, too.
The left-wing spot on Michigan’s fourth line appears to be up for grabs between junior Brandon Naurato and sophomore Brian Lebler. Naurato dressed last Friday night and Lebler saw action Saturday night against Minnesota.
Lebler skated with the fourth line in practice this week, but that’s no guarantee he will dress for this weekend’s games. The sophomore may be at a disadvantage for no reason other than the size of Northern Michigan’s rink.
The Wildcats play on an Olympic ice sheet, which is wider than those at most CCHA arenas. The big surface suits speedy players like sophomore defenseman Chris Summers and freshman forward Carl Hagelin, but it can be a difficult test for more physical players like Lebler.
Still, Berenson isn’t counting anyone out when it comes to the fight for playing time.
“I’m not as interested in giving chances as I am seeing who is putting our best team on the ice night after night,” Berenson said. “Do I know who that is yet? Not really.”