If the Michigan hockey team wants to return to the Frozen Four this season, it will have to travel a long and difficult road.
After the 2000-2001 campaign, Michigan was forced to say goodbye to 11 players. Junior Hobey Baker Award finalist Andy Hilbert and senior Jeff Jillson opted to leave school early for the chance to play in the National Hockey League, while the other nine graduated. This season, 10 brand new faces will attempt to fill the large void. But these freshmen will not have time on their side.
The Wolverines are staring down the barrel of one of the most unique and demanding schedules in team history. With the majority of their early season games being played away from Yost Arena, including the “Cold War” game at Michigan State, the Wolverines will be put to the test right off the bat. If a return trip to the NCAA Tournament is in the cards, the Wolverines will need to grow quickly.
Only one week into the season, Michigan and Michigan State will compete in the first outdoor college hockey game in history. The game is set to be played at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6. The event will draw over 70,000 spectators, the largest crowd to ever attend a hockey game. Also, the game opens up league play for the Wolverines against their biggest rival, the Spartans. Michigan coach Red Berenson is hoping to keep his team focused on the game so it won”t be distracted by all the background noise surrounding the monumental affair.
“It”s a novel game,” Berenson said. “There is going to be a lot of talk about the game during the week. I think its important that we go out and practice the day before and hopefully we can get all the wrinkles and distractions out of the way so that when we step on the ice the next day, we”ll be focused to play.
“There”s no question that it”s not going to be your average game. But it”s a league game against Michigan State, and we”re going to be putting a lot of importance on playing well.”
Following this battle, the Wolverines will play 10 out of their next 16 games away from home. Berenson feels that having the majority of its away games early in the season will be difficult for his young squad. The Wolverines will have to play four games in Nebraska and one at Western Michigan. Both schools have very loud arena”s, and inexperience could be trouble for Michigan at these locations.
But, Berenson also knows that in order to remain at the top of the CCHA, his team will have to perform well on the road.
“When you look at the schedule and the team we have here, there”s no question that it is going to be a huge challenge,” Berenson said. “In this league, playing well on the road is very difficult. But if you don”t play well, you are really putting yourself behind the eight-ball. It is important that we play at least .500 hockey on the road.”
Berenson also sees the first half of the season as an excellent opportunity for the team to get to know each other.
“Playing on the road really brings the team together. It is good for team building and chemistry, particularly with a young team. I have always enjoyed taking the team to Alaska during the season.”
If the Wolverines are able to play well on the road, they will have a chance to take full advantage of the second half of their schedule in which 11 out of the final 18 regular season games will be played at Yost Ice Arena. The stretch begins on Dec. 15 when the Wolverines play host to Harvard. This portion of the schedule could prove to be very beneficial for Michigan who is always tough to beat at home. Last season, only three of the team”s 13 losses came at Yost.
The final highlight of the schedule occurs in postseason play when Michigan hosts the NCAA West Regional Finals right here in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1998. The Wolverines went on to win the national championship in that season.
Although the schedule will put pressure on the players to perform at a high level early, Berenson said that the team should be mentally prepared and ready to play well in each game.
“We know with a young team we will have to be patient, but every game is important throughout the season,” Berenson said.”If you”re trying to make the (NCAA) tournament, the first game of the season is just as important as the last game.”