FAIRBANKS — Winning … you remember what that is, right? It’s the thing that happens when one team scores more goals than the other.

Now, that’s not to be confused with losing, which is when your team scores less. Anywho, that first thing I was talking about — the one team with the more goals and whatnot. Believe it or not, that team was Michigan on Saturday.

I know, hard to believe, but trust me on this one, I saw it.

In a year, the Michigan hockey team will leave the CCHA and teams like Alaska Fairbanks for better (and warmer) pastures. The Daily trekked to Alaska this weekend for what could be the last time. Fellow writer Matt Slovin and I saw the Northern Lights, touched the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and went snowshoeing in Denali National Park.

It was all worth it to bring you something rarer than a glimpse of the Alaskan sun in wintertime: a Michigan victory.

Plus, some locals taught us a thing or two about hockey, and they seemed to be speaking directly about the Wolverines.

“It’s all about finding the right chemistry,” said a Fairbanks resident we met named John. “Sometimes one doesn’t work on the same line as another, so you have to cycle them around until you find the right combination.”

OK, so John was our dogsled guide, and he was talking about the dogs pulling our sled. But until he started mentioning females in heat and neutered males, we could’ve sworn he was talking about the line changes Michigan coach Red Berenson made in the middle of last series.

In fact, a lot of what John had to say addressed Michigan’s problems during its seven-game winless drought.

A dog-sled team is a lot like a hockey team, and the marathon of a season is a grueling race like the Iditarod. Yeah, those two comparisons mean you should prepare yourself for an extended metaphor longer than winter in Fairbanks.

Michigan has its musher in Berenson, the man giving the commands and steering the sled. Fifth-year goalie Shawn Hunwick is the lead dog, and the team will only go as far as he’ll take them.

On Saturday, Hunwick found himself in a duel with Alaska’s goaltender Scott Greenham, who made 41 saves on the game. But after a scoreless regulation — Michigan’s first since 2007 — Greehman cracked fist.

Hunwick said he saw Greenham sitting with 25 saves midway through the second period and knew that he would have to shut out the Nanooks if Michigan were to win.

“(Hunwick was) the bottom line, and he earned that,” Berenson said. “He was rock solid.”

On our dogsled ride, we had a few mistakes. Once, the dogs veered off the trail and had to be coaxed back onto the path. Most of the dogs knew which way to go and pulled in that direction, but the whole team had to be in sync to get the sled going.

The Wolverines couldn’t get in sync during their own slide. Twice, the defense surrendered just two goals, only to have the offense score one. Once, Michigan poured in five, only to surrender six.

They couldn’t all pull in the same direction.

Another time on our ride, Slovin fell off the sled while driving. If you aren’t quick with a command to slow the dogs, they’ll just take off and leave you behind.

“An Olympic sprinter couldn’t catch them,” John told us. “They’ll keep going for miles.”

Luckily for Slovin, John and I remained on the sled and allowed him to catch up. Our team stayed together, despite Matt’s embarrassing miscue.

On Saturday, freshman defender Brennan Serville had his own Slovin moment when he picked up a boarding penalty at the worst possible moment — with 2:06 remaining in the game.

The team didn’t break apart. Instead, it hunkered down and thwarted the Nanooks late flurry. Again, Hunwick led the way, turning aside several slap shots in open space.

“That was a big kill — a huge kill,” Berenson said. “One shot either way and the game was over.”

The defense earned some measure of redemption after struggling mightily in the previous four games. Michigan allowed 20 goals against during that four-game span.

“Now it’s 20 in five,” Hunwick said. “Which still doesn’t sit too good, but it was huge to get a shutout on the road.”

Maybe it’s fitting that freshman forward Alex Guptill scored his game-winning goal with the help of a lucky bounce off an Alaska defenseman. For the past few games, the Wolverines have said that they’ve played well enough to win, they just haven’t been getting the bounces.

Again, they played better than the score showed on Saturday. The offense generated 42 shots on Greenham, and finally moved the puck down low to get high-quality scoring chances.

But Michigan will take the win any way it can get it. A sweep in Fairbanks, with Michigan State and the Great Lakes Invitational looming, could’ve spelled disaster.

Michigan did what it needed to do.

So what did we learn in Alaska? We learned that nights are long, that righting a wayward sled team is difficult and that sometimes you fall off.

As for the Michigan hockey team, they relearned how to do something Hunwick said they were beginning to forget.

What’s that word again?

Right, winning.

—Helfand can be reached at zhelfand@umich.edu

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.