Team of the Week: Michigan
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Michigan came into the season with a lot of questions.
Clearly, the Wolverines, with such a tremendous recruiting pipeline, are never going to be at much of a disadvantage. But still, with a lot of top-notch talent leaving in recent years, no top-flight center returning, a previously inconsistent goaltender, and the prospects of Miami, Notre Dame and Michigan State all passing them by, the Wolverines had reason to be concerned.
Even following a great start, there were questions as to just how strong Michigan's schedule was this season.
Now, though there's still a long way to go, Michigan has proven quite a bit, coming off a weekend sweep of Minnesota and Wisconsin in the College Hockey Showcase, improving to 13-1 and No. 2 in KRACH. That makes Michigan the College Hockey News Team of the Week.
The win over Minnesota, 5-1, broke a particularly aggravating dry spell, dating back to 2002 and including a loss earlier this season in the Icebreaker, and in the 2003 Frozen Four semifinal. The current seniors — of which there are only Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik — had never beaten the Gophers.
"It's been a frustrating last three years in particular," said Michigan coach Red Berenson. "It was time. I thought we played pretty well against Wisconsin. They got two late quick goals. They have a good team and the power play is dangerous. . ... It was a letdown, too many penalties. The game went all over the map."
Against the Gophers, it was different. Juiced by the home crowd and the recent history, Michigan avenged its only loss of the season, the Icebreaker final when it heavily outshot Minnesota but lost 4-3.
"I thought we played better (against) Minnesota," Berenson said. "We scored a shorthanded goal (by Kolarik) that was huge, then Porter and Kolarik were huge over the weekend. They made the difference."
Said Porter, "When we played them early in the year, it was a tough loss. Everyone had it in the back of their heads. We came out and knew it was a huge game. ... (The earlier loss) gave us confidence. Even though we lost, we knew we could play with them and teams in that league. The last few years, we might have been intimidated going into their state and home ice."
Porter, of course, has been huge all season. He's the Hobey Baker Award frontrunner at the moment, leading the nation with 14 goals in 14 games, including three this past weekend. He's made the transition from wing to center, prompted when Andrew Cogliano didn't return this season. Combine that with the departure of T.J. Hensick, who was Porter's linemate when Porter scored 24 goals last season, and that's where the questions were on the top line.
"Kevin Porter has been a great leader, particularly offensively," Berenson said. "So he takes a lot of offensive pressure off our team."
That means the pressure is on him.
"Maybe a little bit every game, I feel like our line has to be the one that scores," Porter said. "If we end up losing, it could be our fault. It puts a little pressure on us. The freshmen have been great so far. Early they put up numbers, then slowed a bit."
With freshmen like Aaron Palushaj (5-10—15) and Max Pacioretty (3-9-12) up front, the Wolverines are doing just fine. In fact, it's reminiscent of the 1998 team, which had just lost a huge and extremely talented senior class, yet went all the way to a national championship.
"It does have some similarities," Berenson said. "Bill Muckalt carried the offense, and we had (Marty) Turco in goal."
Still, getting offense out of Michigan has never been the problem. The defense and goaltending have been shaky at times in recent years. But Billy Sauer, who was thrust into the situation in net a year early when Al Montoya left school after his junior year, is now a junior himself, and has come into his own. And a defense, seemingly left decimated with the departure of Jack Johnson and Matt Hunwick, has been solid, with junior Mark Mitera the most experienced backliner. Mitera leads the team with a plus-12, but freshmen like Chad Langlais and Kevin Quick have been admirable early.
"It's a little bit of everything," Berenson said about Sauer's improvement. "He has something to prove. There's two freshmen goalies that were ready to play (if Sauer didn't improve). We have a new goalie coach (former Michigan goalie Josh Blackburn). It's a combination of everything.
"I don't think he was ready for (college as a freshman). He'd been in the USHL a year, but I don't think he played 30 games."
Said Porter, "We knew he'd become a better player after his freshman year. We didn't know he'd do this well. ... But a lot of our success has been due to him."