Frozen Four Preview: Michigan
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The well-known University of Michigan fight song hails the Wolverines as the "champions of the West," praising the maize-and-blue as "victors valiant" and as "conquering heroes." This week, the Wolverines look to become champions in the West, as they head to the Pepsi Center in Denver on a quest for their 10th NCAA championship and first since 1998.
Coach Red Berenson's squad has essentially gone wire-to-wire as the top team in the country, winning the CCHA regular season and tournament championships en route to earning the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines also boast the nation's second best offense and fourth-best defense.
But as good — great, even — as Michigan has been, not many actually expected anything this good.
After all, this is a team with only two seniors — Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik — and 12 freshmen at the start of the year (11 freshmen remain after rookie defensemen Kevin Quick was dismissed from the team).
This inexperienced group was picked to finish fourth in the CCHA by both the media and the coaches and was scheduled to play nonconference games against Boston College, Wisconsin, Minnesota (twice), and Boston University (twice) in the first two months of the season alone.
However, led by Porter and Kolarik, all the Wolverines did was go 5-1-0 in those six games. And from there, they never looked back.
"Those wins were huge," admitted Porter, who on Wednesday was named one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. "Beating Boston College and then playing Minnesota well our first two games got us some confidence throughout the entire year. That made us realize we were a great team and that we could play with anyone in the country."
Anyone and everyone. The Wolverines mowed through their competition during the regular season, losing only five games all year. Four of those were one-goal games. In the postseason, Michigan has outscored its opponents 27-8, most recently defeating Miami in the CCHA championship game and then eliminating CHA champion Niagara and ECAC champion Clarkson in the NCAA East Regional in Albany, N.Y. last weekend.
With firepower on the forward lines like Porter and Kolarik, much of the attention this season has centered on the Wolverines offense, averaging approximately four goals per game. But Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson points out that the defense, led by goaltender Billy Sauer, is allowing only two goals per game and has been instrumental in his team's success down the stretch.
"We've played very well defensively," said Pearson. "So as much as we're scoring some goals, Billy Sauer has given up one goal or less in five of our six [playoff] games. We feel we're playing as best as we have all year defensively. Offensively, the goals will come, but we feel we're in a situation right now where we're peaking at the right time.
"I thought our team played very well in Albany. Two tough opponents, both Clarkson and Niagara. We were led by our two seniors, who came back to Michigan for their senior year to lead us here. We're very excited to be going to Denver. It's been a while."
Indeed, this will be Michigan's first NCAA Frozen Four appearance since 2003. Last year's senior class was the first at Michigan not to advance to the Frozen Four during its career since the Class of 1991.
And the small two-man Class of 2008 wanted to make sure to stay away from such a distinction.
Porter, the team's captain, led the nation in scoring this year with 62 points in 42 games, and Kolarik scored a career-high 54 points while leading the Wolverines with seven game-winning goals. They have helped anchor a team which Pearson called "one of the tightest, closest-knit teams" he's ever been a part of at Michigan.
"These are all great kids," said Porter of the team's large freshman class. "You don't catch them screwing around too often, which makes it easier on myself, Chad, [junior] Mark [Mitera], and all the coaches."
Rookies Max Pacioretty (41 points), Aaron Palushaj (38 points) and Louie Caporusso (21 points) round out the top five point-per-game scorers for Michigan. Matt Rust, Carl Hagelin, Chad Langlais, Ben Winnett and Tristin Llewellyn have also been mainstays in the Wolverines lineup, and freshman Scooter Vaughan is expected to play in the Frozen Four despite recently breaking his jaw.
Continued Porter, who certainly wastes no words, "They come to the rink, they work hard, they keep their mouth shut, and they do what they're told."
As inexperienced as the freshman class may or may not be, the fact remains that this is the first Frozen Four playing experience for every player on the Michigan roster — Porter and Kolarik, included.
"I don't think you can ever tell them what it's going to be like," said the veteran Pearson, now in his 20th year as a member of Berenson's coaching staff. "Sometimes you have to go through it yourself. I think our players have been through enough big games. The biggest thing is to play like you have all year. Obviously, we [the coaches] have been there. We can make some adjustments. For the most part, we're just trying to treat it like another weekend."
Michigan will face Notre Dame in a matchup of last year's CCHA champions, the Irish, and this year's. Earlier this season, the Wolverines swept Notre Dame in a two-game series, outscoring their league rivals 8-3. Last year, Notre Dame beat Michigan in all three meetings between the teams. Now, the Wolverines will attempt to return the favor.
This time, though, there's a berth in the NCAA championship game on the line, with the victor set to face the winner of the other national semifinal between Boston College and North Dakota. If the Wolverines hoist the NCAA championship trophy Saturday night in Denver, they will have tied the team record for wins in a season, with 35.
And in doing so, they'll head back to Ann Arbor, Mich., with the Michigan faithful "hailing to the victors" once again.
MICHIGAN IN A NUTSHELL
Head Coach: Red Berenson (Michigan '62)
Regular Season finish: 1st; CCHA tournament champions
How they advanced: Won East Regional in Albany, N.Y. (5-1 over Niagara, 2-0 over Clarkson)
National semifinal opponent: Notre Dame (26-15-4)
Frozen Four appearances: 23
NCAA championships: 9 (1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1964, 1996, 1998)