Michigan Settles In
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
DENVER Michigan may be skating into its 23rd Frozen Four in team history, but this situation is hardly familiar for the 2007-08 edition of the Wolverines.
No player on the roster has ever played in the Frozen Four, and with its appearance this season, Michigan ensured that the small class of 2008 — featuring almost certain Hobey winner Kevin Porter and high-flying winger Chad Kolarik — did not join the class of 2007 has the only Wolverines class since '91 not to advance to the Frozen Four.
So the fact that there are 11 freshmen on the Michigan team may not mean much at all — this is, after all, new for everyone.
"I think the first couple days, we were a little bit nervous in practice," said Porter. "The puck was bouncing around a little bit, but I think we settled down today, and we'll be getting ready to go tomorrow."
Added Kolarik, "I think it's sunk in. We're in Denver. We came out a day early to get those nerves out, and I think we got them out the past few days. We can't wait for the puck to drop."
For coach Red Berenson, who has coached the Wolverines for almost a quarter-century, this is far from his first rodeo. And during his storied tenure in Ann Arbor, Mich., the veteran has witnessed the evolution not only of the Frozen Four event but of college hockey as a whole.
"The Final Four, as it used to be called, was in Utica my senior year," said Berenson, who graduated from Michigan in 1962. "It was the difference between one of the lowest of professional leagues and the NHL. There wasn't a lot of fanfare — pretty much a non-event. There was no TV coverage, no video, no Internet, and so when you look at the information, the exposure and the facilities, the Frozen Four is a major event now. At least, it is for us.
"It's night and day compared to what it was then."
And night-and-day may be the theme of the Wolverines this season. It's the difference between preseason expectations, picked to finish fourth in the CCHA, and now, entering the Frozen Four as the top team in the country.
Said Berenson of the moment when all those preseason expectations began to mean nothing, "When I stood back and watched my team play against Boston College and Minnesota [the first weekend of the season], two premier teams, it was pretty impressive that we could more than hold our own with 12 freshmen at the time."
Perhaps the most notable night-and-day difference for Michigan has been in the maize-and-blue crease, the difference between the play of goaltender Billy Sauer during his first two years, when he struggled as a young netminder adjusting to the college game, and now, when he leads the country in winning percentage and is one of the elite goaltenders in the country.
And Berenson listed three reasons why.
"He's matured into an older goalie now that he's 20," said Berenson, who also noted that he has not talked to Sauer specifically about the reasons for his improvement. "He's played three years of college hockey. He was 17 when he came in, probably too young to be a starting goalie on our team. Number two was the fact that he has something to prove over last year. We knew we had a good team, but we just didn't get there. Instead of giving up, he came back on a mission. Number three: he's had three goalie coaches in three years at Michigan. This is the first year that he's had a coach that was a goalie at Michigan, Josh Blackburn, a four-year started who I think can relate to Billy really well."
Tomorrow, the Wolverines square off against league rival Notre Dame. Earlier this season, Michigan swept the Fighting Irish in a two- game series.
But the difference between a regular season meeting and a game on this national stage is, well, like night and day.
The matchup on paper figures to be a defensive battle, despite the offensive firepower that the Wolverines boast. Michigan is fourth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 2.00 goals per game. Notre Dame is fifth, allowing 2.04.
"They're a strong defensive team, and they're always going to have three or four guys back," said Porter. "We have to get pucks deep and get them to the net. Their goalie has been playing really well for the last few weekends. The more shots we get, the better, and we have to eliminate our turnovers."
And so, Michigan heads into Thursday's showdown with the Irish playing in its first Frozen Four since 2003 and looking for its first national championship since 1998.
"So far, it's been a successful season," said Porter. "And we have one main goal left."