First Look: Wolverines the Same and Different
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Staff Writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. New venue. Same story line.
It didn’t take long Wednesday for the popular topic of North Dakota’s top line to become the center of conversation at Michigan’s Frozen Four press conference at the Xcel Energy Center.
About five questions no more.
But Michigan coach Red Berenson didn’t take the bait.
“We need to play our game and if we let them dow what they are at, they will do it,” Berenson said Wednesday after his team’s skate around before the National semifinals.
Still, Berenson and the rest of the Wolverines know they just can’t ignore the Fighting Sioux’s formidable first line.
The trio of seniors Matt Frattin, Brad “Pony” Malone and Evan Trupp, who have been labeled the ‘Pony Express’, have combined for 24 points in six playoff games this season, including, 11 points (5-6) at the Midwest Regional in Green Bay.
And come Thursday, the three players could have a big hand in the outcome if Michigan doesn’t stick to what it does right. Frattin, Malone and Trupp have combined for 131 points this season and have the ability to influence any game with their speed and hockey IQ.
But they won’t be alone.
Michigan addressed the Fighting Sioux as whole, which have averaged 5.7 goals over their past 10 games, while allowing 1.3 goals during that same stretch, which began Feb. 26 in a 5-2 victory over Bemidji State. During its 15-game unbeaten streak, North Dakota has become the second best scoring offense (4.14) in the nation.
“We need to stay on the ice, be responsible with the puck and be ultra responsible without the puck,” Berenson said. “If you give this team outnumbered rushes and power plays they will take you right out of the game.”
The Wolverines top lines aren’t too shabby either.
Michigan is averaging 3.38 goals per game, which is 13th in the country, and seventeen Wolverines have reached double digits in points this season.
Totals like that might not bring the same type of acclaim or nicknames as North Dakota’s talented first line but that doesn’t bother Michigan. The Wolverines know what they have.
And they know numbers only mean so much after the opening face-off.
“You need good goaltending, good penalty killing, good back-checking, good play coming out of your zone and you need to be opportunistic,” Berenson said. “We know they’re a better team, but we are going to come and play hard.”
Public Enemy No. 1: Michigan as the underdog.
Let’s be honest. That’s something that can come as a bit of a surprise — at least when looking at the Wolverines nine national championships and 24 Frozen Four appearances.
But people rooting against Michigan? Nothing too shocking there.
“I think we are well-prepared for this,” Michigan senior forward Carl Hagelin said. “It shouldn’t bother us.”
Whether it bothers them or not, the Wolverines are expecting a pretty pro-North Dakota arena on Thursday. And that means fairly sizable anti-Michigan crowd.
No problem says Michigan.
“I think it will help us,” Hagelin said. “It doesn’t matter where we play we just have to focus on our task and that is to win the game. Every guy on our team is excited and we know it’s going to be packed but we just have to play our game.
The Wolverines are returning to the Xcel Energy Center for the first time since October 2007, when its senior class made its collegiate debut in the Ice Breaker Invitational. Louie Caporusso scored in overtime to give Michigan a victory over Boston College in its first game of the season that year.
But that was also a long time ago in the world of college hockey and Michigan isn’t overly concerned with past experiences. It is just about North Dakota for now.
“North Dakota is going to have a lot of fans here but we’re not concerned about the rink or who is coming, we are just concerned with how we are going to play,” Caporusso said. “We have played in these type of atmospheres before; where the other team is bringing a lot of noise. I don’t think it has affected us before. We like playing on the road, so if it’s a hostile atmosphere, so be it.”
Four Years Later: The journey started with 12.
But come Thursday at about 7:30 p.m., seven seniors will take the ice for Michigan in an effort to play just one more game.
Or more aptly — finish what they started as freshmen.
Michigan fell 5-4 in overtime to Notre Dame in the National semifinals in 2008 when the current group of seniors were all freshmen.
“My freshman year, there is still a bitter taste in my mouth just coming so close and losing in overtime,” senior Matt Rust said.
That’s about the only feeling that has held over from that first season together.
According to the tight-knit group of seven, it is night and day since that moment back in 2008.
“Our freshman year was a different story,” Rust said. “I don’t think anyone really knew what our team was going to do that year with 12 freshman. That was pretty much considered Kevin Porter’s team.”
This season, Rust and other the senior leaders wanted to change the stigma that it was ‘someone’s team’ coming into the season.
“I think starting off the season with a senior class that we had, being such a tight-knit group that we are I think we had one goal in mind and that was getting here. But none of us are truly satisfied with just getting here.”
The combination of desire and chemistry has paid off. Michigan is back playing in its second Frozen Four in four years after winning 11 of its last 12 game games. With the fate of the season capable of going either way in the dead of winter, the seniors rallied the Wolverines behind the theme of togetherness.
“Maybe this year we are more of a team then we were our freshman year,” Hagelin said. “Back then we had more of a core group of players scoring all the goals and this year we are better defensively and if we want to do better that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
It is an attitude adjustment that has helped put the Michigan seniors two victories away from masterfully book-ending their college careers.
“It is interesting that this senior class played their first ever college game in this building,” Berenson said. “We are proud to be here and we want to put our best foot forward. Our program has been in this tournament since I have been here 11 times, only getting to the championship twice.”
A weekend for the family scrapbooks: Senior Matt Rust wants to make something pretty clear.
This is his moment.
His brother can wait till next year.
“I’m happy for him but at the end of the day, I’m going to take my time and be a little selfish,” Rust said about his brother Bryan Rust who plays for Notre Dame. “I think this is my time and hopefully my brother can respect that and we go on our separate ways.”
Welcome to St. Paul’s version of the brotherly rivalry. The fact that two brothers are playing in the Frozen Four together is not unique. Many brothers have played together on the same team at the biggest time of the year. But the fact that two could potentially meet head-to-head in the championship game doesn’t happen too often.
So the Rust family will have their cameras ready come Thursday.
And maybe Saturday for a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I think it’s more special for my family, for my parents, to really just enjoy the experience and my friends for all of them to get down here,” Rust said.
Michigan Tidbits: The Wolverines are 49-26 in the NCAA tournament. Coach Berenson is 28-20, which puts him third all-time in wins behind Jerry York (33) and Jack Park (30)...Michigan is 1-2 against North Dakota in the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines defeated the Fighting Sioux in the 1998 West Regional 4-3 and North Dakota beat Michigan in the first round of the 2006 and 2007 tournaments...Berenson is 0-2 against North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol...Michigan lost its only NCAA tournament meeting against Notre Dame 5-4 in overtime in 2008...Michigan has played Minnesota-Duluth just once in the last 30 years and the Bulldogs beat the Wolverines 3-2...Michigan has eight come from behind victories...The Wolverines are 21-1-3 this season when scoring first...Hagelin has 19 goals and 31 assists to lead Michigan with 50 points...Lee Moffie leads all Michigan defenseman with eight goals and five have come on the power play.