Championship Game, First Look: Michigan
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. The resume says it all really.
CCHA Championships, Hobey Baker winners and national titles. A Stanley Cup as a player and an NHL Coach of the Year Award.
Still, Michigan coach Red Berenson admits he can still learn a few things, especially in regard to coaching the modern student-athlete and building a team in this day. On Friday, as his team began preparation for Saturday's national championship game against Minnesota-Duluth, Berenson credited his team, namely his seniors, with its willingness to add an element to their game.
Midway through the season, as Shawn Hunwick became the de facto No. 1 goaltender and senior defenseman Tristin Llewellyn received a suspension for the final half of his senior season, the Michigan upperclassmen banded together to form one of the nation's stoutest defensive units.
In the past, the Wolverines, known for a dynamic offense and players destined for long NHL careers, mystified fans after losing in the national tournament despite routinely putting up four or five goals a night against some of the nation's premier clubs. In 2008-09, the Wolverines entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 overall seed and drew Atlantic Hockey champion Air Force in the first round of the East Regional Tournament in Bridgeport, Conn.
Led by then-sophomore Louie Caporusso and Aaron Palushaj, the Wolverines fired 43 shots on AF goaltender Andrew Volkening, but lost, 2-0, to the Falcons. Other highly touted Michigan teams, loaded with offense and littered 20-goal scorers, experienced similar defeats. In the 1996-97 Wolverines boasted six players with at least 40 points — four with more than 60 — but lost to Boston University in the national semifinal.
While there wasn't much missing from those rosters, one element of the current Wolverines has reminded Berenson of his teams of the past. Even with highly skilled offensive players, including Caporusso, Matt Rust and Carl Hagelin, Michigan's cohesion in the locker room has resulted in an unwavering commitment to make the decision most likely to benefit the team.
Against North Dakota Thursday night, this meant, among other things, dropping to block shots, diving into passing and shooting lanes and surrounding a potential scoring chance in favor of regrouping defensively. With several Michigan players ranking as some of the nation's most talented offensive players, the trait can be difficult for Berenson to instill.
"A lot of these guys never blocked a shot before they got to Michigan," Berenson said. "Every team that has got this far is blocking shots. You know Duluth is blocking shots as well as anyone. Our team has bought into playing better team defense. We realized halfway through the season we weren't going to win on offense."
For players, such as Hagelin and Rust, the offensive expectations entering this season were high. However, when the goals ran dry, focusing on the other side of things turned Michigan from a potentially great team to a club one win from a national championship.
"I don't think it has hurt our offense, but everyone has bought in, and I think it has made our team better," Berenson said.
Among those players who's accepting of Michigan's new-found attitude is senior Scooter Vaughan. In his fourth season with the Maize and Blue, Vaughan has accepted a role as second line winger in the latter stages of this season after jumping from the blue line to the wing prior to the year. In the role, he's thrived, combining the strength and responsibility that made him a viable option at defense with experience of four season at the Division I level. As a forward this season, he's served on the Michigan penalty kill and power play, while becoming one of the team's most consistent presence.
His effort has drawn the praise of his classmates, namely captain Luke Glendening.
"Scooter has taken on every role he has been given, and he's ran with it," Glendening said. "He was a great defenseman and this year he has excelled at the forward position. It's guys like him that really carry this team and that is huge for this team, all the guys look up to him."
Thursday night, Vaughan added the empty-net goal sealing the Michigan win and bid to Saturday's championship game.
The 59 minutes before it, though, demonstrated more. The real reason the Wolverines have a chance for their latest title. They played defense, and they won. That's good enough for Berenson. With the resume, their old coach has put together, it should be good enough for them too.