Team of the Week: Michigan
by Zach Helfand/CHN Reporter
ANN ARBOR, Mich. Michigan's season ended last April with a blonde flash and a resounding thud. The Wolverines could only watch, with their chins resting on their sticks, as the blonde heads of Minnesota-Duluth celebrated a title that could have been theirs.
The loss, no doubt, hurt. Fifth-year senior goalie Shawn Hunwick claims that he's accounted for most of the views of the goal on YouTube. Junior forward Lindsay Sparks said the pain lasted until mid-June.
"Probably around when we started our spring training in late May, maybe we were still talking about it," Sparks said. "By the time we were done with our spring training, we thought, 'Let's move on, we're ready for the next season.'"
The pain hasn't manifested itself in the Wolverines' play this year. Michigan jumped out to a 4-0 record against the likes of Niagara, Bentley and St. Lawrence and climbed to a No. 1 national ranking before settling in at No. 3.
Currently, the team sits at 6-1-1 after convincingly sweeping upstart Ferris State — outscoring the previously unbeaten Bulldogs 9-2 during the weekend.
Often, Sparks has served as the igniter for the Wolverine offense. He has emerged from relative mediocrity to the tune of 11 points in the first eight games — the most on the team. Sparks has already surpassed his season-high totals in goals and assists.
The Oakville, Ont., native recorded two assists in the game one against Ferris State last weekend, as the Wolverines picked apart a team that entered the series as the best defense in the nation.
The Bulldogs had surrendered just five goals the entire season — against programs like Miami and Rensselaer — entering Thursday’s tilt. Michigan scored five alone in a 5-1 win in the series-opener.
In the second game of the series, Sparks didn't pick up a point, but the defense dazzled. Hunwick recorded the shutout, benefiting from a few shots that clanged off the post, and the defense was stifling — Ferris State could muster just 24 shots. Michigan rode a three-goal second period to a 4-0 victory.
Leading up to the series, Michigan coach Red Berenson said that Michigan was the team with something to prove. The Wolverines made a statement in their sweep of the Bulldogs.
The wins increased Michigan's home winning streak at Yost Ice Arena to 20 games — the longest streak in Michigan history.
Sparks has emerged as the Wolverines' leading point scorer early in the season. He played a role on last year's team, to be sure, but he didn't command the attention he has earned this season.
An example: Sparks recorded a hat trick in the first game of the year against Niagara — though the third goal was credited to a different player days later. The Detroit Free Press gave Sparks a headline the following day.
It said he played for the women's team.
Yet opposing defenses can't ignore Sparks's presence on the ice. He's always had blazing speed, but he has improved this season — limiting mistakes and not trying to do too much.
"He’s improved all over, on both ends of the ice," Berenson said. "That's his challenge, is to keep it up."
And defenses must adapt to Sparks' speed.
"Definitely he can back a team into their own zone," Berenson said. "When you're a player like him, you're going to generate offensive chances. And you like to see him capitalize on them."
Sparks has made up for the loss of four of Michigan's five top scorers from last season. And the one player remaining, sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill, hasn’t played all season with a suspension for violating team rules.
Merrill returned to practice for the first time on Tuesday but remains suspended indefinitely.
"I'm looking for him to live up to everything that he and I have agreed to," Berenson said. "When he does all that, then we can take it to the Athletic Director, and we'll see where we are."
Sparks had gotten help from a freshman class that Berenson likened to the class that just graduated. That class featured players like Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso and Matt Rust.
Freshman forward Phil Di Giuseppe has established himself as a legitimate scoring threat. Di Giuseppe scored two goals in the opening game against Ferris State and recorded two assists in the finale. The freshman already has nine points in the first eight games.
The CCHA named him the Rookie of the Month on Tuesday, and Hunwick earned Goaltender of the Month honors.
Hunwick has yet to lose a game in which he played the entire 60 minutes. In the Wolverines' lone loss to Northern Michigan, Hunwick earned an ejection for punching a Northern Michigan player in the second period. He hadn't allowed a goal prior to the skirmish.
"You have so much confidence in [Hunwick]," Sparks said. "Even if you make a bad play or there's a breakaway going down, nine times out of 10 I know he's going to stop the puck."
Michigan has struggled with its special teams units but for now has quieted questions about how they will rebound after last season's rough ending.
Berenson said that Michigan learned a lot of lessons from its run last year.
"I think there's a lot of carryover from last year's team in terms of expectations and work ethic and leadership," Berenson said. "I think they'll take a lot more good things last year in the stretch run than the bad thing in the end. So even though it's not a championship, it's about as close as you're gonna get to a championship."
Michigan now heads into a tough stretch, with unbeaten Western Michigan coming to Yost, followed by two games at Miami, and back home for two with Ohio State.