March 13, 2014
Has there ever been a Senior Night with so much on the line for the Wolverines? It's a fair question considering where the Michigan ice hockey team stands entering the final weekend of the regular season.
For the 13th-ranked Wolverines (17-11-4, 9-7-2-1 Big Ten), the weekend series against No. 1 Minnesota (24-4-6, 13-2-3 Big Ten) is a great opportunity to gain ground in the Pairwise Rankings system that determines NCAA Tournament at-large selection.
Currently, Michigan sits in a tie for 14th place, a precarious spot to be with a 16-team tournament and the potential volatility in conference tournament play.
Normally, teams do not entertain conversation about national tournament implications, but with Michigan's spot in third place in the Big Ten standings locked in, two games against the No. 1 team in the nation will go a long way in determining whether the Wolverines will make their 36th appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
"I just view this weekend as playing Minnesota, who is the No. 1 team in the country right now," said senior captain Mac Bennett. "If we can grab wins off this team, this is going to be huge for us. We'll all be excited to play, and I'm sure this place will be rocking, seeing that it's the last time the fans will get to see us play here."
There is some precedent for the current senior class. In February 2011, Michigan entered the final home weekend series ranked 11th in the nation, needing a good weekend against 17th-ranked Western Michigan to solidify its spot in the NCAA Tournament. That is exactly what they got. After winning the first game of the series, the Wolverines played one of the most memorable Senior Night games in program history on Feb. 19, 2011.
In that game, the Wolverines and Broncos locked into a back-and-forth contest, with Michigan playing catch up the entire night after Western Michigan scored just 43 seconds into the game. Trailing 4-3 late in the third period with an extra attacker on the ice, Michigan senior captain Carl Hagelin tied the game on a seeing-eye wrist shot with 40 seconds remaining in regulation.
With Michigan on the power play in overtime, Hagelin struck again with a slap shot off the post and in with just 3.2 seconds remaining in the extra frame to give the Wolverines a 5-4 victory.
"The crowd was just going insane," Bennett said. "All the seniors were going nuts. (Carl) single-handedly saved Senior Night because no one likes to lose that game. I just remember the smiles those guys had coming through the line once they got called back onto the ice for the ceremony. It's strange to think about it now because it was such a long time ago."
Fast forward three years later, and now it's Bennett and his classmates' time to say goodbye to the crowd at Yost Ice Arena, with Michigan playing the No. 1 team in the country for the first time ever in the final home series of the regular season.
"It'll definitely be emotional. On Saturday, I can't imagine what I'll be feeling. I'm sure the same goes for the rest of the seniors in that (locker) room. I don't know what I'm going to feel. It's exciting but nerve racking at the same time. It's the last time you put on that jersey that you've been wearing for four years at a place that means so much to you."
The Wolverines are 6-0-1 in their last seven games on Senior Night, but their last win over a team ranked No. 1 in the nation on home ice came on March 28, 1998, when the Wolverines defeated North Dakota in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Frozen Four.