March 26, 2014
It took six seasons for head coach Red Berenson to take the University of Michigan ice hockey team to the first of 22 straight NCAA Tournaments in 1991, an unprecedented run of success in college hockey that ended in 2013.
With the Wolverines just missing the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season -- Michigan finished the season 15th in the Pairwise Rankings, the last team out of the tournament -- Berenson recalled the angst of his fifth season at Michigan, in 1990.
Michigan was on the NCAA bubble, Berenson and the Wolverines believed they had wrapped up a bid with their 24th win of the season, a 5-4 victory over Bowling Green in the CCHA Consolation Game on Mar. 11, 1990 at Joe Louis Arena. Back then, a selection committee determined the NCAA Tournament field.
"(Bowling Green head coach) Jerry York congratulated us and wished us well in the tournament and sure enough, the (committee) put Bowling Green in," Berenson said. "That's just the way it was."
It was a bitter pill for Michigan to swallow then, as it is now. But the lesson born out of that experience resonates 24 years later, with the Wolverines missing back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 1989-1990.
"We had a team meeting and the players said, 'We cannot make this close, it can't be close. It's our fault that it's close'" Berenson recalled. "We never made it close for 22 years and now here we go again. We have to start all over again and we can't make it close."
In December, it appeared that this Michigan team wouldn't make it close. At 10-2-2 and ranked in the top-10 of the USCHO.com poll for much of the first two months of the season, the Wolverines appeared to be a contender for a national championship. Michigan was among the nation's best defensive teams, winning close games and receiving key contributions from its freshmen class on a nightly basis to compliment the efforts of its returning players.
But the Wolverines went 8-11-2 the rest of the way, culminating with an opening round 2-1 double-overtime loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament last Thursday.
For senior captain Mac Bennett, who earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors, a second straight year out of the NCAA Tournament was not what he envisioned after Michigan's great start to the season.
"The goal was to make the tournament, and we didn't reach that," Bennett said. "Was it better or worse than last year? I couldn't tell you. We didn't reach our goal."
Both Berenson and Bennett reflected on the positives of the 2013-14 campaign, and there were many.
Freshman forward JT Compher led a freshmen class that made an immediate impact in Ann Arbor. Compher earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, leading the Wolverines with 31 points (11G, 20A) in 35 games played.
Freshman defenseman Michael Downing earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team and earned a reputation as one of the league's top two-way blue-liners. In one of the nation's best goaltending leagues, freshman Zach Nagelvoort (11-9-3, 2.20 GAA, .929 Save %) proved that he belonged, forming a formidable goaltending tandem with sophomore Steve Racine (7-4-1, 2.91 GAA, .912 Save %).
Sophomore Andrew Copp, and All-Big Ten honorable mention, continued his progression as a leader on and off the ice, recording 29 points (15G, 14A) in 33 games.
"I like our team," Berenson said. "I think we'll take a step next year and one reason is the players we have, not just the new recruits."
For Copp, Michigan's lone returning captain, 2014-15 will be defined by finding more consistency as a team during the long college hockey season.
"You look at three of the top seeds in the NCAA Regionals and we beat all three of them," Copp said. "It's a matter of finding consistency and a constant desperation instead of just coming into games and figuring we'll win games just by showing up."