BRIDGEPORT — National championship.
While many squads dream of being the last team standing, other teams expect nothing less — and the Michigan Wolverines fall into the latter category.
“We have to take it one step at a time, but that’s our ultimate goal going into every season,” senior left winger Tim Miller said.
And for good reason.
The No. 3 Wolverines, seeded first in the East Regional, will take the ice against Air Force (27-10-2) at 3:30 p.m. today. Michigan is playing in its 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament and is the country’s winningest program over the last decade. Head coach Red Berenson, who is sixth on the NCAA hockey all-time-wins list, is in pursuit of his third national championship directing the Maize and Blue.
But the school has not hoisted the national championship trophy since 1998. The Wolverines advanced to their 23rd Frozen Four last season and bowed out to Cinderella Notre Dame in the national semifinals. The loss was disappointing for a team that finished the regular season with the best record in the nation and had been ranked at the top of national polls throughout the season.
Michigan’s historic past puts the Wolverines in stark contrast to the other three teams in the regional. Fourth-seeded and No. 18 Air Force is making its third consecutive trip to the dance but had never qualified previously and are still in pursuit of their first tournament win. Second-seeded Yale and third-seeded Vermont, which each have just one tournament win on their résumés, had not qualified in over a decade.
But the Wolverines, with most of the 2007-’08 team’s core intact, are a year older and know what to expect — and they expected to be in this position. But with 11 losses under their belts, this season has been rockier than anticipated for the Wolverines.
“Preseason we hoped and expected to be in the tournament but midseason there was a question mark of whether or not we’d qualify,” Berenson said. “It was an up and down season for Michigan.”
The inconsistencies can partly be attributed to the loss of captain and defenseman Mark Mitera. The senior missed 35 games due to a severe knee injury and returned to the rink at the end of February after only playing in the team’s opening game against St. Lawrence on Oct. 10.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Mitera did not consider mailing it in to get ready for the pros and rehabbed meticulously to get back on the ice. Although Mitera will play this weekend, Berenson knows his captain is not 100 percent.
“No, he’s not all the way [recovered],” Berenson said. “You can’t possibly miss 35 games and get caught up in six games but he means a lot to our defense — just the moral factor, the leadership factor and the experience factor.”
Without its senior leader, the team consisting predominately of underclassman ultimately put it all together and finished second in the regular season in the CCHA, behind No. 1 Notre Dame. The Wolverines eventually lost to the Fighting Irish in the CCHA Tournament final after splitting the two regular season meetings.
A talented class of sophomores — highlighted by Aaron Palushaj and Hobey Baker Award Finalist Louie Caporusso — leads the Wolverines. Palushaj leads the team in points (50) and assists (37), while Caporusso is second in points (49) and first in goals (24).
As a squad, the Wolverines rank in the top 10 nationally in a variety of major statistical categories including scoring offense, scoring defense, scoring margin and penalty kill. Their 29-11 regular season record ranks as the fourth-best win percentage in the nation.
On paper as well as historically, Michigan is the clear favorite to advance to the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C., next month. But the games aren’t played on paper — and Berenson knows that.
“I think every team is capable of beating every other team,” the legendary coach emphasized. “I don’t care what seed you are. The best team doesn’t always win; it’s the team that plays best that night. We’ve seen that in the past.”