Is Michigan hockey talented, but too young for the NCAA Tournament?
As Michigan hockey raced to the NCAA Tournament and the No. 1 seed this season, much was made of its ridiculous surplus of young talent.
The Wolverines, for most of the season, fielded an NCAA-record seven NHL draft picks; which includes four of the top five picks from last summer’s draft, led by defenseman Owen Power. The sophomore went first overall with the Buffalo Sabers, followed by sophomore forward Matty Beniers (No. 2, Seattle Kraken), freshman defenseman Luke Hughes (No. 4, Devils of New Jersey) and second-year forward Kent Johnson (No. 5, Columbus Blue Jackets). (Beniers, Johnson, Power and 2020 first-rounder Brendan Brisson spent a month playing for the United States and Canada at the Beijing Olympics. The Wolverines went 4-0 in the Big Ten without them.)
So Coach Mel Pearson, the unifier of all that talent in his fifth season in Ann Arbor, can just throw the kids on the ice for the Wolverines game with the No. 4 seed American International at 3 p.m. today. in Allentown, Pennsylvania, right?
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Not quite, Pearson said Thursday, although he suggested the Wolverines were focusing on their best game.
“It’s really up to us and how we play and pressure the other team. We’ve played a lot of teams this year that were older, whether it’s West Michigan with all the seniors graduating or fifth-year seniors who came back to Minnesota State, to (Minnesota) Duluth, we’ve seen it. It’s not new to us.
Indeed, the AIC’s top six scorers all have at least three seasons of experience, with junior Blake Bennett leading the way with 18 goals and 14 assists. A pair of graduate students, Chris Dodero and Justin Young, are next at 29 points each, followed by junior Jake Stella, senior Chris Theodore and redshirt junior Zak Galambos, all at 28 points.
“It’s kind of the little old AIC that’s built, and it works for us,” AIC coach Eric Lang said. “We are an older team and the most mature team in theory. I think I saw some 03s on their list – I have T-shirts older than that.
Lang said that was a slight advantage for his Yellow Jackets, located in Springfield, Mass.
“I remember two years ago we had a practice before our St. Cloud game where I had to bring our guys in and tell them to breathe, and we just broke it there like nothing was not. … So I think the familiarity is back in that position, seeing those microphones, seeing their names in front, like we were there and we did. I think we have the most returning players a season ago and we will need that to be our competitive advantage. We are a slightly older team. We have guys who won’t melt under the bright lights here.
Both coaches were able to agree on the AIC underdog narrative, with Pearson going straight to call them “scrappy”.
“They play hard,” Pearson said. “They play honestly. They don’t cheat to offend. Everything comes from their defense and they play a simple game. They take it out. They get it and they come after.
It’s the same self-screening report that Lang delivered: “We’re going to have to take care of the puck and we’re going to have to have unreal back pressure and reload, and we need big angles and good sticks and the things that whether we play at the University of Michigan or Mercyhurst, we’re going to have to be good at those things. We won’t be able to field seven NHL first-round picks tomorrow night, so our team play will definitely have to be better than their individual game.
Michigan senior Jimmy Lambert acknowledged a lack of scouting on the AIC.
“To be honest, I haven’t watched any videos on them,” Lambert said Thursday. “We’re just worried about the guys we have in our locker room and what we’re going to do when we step on the ice.”
There aren’t many comparisons between the Big Ten and Atlantic hockey champions; they have only faced one common opponent this season: Niagara. American International went 1-0-1 against the Purple Eagles to end the regular season in February; UM, meanwhile, topped Niagara in back-to-back wins at Ann Arbor in November, going 10-2 combined.
As Lang noted, that could be another plus for his Yellow Jackets – there’s a lot of tape about Wolverines’ most talented players: “Ironically, you find yourself in those situations and maybe calling and talking to NHL scouts who saw them, because we didn’t see them live,” Lang said.
Some of that tape, however, comes from the young Wolverines’ experience in international play. These games are what young UM players rely on to prepare for their first NCAA tournament. (Michigan made the field last season but was forced to forfeit before its first-round game after testing positive for COVID-19.)
“It’s a one-game elimination, so you learn you have to bring it on every night,” Power said, comparing the NCAA to the World Junior Championships. “I think everyone in our team here knows it’s do or die every night and I think everyone is ready to go.
“A few bad rebounds, or you don’t play one night, it’s over. We all know it here and we’re good to go.
No Wolverine knows that better than fifth-year senior Michael Pastujov, who played as a rookie in all three games of Michigan’s 2018 NCAA Tournament – the program’s last on-ice appearance in the NCAAs – as the Wolverines lost against Notre Dame in the Frozen Four. semifinals in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Pastujov scored an equalizer in that game with 5:22 left in regulation. But Notre Dame’s Jake Evans slipped a shot past UM keeper Hayden Lavigne with 5.2 seconds left, sending the Irish to the final and the Wolverines to Ann Arbor.
That left Pastujov with a message Thursday for his young teammates: “My message to them was, ‘Don’t take any of this for granted.’ That was four or five years ago, and I haven’t played in a tournament since, so don’t take anything for granted, and as soon as you hit the ice, make the most of it.
Lang echoed that sentiment when speaking of his veterans: “The only thing I can tell you about our group is that we won’t be showing up tomorrow and we’ll be impressed with these guys.”