Like the quirky title character in the NBC prime time series, My Name Is Earl, the 2007-08 Michigan Wolverines were briefly at the top of their world, only to have a blindside strike reassign them to their original state.
Ranked No. 11 in the nation over their first of three game-free weeks, the PC Men’s fast-coming adversary watched their CCHA rival Miami Redhawks reclaim the weekly throne through its sweeping impression at 16th-rated Rensselaer last weekend.
The fact of the matter is, though, this is still the Maize and Blue we’re talking about. The Big Blue M (sounds almost like a local insectan icon, does it not?), the football-famous winged helmets, the Yost Nasties, the works.
At this weekend’s Great Lakes Invitational, together with arch-rival Michigan State –a rigid fifth in the NCAA pool- and the WCHA’s resurgent Michigan Tech Huskies, the Wolverines happen to be inviting the Friars into a vat of some of college hockey’s choppiest western waters in years. Puckheads along the coast may have been missing it due to the hot-enough molecular activity in Hockey East, but the best of the CCHA this season are kilning a CCCP type of impression.
The 2007 Spartans’ startling Frozen Four overhaul of a luckless Boston College team snapped a nine-year national title drought for CCHA tenants, which took effect after Red Berenson’s pupils claimed the 1998 crown against the same Eagle franchise.
With that pothole out of the way, the likes of the Wolverines, Spartans, Redhawks, #6 Notre Dame, and even #19 Bowling Green State are all calling upon the frozen rain spirits to shuffle the glory away from the hegemonic WCHA and ever-feisty Hockey East bigwigs.
More to the point at hand, there is a more personal burden weighing on the Wolverines as Friday’s 4:30 face-off at Joe Louis Arena looms. Michigan, after jealously guarding the GLI title for a nine-year stretch up until 1996, has not won the hailed holiday tourney since. Over the past ten years, while Michigan Tech sat in a rather comatose, forgotten state, first-place has gone to either the Spartans or the at-large invitee.
Whew. Quite a bit for Tim Army’s corps to be digesting in its own block of sharpening for this tournament. What’s the ultimate angle from Schneider?
Start with the educated guess that The Joe will likely live up to its occasional “Yost East” pet name as up to 10,000 tireless “Hail to the Victors” songsters make the leap from Ann Arbor. The Friars have done the better chunk of their clotting on unchartered ponds this season –their last three invaluable conference victories date back to excursions to Vermont and Maine.
Still, Army acknowledges “We haven’t confronted that number, but we have played some difficult road games though the buildings don’t seat that kind of capacity (as that of Joe Louis Arena).
“We’ve been able to play well in some difficult places. Obviously there will be more people, it is Michigan…but our focus is to be ready to play and not to play on our heels but to play on our toes.”
An alleged culprit as to Michigan’s GLI spell has been its generous offering to the coinciding World Junior tournament. This season, the Wolverines will be without freshmen forwards Carl Hegelin of Sweden and Matt Rust and Max Pacioretty of Team USA and the latter two’s countryman blueliner, Chris Summers.
The other skate may drop on Friar Fanatic forecasters in that the nation’s top gun, Michigan senior Kevin Porter (18-11-29 totals through 18 games) and not-too-distant classmate Chad Kolarik (12-12-24) are still hanging about. Even with that to the side, Army cautioned, “They’re really deep. They’ve obviously got some good kids who will be at World Juniors, but you can’t be #1 without a deep roster.
“(For them) it’ll be an opportunity for other players who ordinarily don’t see as much ice time. They certainly will want to step up, so I expect that we will see the very best that Michigan has to offer.”
Additionally, whatever transpires on Friday and whatever its effect on Saturday’s slate may be, it will pose an opportunity for the ambitious Friars, particularly junior defender Matt Taormina.
Taormina, native to the Detroit suburb of Washington Township, has timed his precision puckslinging rather well leading up to his holiday homecoming. His 16 points have knotted him with senior captain Jon Rheault atop the Friars scoring charts, virtually matched his frosh-soph aggregate of 18, and make him the most consistent scoring backliner in the nation.
Now he has a chance to, with the rest of his Ocean State colleagues, test his new two-way trend against some alien big boys in his one-time backyard.
“I think it’s great for Matt,” Army bluntly noted, adding “because we’re a Hockey East team, and because one our seven non-conference games is always against Brown, it’s difficult for our kids from the Midwest to play in their hometown. So for Matt, he’ll have a lot of family and friends in the stands and it’ll be a great opportunity to illustrate how much he has progressed in his two-plus years here.”
Vaguely Familiar Settings
The largest one-sided hostile mass that the Friars confronted happens to date back to the previous holiday break when they visited the Badger Showdown. There, they submitted to the then-defending champion Badgers, 5-0, in the third-place game before a record 14,784 at Kohl Center.
Citing the rarely encountered circumstances, which he may be in for again should PC tangle with Michigan State, Army said “We didn’t initiate a great deal of play that game, so especially for the guys who are returning this year, we’ll try to draw on that.”
One day prior to that Badger beating, the aforementioned Taormina inserted the Friars’ lone offensive highlight of that experience, scoring in a 2-1 falter to yet another Michigan tenant, Lake Superior State.
PC’s last post-Christmas cheer came as a first-place finish in third, and most likely last, Dunkin Coffee Pot in 2005.
Making a fair case
In defense of its national crown, Michigan State is subsisting on a propitious bushel of disciplined veterans that has helped it to a respectable fourth place in its conference (with a few games in hand, mind you) and an overall 12-3-2 transcript. Four of the Spartans’ junior forwards –top gun Tim Kennedy, Justin Abdelkader, Tim Crowder, Nick Sucharski- have all charged up at least 13 points through 17 games played while having yet to hatch the goose egg in their respective penalty minutes column. Another three hefty heat gun bearers –seniors Bryan Lerg and Daniel Vukovic and junior Matt Schepke- have done time for a mere eight minutes apiece this season.
With precisely half of their regular season agenda over with, the Spartans, backed by mighty mite netminder Jeff Lerg, are on pace to enter the post-season with 24 wins –six more than what they had at the beginning of last March.
Going into the specifics of this weekend, though, MSU is seeking its fifth consecutive berth in the GLI title game and its third crowning achievement in four years.
There was a time when the legendary John MacInnes –the namesake for the GLI’s championship trophy- was coaching the Michigan Tech Huskies to the same level of reverence as Herb Brooks’ Minnesota program and the earliest versions of Professor Parker’s Pupils at Boston University.
But the co-founders of the 43-year-old tournament from Yooper Country are now without a sip from their late godfather’s cup since 1980. The modernized, hard-luck Huskies have not so much as won a single GLI game since 2000.
Only recently, though, fifth-year coach Jamie Russell has brought MTU back into the frame of recognition, helping it to an appearance at last year’s WCHA Final 5. Only a recent 0-1-1 upshot in a two-game series with regional rival Northern Michigan has docked the Huskies from the national polls as they make their always-treasured Motown excursion.
The freshest USCHO assessment has both the Huskies and Friars with honorable mentions, holding 15 and 5 votes respectively.
Miscellany Rhode Island has twice previously been represented in the GLI. Brown University charged up fourth-place and third-place achievements in 1970 and 1976…With the Friars’ input, Hockey East will have had a Detroit holiday ambassador for the sixth time since the league’s inception, fifth in eight seasons, and fourth in six seasons. None of those invitees left Motown winless. Most recently, the Hub Hunks of BU and BC split championships in 2002 and 2003 before New Hampshire nabbed a consolation win over MTU in 2004…A smattering of GLI alums now with the Providence and/or Boston Bruins include: BC’s Andrew Alberts, Bobby Allen, and Chris Collins, Matt Hunwick of Michigan, and Mark Stuart of Colorado College in 2005…The Friars-Wolverines all-time series has but two chapters to speak of, both Michigan victories. Their previous meeting was at the Nebraska-Omaha-based Maverick Stampede on October 12, 2001…PC’s last encounter with Michigan State was during Army’s senior year in 1985, when a goal-total factor declared the Friars (6-5 differential) the winner of a two-game NCAA playoff round, sending them to their last Frozen Four, also at Joe Louis…The Providence franchise is 3-5-2 lifetime against MTU, last encountering the Huskies in the Upper Peninsula on January 28, 1989 and extracting a 5-2 triumph…Outside the action in Detroit, the rest of Hockey East’s holiday tournament activity reads as follows: Maine will pay its routine visit to Estero for the Florida Everblades College Classic, opposite UMass-Lowell; UMass-Amherst grinds in nearby Tampa at the Lightning College Classic; Northeastern partakes in the Badger Showdown; Boston College visits the Minneapolis-based Dodge Holiday Classic; Vermont hangs about its home pond for the Catamount Cup, inviting Holy Cross, Quinnipiac, and Western Michigan this season…League actions rekindles Sunday, December 30, when Merrimack visits BU.
This article originally appeared in the Friartown Free Press