Friday, June 27, 2014

Know Your Enemy: Michigan

This week's Know Your Enemy features a program that has been one of the monsters of college hockey pretty much since the beginning of college hockey. One of the more polarizing teams in the western reaches of the sport due in part to their "big school" status, Michigan has traditionally been one of the strongest teams in the nation regardless of how often they've won it all - which, to be honest, hasn't been a whole lot recently compared to some other top programs. While they've claimed more national championships than any other school, many of them are from an era when they were by far the biggest fish in a rather small pond. But make no mistake about it: the Wolverines are still college hockey royalty.

Nickname: Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Founded: 1817
Conference: Big Ten
National Championships: 9 (1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1964, 1996, 1998)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2011
Coach: Red Berenson (31st season)
2013-14 Record: 18-13-4 (10-8-2-1 Big Ten, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 7-3-1
First Game: March 12, 1954 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Last RPI win: December 29, 2009 (Detroit, MI)
Last Michigan win: January 18, 1986 (Ann Arbor, MI)

2014-15 games: November 28-29, 2014 (Ann Arbor, MI)

Key players: F Zach Hyman, sr.; D Brennan Serville, sr.; F Andrew Copp, jr.; F Cristoval Nieves, jr.; F J.T. Compher, so.; D Nolan De Jong, so.; D Michael Downing, so.; F Alex Kile, so.; F Tyler Motte, so.; G Zach Nagelvoort, so.; F Tony Calderone, fr.; F Dylan Larkin, fr.; D Sam Piazza, fr.; D Zach Werenski, fr.

This season marks the first of a three-year deal for games between Michigan and the teams from the Capital District. RPI makes its first visit to one of the hallowed halls of college hockey, Yost Ice Arena, since the 1985-86 season. That series was a wild affair, which was split while the teams managed to combine for a mind-blowing 34 goals in two games (defense, anyone?). The Engineers earned a 7-6 victory on the first night, followed by an 11-10 overtime win for the Wolverines the next night - the only time in school history (probably in most schools' histories) that RPI scored double digits in goals and lost.

RPI and Michigan don't dance too frequently, but the Engineers seem to have had the Wolverines' number when they do - RPI joins only Cornell, Denver, Minnesota, Penn State, and UMass-Lowell as current teams with a winning all-time record against Michigan. In fact, the first time RPI and Michigan met, it was in a game that would alter the course of college hockey history.

The University of Michigan has had a hockey program continuously since 1923, when they played their first four games in a home-and-home Friday-Saturday set against familiar rivals Wisconsin, winning first three of those four games. Unlike many schools, which saw hockey fall to the wayside during the Great Depression and World War II, Michigan kept its program active during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, it was during the 1930s that the Wolverines first developed their reputation as a strong hockey program, producing nine winning seasons during the decade while regularly playing games against Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The team's fortunes dipped in the early part of the 1940s during World War II, but this was more a function of who was playing and who they were playing against. Most able bodied men of college age were off fighting the war, and those that weren't had few schools still playing the sport to compete against. Therefore, the Wolverines played most of its games against Army teams and sides put together by local factories, most of which had older and bigger men than the varsity squad could manage.

In 1945, as the war reached its conclusion, Michigan and NHL alum Vic Heyliger became the squad's third head coach, replacing the man who had helmed the program since 1928, Ed Lowrey. Heyliger was in the right place at the right time with the war ending, and his hockey acumen combined with an influx of returning veterans that burgeoned schools around the country to create the first powerhouse of the NCAA era.

Heyliger began matching his team up with junior teams from Canada in December of 1945, and his Wolverine teams immediately began finding great success not only against those squads but against American colleges as well. Following the conclusion of the war, Heyliger's teams never finished a season with a winning percentage below .600, a stretch of 12 consecutive years. In fact, once the NCAA championship was established in 1948, Michigan went five straight campaigns without a winning percentage below .800.

During the years that the NCAA Tournament was held exclusively in Colorado Springs, there was one other constant: Michigan. From 1948 through 1957, the four-team tournament stayed in one place, and the Wolverines were there every single season. Back then, there was a certain hierarchy in college hockey. Western teams, it was thought, were generally better than eastern teams, and among western teams, few could approach the strength and power of Michigan. They won the very first NCAA championship in 1948 with an 8-4 win over Dartmouth. They were kept from the national title game the next year by the Big Green, but eventually won their second, third, and fourth titles in 1951 (over Brown), 1952 (over Colorado College) and 1953 (over Minnesota), giving Michgan four championships in the first six years of the tournament.

1954 was supposed to be more of the same. After a season which rarely saw Michigan even challenged by the best American teams in the west, the Wolverines headed to Colorado Springs to do battle with an upstart little engineering school from the weaker east, ready to roll into an expected showdown with their rivals from Minnesota in what would have been the first ever NCAA championship rematch game. Things didn't go to script that year, as the unknown RPI Engineers produced one of the biggest upsets in college hockey history to that time by dethroning the three-time champions, 6-4. Michigan would come back the next night to pound Boston College 7-2, but their reign was over.

The loss to RPI kept the Michigan dynasty from establishing a reign that would have been practically unbreakable by today's standards. Though their stretch of three straight crowns from 1951 to 1953 has never been duplicated, the Wolverines ended up tacking on two more in 1955 and 1956, making for five titles in six years and six in the first nine.

Heyliger retired from Michigan in 1957 after the Wolverines fell to Colorado College in the national championship game, failing to repeat the three-peat. Taking his place was a man who had previously played for the Wolverines under Heyliger - his brother-in-law, Al Renfrew. While Renfrew wasn't able to duplicate Heyliger's massive success due in part to growth in college hockey providing more competition, Michigan was hardly a slouch during his 16 years in the driver's seat in Ann Arbor. While the first few seasons under Renfrew were Michigan's first losing years in the NCAA era, the school would quickly be back in the Frozen Four by 1962, and throughout the 1960s, Renfrew was producing top-level performances, winning a national championship in 1964 with a 24-win season, then the most in school history.

Michigan was one of the top teams in the newly-formed WCHA throughout the 1960s, but a rough stretch of three losing seasons to start the 1970s marred Renfrew's final years behind the bench. He retired in 1973 to take over the school's ticket office, just ahead of the opening of Yost Ice Arena. Dan Farrell, a Michigan Tech grad, would lead the Wolverines for the remainder of the decade, leading the team to four 20-win seasons in seven years, as well as the 1977 national championship game, where they fell to Wisconsin.

If ever there could be said to have been seriously difficult times in Michigan's post-World War II history, the early 1980s might qualify. After departing the WCHA for the less well-established CCHA in 1981, the Wolverines suffered the first of five straight 20-loss seasons in 1983, continually finishing near the bottom of the conference. It was during this stretch, however, that the third coach that could legitimately earn the title of "legendary" at Michigan took the reins. Like Heyliger and Renfrew before him, he was a former captain of the Wolverines as a player, and like Heyliger, he had enjoyed a career in the NHL: Gordon "Red" Berenson.

Berenson's first three seasons as head coach in Ann Arbor were the last three of the 20-loss season stretch from 1985 to 1987, but once it ended, the Wolverines embarked upon a streak of dominance rivaled only by its early NCAA dynasty years, topping it in length but falling short of its benchmark for top honors. The 1987-88 season was Michigan's first winning year in the last six, and it started a remarkable streak: it was the first of 25 straight seasons in which the Wolverines won at least 20 games.

The 1990s especially evoked memories of the late 40s and 50s by the numbers. Eight straight 30-win seasons, a practically untouchable streak, were rattled off from 1991 to 1998, a stretch that included four CCHA regular season titles, three CCHA championships, and six Frozen Four appearances, including national championships in 1996 and 1998. Again, the three-peat was interrupted by an upset in the Frozen Four in 1997, this time by Boston University, ending Michigan's title hopes despite a final record of 35-4-4. Brendan Morrison, who a year earlier had scored the overtime goal to deliver Michigan's first national championship in 32 years, earned Michigan's first Hobey Baker Award that season.

1999 brought an end to the 30-win streak, but the success rolled on in Ann Arbor. Six more CCHA crowns, six more CCHA regular season titles, and five more Frozen Four appearances were in the offing over the next 14 seasons. In every year from 1991 to 2012, the Michigan Wolverines were in the NCAA tournament, a record streak broken only in the team's final season in the CCHA - a streak that nearly continued as a struggling Michigan team in 2013 very nearly completed an odd Cinderella run through the CCHA tournament, falling to Notre Dame for the final CCHA championship. The loss to Notre Dame sealed Michigan into its first losing season since 1987 - at 18-19-3.

So, now, perhaps more than at any time in the recent past, Michigan is a team in a bit of flux. Red Berenson's incomparable streaks of success snapped, the Wolverines again missed out on the NCAA tournament last season in the first year of the Big Ten. They got back to the usual ways of a winning season, but missed 20 wins for the second straight time, in part due to the overall strength of their new conference (struggling against the clear minnows of the Big Ten, Penn State, didn't help).

Part of Michigan's uncharacteristically mediocre season last year can be chalked up to the youth of last year's squad as well as the strength of the Big Ten. Compher last year became the first freshman in recent memory to lead Michigan in scoring, and Nagelvoort, despite some pretty solid numbers in net for the Wolverines, was also in just his first collegiate season.

Nieves, after a sparkling freshman campaign, endured a sophomore slump, but Michigan still got 22 points out of him. They return three of seven 20-point scorers from last season, including two of five who notched at least 10 goals and 10 assists with Compher and Copp. It could have been more, as two of Michigan's top scorers left with eligibility remaining. Larkin, coming in off the US Under-18 team and a possible first round selection in the upcoming NHL Draft, is a solid bet to be an important contributor as well.

A number of sources describe Michigan's blue line last year as "a mess" and "disastrous," and they have graduated the best of the bunch, leading to a troubling situation in the back. But there's some serious help on the way in the person of a very young but very talented addition in Werenski. Only making his commitment to the Wolverines this month, Werenski doesn't turn 17 until mid-July, but he accelerated his high school courses and graduated this year, making him eligible for college. He projects to be a first-round selection in the 2015 draft, but chances are good he'll have his freshman year done by then, and despite his youth he should add some stability to a rough defensive situation.

Regardless of the state of the blue line, RPI can expect to be in for a pair of difficult games despite the history of success the Engineers have had against Michigan. Even in a tough year as the Wolverines had last season, they had an overall record of 10-3-3 at Yost, a place that just doesn't see visiting teams finding a great deal of success in practically any year. If you've never been, you owe it to yourself to try and get out to the Great Lake State for this series, as Yost is certainly a bucket list destination for a fan of college hockey. To be successful, RPI will need to take advantage of any defensive disarray and the offense simply has to follow through on opportunities, because in a place like Ann Arbor, you aren't going to win unless you can pounce on windows of opportunity.

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