Michigan coach Red Berenson: Wolverines' best hockey is ahead
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
When Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson mapped out the season earlier this year, he had an idea of what was coming.
On paper, Wolverines had the potential to be one of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association's top three teams. Michigan had capable scorers in Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso and Matt Rust. Bryan Hogan and Shawn Hunwick gave the Wolverines two experienced goalies and defensively, Michigan had plenty of depth.
What he didn't count on was that Michigan would get as much scoring as it did from Scooter Vaughan and David Wohlberg or that the Wolverines would play to more ties (four) than it had all last season when Michigan was involved in one shootout.
Michigan (10-5-4, 9-3-1 CCHA) enters the second half of the regular season in first place, separated from third-place Miami by two points. Although the Wolverines have only one more win than they did at this point last season when they struggled with first-half inconsistencies, Berenson believes he hasn't seen his team's best.
"I think we expected to be a little further ahead - but not a lot," Berenson said Tuesday. "You can't say, 'Oh, we're going to expect to lose four games in the first half.' I mean, which games are you expecting to lose? I wasn't expecting us to have four ties. Our best hockey is still ahead of us.
"I think we've seen some glimpses, some good signs, and I think the second half will be our best half. But we're right there. We're knocking on the door. We're not bad."
Scoring The Wolverines scored 68 first-half goals and trail only Miami (69) in goals scored, paced by Hagelin, who leads Michigan in scoring (9-10-19). While neither Caporusso (6) nor Rust (3) have scored as much as perhaps they expected, Berenson said both will find their rhythm as the season goes on. That's where the scoring infusion of Wohlberg (8 goals) and Vaughan (7) helped out.
Last season, Caporusso used a second-half surge to help guide Michigan to its 20th straight NCAA appearance.
"You knew our seniors would be driving the bus, and they are," Berenson said. "But I think our seniors will be pressing and the juniors and the sophomores - all the players who were here at the stretch run last year, are going to try and get that stretch run going soon."
Impact player Berenson figured Jon Merrill was Michigan’s best hope for a breakout freshman player. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound defenseman hasn't disappointed. Merrill ranks third on the team in scoring (5-8-13) and scored twice in Michigan's 5-0 shutout of rival Michigan State at last weekend's Big Chill at the Big House.
Berenson knew he had an offensive-minded defenseman in Merrill, but admitted he got more than what he expected from the Brighton native over Michigan's first 19 games.
"His game is kind of what we were hoping it would be," Berenson said. "Most kids can't live up to their expectations that soon, but he did. Right off the get-go, he showed he could play at this level."
No bad stretches Last year at this time, Michigan was 9-9 and limped into the Great Lakes Invitational having endured a first half that included a five-game losing streak. The Wolverines have five losses this season, two of which came back to back in setbacks against Minnesota and Ohio State.
The loss to the Buckeyes was perhaps the most disappointing of the first half. Michigan led 2-1 in the closing seconds, but took a bad penalty and gave up a goal with 10 seconds remaining in regulation. The Buckeyes then followed up with a goal 90 seconds into overtime, giving Michigan its fifth weekend split of the year.
Despite going through a stretch where the Wolverines couldn't find a way to win on Fridays - losing four straight series openers - the struggles with up and down play never reached the point it did last year. The No. 11-ranked Wolverines enter the GLI with two straight wins, including last week's 5-0 over the Spartans.
"I think we finished the first half of the season on the highest note possible," Rust said. "I think everything we've been working on came together at one point.
"It's definitely going to carry some momentum into the GLI and hopefully, we can keep the ball rolling. "
Starting strong The Wolverines open GLI play against Michigan Tech (3-10-2, 1-10-1 Western College Hockey Association), which has lost 10 straight games dating back to a 5-5 tie two Oct. 16 against Minnesota State. A win against the Huskies would set up a championship game with either Michigan State or Colorado College (10-7-1, 7-5 WCHA). Two wins, coupled with the chance to play in the same venue the CCHA championships will be played in early March, could lay the foundation for a solid second half.
The Wolverines re-start league play Jan. 7 at Michigan State and don't face Miami until the first weekend of February.
"(The GLI) can give you a big-game environment, and our goal every year is to get into the championship game," Berenson said. "That gives you a sense of an important game in a venue we're going to have to play in again down the road. If you walk out of Joe Louis with two wins, you feel pretty good about playing there, you've added to your confidence. And so I think there are a lot of good things that go if you do well in the GLI."