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Talented freshman class has Michigan hockey thinking big

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

The hype is there, the preseason expectations are big, and on paper it’s certainly an impressive collection of talent on the Michigan hockey team. Now, the Wolverines have to go out and prove all the praise is warranted.

The Wolverines, behind a strong freshman class, were picked to finish second Monday by Big Ten coaches in a preseason poll behind Minnesota. Michigan State was picked sixth in the seven-team league.

Matthew Beniers

The Wolverines are also ranked 12th nationally, and as they open the season against Arizona State Saturday, coach Mel Pearson is cautiously optimistic about what could be one of the more exciting teams in the country.

“I really like how our team has come along,” said Pearson during Monday’s Zoom call with media. “We don’t know how good we are. It’s been a long time (since any games). You see some of it with football right now, all across the board, just the scores and what is going on. You’ll see some of that in college hockey. We’re not sure where we’re at. March 12 was a long time ago (when last season was shut down)."

After a shaky start to practice — the coaching staff needing to knock off the bad habits of summer hockey — last weekend’s intra-squad scrimmage showed Pearson the Wolverines are close to game-ready.

“Scrimmaging this weekend, we were real good, better structure and better physicality, attention to detail,” he said. “If we can play like that, we’ll be in good shape.”

Freshmen defenseman Owen Power, forwards Matthew Beniers, Kent Johnson and Thomas Bordeleau, and goaltender Erik Portillo are some of the young players who should make immediate impacts.

Power, a 6-foot-5, 214-pound versatile defenseman who is expected to be a high first-round NHL pick next year, has been extremely noticeable in early scrimmages, although many of the young forwards have also had starring moments.

“Every freshman has proved to our staff they should play,” Pearson said. “They’re not out of place right now. They’ve looked real good as a group.

“But you have to go out and prove it every day on the ice.”

Jack Becker

The Wolverines named forward Jack Becker and goaltender Strauss Mann co-captains. Mann took control of the net last season, and gives the Wolverines confidence they can overcome some early-season mistakes.

“You can’t put a value on that,” said Pearson of Mann’s experience. “He’s going to be as prepared as anybody in college hockey, any position, any player, I can guarantee you.”

Becker noted how this Wolverines’ team is intent on creating the energy to somehow take the place of missing fans at Yost Arena because of the pandemic.

As in many other sports, because of the pandemic there will not be any fans at rinks this season.

Yost Arena is normally as difficult a rink for opposing teams to play in as any in the country.

“It’s going to be weird without the crowd noise, chants and whatnot,” Becker said. “One of our goals is to have some of the best energy in the Big Ten, and that just means when you see a teammate doing well, just yell or be happy for him ... words of encouragement. That’s something that can create momentum.”

Sophomore defenseman Cam York, forward Johnny Beecher and junior forward Jimmy Lambert are key returnees after strong rookie seasons.

As for the Big Ten race, Pearson pointed to the conference’s parity. The Wolverines started 1-7-0 last season before roaring back to finish 18-14-4.

“It’s very difficult placing one team (atop the conference),” said Pearson, who picked Ohio State to win the Big Ten in the poll. “The quality of the Big Ten, just the depth across all the teams is so good, it’s really hard to pick anybody (as a favorite).”

Twitter: @tkulfan