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After passing early tests, No. 1 Michigan hockey ready for challenge of high expectations

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Four top-five NHL draft picks; two wins over top-5 teams en route to a tournament win this past weekend; and now, for Michigan hockey, a No. 1 ranking in college hockey’s latest poll

The target on Michigan’s back has seemingly doubled in size over the last few days, and still, the Wolverines aren’t sweating it. The bull's-eye already was pretty large.

After knocking off a pair of top-five teams last weekend, newly No. 1-ranked Michigan will take on No. 17 Western Michigan this weekend.

“You know, we do play hockey at the University of Michigan, the most successful college hockey program in the nation,” assistant captain Jimmy Lambert said Monday.

“Expectations are always high.”

That’s both a fair and realistic assessment. Still, there’s an attitude that comes with being the No. 1 team in the nation — and another that comes with chasing the team that is.

Michigan leapfrogged No. 1 Minnesota State with a win over the Mavericks in the championship game of this past weekend’s Ice Breaker Tournament in Duluth, Minnesota. The Wolverines also kept No. 5 Minnesota Duluth from doing the same to them by smashing the Bulldogs, 5-1, in the tournament opener on Friday.

In both games, Michigan was taken out of its element early on. Minnesota State out-shot the Wolverines 8-3 in the opening period Saturday’s championship game. Duluth took an early lead Friday and temporarily knocked Michigan captain Nick Blankenburg out with a hard hit behind the net.

And, in both games, Michigan fought back — proving that it can not only go step-for-step with the nation’s top teams, but do so even when it isn’t playing its best hockey.

“This is a big weekend for us to learn what we need to work on, what we’re good at,” Blankenburg said. “We’re just enjoying this right now, but we definitely need to know that after these two games, we gotta have better starts. It’s good to know early on and good to learn on it.”

The long story short for Michigan this season is to trust the process. This team is loaded with talent, but without an identity, it won’t go very far. Head coach Mel Pearson said the most recent pair of wins will go a long way in helping craft that.

“That’s why we wanted to play in this tournament once we found out the teams, to play in games like this,” Pearson said. “Especially early in the year when you’re trying to get your identity, set your identity, how you need to play, and how you are going to need to play at some point in a huge game down the road.”

This is especially important because most of the current Michigan hockey roster hasn’t played in a “huge game.”

The Wolverines were picking up a full head of steam ahead of the 2020 postseason, ripping through rival Michigan State at home in the Big Ten Tournament’s opening weekend, with a matchup against No. 10 Ohio State to follow on March 15 — but a few days before that could happen, the world shut down, and the rest of the season was canceled.

Last season, Michigan reached the NCAA Tournament, where Duluth awaited. A few hours before puck drop, positive COVID tests forced the Wolverines out of the tournament entirely.

Now, as it embarks on a season with the highest expectations to date, the experience simply isn’t there. Pearson knows this could be a problem, which is why he’s so thrilled  the early stress tests have yielded passing grades.

“This gives us confidence, there’s no doubt about it,” Pearson said. “And it’s not false confidence, because we had to earn it. We had to earn every inch on the ice, and we had to earn everything that we got this weekend from both those teams.”

That includes, of course, Minnesota State’s No. 1 ranking — at least for now. A home-and-home with No. 17 Western Michigan awaits on Friday and Saturday night.

“They’re another (National Collegiate Hockey Conference) team. Those teams are all very good,” Lambert said. “Up and down the lineup, they work hard, they grind. It’s going to be a battle kind of like this past weekend. We’re going to wait for our chances, stay patient, don’t get frustrated.

“Hopefully we can have the same result as this past weekend.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.