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Nine-time champ Michigan seeks 10th title

Sam Gans | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Heading into the Frozen Four, each participant has a set of intangibles that it believes could provide an edge. North Dakota is the highest-ranked team, Minnesota-Duluth has home-state advantage, and Notre Dame is coming in with an underdog, “might as well be us” mindset and little pressure.

Yet the one thing those teams do not have is the most national championships in NCAA history. That distinction belongs to the Michigan Wolverines.

Michigan is trying to add their 10th to the trophy case and first since 1998 this weekend. After a 3-2 win in overtime against Nebraska-Omaha in the first round, the Wolverines (28-10-4) advanced to the regional final March 26, where they faced the No.4 seed Colorado College, who upset No. 1 Boston College 8-4. Michigan was victorious 2-1.

“I think it was a foregone conclusion that Boston College had the best team and they were the No. 1 seed,” Wolverine coach Red Berenson said. “But Colorado [College] just spanked them. It was unbelievable and I think that was the surprise of our region. And we were lucky to win in overtime [against Nebraska-Omaha] and win a close game against Colorado. So we’re here [at the Frozen Four], but I think people were surprised that we came out of that region.”

Despite what many view as a stunning regional conquer, the Wolverines have been quite impressive recently, winning eleven of their past twelve games, including a 4-2 victory over Notre Dame in the CCHA Tournament third-place game March 19. The Irish and Michigan also met twice earlier, splitting a series in Ann Arbor, Mich. Nov. 12 and 13.

In the Wolverines’ path is the lone No. 1 seed remaining, North Dakota — a challenge Michigan knows will demand its best.

“I think [North Dakota] has pretty much all you can ask for in a team,” senior center Louie Caporusso said. “They’re deep, they’re strong, they’re big, they’re fast, they can score. Their defense was stingy. We understand we have our hands full with North Dakota and they’re probably the best team in the nation.”

The Wolverines will counter the Sioux with an offensive unit led by senior left wing Carl Hagelin. Hagelin, a New York Rangers draftee, is tops on Michigan in scoring with 48 points. Caporusso is second with 30 points.

On the blueline, freshman Jon Merrill has emerged as a stalwart, earning second team all-CCHA honors. The Wolverines also hope to have junior Brandon Burlon back in the lineup to protect senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick. The status of Burlon, who missed the regional tournament due to illness, will be Berenson’s gameday decision.

Regardless if the Honorable Mention all-CCHA defenseman is back or not, the Wolverines are still beaming with confidence.

“I definitely feel we have a great team here,” Caporusso said. “Being here four years, I think we do have a special team.”

The Frozen Four is not a new experience for the program’s seniors. Just like North Dakota and Notre Dame, the Wolverines last qualified for the national semifinals in 2008.

“It’s an honor to be at another Frozen Four, especially for the senior class,” Caporusso said. “It was a great experience our freshman year. I think we took a lot from that year and it was unfortunate that we weren’t able to make it the following two years. We learned a lot from that experience and we’re very happy to be back here again.”

Whether Michigan’s seniors can turn the experience gained then into a championship this year remains to be seen. Though North Dakota’s talent appears to give them the edge on paper, Berenson, sixth on the NCAA’s career victories list, knows anything can happen.

“I don’t know if we can match North Dakota’s speed and/or skill. And I don’t think anyone’s found a way to take that out of the game,” he said. “They’ve got the edge on special teams and they’ve got the edge on offensive skill, so we’ve got to play our game. Our team’s going to give it their best shot. We’ve seen three other No. 1 teams go down and this is the last team standing.”