No pain, no gain for Wolverines
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- His postgame obligations complete, Carl Hagelin limped his way back down the hallway underneath the Xcel Energy Center on Thursday night and slowly made his way to the Michigan dressing room.
A large bag of ice was taped around his left ankle and foot, altering his gait.
The senior left wing from Sodertalje, Sweden, leads the Wolverines in goals (18), assists (31) and points (49).
But it was a key shot block by Hagelin late in the second national semifinal that helped to preserve a 2-0 shutout win over prohibitive favorite North Dakota and ensured Michigan a slot in Saturday night's Frozen Four championship game against Minnesota Duluth (ESPNHD and ESPN3.com, 7 p.m. ET).
"We came into the game knowing that we had to play well defensively and that includes great goalkeeping, blocking shots and backchecking," Hagelin said after the game. "And we all have that mindset, that we want to block every shot and we want to get the puck out.
"And that's been the strength of our team lately."
All of those attributes were on display against the Fighting Sioux as goaltender Shawn Hunwick turned away 40 shots to record his fourth shutout of the season and Michigan blocked a total of 16 shots.
As a result, the Wolverines (29-10-4) will be playing for the school's 10th national title. The last time Michigan appeared in the NCAA hockey championship game was 1998, when it got an overtime goal from freshman Josh Langfeld to beat Boston College 3-2 in Boston.
Since then Red Berenson's club has made four unsuccessful trips to the Frozen Four, losing in the semis every time. But like 1998, when Michigan wasn't a favorite to win it all, the Wolverines now find themselves with a chance to secure a national title -- a first for the players and a third for Berenson. His first one, back in 1996 over Colorado College, was also a 3-2 overtime win if you believe that things happen in threes.
This time around, Red and the boys will again face a homestate team in what figures to be a hostile environment as much of the 19,000-plus in attendance will likely be behind the Bulldogs from Duluth. That won't be any different than the pro-Sioux crowd that greeted Michigan on Thursday night.
But facing adversity and stepping up to those challenges are tenets of Berenson's philosophy.
And that school of thought has come in quite handy this season.
When things weren't going so well in the early part of the schedule, Berenson implored his club to focus on the little things it could control, starting with team defense.
"A lot of these guys never blocked a shot before they got to Michigan," Berenson said. "Our team has bought into playing better team defense. We realized halfway through the season we weren't going to win on offense; we had to play better without the puck, and give our goalies a chance. I don't think it has hurt our offense, but everyone has bought in and I think it has made our team better."
The realization hit home after several Friday night losses to open weekend conference series.
From Oct. 22 to Dec. 4, Michigan went 1-4-1 in CCHA play on Friday nights. But the Wolverines had a perfect 6-0 mark on those Saturday nights that followed.
"Halfway through the season we realized we couldn't keep doing that or we would be a .500 team," captain Luke Glendening said. "That's when we started putting emphasis on the defensive side of the game and that's when things started getting better.
"It definitely starts with the players, especially the leadership. If they're not going to backcheck, then why is anyone else going to backcheck? So it starts with us and then everyone is going to buy in and follow suit and that's what happened."
Michigan went 14-4 starting with the Big Chill at the Big House victory over Michigan State on Dec. 11 -- in front of 113,411 at Michigan Stadium -- through the end of the regular season. That included a 7-2 record in one-goal games.
And the Wolverines were on an eight-game winning streak heading into the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena when they reverted to their old and undesirable ways.
The result saw upstart Western Michigan drill Michigan 5-2. As they did in the early part of the season, the Wolverines responded with a 4-2 win the next night against Notre Dame in the CCHA third-place game.
"It was a wake-up call for us," Glendening said of the WMU loss. "We had won eight games in a row and were kind of on cloud nine thinking we can't be beat. We got absolutely embarrassed in front of a lot of our own fans right in Detroit where we've done so well. We've all talked about it and it was a great moment for our team. They are a good team but we just got straight up outplayed. So that was a huge turning point for us.
"We knew we could be a good team but we all have to show up. We don't have a lot of high-powered scorers like Michigan teams have had in the past. We have to do the little things. We have to block shots, we have to backcheck or we're not going to be any good."
Keep in mind that this Michigan club dressed 11 NHL draft picks Thursday night so it's not as though there isn't any talent in the room. But it's the understanding that skill isn't the only way to succeed on the ice. And when there's no puck luck to be found, there are still many contributions that can be made through sheer will -- like giving up the body to block a shot.
"I think that's the biggest challenge for any coach nowadays," Berenson said. "It seems like a lot of the younger generation, they feel entitled and not willing to work. But a kid like Luke Glendening, he came to Michigan with no expectations. I didn't know if he would ever play a game, but when I saw him on the ice I realized that this kid has something special. He does everything right, he goes through the wall. Off the ice he is like a machine, and he is just a great kid. Those are the kind of kids that set an example for those entitled kids.
"So we have a pretty good mix right now. I think these kids are bringing the most out of each other and that's why they are still playing at this point in the year. It is because of the team, not because of the firepower."
And it's a team that has demonstrated it is willing, from the top player to the end of the roster, to sacrifice now and apply ice later.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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