ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the University of Michigan hockey team.
The Wolverines (26-11-3) own the NCAA Tournament record in Frozen Four appearances with 27, including back-to-back trips last year and now this season.
A season ago, Michigan fell to Denver in the semifinal, 3-2 in overtime. There are returning players who have been hungry for another shot and they earned it with a 2-1 victory over Penn State in overtime of the NCAA Tournament’s Allentown Regional Final.
That also includes Brandon Naurato, who was named the interim head coach in early August of 2022 and was a part of last season’s 30-10-1 staff.
Right now, last season isn’t on his or the Wolverines’ mind. It’s getting to Tampa Bay for a date with the No. 1 seed from the Bridgeport, Connecticut Region Quinnipiac and getting back into the National Championship game.
“It’s been a fun group to be around all year long and they’ve earned it,” Naurato said. “We have a lot of young talent but there’s nothing these kids can’t handle, (Quinnipiac) has a lot of talent and that’s where the focus is right now.”
The Wolverines are very aware of the opponent they will be facing. Some of them played for the Bobcats head coach Rand Pecknold.
In the World Junior’s tournament in 2022-23, Pecknold was the head coach of the United States team. They went all the way to the semifinal against Canada where they fell 6-2, with Michigan freshman star Adam Fantilli, the nation’s leading scorer in college hockey, on the Canadian roster. Thursday morning, Fantilli was named a Hobey Hat Trick Finalist, which is collegiate hockey’s highest honor.
However, despite the familiarity Pecknold has with five of the Wolverines’ current players, Naurato believes it doesn’t create any major advantages for the Bobcats.
“With how much high-end technology there is out there right now, we’re all able to see a lot of how our teams play,” Naurato said. “We are able to watch film on them too, they’re a very talented group.”
The Wolverines also knocked out Quinnapiac in last year’s regional final, 7-4.
However, regardless of who the opponent could’ve been, Michigan is focused on getting back to a national title game. The Wolverines have only made it past the semifinal in two of their last nine trips.
Even with a young group of freshmen helping the Wolverines get to this point, Fantilli believes his class plays well beyond its years.
“We knew from the beginning we needed to have good comradery because our upperclassman preached that if we wanted to compete for national championships,” Fantilli said. “We have so many freshmen throughout our lineup who were able to have an impact. It’s a tribute to all of those older guys and coaches who helped us get here.”
For guys like sophomore Mackie Samoskevich, who scored the game-winning goal against Penn State, it means everything to not just get to the national title game, but go win it after being so close in his freshman campaign.
“Last season, we felt like we had the talent to win it all and came up short,” Samoskevich said. “This is a good group of guys and we’ve been able to put together a good stretch of hockey here. I think we all just want to get to Tampa to achieve our goals, it’s super exciting.”
This Wolverine team feels they were built to win a national title, now they have the chance to go prove it.
After all, this is a team that scored the most goals in an NCAA Tournament game since 1961 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament against No. 4 seed Colgate. They’re more than capable of lighting the lamp with a top-ranked offense in the nation.
Even with all the accomplishments to date, the most important piece of the puzzle is winning the whole thing.
“I think from the very start we were confident with our group,” graduate student Nolan Moyle said. “With all we’ve been through the last couple years, it would be nice to see the resiliency of this group pay off.”