The University of Michigan became the favorite to win the NCAA hockey championship the moment the No. 5 pick in last year’s NHL Entry Draft was announced.
By the time the Columbus Blue Jackets selected center Kent Johnson as fifth overall, an unprecedented four Wolverines had come off the board.
The perception from that day forward has been that it is national championship or bust for an all-star team that also had No. 1 (Owen Power), No. 2 (Matthew Beniers) and No. 4 (Luke Hughes) drafts.
And while their huge stellar power has Wolverines within two wins after reaching that mission, it also requires players like Luke Morgan and Jay Keranen of Brighton to complete the championship puzzle.
Morgan and Keranen are not among the 12 NHL draft picks on Michigan’s list, but their ability to fill any necessary role provides some flexibility for coach Mel Pearson, who is heading into a national semifinal match with Denver at. 5pm Thursday in Boston.
Morgan, a graduate student who plays forward, has been able to fit into any line and provide a veteran presence on a team filled with young stars. He has four goals and seven assists and has played in 38 of Michigan’s 41 games.
“I play on every line,” Morgan said. “I go up and down the lineup. I can play fourth line or first line, it doesn’t matter. When they call my name, I just have to be ready. For many of these younger guys, even the sophomore is pretty young for college hockey. , it’s just a way to take them under my wings and try to show them the ropes a little bit. ”
Keranen has played in 17 matches and got an assist. As a junior, he has been a defensive player most of his life, but he also needs to prepare during training to play forward when needed. The joke on the team is that he’s Wolverines’ “utility knife.”
“I’ve dressed up as the extra guy,” Keranen said. “There have been times where I’m starting to play forward, we got a guy to be beaten up and I would be thrown back on ‘D’. I love to play and be a part of this group. No matter what must be done, I am willing to do it. ”
For Morgan, this weekend will mark the end of a college hockey career that began in 2016-17 at Lake Superior State.
After scoring seven goals and adding 15 assists in 36 games with the Lakers as a rookie, Morgan switched to Michigan. He had to sit out the 2017-18 season and watch the Wolverines reach the Frozen Four before losing to Notre Dame on a goal with 5.2 seconds left.
Morgan has been given an extra season due to COVID’s disruption of college sports and has played four full seasons with the Wolverines. In total, he has played 172 college games and scored 23 goals and 43 assists.
“I’m close to 170 games,” Morgan said. “When I looked at the list sheet before the last match, I thought ‘damn it!’ “You learn a lot every year. You grow a little. You meet a lot of cool people, play under a lot of different people.”
Morgan hopes to continue playing hockey after his run with Wolverines ends.
“I will continue to play for as long as I can,” he said. “I love the sport. I still have a lot of gas left in the tank for it. I feel like I can get really far with it, especially after this year with everything I’ve learned from coach (Brandon) Naurato and playing with these guys and all these high draft picks. ”
Keranen traveled a long way before ending up in Ann Arbor three years after graduating from Brighton.
Morgan and Keranen graduated from Brighton in 2016, but were never high school teammates. Morgan played for the Bulldogs as a rookie and scored the winning goal in the state championship game before playing AAA and juniors. Keranen played the next three seasons for Brighton.
Keranen then pursued his hockey dreams in Alaska and Kansas in the North American Hockey League, then for two seasons in British Columbia.
“It was definitely the best decision I made,” Keranen said of his time in BC “It was quite a journey.”
Playing for one of the most talented teams in college hockey history means there are no days off in practice.
“Practice is competitive, practice is tough,” Morgan said. “If you are not called up for training, they will make you look like a fool out there because they are so skilled. They are fast and they love to compete. I would say the level of competition is just through the roof right now. “It helps everyone grow. If you compete with the first and second overall choices in the NHL draft when you get into a game, you’re ready for a lot of different scenarios.”
Keranen said the Wolverines have not felt overwhelmed by pressure to win the national championship before Power, Beniers, Hughes and Johnson advance to the NHL, possibly as early as next week.
“It’s more about us,” Keranen said. “We control what we can control, and show up every day and work. We’re just fine with that. Exercise every day is intense. They are amazing, amazing skaters. Everyone is struggling to get in line at the end of the day. It’s a great group of guys. It has been a lot of fun. ”
The winner of Michigan-Denver will face Minnesota or Minnesota State in the national championship game at 8pm on Saturday in Boston. Michigan-Denver and the national title fights will be televised on ESPN2, while the second semifinal will be on ESPNU.
Contact Bill Khan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BillKhan.