By Erick Lehman, Managing Editor
It’s always a challenge when your best player — your top goal scorer — is not on the ice, instead sitting in the bleachers, watching the game with an injury.
The University of Michigan-Dearborn hockey team faces such a problem as they eye the national tournament, a mere four weeks away now.
The tournament will start March 3 in Chicago, and the Wolverines are getting closer and closer to punching that ticket to the Windy City.
What stands in their way of that is a Kent State team that has tripped them in the past, and one more matchup with the powerhouse known as Adrian.
In the eyes of outsiders, or someone who hasn’t been around this team like I have, you would say they have another challenge on their hands, and that would be replacing Tyler Groat, or at least replacing his production.
Groat left early in the second game against Adrian on Jan. 16 and has missed three games since, but still leads the team in goals with 25 and points with 37.
In reality, straight-up replacing that production in near impossible; just bringing someone in who has been scratched and expecting them to score those points isn’t really realistic.
But, as a team, as a unit coming out and playing together, and collectively replacing that production?
That is how you manage without Groat.
That is exactly what the Wolverines are doing at this point of the season.
It’s unclear whether or not Groat is going to be back this season or in time for the beginning of nationals, but what is clear is that the Wolverines can still win without him; it just might take some manufacturing.
“With the way things have been going and the way we’ve been playing, this is the definition of a team,” Tyler Dalton said after Friday night’s game against Indiana Tech.
Dalton praised his entire team, saying it was a team effort, and how guys are out giving maximum effort, and that is what is helping the team.
“Guys are stepping into big spots, guys are stepping into big minutes at times that are critical for us to be four weeks away from the national tournament and have freshman who are just diving for shots, trying to get blocks — it’s huge.”
You can’t look past the depth that this team has as well.
The Wolverines boast three lines that can be deemed as scoring lines, and when you have three lines that can score you can be dangerous.
“We don’t have a starting line or a first line or anything like that,” Dalton said.
Going along with that, the Wolverines have players who are versatile. Nic Laburn, and Kevin Bechard are both big-bodied scorers who can use the body to knock opponents off the puck, and use their stick to score goals, and they can both play forward and defenseman.
Ian Wiljanen is another defense who can skate up and play forward as well.
Head coach Chris Haltinner raved about the fact his team has versatility like it does, and when you can play five forwards on the ice at one time and not miss a beat defensively, you can be dangerous.
Haltinner said on Tuesday night after a victory against Oakland that the injury to Groat gives other guys the opportunity to step up and do something.
Groat being injured may make it seem like this team, the team of destiny, is destined for a quick chase from the national tournament, but I beg to differ.
The team will rally around players who have been here, and led the team before like Gino Darin, Jeff McFarland, and Ryan Urso.
They will rally behind goaltender Nate Ferris, who Dalton said pumps up the team.
“Nate is the rock that keeps us together, so when we see him having a good game it gets the boys going,” Dalton said.
With the veteran presence to lean on, and the teamwork that this team shows each game, the sky’s the limit for them in the national tournament, and they’re a team that should not be taken lightly, at all.