-- Red Berenson
has coached at Michigan for 28 years, but he is also the dean of outdoor college hockey. His Wolverines have played outside four times, so when he says each outdoor experience is different, there is plenty of reason to believe him.
Berenson's team played in a baseball stadium for the first time Sunday, but the Wolverines looked quite comfortable despite the sub-freezing temperatures as they dominated rival Ohio State en route to a 4-1 victory in the Frozen Diamond Faceoff at Progressive Field.
"It was an important victory, but on the big picture it was a great spectacle," Berenson said. "I think it came off really well. We have no complaints about the facilities. The people were terrific. The ice was fine -- it was good as any of our outdoor games. ... It was another one of those good, special events."
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After a week of abnormally high temperatures, wintry conditions arrived on Friday and two days of cold and snow helped turn the field -- complete with a snow-tubing hill in left field and Christmas trees lined around an ice skating track -- into a white-covered playground.
Temperatures were in the mid-20s at game time for the 25,864 fans in attendance, though the wind did not bellow off Lake Erie the way it can for early-season Indians games.
"It is a hockey player's dream to play on a big stage like this, especially against one of our biggest rivals," Ohio State sophomore Chris Crane said. "It was a blast. ... It was an unbelievable experience -- something I can't explain."
The Wolverines came within one goal of winning a national championship last season, but struggled mightily in November and began this weekend as a middle-of-the-pack team in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
In the midst of those struggles was a pair of losses at home to rival Ohio State. The Buckeyes failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament last season, but have risen to national prominence in 2011-12.
Michigan has been on a roll of late, and the Wolverines are now 7-0-2 since a Dec. 2 loss in Alaska. The Wolverines may have been dismissed as candidates to return to the Frozen Four a few weeks ago, but they looked like contenders this weekend, beating the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes 4-0 on Friday night in Columbus as well.
"I think it starts with our defensive game," Berenson said of his team's recent success. "It is your goalie and then your defense and your forwards playing better without the puck. Our penalty-killing has been better and our d-zone coverage has been better.
"There's not a big difference between winning and losing, but there is."
The Buckeyes played well Friday, but diminutive Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick stonewalled them with 46 saves. This game wasn't as close, as the talented Wolverines asserted themselves early and often.
Ohio State remains in first place in the CCHA, but anyone who thought the Buckeyes had overachieved to this point in the season could point to this weekend as a turning point. Buckeyes coach Mark Osiecki
felt it could be as well -- but for positive reasons.
"I think our kids have to go through a situation like this," Osiecki said. "Our kids have never been through it. With the year that we're having and up until this point, [there was] not really any adversity. We need to go through that. We need to be on a stage like this for our program to grow. This is the same type of environment, same type of media that centered around NCAA time, CCHA tournament time. We need to go through those experiences."
Cleveland is an Ohio State city, and there were plenty of scarlet-and-grey clad supporters in the stands. The Buckeyes also had one of their biggest crowds of the season Friday at Value City Arena.
"It is a hockey player's dream to play on a big stage like this, especially against one of our biggest rivals. It was a blast. ... It was an unbelievable experience -- something I can't explain" -- Ohio State sophomore Chris Crane
As Osiecki strives to build Ohio State into a more consistent winner, this contest could help the program move forward despite the result.
"At any point that we have a chance to play these game you have to jump at them," Osiecki said. "It is an opportunity for college hockey to expose itself on a national stage and we want to continue to grow the sport. Certainly we want to grow it within Ohio and I think we did that here tonight."
Michigan dressed 10 players who have been drafted by NHL teams and another, Phil Di Giuseppe, who could be a high pick at the 2012 NHL Draft. The Wolverines' top line of Alex Guptill, David Wohlberg
and Chris Brown
all flashed talents that could help them at the professional level someday.
Brown had a goal and two assists, and is now Michigan's leading scorer on the season with 25 points. He grew up in the Houston area before moving to Dallas and eventually to Ann Arbor and the United States National Team Development Program.
The Phoenix Coyotes
chose him with the 39th pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, and he's played for the United States at the U-18 championships and the World Junior Championships.
Brown opened the scoring at 7:31 of the first period and then set up Guptill, a third-round pick in 2010 by the Dallas Stars
, with a slick drop pass.
"I think we're three big bodies just working hard and kind of grinding it out," Wohlberg said. "There's a chemistry there right now that I can't really explain, but it seems to be working."
Crane got Ohio State on the board 50 seconds into the second period. Max McCormick
, a sixth-round pick by Ottawa in 2011, collected a rebound and slipped it to Crane for his 13th goal of the season.
A seventh-round pick by San Jose in the 2010 Entry Draft, Crane had four goals and 10 points in his freshman year, but has developed into Ohio State's top goal-scorer as a sophomore.
"It had been four periods since we scored a goal," Crane said. "I think it was good for the team to pop one on Hunwick. I think I it was just the excitement [needed] to get us going."
He's not particularly flashy, but Crane embodies the work ethic with a physical edge Osiecki has tried instill in his first two seasons in Columbus. Osiecki has more work to do to build Ohio State into a consistent winner like the Wolverines and like the program he played for and coached at previously in Wisconsin.
Fireworks lit up the Cleveland skyline after Crane's goal, as the Buckeyes finally solved Hunwick and got back into the contest. The momentum was short-lived, however.
Wohlberg set up a goal at 9:47 of the middle period then scored one of his own 28 seconds later to reassert Michigan's control. A sixth-round pick in 2008 by the New Jersey Devils
, Wohlberg is a senior playing in his third outdoor game.
A couple of the Michigan players were asked about their baseball background, given the setting for this contest.
"I think the extent of my baseball career was tee-ball," Wohlberg said.
Berenson has many stories to tell about his hockey career, but he had one for this situation as well.
"I was a pretty good catcher," Berenson chimed in. "When I went to Michigan, I tried out for the team but the coach wasn't giving me the time of day. I asked around why and they said, 'Oh, they've got a pretty good catcher in [eventual 11-time MLB All-Star and Detroit Tigers great] Bill Freehan.' He was hitting over .400 then, so I stuck to hockey."