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U-M hoping to end tourney run with title

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For 21 years now, the NCAA tournament has been a regular fixture on Michigan's hockey schedule.

It's a run of success that is almost incomprehensible, representing a string of consistency that even the nation's most successful coaches marvel at.

But don't be hasty in throwing Michigan coach Red Berenson into the mutual admiration society of a record-setting accomplishment that more than doubles that of the Wolverines' closest competition -- New Hampshire's nine -- when it comes to consecutive tournament berths.

Berenson, now in his 27th season at Michigan, concedes that the streak is impressive. But satisfying? Not so much considering that the 21 appearances -- the latest will begin Friday in the St. Louis West Regional against Nebraska-Omaha -- have produced only two national championships.

Michigan last won the national title in 1998, when the Wolverines used a Josh Langfeld overtime goal to slip by Boston College.

Since then, especially of late, the Wolverines have struggled to prolong their tournament runs. They have reached the Frozen Four only once in the past eight years, the most recent appearance coming three years ago.

"I'm not satisfied but I don't want to hold our team hostage to the fact Michigan hasn't won a national championship in how many years," Berenson said. "But I want that to be a challenge for them.

"This is all we get -- we have a chance to play four games one at a time so let's see how good we are … But usually, it comes down to luck."

In 1996, when Michigan won its first title under Berenson, Mike Legg helped the Wolverines advance with a remarkable lacrosse-style goal that still is considered one of college hockey's most memorable moments.

A year later, the Wolverines were the hands-on favorite to repeat, but were upset in a national semifinal loss to Boston University, proving that talent doesn't always win out in a tournament where anything can happen.

"It's a one-game tournament -- it's not a playoff," said former Michigan right winger Sean Ritchlin, who was part of both of Michigan's national championship teams in the 1990s. "Had it been a playoff, I think Michigan would have fared better, but it's a one-game deal.

"I think it's one of those areas where we have had the talent and maybe we should have been more successful, but it doesn't always work out that way."

Yet, the fact Michigan has found a way to continually return to the NCAA's field of 16 remains an impressive feat. Most years, Berenson has reached the tournament with an experienced team. More recently, though, the Wolverines have had players jump to the NHL, leaving Berenson to retool his roster in some fashion.

Every season, though, the final result remains the same, again extending a string of NCAA appearances now in its 21st year.

"That's just incredible," said Boston College coach Jerry York, whose team has won two of the last three national championships. "That's a span of two decades without any off years. We have great respect for a lot of programs throughout the country, but when you see that statistic, I think, 'Wow -- Red hasn't missed a beat in 21 years.'

"It's an amazing feat."

Berenson admits that his team's tournament run always seems to have an oddity or two thrown in. There was the time in Cincinnati when the Wolverines had to wait out an hour-long delay while the rink's Freon system was being repaired.

Last year, after making a miraculous run to their 20th straight NCAA appearance, the Wolverines had a goal disallowed in overtime against top-seeded Miami in the regional final. The RedHawks scored early on in the second overtime to notch a controversial 3-2 victory that ended Michigan's run one game shy of the Frozen Four.

For Michigan's seven seniors, this year's trip represents another step in the Wolverines' lengthy string of tournament appearances. In 2009, they started as the overall top seed only to be upset in the first round. Last season, Michigan was the underdog and nearly found a way to reach the Frozen Four.

For Berenson, this year's trip -- regardless of how many times his program has been here before -- is another opportunity to add to his program's legacy.

"This is what you play all year for -- it's to get into the tournament," he said. "Now, what are you going to with it?"

Michigan's recent history has taught Berenson's players that capturing another NCAA crown isn't an easy task.

If the Wolverines hope to advance to their 24th Frozen Four appearance, they would have to potentially go through defending national champion Boston College. The Eagles face Colorado College in the West Regional's other matchup.

For Michigan's seniors, how they get to a Frozen Four doesn't matter as much as finding a way to finish out their careers on college hockey's biggest stage.

"You're going to have to beat someone good at some point," senior forward Louie Caporusso said. "You're not going to waltz your way to a national championship -- no one has ever done that."

That much is evidenced by Michigan's national championship drought, which reached 12 years after last year's regional final loss.

Although it's a streak that Berenson doesn't bring up to his players, it's one that gnaws at him as a coach. But after spending nearly the entire season as a top-10 team and spending the past month in the nation's top five, Michigan hopes this year's tournament is the one that produces a title run like the ones Ritchlin considers among his most prized hockey memories.

"I feel incredibly fortunate," said Ritchlin, who will be part of ESPN's broadcast team this weekend in St. Louis. "Just to have those experiences and to be with those players and to say you've won it twice especially considering how much the deck is stacked against you.

"But to win it is incredible."

Jeff Arnold is a sportswriter in Michigan.

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