Michigan hockey fans were giddy in anticipation earlier this season at the thought of defensemen Jon Merrill and Jacob Trouba paired together. And now, finally, after three months, that dream duo will skate side-by-side when U-M hosts Bowling Green tonight.
Merrill will appear in his first regular-season game all year after missing the Wolverines' first 19 games after suffering a cracked vertebra in an exhibition contest Oct. 9. He skated on the power play during the Maize and Blue's 5-3 exhibition loss to the U.S. Under-18 team last Friday, and will go full bore this evening.
"He got OK'd that morning, and we gave him some time to think about it, but he was excited to be back and to find out he could play, and wanted to play," coach Red Berenson said. "We agreed he'd just play on the power play, and get him back in sync in the locker room and on the bench, and he was terrific."
Trouba, meanwhile, is returning from the World Junior Championships, where he helped lead the U.S. squad to a gold-medal win over Sweden. Trouba had an assist in that game, and finished with nine points overall (four goals and five helpers) in the seven-game tournament. He was named the event's Best Defenseman and was named to the Media All-Star Team.
"Jacob said he wanted to skate with the team [Monday]. He didn't know what time of day it is - it's an 11-hour time change - but he wants to play," Berenson said. "He wants to get back in sync.
"School starts Wednesday and we'll give him some time off away from the rink, but at the same time get him back with our team."
The 6-2, 195-pound defenseman from Rochester, Mich., has thus far lived up to his pre-college hype - he was a top-10 overall pick in last summer's NHL Draft - ranking fourth on the team in points with 11, and second in goals with five. He has consistently been one of U-M's top players and defenseman despite bouncing around from juniors Mac Bennett and Kevin Clare, and other playing partners.
Merrill, 6-4, 210 pounds, was expected to rank among college hockey's top defenders this year after contributing nine goals and 27 assists in 61 career contests. He was a sparkplug for the Wolverines in 2012, returning from a team suspension in the season's second half to guide U-M to its 22nd consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
A second-round NHL Draft pick, Merrill is expected to go pro after this season, so the next 15 regular-season games and whatever playoff contests U-M participates in, might be the last chance for Michigan fans to watch him in a winged helmet.
"We'll definitely play him in the role we expect him to be able to handle," Berenson said, suggesting Merrill could see the ice tonight for 20-25 minutes. "If he gets bogged down, we might not be able to play him as much, but I have a feeling he'll step up. He can't wait."
Berenson has a saying that in the season's second half, freshmen are not freshmen anymore. He expects them to contribute more significantly on both ends of the rink, while eliminating the rookie mistakes they can make that cost the team.
That message is sinking in.
"We're comfortable with everything going on," forward Boo Nieves said. "We'll continue to make mistakes but I feel like we've grown up a lot and we're ready to take on a bigger role on the team."
While Trouba is clearly the best freshman on the team, Nieves is also making a case. The 6-3, 200-pound New York Rangers' second-round pick is second on the team with 13 points, but has just three goals, and he knows that's not good enough.
"My time has come to start putting up more points, and not just almost scoring," he said. "It's great that I make a play that leads to a penalty, but I need to start putting more pucks in the net to help my team in that way."
Forward Justin Selman has been one of U-M's top two-way players, but has been too "erratic" according to Berenson, and the Upper Saddle River, N.J., native knows it.
"You can always add more to the team," he said. "It's a new season, and it's time to step up."