To the Tournament We Go: Michigan Beats NMU 2-1 for CCHA Title

By · Sunday, March 21, 2010 · 8:31 AM |  Share | 1 Comment 

(From CCHA.com)

Midway through the first period back on February 25, Bryan Hogan went down with an injury and was forced to leave the game.  Replacing him was Shawn Hunwick, a walk-on goalie known only to the most avid fans because he had seen such little playing time in his career at Michigan.  In fact, the only substantial playing time he had was back at Joe Louis Arena during this season’s Great Lakes Invitational.  Hogan was struggling big time and was pulled after the second period.  Michigan made a comeback attempt, but Hunwick surrendered the game-winning goal on one of the few shots he faced in 20 minutes on the ice.  The next night Hogan was back in net just like usual.  He was viewed as this team’s only starting-caliber goalie, playing so much during the season that he led the nation in minutes on the ice.

So on senior night in came Shawn Hunwick, who left me with very little confidence that Michigan would defeat Notre Dame.  Hell, every time Notre Dame entered the zone and had a look at a shot I was nervous.  After all, Hunwick was inexperienced and nothing more than depth on the roster.  There was a reason Hogan had started every game during the season, but Hunwick, with no time to warm up or anything, immediately started to prove me wrong.  He made some great saves and the entire team started to play better and better as time went on.  By the end of the night Michigan was up 4-0 and that nervous feeling went away.  Hunwick didn’t allow a single goal en route to a perfect senior night, recording a combined shutout with Bryan Hogan.

At the time this seemed like nothing more than a fluke and a great story for one night in a season that was riddled with bad ones.  That seemed even more like the case after Hunwick had a rough second period at Notre Dame a couple nights later, leading to a 5-3 loss to the Fighting Irish.  The good feelings quickly went away, as the realization set in that Michigan was without its starting goalie and was only a single game over .500.  To make matters worse, Michigan missed out on a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs and was the seventh seed.  To say that there was little hope in Michigan’s NCAA tournament streak staying alive would be an understatement.  The only way for the Wolverines to make the tournament was to emerge as the CCHA playoffs champion, which seemed like it would take a miracle.

Even after Michigan convincingly beat Lake Superior State at home during the first round of the playoffs, outscoring the Lakers by a combined total of 11-2 in the two games, the chances of making it to Joe Louis Arena looked slim, let alone winning the whole thing.  That is because Michigan had to go to Munn Arena, a place where it hadn’t won two consecutive games since the 70s.  Like Michigan, Michigan State was playing for its season, so the odds were clearly stacked against the Wolverines, especially with captain Chris Summers now out with an injury and Bryan Hogan still not healthy enough to even return as a backup.

Just as it would all month long, however, Michigan shocked everybody and not only swept the Spartans, but dominated them outside of a few minutes at the end of the first period in the second game.  The Wolverines outscored MSU 10-4 in the two games and clinched their ticket to Joe Louis Arena in what was suddenly being called “Yost West” thanks to an invasion of Michigan fans.

Next for up Michigan: Miami, one of the top teams in the nation, and a team that came to Yost earlier in the season and swept Michigan in dominating fashion.  Once again, hopes of just getting to the championship game seemed slim, although it looked like Michigan was peaking at the perfect time in front of a goaltender who was playing with loads of confidence.

Michigan continued to play exceptional hockey against the RedHawks and took a surprising 2-1 lead into the third period on Friday.  In the final period, Michigan exploded for 3 goals, ran a goalie who is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, and took down Miami by a score of 5-2 to advance to the championship game.  Suddenly a bid to the NCAA tournament wasn’t a long shot; it was only one win away.

In the CCHA championship on Saturday night, Michigan went up against Northern Michigan, which split a series with the Wolverines at Yost Arena last month.  NMU was the team that secured the fourth and final bye in the CCHA playoffs and a team fresh off of an overtime victory on Friday against Ferris State.  The Wildcats definitely appeared beatable, but the question for Michigan was if it could keep this amazing run going for at least 60 more minutes to extend the season and extend the NCAA tournament streak to 20 consecutive years.

During the first period, there was no scoring but plenty of action.  Michigan came out red hot and put lots of pressure on NMU.  The Wolverines were unable to score any goals, however, which looked like it could wind up being the story of the game since there were so many close calls.  NMU countered with some sustained pressure of its own for a good part of the period and had a few close calls as well.  The biggest moment in the first period, though, was when Luke Glendening checked a Northern Michigan player from behind with 2:30 to go and was given a game misconduct.  Not only was Michigan now missing a great player in Glendening, but it had to kill off a five-minute major as well, or so it originally appeared.

About a minute into the penalty kill, Northern Michigan took a slashing penalty.  21 seconds later the Wildcats had a player sent to the penalty box for interference, giving Michigan a power play that carried over into the second period.  Michigan was unable to score during the power play, but a good part of that five-minute major was useless for Northern Michigan.  The Wildcats did go on the power play again, though, and even ended up with a brief two-man advantage after David Wohlberg was called for a holding penalty.  Michigan luckily killed off the 5 on 3 and then killed off Wohlberg’s penalty as well, allowing play to return to 5 on 5 for the first time in what seemed like an eternity.

Michigan killed off another penalty five minutes later, and then frustration continued with the refereeing after a Northern Michigan player boarded a Wolverine and only got two minutes.  Considering Glendening received a game misconduct in the first period for a similar play, the thinking was that the NMU player would get the same penalty.  He didn’t, however, and Michigan failed to score during the power play, leaving things all evened up for when the Wolverines went back on the power play at the end of the second period.

With the clock winding down on the period, Michigan didn’t appear to have a whole lot going for it on the power play.  Northern Michigan was doing an excellent job of blocking shots and preventing Michigan from having any open lanes.  On top of that, Matt Rust lost his stick behind the net and had to go to the bench, briefly leaving Michigan with only four players in the zone.  Suddenly, though, out of nowhere came Louie Caporusso, who jumped onto the ice to replace Rust.  Caporusso immediately got the puck and fired it past NMU’s Brian Stewart for the game’s first goal.  It was an absolutely great wrist shot that came very unexpectedly because Caporusso wasn’t even on the ice a few seconds prior.

Nearly midway through the third period, Michigan had yet another power-play opportunity.  This time around Michigan was getting sustained pressure on NMU and just barely missing out on a goal.  Caporusso, for example, put a big rebound right off the post.  Had the puck been just a little over it would have went right into an open net since Stewart was on the ground.  The close call turned out to be a good thing, though, because it directly led to the eventual game-winning goal.  Steve Kampfer ended up with the puck at the blue line after it hit the post, and he slapped a pass down low to the left of the net.  Caporusso once again seemed to come out of nowhere and quickly deflected the puck into the net off of his stick.  It was a perfect setup and a perfect shot that put Michigan on top 2-0 with 11:07 to play in the game.

Northern Michigan wasn’t going to make this easy for Michigan and fought back with a goal of its own two minutes later.  Michigan turned the puck over in front of the net, and a bad bounce off of a skate put the puck right on the stick of Andrew Cherniwchan, who put it past Shawn Hunwick for a goal.  Suddenly this was only a 2-1 game and there were still more than nine minutes left to play.

Michigan tightened things up and managed to run down the clock without allowing any big scoring chances.  There was another turnover that gave NMU a decent shot, but it never even found its way to the net since it was blocked by a Michigan player.  The clock kept winding down and NMU pulled its goalie with a minute left.  Michigan barely missed the empty net once, but it wasn’t exactly playing to score a goal.  The key thing was to make sure NMU didn’t have a chance to tie the game and to run out the clock, and that is exactly what the Wolverines did.

With 11 seconds left on the clock, the puck found its way to the back of the net and Steve Kampfer pinned it up against the boards.  Kampfer, along with Louie Caporusso, managed to keep the puck pinned until the clock stopped with 2.5 seconds left despite being cross-checked and hit in the back of the head.  It seemed like the clock stopped before the whistle and should have run out, but it proved to be unimportant because a Northern Michigan player was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking.  The celebrating immediately began on the Michigan bench because the ensuing faceoff was moved to the NMU zone as a result of the penalty, meaning it was nearly impossible for the Wildcats to score with only 3.5 seconds left in the game (for some reason the refs put an extra second on the clock).  The puck was then dropped and time did run out, and Michigan poured over the bench to celebrate the 2-1 victory, CCHA championship, and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with Shawn Hunwick and the other players already on the ice.

This amazing run to the NCAA tournament was filled with things that seemed beyond unlikely back when Bryan Hogan was injured against Notre Dame on February 25.  Michigan swept Lake Superior State, swept Michigan State in East Lansing, destroyed one of the top teams in the country, and then beat Northern Michigan on Saturday to keep the NCAA tournament streak alive.  This run included Louie Caporusso going on an absolute tear and playing like he did last season after being nonexistent for most of the regular season.  This run included solid defense despite Chris Summers missing the Michigan State series and both games at Joe Louis Arena.  And most notably, this run included an absolutely outstanding performance by Shawn Hunwick, who was merely a backup goalie with almost no experience a month ago.  Hunwick played so well that he was named the MVP of the tournament on the same ice where he gave up the game-winning goal in Michigan’s loss to RPI back in December.  Who would have ever thought that a walk-on goalie would be leading Michigan to the NCAA tournament under these circumstances, especially when you consider Hunwick’s unlikely path to joining the Michigan team in the first place.

Although a movie could be made right now about Hunwick and the way this team came together to make the NCAA tournament, hopefully there is some magic left that will have to be added to the script in the future.  Of course I’m talking about the NCAA tournament, which is now a reality after being nothing more than a dream for most of the season.  The selection show for the tournament is at 11:30 a.m. Sunday morning on ESPN2 and will reveal where and who Michigan will play next week.

Because Michigan moved all the way up to a tie for 11th in the PairWise Rankings, it appears that the Wolverines will end up with a 3 seed.  As far as where it will play, it looks like Michigan will be headed to either Worcester or St. Paul.  Based on who Michigan would draw in those two regionals, I’m hoping Michigan goes to St. Paul, where USCHO thinks it would play St. Cloud State in the first round and then possibly play Wisconsin if it is victorious.  In the Worcester regional Michigan could end up having to play North Dakota in the first round and then Boston College if it makes it to the next round, which is less than ideal.  Then again, most Michigan fans (myself included) were hoping to not play Miami in the CCHA semifinals, and that worked out quite well for the Wolverines.

At this point I’m just glad Michigan got into the tournament to keep the streak alive.  Obviously the dream would be for the Wolverines to win two games to make it to the Frozen Four at Ford Field and then win a national championship in front of tens of thousands of Michigan fans, but the fact that they even have an opportunity to do that is great considering how improbable it once seemed.  Besides, regardless of what happens in the NCAA tournament, I think this was one of Red Berenson’s best coaching jobs ever, and that’s saying something.

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