DETROIT — After two heart-wrenching losses, Michigan and Northern Michigan treated fans to a hard-fought game with plenty of end-to-end action, with the Wolverines capturing the CCHA third-place game, 3-2.
“It’s a tough game to prepare for having played the late game last night and guessing what the implications are of the game. This is a team that easily could have been playing in tonight’s game, but we were feeling poorly about our loss last night,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.
“It’s a pride issue. They drop the puck and we’re going to play,” said NMU coach Walt Kyle. “We are going to try to win every game we play and I’m sure Michigan is the same way.”
With the teams deadlocked 2-2 midway through the third period, Matt Hunwick buried the game-winner.
“I was coming down the left side and Andrew Ebbett had the puck,” said Hunwick. “I was trying to go backdoor and I realized that I wouldn’t get to it. The puck came off the boards and I gave it a turnaround slapper. I guess it went high glove. I couldn’t really see it.”
Hunwick’s two-goal performance doubled Michigan’s output in Friday night’s 4-1 semifinal loss to Michigan State.
“That’s a big lift for our team when we’re looking for a couple goals and we don’t just have to look at the forwards … we can look at the defensemen,” said T.J. Hensick.
Although the victory will likely assure the Maize and Blue an invitation to the NCAA tournament, there was little consolation this afternoon.
“This game is tough to play, but you cant feel sorry for yourself,” said Hunwick. “With the quick turnaround, we just had to come out and play and give it our all.”
“As a team we just approached it as a must-win situation. Now it’s just a wait and see what happens. In the tournament, anyone can win,” said Hensick.
Goaltender Noah Ruden was a bright spot for Michigan all weekend long. Aside from several key stops, the senior consistently made intelligent decisions with the puck. He finished with 29 saves in the victory.
Bill Zaniboni struggled in the game against Miami but rebounded with a 39-save effort Saturday. Although the sophomore took the loss, his play gave the Wildcats a chance to put an extra attacker on the ice in search of a game-tying goal.
“I just had to give the team a chance to win,” said Zaniboni. “Anything I could do to help them … they were playing hard and clearing rebounds and battling against the walls. My job is just to give the team a chance to win.”
The first stanza came to a close with the teams knotted 1-1. Hunwick put the Wolverines on the board on the man advantage, sneaking backdoor where T.J. Hensick fed him a goalmouth pass for an easy stuff.
Matt Ciancio pulled the Wildcats even at the 10:54 mark. The senior raced into the offensive zone on a three-on-one and called his own number, beating Ruden for his first goal of the season.
After Kevin Porter failed to score on a mini-breakaway, the sophomore sniper gave Michigan its second lead of the game. The play started in the defensive end with a beautiful poke check by Ruden. Porter picked up the loose puck, raced down the right side of the ice, and slipped a perfect pass to Hensick for the putaway.
Darin Olver tied things up again at 2-2 with a wrist shot from the bottom of the right circle.
NMU finished fourth in the CCHA championship tournament, but this marked the fifth consecutive year that the ‘Cats made a trip to Joe Louis Arena to battle for the Mason Cup.
“It’s a great accomplishment, especially with the new playoff format,” said Kyle. “I think the seniors did an outstanding job and some of the things that they did here will be lessons to make us more successful.”
Michigan settled for the bronze medal for the first time in 16 seasons.