DETROIT — “If you’re going to win hockey games, you need good defense … but this has been a total team effort. You’re looking at a real team.”
So said Michigan coach Red Berenson, from the ice, just after the Wolverines beat the Miami RedHawks, 2-1, to become the 2007-08 CCHA Mason Cup champions.
This is Michigan’s eighth post-season title and their first since 2005, and this year is the sixth time in UM history that the Wolverines have captured both the regular-season and tournament championships.
“I think they may not be as experienced, but they’re having fun, they’re working hard, and they’ve proven to themselves that they can play against anyone,” said Berenson of his young squad. “I can’t tell you that we’re better than Miami, but we won the game.”
Aaron Palushaj opened the scoring for Michigan in the second period, Brandon Naurato’s goal from tournament MVP Tim Miller at the 10-minute mark of the third period became the game-winner, and Billy Sauer had 27 saves in his 28th win of the season.
Miami’s Alec Martinez scored a six-on-four goal with 39 seconds left in regulation, after pulling goaltender Jeff Zatkoff on a power play with the Wolverines’ Chad Kolarik in the box for tripping. Both Martinez and Zatkoff, who made 24 saves in the game, were named to the all-tournament team.
“I thought it was a great game from both sides,” said Zatkoff. “They played a great game and they’re a great offensive team, and you give them the time … and they can turn it into a scoring chance. I thought our guys did a great job, keeping them to the outside, but in the end they were able to make one more play than we were.”
“I thought it was a pretty good game,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi. “It usually comes down to a team executing one or two plays more than the other team, and that’s what I thought happened tonight. They were able to execute one or two more plays. We got one back there at the end when we pulled the goalie, but you’ve got to give them credit. Billy Sauer played well early, and we just never got any offense.”
The RedHawks held the Wolverines to four shots in the tight, scoreless first period, and continued their pressure in the opening minutes of the second, forcing Sauer to earn his keep, as Miami outshot UM 13-8 in the stanza.
It was, however, Michigan that scored the opening goal at 7:38 of the second. Matt Rust took the puck into the right circle and waited for the perfect moment to feed Palushaj, who crashed hard to the net to tip in the puck past Zatkoff, who had been drawn right to defend against Rush.
Naurato scored at 10:00 in the third right off a faceoff in the left dot in the Miami zone. Miller won the draw from RedHawk Nathan Davis and forwarded it to Naurato on the far side of the crease; Naurato’s low tap past Zatkoff made it 2-0.
Miller had planned on taking the puck to the net himself on that play, but found himself with a better opportunity from the circle.
“Right before we went out there, I said I was going to go to the net, and [Danny] Fardig and Naurato switched sides so that I could tack it in,” said Miller. “I just tacked it through; it went through perfectly, and slid back-door to Naurato and he buried it.”
Just as they had in their Friday overtime win against Notre Dame, the RedHawks found a way to score in the last minute of play to make it more interesting. This time, it was Mitch Ganzak firing from the left point right to Martinez, whose single blast beat Sauer midway up on the glove side to make it 2-1.
“We feel fortunate,” said Berenson. “Miami’s a great team and they played really well. There was a part of the game where it looked like it was going to go in their favor. Billy Sauer made two or three point-blank saves early in the second period, and I think that could have been the turning point of the game.
“Third period, we came out and I thought had our best period.”
Miller’s assist on the third-period game-winner capped a four-point weekend for the junior, who played several roles in the tournament.
“That’s one of those things,” said Berenson. “You play the games and you never know who might emerge and who might take that extra step, but good for Tim. He’s played all over from fourth-line center and one of our top lines as a left winger.
“Obviously, you saw Miller play last night with Porter and Kolarik and he took advantage of that, and tonight Pacioretty was back and Miller went to the fourth-line center role because we knew we’d have to roll four lines, and wouldn’t you know it, that line scores the winning goal, so good for him.”
The 2-1 contest was a low-scoring affair for the nation’s top two offenses; Miami is averaging over four goals per game this season, Michigan just under four. In two contests this tournament, the RedHawks netted just three goals, all by defensemen.
“When our defensemen are scoring, that means our forwards are going to the net and causing a lot of traffic, and that’s a good sign, something that we pride ourselves in,” said Blasi. “Our guys had chances, whether it be not executing or a little bit of poise, I don’t know exactly what was the case, but we definitely had our chances.
“As a coach, if you’re looking at tape and you’re not getting the chances, then you start to worry, but we definitely had our chances this weekend.”
Michigan (31-5-4) and Miami (32-7-1) now await their placement in the NCAA Championship Tournament, where they’ll both likely be No. 1 seeds at different regionals.
“Win or lose, we have to put this game behind us,” said Miami captain Ryan Jones. “We have to play for a national championship coming up and we can’t get too down, or we couldn’t get too excited if we won the game. It’s important to build on the mistakes that we make today and hopefully keep going in the tournament.”