DETROIT — Who said that defense wins games? When the nation’s second-best defense, in front of the CCHA Player of the Year, met the country’s fifth-best offense in Joe Louis Arena tonight, it was offense that prevailed, barely.
It was an unselfish play by the league’s leading goal-scorer that set up an empty-net goal that sealed the deal.
In the second CCHA semifinal game, the Michigan Wolverines beat the Alaska Nanooks 3-1 to advance to Saturday’s CCHA championship game against Notre Dame. The league’s leading goal-scorer, Louie Caporusso, netted the game-winner and assisted on the first and last tallies of the night.
“We knew Alaska was on a role,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “They’ve been a very stingy team. We’re supposed to be able to score, but obviously there wasn’t much to choose tonight. I thought we were fortunate to get the lead and then they came back and tied the game.
“I thought Louie Caporusso’s goal was a huge goal because goals are really precious in the game. The game didn’t seem to have a lot of flow, but still they got their chances and I thought Bryan Hogan was the difference in the game for us.”
Hogan made 25 saves on 26 Nanooks’ shots while UAF netminder and CCHA Player of the Year Chad Johnson stopped 29-of-32.
It took most of the first period and an extra attacker for the Wolverines to finally penetrate the Alaska defense and find a way past Johnson to take a 1-0 lead into the second. From the far side of the right circle, Caporusso dropped a pass to Tim Miller down low on the near side. With Johnson drawn right to defend, Miller fired a cross-crease pass to Chad Langlais, who scored on the open left side at 17:17 on a Michigan power play.
“He was coming with a lot of speed down the wing, setting up down low,” said Johnson of Caporusso. “[Miller] made a nice pass, kind of back-door through the crease there and the guy made a nice shot. I was kind of flat-footed and didn’t have enough momentum to kind of slide over there and kind of make a nice butterfly save. I had to make a desperate save.
“They’re pretty good moving the puck and we knew they were going to throw stuff back door. He made a nice play.”
The Nanooks evened the score at 13:35 in the second with a power-play goal of their own when Braden Walls, with his back to the net, tipped Joe Sova’s shot from the left point between the legs of Wolverine Mark Mitera and past Hogan on the far side.
The Wolverines answered just over two minutes later with Caporusso’s 24th goal of the season, beating Johnson the same way they did in the first. Steve Kampfer skated the puck from the UM end down the right wing to the corner and passed back to Caporusso in the slot. Caporusso, who should have been heading to the UM bench for a line change, and admitted post-game that he heard the bench calling for him to exit, crashed the net instead and scored on the side of the net that Johnson left open to defend against Kampfer at 15:49.
Caporusso’s final point of the night came on Aaron Palushaj’s empty-net goal at 17:56, a centering pass from the right wing to give Palushaj his 13th of the year.
The Nanooks had their best chances in the second period, when the Wolverines were less focused and the shot differential just off by one.
“We had three or four shifts in the second period that we were all over them down low,” said UAF senior captain Adam Naglich. “We had some good scoring chances. The puck was around their net for a while and we just didn’t get the bounces in the second period. That was our chance to get one there.”
“Going into the third period, 2-1, I’ll take that with our team,” said Ferguson. “Third periods have been good for us and again we created some scoring chances. I wish we would have created a few more second-period opportunities on Hogan, but at the same time I’m proud of the way our guys played tonight.”
Berenson said that it was a combination of the Nanooks’ team defense, which was allowing on average 1.70 goals per game, and Michigan carelessness that contributed to the tightness of contest.
“We rarely got an outnumbered rush. They move the puck up well. The gap was tight. They created a lot of turnovers. I think we started to gamble a little too much looking for home-run plays rather than simple plays. Their forwards are ready to jump on loose pucks and attack and they did that all night.
“Close checking on behalf of both teams, and maybe trying to force plays that weren’t there and maybe trying to do too much. From our team’s standpoint, we were trying to do that.”
It was, said Berenson, a “close-checking, a grinding game that you had to find a way to win.”
The Nanooks (17-15-6) will meet Northern Michigan in Saturday afternoon’s third-place game at 3:35 p.m. Michigan (29-10-0) advances to Saturday’s CCHA championship game at 7:35 p.m.
“I think our team will have to play even better tomorrow night than we played today,” said Berenson. “I think the first game is tough to play, and then the second game is even tougher. I think all these teams will feel this.”