EAST LANSING, Mich. — They played like they couldn’t lose. Even after they watched their early two-goal lead evaporate at the end of the first, the Wolverines were relentless in this 5-3 win over Michigan State, guaranteeing Michigan’s advancement to the CCHA championship tournament, UM’s only shot at sustaining an NCAA tournament appearance streak that now spans 19 years.
“I think our game is coming together,” said UM coach Red Berenson. “When you come together, it’s not just the offense, it’s not just the scorers, it’s not just the power-play guys, it’s not just the goalie, it’s everybody.
“Whether it’s a commitment to back-check or a commitment to playing in your own zone without the puck, then we’re doing a better job of it now than we were at Christmas. The team has bought into doing what we have to do to win.”
It was evident throughout the weekend that the Wolverines have bought into a defensive style of play in front of junior goaltender Shawn Hunwick, who made his fifth career start tonight. All four of the Spartans’ goals in this series were scored on the power play, and UM outshot MSU 44-21 tonight.
Hunwick has started since his classmate, Bryan Hogan, was injured in the first period of UM’s 4-0 win over Notre Dame Feb. 25.
“I think once I got in there against Notre Dame, maybe they thought they had to make up for me a little bit because I didn’t have experience,” said Hunwick. “The guys started working hard, back-checking, blocking shots. It was quick for them to realize that, you know, you play ‘D,’ you’re going to probably score more goals. The offensive output from our team in the last five or six games that I’ve been in has been great.”
The Wolverines attacked in the first period of tonight’s contest, just as they did in last night’s 5-1 win. With a power-play goal by Matt Rust and another, even-strength, by A.J. Treais 21 seconds later before the halfway point of the first period, UM looked ready to roll.
The Spartans, however, netted three power-play goals of their own in the last four minutes of the first to take a 3-2 lead after one.
Andrew Rowe had the first two MSU goals, at 16:55, with both Chad Langlais and Tristin Llewellyn in the penalty box, a five-hole shot that banked off the inside of Hunwick’s leg. At 17:31, Rowe scored again, five-on-four, a wraparound goal that slid in between Hunwick’s leg and the post.
Then, with .7 seconds left in the first, and Llewellyn in the penalty box, again, Spartans’ senior Nick Sucharski scored another wraparound goal for a short-lived MSU lead. Ben Winnett tied the game for UM on the power play at the 3:54 mark of the second period, making a pretty move to get around a Spartans’ defender in the slot and beat MSU goaltender Bobby Jarosz clean. In the remainder of the scoreless second period, the Wolverines outshot the Spartans 16-1.
“Winnett’s goal was as good as it gets,” said Berenson. “He couldn’t have picked a better time because the momentum could have gone one way or the other. The go-ahead goal was going to be huge.”
In the opening minutes of the third, all the action was in the Spartans’ zone, with the Wolverines pressuring until they literally pushed the game-winning goal into the net. When Chris Brown scored the game-winner, he and Brian Lebler were double-teaming Jarosz from close in, pushing repeatedly at the puck that he could not get covered. At 2:40, Brown finally pushed it in near the post to put UM ahead 4-3.
The Spartans made it a more even period, registering 11 shots on goal to Michigan’s 12, but the Wolverines’ defense and Hunwick were impenetrable. David Wohlberg hit the empty net at 19:29.
Hunwick finished the game with 18 saves.
“All the goals were within two minutes,” said Berenson. “After that, he played shutout hockey, so good for him.”
Jarosz made 33 stops after relieving starter Drew Palmisano after he allowed the first two; Palmisano stopped six.
“There’s always disappointment when you finish the year,” said MSU coach Rick Comley, “but like I told them in the locker room, it was the frustration of a year ago that spurred them on to become so much better that it surprised everybody. Now what I think they have to do is take a much-improved team and use this as motivation, and take the next step.
“We could have been at our best and maybe played our absolute best, and it may not have mattered, because Michigan played that well.”
The Spartans finish their season with a record of 19-13-6 (14-8-6 CCHA), with nine more wins overall than they did in the 2008-09 season.
Michigan (23-17-1, 14-13-1 CCHA) awaits the outcome of Sunday’s deciding game between Ohio State and Miami to see who they’ll play next Friday in the CCHA championship tournament in Detroit.