DETROIT — For Michigan, winning the CCHA playoff championship isn’t something new. For this Wolverines team, however, doing so after a seventh-place finish in the league — with a junior goaltender making his seventh career start — is something of a novelty.
“It’s not where we are now,” said coach Red Berenson, “but how we got here.”
With a 2-1 win over Northern Michigan, the Wolverines captured their ninth Mason Cup, earning a berth in the NCAA tournament the only way they could, with the automatic bid that comes along with the CCHA playoff crown.
“We have not talked about the NCAA tournament until this morning,” said Berenson. “I reminded this team that we wouldn’t be in the tournament unless we won the championship.
“The goal this week was to try to get by Miami and then get in the championship game, and then when we got in it, we talked about if we win this game, we’ll be in the tournament, otherwise we won’t.”
Louie Caporusso netted both of UM’s goals on the power play, and Shawn Hunwick made 17 saves as the Wolverines outshot the Wildcats 35-18.
NMU coach Walt Kyle said that his team was simply outplayed in the loss. “They got pucks behind us, they forechecked, they came at us from the attack, they had great back pressure, they stole the puck from us numerous times coming up ice, and we failed to get pucks in, we failed to generate a forecheck,” he said. “Their defense did a very good job.”
It took nearly two periods of hockey for either team to break the 0-0 deadlock, and it was Caporusso who did so first with the man advantage at 19:40 in the second — and he wasn’t even supposed to be on the ice. Matt Rust had broken a stick on the play and went to the bench for a replacement.
Caporusso, however, had other ideas. He hopped the boards, jumped into the play, and fired from the top of the right circle, threading two NMU defenders and finding the opposite side of the Wildcats net, clean.
“I think everyone wants a lot of power-play time,” said Caporusso. “At the same time, Matt realized it would have been quicker for me to get out there than for him to grab a stick, and who knows if that stick is good for him or not?
“So I just jumped out there. I didn’t really give him a choice. At the same time, hey, we scored a goal. I’m sure he was happy.”
Caporusso scored again at the 8:53 mark in the second, tipping in Steve Kampfer’s initial shot. Andrew Cherniwchan answered for the Wildcats at 10:47 to cut the UM lead in half, finishing a play that began when Justin Florek bumped UM defenseman Lee Moffie off the puck near the left side of the Wolverines net.
The Wildcats continued to pressure, but the Wolverines limited NMU’s shots to three in the third.
“They had some isolated scoring chances that Shawn came up big on and we put our chances in,” said Berenson. “It was one of those games. It was a close game. It was a good game.”
Even with the loss, the Wildcats (20-12-2) will play in the NCAA tournament, and Kyle said this game was a good warmup for that tourney.
“I guarantee you, this game will make us better,” said Kyle. “There aren’t many teams that are going to push you like those guys pushed us tonight. They are fast and they came at us.”
The Wolverines (25-17-1) made their improbable run for an NCAA berth in South Bend Feb. 25. That’s when starting goaltender Bryan Hogan was injured and replaced by Hunwick, something that seemed to galvanize the team. Including that 4-0 win, UM is 7-1-0 in the last eight contests, with Hunwick in net for every one of those games.
“It was just a commitment to play sound team hockey, defensive hockey, playing for one another, playing for the team,” said Caporusso. “Something clicked. I can’t tell you what it was, but I think maybe the adversity throughout the whole year.
“Finally we said [that] it’s up to us. It doesn’t matter what people say or what’s thought of us. We just have to work our hardest and play well.”