After season near the basement, Michigan finally seems to have it together

Going into last weekend’s first round of CCHA playoff hockey, I said that the only series about which I felt any certainty was the one between Northern Michigan and Michigan in Yost Ice Arena. I wasn’t the only one who was certain about that series.

After the Wolverines beat the Wildcats 6-2 Saturday night to sweep that set, Michigan junior defenseman Mac Bennett spoke from the heart on behalf of all of his teammates.

“We knew kind of beforehand that we were going to stick the dagger in this team,” Bennett said, “and we did.”

I doubt very much that such conviction pervaded the visitors’ locker rooms in Fairbanks and Sault Ste. Marie last Sunday night. As we know now, home ice wasn’t as kind to Alaska and Lake Superior State, with both Michigan State and Bowling Green victorious in three games.

Your second-round CCHA matches, after re-seeding:

• No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Miami
• No. 7 Bowling Green vs. No. 2 Notre Dame
• No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 2 Western Michigan
• No. 5 Ferris State vs. No. 4 Ohio State

In Friday morning’s blog, I’ll have picks and predictions — many of which are bound to be wrong.

Who’s afraid of the big, bad Wolverines?

Well, I can’t say for certain that there’s any fear anywhere at this point in the postseason, but I guarantee that last Sunday there were some in the Notre Dame camp rooting for Michigan State and some in the Western Michigan camp rooting for Alaska.

In other words, even though every game is difficult and every opponent challenging at this point and blah, blah, blah, no one wants to play Michigan. Not this Michigan team. The question that months ago was whispered of quietly around press boxes and establishments that serve adult beverages has finally been answered.

That question was, “What happens when the Wolverines finally get it together?”

And the answer to that question, as Northern Michigan now knows, is, “Uh-oh.”

For nearly the entire 2012-13 season, Michigan languished near the bottom of the CCHA standings, troubled by inconsistent goaltending, a wounded defensive corps and a general lack of team chemistry. In their first 11 CCHA games of the second half of the season, including a single game played against Bowling Green and five conference series, the Wolverines were 3-8.

Since Feb. 22, however, Michigan is 5-0-1 with an important shootout point after that tie against Ferris State. In their last four games, the Wolverines have held opponents to two or fewer goals; in that 11-game span to start the second half between Jan. 8 and Feb. 9, Michigan was allowing on average 3.55 goals per game.

While Michigan’s defense is tied with Rochester Institute of Technology for 52nd in the nation, the Wolverines are not playing like a team with a leaky blue line. Nor are the Wolverines playing like a team without a netminder, even though freshman Steve Racine’s save percentage (.894) is 70th in the country. Racine has been the goalie of record during this current Michigan unbeaten streak, with a .929 save percentage in that stretch.

And it would be unfair to say that the Wolverines are playing like wounded, cornered animals. After Friday’s 3-2 win over Northern Michigan, coach Red Berenson said that his players thought they were playing hard enough to win but weren’t playing desperate enough to do so. In Saturday’s 6-2 victory, there was nothing desperate about Michigan’s play. Masterful, yes, but not desperate.

“I think that was the best game we played all year,” said Bennett, who had the game-winning goal on the power play early in the second period and who spent a few games this season watching from the sidelines with an injury.

“We started hot,” Bennett said. “We finished hot. I thought our special teams played really well. We dominated the game.”

People who dislike Michigan in the way, say, many people despise the New York Yankees will read a lot of arrogance into Bennett’s statement. It’s hard to describe how your team dominated another, however, without using the word “dominated” — and that’s exactly what the Wolverines did Saturday night.

By the time Berenson arrived for the news conference, he had already remarked that the Wolverines had taken the Wildcats “to the woodshed” — an uncharacteristic remark for a man who often hedges his news conference comments with, “I don’t know that we were any better than the other team.”

In talking to the media, Berenson was decisive. “I was really impressed with our team tonight,” he said. “I thought after last night’s game [that] we didn’t play that well. Their team outplayed us for big parts of the game. Even though we won the game [Friday], I thought that if our team came in there overconfident tonight, we were in trouble.”

There was no trouble. The Wolverines scored two goals in each period and for the first two stanzas, Michigan outshot Northern Michigan 39-9. The bulk of the play was in the Wildcats zone. The frustration of the Wildcats — who played as well as they could against a sleeping giant suddenly awakened — was evident in the two penalty shots that Michigan was legitimately awarded. A.J. Treais missed the first one in the second period, but Andrew Copp scored his midway through the third.

Copp, a soft-spoken freshman, said the Wolverines recently have tried to pare down their game.

“We talked about simplicity over the last couple of weeks and just getting pucks to the net and getting guys to the front of the net,” Copp said. “Simplicity is what we’ve really been focusing on.”

In Friday’s game, the Wolverines led 3-0 after the first period. After that, the Wildcats settled down and took the final 40 minutes but didn’t score enough to win. At the end of Saturday’s game, nearly everyone from Michigan was in agreement about the effect of Friday’s close call. Berenson said that the freshmen on the team were caught off-guard by how hard the Wildcats played Friday night.

“I think some of them were a little surprised at the intensity and maybe just the pace of the game last night, our first playoff game,” Berenson said, “but they were up to speed last night, there’s no question. They got into it. Freshmen are a big part of our team.”

Said Copp: “Last night, I was a little surprised by the pace of the game. Tonight, I was a lot better in the faceoff circle.” At this point, Bennett chimed in with, “A lot better,” drawing a laugh from Copp, who added, “I couldn’t have been any worse.

“It was a lot grittier and gutsy and that’s the style we’re going to have to play to keep going forward.”

If all it takes is one game to make Michigan’s rookies playoff veterans, then whatever hockey the Wolverines play from now until they end their season should be exceptional.

The question on my mind throughout this little run was the question of the NCAA tournament, whether the Wolverines were motivated by that 22-year appearance streak that is in imminent danger of being broken.

“I can tell you that I have not brought it up all year,” Berenson said. “All I’ve said to people that we talk to on a regular basis, like the media, [is that] if we don’t deserve to go, then we shouldn’t be there. Every year is a different way to get there.

“We’re trying to get to Joe Louis. That’s our goal. If we get to Joe Louis, we have a chance. The road to the Joe is not easy.”

There were several telling things about Michigan’s series against Northern Michigan last weekend. First, the Wolverines lost the second two periods of Friday’s game, outshot 25-13 in the final 40 minutes, yet they still won the game. Second, they took from that game the lesson of how hard they need to work to win, a lesson that should have been learned months ago but is just as welcome now.

Third and most important, though, was what the Wolverines did Saturday night. As a team, they suspected that they were better than the Wildcats. Michigan had home ice and the team is loaded with talent, talent that has been in the potential rather than the reality for most of this season. Some time after the end of Friday’s 3-2 win and before the Wolverines suited up for their 6-2 victory Saturday, they had figured out what they can accomplish when they put their minds to it.

“It was a good time for us to show that when we bear down, when we want to win a game, we can,” Bennett said. “After last night, letting them back into the game, that was kind of a wake-up call for us. For us to go out this game and just completely bury them, that feels really good. That will definitely transfer over to next weekend.”

Good teams know they can win — and then win. In the second game of the first round of the CCHA playoffs, seventh-place Michigan finally figured out that it’s a good team.

As I said, it would be easy to write off Bennett as cocky if you’re so inclined, but doing so would be to ignore deliberately the truly bad season the Wolverines played until a few weeks ago. You’d also be depriving yourself of enjoying the kind of subtle transformation, a light bulb moment, that is at the heart of what many of us love about college sports.

There was nothing entitled or exaggerated in what Bennett said after Saturday’s win. Echoing his coach’s words, Bennett said that the Wolverines are taking whatever’s left of their season one game at a time.

“All I know is that we have a game on Friday,” Bennett said. “That’s all we’re focused on right now. Like I said, this momentum is definitely going to carry over. With the group we have and the goaltending we’re having right now, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

OK, so the “definitely” about the “momentum” is a little self-assured, but Bennett has youth on his side — and what if he’s right? The quarterfinal series between Michigan and Western Michigan may be one for the ages.

Likewise remarkable

For the second year in a row, the No. 11 seed in the CCHA defeated the No. 6 seed in three games in the first round of league playoffs. Last year, it was Bowling Green in Marquette, Mich., eliminating the Wildcats. This season, it’s Michigan State, which beat Alaska in Fairbanks.

After beating the Nanooks in overtime 2-1 Friday night, the Spartans fell 4-1 Saturday in one of those games that was never in question. MSU allowed a short-handed goal midway through the first period and goals within the first two minutes of the second and third periods.

Saturday, however, was a different story. Leading 4-1 late into the third period, the Spartans saw the Nanooks threaten with goals at 17:30 and 18:49, but held on to advance to the second round of the CCHA playoffs.

After the game, coach Tom Anastos said that the Spartans deserved the win. “You could see the fatigue on the bench,” Anastos told the Lansing State Journal. “Guys dug deep and found a way to win. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Meanwhile, in Sault Ste. Marie, Bowling Green was showing the CCHA that Michigan isn’t the only team that can dominate a playoff game. After losing their opener against Lake Superior State 2-0 Friday, the Falcons beat the Lakers 6-3 Saturday and 7-0 Sunday.

“It was a great effort and I’m really proud of our group,” Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron said after the win. “Our guys played tonight like we’ve been in this game before and we have.”

[Hear Bergeron on this week’s USCHO Live!]

Yes, they have — and it seems they’ve learned something from it. Last year, last-place Bowling Green defeated Northern Michigan on the road in three games in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, defeating the Wildcats 4-1 in the deciding game. Then the Falcons traveled to Big Rapids, Mich., to take on the top team in the conference, Ferris State. Bowling Green took the Bulldogs to three games in that series and prevailed, with both wins coming in overtime.

One of the best quotes from last weekend’s series came from Jim Roque, the Lakers coach, after the third game. “It just seemed like everything was going well for them and we could do nothing right,” Roque said. “I’m stunned.”

A small offering of hardware

I have one virtual statuette remaining to award this season, the only remaining category in which I felt there was a clear winner.

Aniket Dhadphale Garbage Man Memorial Award

When Aniket Dhadphale played for Notre Dame (1995-99), the tall forward from Marquette, Mich., made a nuisance of himself in front of opponents’ nets, picking up trash goals whenever he could.

In his four years with Lake Superior State, forward Domenic Monardo honed this skill as well. This season, the majority of his career-high 20 goals were beautiful pickings from in front of the net. His tenacity — and nose for the puck in traffic near the crease — makes Monardo the CCHA’s final Garbage Man.

Guys you would miss next season in the CCHA if there were a CCHA next season

Monardo is one of those players who is often overlooked in the CCHA, a skilled, hard-working player on a good, middle-of-the-standings team, the kind of player that is missed after he’s gone more than recognized while he’s around.

At the end of seasons, I sometimes muse about who will be missed from the league as a whole the following year. I think about which departing seniors had a greater impact on the league than perhaps their numbers or teams’ performances may reveal. This year, that’s moot.

Regardless, I can’t help but think of Alaska’s Andy Taranto, Bowling Green’s Andrew Hammond and Northern Michigan’s Scott Macaulay — all guys who made a difference in this league for four years. What a privilege it has been every year while covering the CCHA to watch players like these develop.

Next week

Next week is my last CCHA column and other than goodbye, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to say. I could borrow Roque’s line — I’m stunned, stunned that it’s finally here — but I’d like to know what you have to say.

What players from teams that you don’t root for will you miss when they leave college hockey after this season? What will you miss most about the CCHA, if anything? What hopes do you have for your team in its new conference home? What parting words do you want to say?

Better yet, if you could write the parting words of those affiliated with the league, how would that script go?

And are you planning on attending the championship tournament in Detroit even if your team doesn’t make the trip?

I really want to know. So does everyone else. I’m only an email away: [email protected].

My ballot

1. Minnesota
2. Boston College
3. St. Cloud State
4. Miami
5. Quinnipiac
6. North Dakota
7. Massachusetts-Lowell
8. New Hampshire
9. Denver
10. Western Michigan
11. Yale
12. Minnesota State
13. Nebraska-Omaha
14. Notre Dame
15. Niagara
16. Wisconsin
17. Rensselaer
18. Dartmouth
19. Providence
20. Michigan