College Hockey Showcase Championship: Check
Great Lakes Invitational Championship: Check
CCHA Regular Season Championship: Check
CCHA Tournament Championship: Check
NCAA #1 overall seed: Check
About the only thing missing on this season's check-list which could have been completed thusfar would have been the Icebreaker Tournament, but even that was a preview of things to come this year.
I can't say enough about the performance of this edition of the Wolverines. It's hard to believe that the season has gone by this quickly, but we're now into the portion of the season where it's one and done. Win four games, you're the champs. Lose and your season is over.
While the game may not have meant all that much in the grand scheme of things (Michigan and Miami both had #1 seeds locked up as well as--at least in theory--one of the two game against "weaker" opponents, though we've seen how those teams can put the fear of Parise in their opponent) you never would have known it. The CCHA Championship was hard-hitting, well-played, and featured some lights-out goaltending.
There may have been 16 goals scored in the two previous games between these teams, but the goalkeepers were the stars tonight. Jeff Zatkoff was spectacular for Miami, flashing the glove that failed him so badly earlier this year against Michigan. He stopped Winnett, Porter, and Rust on breakaways and kept Max Pacioretty's through-the-legs pass to Kevin Porter from being a contender for Michigan Play of the Year when he stoned Porter on the one-timer.
Billy Sauer wasn't as flashy tonight as Zatkoff, but he held the #1 offense in the country at bay for over 59 minutes before they finally cracked him on a 6 on 4. His best save of the night came on a point-blank shot by Carter Camper, which was labeled for just a couple inches above his right pad. Sauer was able to get his blocker down to turn the puck aside. It was a brilliant save.
Matt Rust, once again, showed no ill effects from the broken leg that had him in pain earlier in the week. He had a breakaway stymied by Zatkoff (as well as a rolling puck and a pair of hooks, which sent Justin Mercier to the box). He also assisted on the first goal of the hockey game, slowing things down to wait for help, then flipping a pass to Palushaj who tipped it home. His breakaway looked very similar to one he scored on early in the season (against BU maybe?) where he tipped a puck away in his own end and just outskated everyone. It's almost not fair (for a plodder like me) that he can skate so well even with a broken leg. Rust was also dominating on faceoffs tonight, winning 13 of 19.
The other goal was something out of the Dwight Helminen playbook. Miller knocked an offensive zone faceoff forward, danced around Nathan Davis, picked up the puck, and slid it to Brandon Naurato, who had a wide-open net.
This term comes up a lot with the Red Wings, but the secondary scoring was huge for Michigan this weekend. Porter, Kolarik, and Pacioretty are hard to control, but a great defensive team can force other guys to beat them. That's where the Turnbulls, Millers, Caporussos, Nauratos, Palushajs come in. It's not to say that the top line didn't do anything tonight. They had some really great chances. But they didn't score, and we were still able to find a way to win the game. Even though Miller played up last night, he still had two goals and Turnbull had a pair. If the secondary scoring can keep producing even if the top line is not, we're going to be a really tough out.
Random thought: It's an absolute joy to watch Carl Hagelin skate. When that guy turns the after-burners on on the forecheck, it's incredible to watch.
Also, it's really great for Tim Miller to be MVP of the CCHA Tournament. It's been well-documented that he's had a tough season offensively, but good things happen when you keep working hard and he's living proof of that. He made an impact this weekend whether he was playing with Kolarik and Porter or Fardig and Naurato. It's probably safe to say he's out of his slump. If he gets going, it's just another weapon for this team, which is chock full of them.
One other person who I thought was great tonight, Ben Winnett. I don't know what he's been eating lately, but he's been playing pretty good hockey. He didn't have a point tonight and wasn't on the ice for any of the goals, but he was extremely visible out there (in a good way). He's become more and more active in the last month/month and a half. 3/4ths of the way through the season I hadn't noticed him whatsoever, but he's been playing pretty good hockey as of late.
So now we move on to the NCAA Tournament as the #1 overall seed. Beyond that, it's hard to say. Air Force appears to be the likely opponent, but with the uncertainty in the bracket due to that Wisconsin/CC matchup based on the straight seeding, it's not safe to assume anything.
A different outcome in any of six-or-so games and Michigan would be a lock for Madison. But as things shook out, the Wisconsin Badgers appear to be heading for the tournament, which screws things up mightily. College Hockey News still has the Wolverines in Madison. If the Badgers were a four-seed, there'd be no shot of that. But they appear to have moved up to a three, which might open the door for Michigan to remain in the regional closest to home. You'd be replacing the 9-seed in the region with the 12-seed and it would create a conference matchup. Pretty big change in "Bracket integrity", but they may opt to "reward" the #1 overall seed with an easier overall bracket on paper. USCHO agrees that Michigan is Madison-bound, along with St. Cloud, Wisconsin, and Air Force.
Honestly, I'm not so sure it would be a bad thing. First, there's no guarantee that Wisconsin would beat St. Cloud. The teams split their six meetings this season (though Wisconsin won both in Madison) and five of the games were decided by one goal. Second, if we're fortunate enough to move on in the tournament, we're likely going to have a tough game in the second round. If that game is against an under .500 team on their home ice, so be it. If Michigan is a championship-caliber team, they should still be able to send most-everyone home disappointed. Third, it would remove Michigan State from the bracket. With Jeff Lerg and the way they typically play against us, it wouldn't break my heart to see Wisconsin instead of them.Let Spartina go be in the Bracket of Death for a change.
We're about eight hours away from finding out who we will have to go through to get to Denver. I'll have a full breakdown--of the bracket or in general, depending on the draw--after the Selection Show (11:30 am Eastern on ESPN2).
Congrats to our Wolverines. I don't know where this ride will end, but accomplishing what they've accomplished this season is no small feat. Most of us would've been happy just to have Michigan in the tournament this year, then they bring this serious gourmet shit on and take the #1 overall seed. A-maize-ing.