It was a performance that the Hobey Baker voters simply can't ignore. Marred in a 1-0 game, Kevin Porter notched a natural hat trick and later added an empty net goal to put the Wolverines into the second round for the first time since 2005.
It wasn't a game that was too dissimilar from what was expected. Niagara did play Michigan tough. For awhile. They jumped out to a 4-2 edge in shots in the first six minutes and went into the first intermission tied 0-0. It took Michigan a little while to get going, but once Max Pacioretty put the Wolverines ahead and Kevin Porter started to do what he does, it was pretty clear that Niagara would not pull a Holy Cross.
Michigan's defense was pretty fantastic. After giving up four shots in the early going, Michigan held Niagara off the shot chart for more than 20 minutes. After the second period, shots on goal were 30-9 favoring the top seed. Eventually, Niagara was able to crack Billy Sauer, but at that point it was already 4-0 and there was no time to even think about a comeback. Niagara was only able to muster a small handful of legit scoring chances and the Wolverines did an excellent job on Ted Cook, who put in 32 goals just a year ago.
As you'd expect when the opposing team only has 15 or so shots on goal, Billy Sauer didn't have to be great, but he had a pair of brilliant stops when the game was still in doubt. His best save came when it was 2-0 in the middle of the second period. The puck bounced into the slot, and Sauer snared a wrister from the hash mark and didn't give up a rebound. It was a key save because it didn't allow Niagara any momentum.
The night, however, belonged to the best player in the country. After he tapped in a rebound to put Michigan up 2-0, I thought, "Good. That helps the Hobey case that Porter was able to pot one tonight." Little did I know that he was just getting started. By the end of the night, Porter would take the national lead in points, points per game, goals, and goals per game. The prettiest tally was the fourth, a beautiful passing play between Porter, Palushaj and Kolarik.
Kolarik has gone on record saying that his goal was to help Porter win the Hobey and he sure helped tonight. 5 assists, which tied the record for an NCAA Tournament game, helped Porter along to his four goals, which set a Regional mark. But he shouldn't be a Hobey Finalist too. Riiight.
As Cap Raeder said during the telecast, during the NCAA Tournament, your best players have to be your best players, and Michigan's were tonight. Four goals for Porter, five assists for Kolarik, a goal and two assists for Pacioretty, two assists for Palushaj. Hard to beat that.
So the Wolverines move on to face the Clarkson Golden Knights, which will give Red Berenson a chance to get revenge on the team that spoiled Michigan's national title dreams during his final season as a player. They advanced with a 2-1 win over St. Cloud this afternoon.
The Golden Knights didn't seem to be an overly skilled team, but they're big, they hit, and in general they seemed to be the type of squad that we've struggled against somewhat this year. Their goalie was leaving some rebounds, but St. Cloud never had anyone crashing the net to pounce on them. I was impresed with a few of Clarkson's players. Cayer, Clitsome, Guthrie, and Zalewski all played really well today. As was the case with Nigara, this is a team we should beat, but it's not a team that can't beat us.
Out in the West Regional, I owe a couple teams--and Chris at Western College Hockey--an apology. Notre Dame told me to shut up in pretty much the best way possible. I questioned if they would even score a goal against New Hampshire, and instead they potted seven. I don't even care that two were empty-netters. That was really impressive. Combine that with MSU's win over Colorado College--which also surprised me--and the CCHA is guaranteed at least one team in the Frozen Four this year. Michigan and Miami will also have a chance. I guess the lesson here is don't bet on notorious chokers like St. Cloud and the University of No Hardware.
How bout that CCHA by the way? Knocking off the WCHA Champion as well as the Hockey East Champion tonight. And that doesn't even account for the two best teams in the conference. At this point, the CCHA is 3-0 and the WCHA is 0-2. You can pretty much make that 4-1 vs. 1-3, since either Denver or Wisconsin has to lose tomorrow and either MSU or Notre Dame has to win. Shiiiiit.
That 1-3 record also matches my record in picks so far. Combine that with my abysmal showing when I predicted the semis/championships in the conference tournament and I'm pretty happy that my NHL picks have gone as well as they have this year.
Don't look now, but if Michigan and MSU win their games tomorrow, the schools will meet in the tournament for the first time in history. In the national semifinals. I would also say that if Michigan wins tomorrow, there's no way that Kevin Porter doesn't get the Hobey Baker. Especially not after the performance he had tonight. Big time players make big time plays in big time games.