It's been 13 years and I still remember it well. One of the lasting images of the Red Wings 1997 run to the Stanley Cup was a fan who was holding up a sign that said, "Vernon, I'm Sorry!"
In that same vein, here you go 2010 Michigan Wolverines:
I'm sorry for doubting you. I'm sorry for telling a few people that part of me hoped that LSSU would just mercy-kill us in the first round so I wouldn't have to keep watching the same uninspired hockey-like substance. I'm sorry for jokingly referring to David Wohlberg as Josh Langfeld for half the season. I'm sorry for extending my business trip to Hawaii on the front end, so I'll be there when the National Championship game is on-going. I'm sorry for not even glancing at the schedule to see when Regionals were before picking a weekend for my parents to come visit.
Just one month ago, the Wolverines were headed into the CCHA Tournament faced with a task of winning six games in an eight game span--something they did just once during the regular season (and that stretch included two against WMU, and games against Notre Dame and Michigan Tech). This would include a three-game series on the road and two games at Joe Louis against the top teams the CCHA had to offer.
To put that in perspective a little bit more, the CCHA Tournament started March 5th. To encompass the previous six Michigan wins, you would have to go all the way back to January 22nd, a span of 13 games. It's not like the Wolverines were going all North Dakota on the nation--sucking for the first half, going on a huge streak in the second half and having to wonder if it would be enough. Michigan was consistently inconsistent the entire season. Prior to the CCHA Tournament, they had swept two series the entire season. (Three if you count the College Hockey Showcase.) Then they did it back-to-back, and added wins over the #1 team in the country and a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament to boot.
They're on an absolutely incredible run right now. Other than the Sioux, is there a hotter team heading into the tournament? Michigan's best players are heating up at the right time. Carl Hagelin and Matt Rust have been fantastic at both ends of the ice, David Wohlberg is healthy and producing, and Louie Caporusso has transformed a disappointing season into the exact reverse of last season.
When Caporusso was a Hobey-finalist a year ago, he had 24-25--49, but scored just six goals after the first of the year--and five of those were against LSSU, WMU, and a dreadful FYS team. This year it's the opposite. After just 7 goals in his first 30 games, Caporusso has now ripped off 13 goals and 20 points in the last 13, which includes five multi-goal games and a playmaker. He also hasn't gone consecutive games without a point this calendar year.
Hagelin has scored a point in every game except one since the FYS series at the end of January. Rust has points in all but five of those games, and has 16 points in his last 17.
You can even look at guys like Kevin Lynch, AJ Treais, Steve Kampfer and Scooter Vaughan and say that they're playing their best hockey headed into the tournament. Kampfer was something like +12 in the CCHA Tournament, and added five points in six games. He stepped up in a big way in the absence of our captain. Lynch, who was invisible for a big chunk of the early part of the season has found a home playing with Hagelin and Rust. He scored a pair of third-period goals to help bury Miami.
We haven't even addressed the goaltending. What can you possibly say about Shawn Hunwick? Apparently, on the radio this morning he said that when he walked on, he was just hoping to get to play the last five minutes of Senior Night, if we were winning big. A month ago, he was a backup goalie who had played one game in almost three seasons--and was thrilled that had happened. Now he's the CCHA Tournament MVP, the starting goalie for a very dangerous hockey team heading into the NCAA Tournament, and he has a chance to become one of the best stories in the history of college athletics. The smallest guy on the team--who ended up at Michigan due to a strange series of events involving a severe head injury and Steve Jakiel being awful--is the biggest reason the Wolverines have a chance. This is Rudy, except with a player worth a damn.
Let's talk a little bit about last night. That was a helluva hockey game. You didn't see the typical feel-out process that you typically see in a one-and-done environment. The teams went at each other from the drop of the puck. We saw back and forth hockey. The Wolverines largely dominated the first half of the first period. NMU came back and controlled more of the play in the second half.
It appeared we were headed for the third period still deadlocked at 0, but with just about a half minute left in the second and the Wolverines on the power play, a broken stick changed everything. Matt Rust broke his stick and headed to the bench. Louie Caporusso jumped over the boards in his place, and fired one into the net to put the Wolverines ahead going to the third.
Midway through the third period, Caporusso struck again to put the Wolverines up by two. He hit the goalpost on a shot, circled behind the net, tapped his stick on the ice to call for the puck, and made a gorgeous tip on a shot-pass from Steve Kampfer.
NMU would get within one on a turnover by Treais and a goalmouth scramble, but the defense was strong and the Wolverines held on for a 2-1 win.
The penalty killers held NMU's top-ranked power play to 0-5 on the night, with just seven shots. A lot of guys got in on the action as well, as all of our penalties were to penalty-killers (Rust, Winnett, Glendening, Kampfer, and Wohlberg).
I'm too happy to really get into the fact that the CCHA should be ashamed that McInchak and Shegos are the best they have to offer. I have no problem with both Glendening's hit and Florek's hit being two. I have no problem with both hits being five and a game, but you can't toss one guy and not the other--especially when Florek's hit was worse and Wohlberg didn't even have the puck. But by all means, toss one of our best penalty killers and leave one of their best players in the game. (Notice who set up NMU's lone goal.) Pio, here's another plea for you to come out of retirement. We need you back.
So now the Wolverines head to Fort Wayne, IN to take on the Bemidji State Beavers. If they win, that would set up a potential rematch with the Miami RedHawks, who play Alabama-Huntsville in the other game. A lot of story lines in this bracket. You've got the Michigan/Miami thing, Hunwick, the RedHawks playing for Brendan Burke, the fact that Alabama-Huntsville has no conference for next season, UAH potentially getting a crack at two teams from the conference that denied them entry, etc.
Even though we ended up in a bracket with two Frozen Four teams from a year ago, it's hard not to be happy about the draw. We're in a location where a lot of Wolverine fans will be able to attend. We avoid North Dakota in the first round. The #1 seed in our bracket is a team that we just rolled. Miami is still the #1 team in the country and have to be favored to come out of the Midwest, but Michigan has a chance. Possibly a damn good chance.
Quite honestly, they could have put us in a bracket with Miami, Denver, and BC and scheduled the games at the Goggin Center in Oxford and I still would have been grinning ear to ear. The NCAA Tournament seemed like a pipe dream a month ago. I'm not sure I would have even taken 100-to-1 odds for them to win the CCHAs. Now we're in the dance and a team no one wants to play.
The Wolverines play the second game of the Midwest Regional. The game will air on ESPN360.com and on tape delay at 11:30 pm EDT on ESPNU. It was a lot nicer when other networks would pick up the rights to these games, and we'd actually get to see them live. But hey, it's the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA tournament. I guess I can't complain about tape delay.
The best part of the selection show, outside of our draw: Getting to see the highlights of last year's BU/Miami game again, and thinking of the look on Blasi's face as he was watching.
Other stories about the game:
Inside College Hockey (written by my former hockey teammate--BlackBears forever!--James Dowd)
MGoBlog loves our bracket. Can't blame him.
Every player on that team should be proud of themselves for the performances we've seen over the past month. Red also gave a lot of props to the Wolverine fans who showed up in droves to East Lansing and Detroit.
The run continues.Somehow.