Monday, March 04, 2013

Much More Like It

The seniors had reason to celebrate on Senior Night once again
Photo: Bill Rapai
After the week-from-hell in January when the Wolverines lost three home games to Bowling Green and Alaska, I wrote the following:

At this point, all I think they can really do is try to nail down home ice in the first round of the CCHA Tournament and try to be playing their best hockey come mid-March, as that's the only way they're getting in the tournament. (Does anyone hear Jim Mora when I say that?) And honestly, I'd put more of an emphasis on the latter. Try different line combos, different defense pairings when they have the bodies, since Rutledge is theoretically your most talented goalie, make it known that he's getting a few starts without having to look over his shoulder to see if that can get rid of some of his yips. Bring in Greg Harden. Anything they can come up with. Outside of home ice in round one, these remaining games really don't matter. The at-large bid is gone. Mid-March is when this team will get a chance to play and salvage their season like the team from three years ago, and everything should be pointed toward that goal. Whatever it takes.

They gave Rutledge his shot, but after 11 goals allowed in 5 periods against Notre Dame (most definitely not all his fault, but still, 2+ goals per period ain't getting it done), they turned back to Steve Racine. Outside of that? Mission accomplished. With a sweep of the Buckeyes and a 5-point weekend against Ferris State, Michigan locked up the 7-seed in the CCHA Tournament and the home playoff series that comes with it. It's impossible to not think they're playing their best hockey of the year right now, having taken 5+ points in three of their last four series, and played Notre Dame tough in the other (though the score didn't indicate it).

The offense has turned it around in a big way, scoring 31 goals in a 7-game stretch beginning with the home game against Michigan State. They've averaged 4 goals per game over their last four series. The defense has improved as well, holding Ferris State to two goals on the weekend and keeping Ohio State to six.

Racine was the difference, and that is a great sign heading into the postseason.
Photo: Bill Rapai

The biggest reason for confidence heading into the CCHA Tournament, however, is the play of Racine. For maybe the first time all season, the Wolverines could say they had a goaltender win them a game. Red Berenson did, in fact, say as much after the Senior Night shootout win over the Ferris State Bulldogs. From the sound of it, he was spectacular early. He was certainly spectacular late, holding the Bulldogs off the board on a breakaway in the waning seconds of overtime that was aided by having seven players on the ice, and stopping all three Bulldogs in the shootout.

I only got to see one period of action against the Buckeyes last weekend (the second period of Friday night's game), but it was the best period of hockey I've seen Michigan play all season. Ohio had one brief segment where they pressured Michigan late in the period, but aside from that, the entire session was played in OSU's end of the ice. The Buckeyes aren't Miami, but they're a solid-enough team and Michigan took it to them on their home ice for large chunks of time.

During Friday night's win over Ferris, I commented that Michigan looks like a completely different team than they did even against the Irish. Confidence is a funny thing. People have speculated that the opening-night loss to RIT and some of the early-season struggles sent the team into a funk that they couldn't get out of. The team didn't have confidence in the goaltending, some of the scorers weren't scoring, and they had a hard time responding to adversity. It's amazing what a few good things happening can do.

On Friday night, the Wolverines jumped on top 2:40 into the game when Zach Hyman was able to knock home a shot. DeBlois added another goal before the midway point in the first period off a rebound from Copp's glorious chance. Ferris drew back within 1 on a fluky play when Moffie cross-checked a guy into the crease and he was allowed to stay there for pretty much as long as he wanted. Racine was impeded, but they played on and Ferris scored.

Even after that goal, however, there didn't seem to be the "Oh, here we go...." feeling that seemed to accompany every goal against this season. The Bulldogs managed 17 shots over the second and third period, but only had a couple of grade-A scoring chances. It was a pretty awesome defensive effort and Racine was there when they needed him, making a couple of big stops along the way while the game was still in doubt. He seemed calm and comfortable in the crease, which is also something that hasn't been a common site this year.

Moffatt helped Michigan regain their two-goal lead off a great saucer pass from PDG. He took it off his skate, pulled the puck to his right and was able to tuck it past Motte as he was falling to the ice. Moffatt doesn't score a ton of goals, but they always seem to be worthy of the highlight-reel. Lee Moffie closed out the scoring on a play that seemed to indicate that maybe, just maybe, the bounces are starting to go Michigan's way. He flipped a shot from the point that skipped off the ice and eluded Motte.

That is a very smart Bulldog! Your cup will not protect you from a TROUBA-OMB! Also, hockey players are amazing.
Photo: Bill Rapai

On Saturday, it wasn't just the final regular season game for the seniors, it was the final regular season game for Michigan as a member of the CCHA. This one was a true goaltenders' duel. Racine (24 saves) and Motte (35 saves) were the #1 and #2 stars of the game. Both allowed just a single goal in regulation, but it was Treais getting the better of Motte in the shootout for the bonus point to the Wolverines. That point gave Michigan the #7 seed, which means they'll host Northern Michigan instead of Bowling Green next weekend. Possibly more importantly, however, the extra point means the Wolverines would get either Notre Dame (if Alaska beats FYS) or WMU (if FYS upsets Alaska) should they advance to the second round. If they were the 8-seed, they would have needed an upset to avoid a trip to Oxford.

Home ice wasn't even a certainty late in the game, however. Ferris State needed to win the game outright (not in a shootout) to host their second-round series against the Buckeyes, so they pulled their goalie in sudden-death overtime and it darn-near worked as Racine had to stop a breakaway opportunity with about 15 seconds left in the extra session.

Senior Kevin Lynch came through in his final regular season game at Yost
Photo: Bill Rapai

Kevin Lynch scored the lone goal for the Wolverines as Andrew Copp continued his stellar play by finding Lynch all alone in the slot. Ferris evened the game on a shot that deflected in off a Wolverine midway through the game. Then the goalies would pitch shutouts the rest of the way, though both had a little help. Motte was added by the post and a video review that never conclusively showed if a Copp/Selman shot made it over the line. Racine was aided by a Bulldog blocking his teammate's shot that was headed for the back of the net. Both goalies made plenty of saves to keep the game tied, however, possibly none better than the save Racine made right before he had a little help from his Bulldog friend.

In the shootout, Treais snapped one past Motte's glove and that was enough for the extra point. Travis Ouellette had to have at least 4 breakaways in the game, including the one in the shootout, and he was denied on all of them. I don't know if I've ever seen an opposing player have so many great chances in a highlight reel and not bury any of them, but Racine was fantastic. Even the ones he didn't have to stop because the opposing player shot wide, he left nothing to shoot at.

Another dramatic Senior Night comes to an end. And so, too, does Michigan's regular season tenure in the CCHA.
Photo: Bill Rapai
So now Northern Michigan will come to town for a best-of-3 series this weekend. Michigan played The Northerns twice this year, coming from 4-1 down in the third period to win 5-4 in a shootout after Treais tied the game with less than a second left and falling 4-3 the next night.

Maybe Michigan doesn't go into the CCHA Tournament as the favorite, but they're certainly in the conversation. Northern will present a challenge. Should Michigan advance, they're going to have to go on the road and win 2 of 3 against a good hockey team who is still fighting for their tournament lives, be it Notre Dame or Western Michigan. Then, should they advance again, they have two must-win games at the Joe.

It won't be easy. They squashed their margin for error a couple of months ago. But whereas a month ago pretty much all Michigan fans would have agreed that they had a chance in the CCHA Tournament the same way that Lloyd Christmas still had a chance with Mary Swanson, now the outlook is much brighter. The offense is clicking, the defense is getting healthy, they're getting quality play in net, their confidence is brimming, and they look like a Michigan hockey team is supposed to look.

Win six games like the 2010 team did from this very seed, and the struggles through November, December, and January don't matter anymore. Michigan still gets to play playoff hockey. It just becomes must-win a little sooner this year than in most year's past. They have a chance to salvage this, and if they keep playing like they have the past two weekends, they just might pull it off.

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