BY MICHAEL EISENSTEIN
Daily Sports Editor
Published January 11, 2009
Just before Thanksgiving — the last time the Michigan hockey team played Miami (Ohio) — the Wolverines scored just one goal in two games, their worst offensive weekend ever under longtime Michigan coach Red Berenson.
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One goal. On 46 shots.
Since that series, Michigan has won seven of eight games, nearly doubling its win total, including this past weekend’s domination of the RedHawks.
To put the team’s improvement into perspective, the Wolverines once again took 46 shots against Miami this weekend.
The result? Nine goals.
All told, Michigan gained four points on second-place Miami in the CCHA standings after the 5-1 and 4-0 wins.
“We got pretty much embarrassed there (in Oxford),” sophomore forward Matt Rust said of the first time the two teams faced off. “It’s good to come back and put a stomping on them. I think it’s definitely just going to help us push forward in the season.”
But it’s important not to get caught up in it and blow the sweep of Miami out of proportion. This doesn’t mean the Wolverines are one of the top teams in the country, even though sophomore goalie Bryan Hogan posted a .977 save percentage against the conference’s second-best offense.
But Michigan is finally finding the back of the net more than once in 46 shots and capitalizing on its opportunities. The team is working hard and starting to climb back up the conference standings when the Wolverines need it the most.
There's not much doubt in anyone's mind that, even after this weekend, there's a lot of room to move upwards.
“I don’t think anybody’s been comfortable with sitting where we’ve been (in the standings),” Berenson said.
The Wolverines, currently tied for fifth in the CCHA with Ohio State, are aiming for one of the top-four slots in the conference to earn a bye in the CCHA Tournament and home-ice advantage for the quarterfinals. Becoming one of the conference's top-four teams usually secures an NCAA Tournament berth, something Michigan has done for a record 17 consecutive years.
First-place Notre Dame is comfortably ahead of the rest of the CCHA, but Nebraska-Omaha, who Michigan has yet to play, is just three points ahead of Michigan in third. The Wolverines also have Ohio State coming up, which gives them a chance to pull away from the Buckeyes in the standings.
With the schedule that's coming up, Michigan can definitely get back into the top few spots of the conference standings. The only question coming into this weekend’s series was if the Wolverines could complete a sweep of a top team.
Though Michigan didn’t play its best this weekend — the Wolverines managed just seven combined shots in the second and third period Saturday — the team is showing that it has what it takes to win back-to-back games and dominate the scoreboard against one of the country’s top teams.
And what does this mean? The Wolverines’ second half of the season will probably be a lot more interesting than last year’s. After the first half of last season, they had established themselves as one of the nation’s top teams and were cruising to a likely top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, Michigan is fighting just to secure a berth. The Wolverines’ up-and-down conference season began with a tie, a Michigan sweep, a tie, another tie, and getting swept at Miami. Since then, the Wolverines have tripped up just once, a November loss at Wisconsin in senior goalie Billy Sauer's last start.
“Some teams are second half teams, and hopefully we can be one of those teams because obviously we didn’t have a great start to the season this year,” acting captain Chris Summers said.
It’s not about just the sweep in and of itself. The key is turning the Miami series into a season-momentum changer. And Summers understands exactly that.
“We’re hoping to build off this weekend, build off each practice, and just kind of go from there," he said.
—Eisenstein is thinking Michigan hockey can put together a run just like his Baltimore Ravens are right now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.