- Chris Dzombak/Daily
BY STEPHEN J. NESBITT
Daily Sports Editor
Published February 24, 2011
After four months of conference play, the long haul of the CCHA slate has come down to a screeching halt — two teams separated by a single point entering the final weekend. And the No. 10 Michigan hockey team is riding shotgun for the photo finish.
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“We're not in the driver's seat, but we're in the front seat,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said Tuesday. “We have a chance to finish high, and we want to do it.”
This weekend, the Wolverines square off against Northern Michigan in Marquette, Mich. in their final regular-season series — Michigan’s final opportunity to catch conference frontrunner Notre Dame. The eighth-ranked Fighting Irish, who face Western Michigan in a home-and-home series this weekend, are a point ahead of the Wolverines in the standings.
For Michigan (18-7-1 CCHA, 21-9-4 overall), a team that has already secured both a share of second place in the conference and a first-round bye in the CCHA Tournament, the chase atop the league is incentive enough to power through one last pair of games.
“We want to finish first,” sophomore forward Chris Brown said. “It’s motivation and it’s going to give us a little more edge this weekend — knowing that we do control our own destiny.”
But the series also serves as a last-ditch chance for the Wolverines to fine-tune their power-play unit. After failing to convert on 22-consecutive man-advantage situations, Michigan broke through with a pair of goals on four attempts in the back half of a series sweep against Western Michigan last weekend.
And though the power play showed signs of life against the Broncos, it has a golden opportunity to improve against Northern Michigan. The Wildcats are the most-penalized team in the conference and have the lowest penalty-kill percentage at 79 percent — an ideal combination to jump start the Wolverines’ power play.
“We need to not think about it as much, again, just react on the power play,” Brown said. “We’re trying to do too many set plays when we need to just play hockey. I think if we do that, on an Olympic-sized rink, get a couple opportunities, I think we’ll score a couple more goals.”
And goals may be easier to come by against Northern Michigan (12-11-3, 14-15-3), who boasts the second-most goals allowed (102) in the conference — only one fewer than Bowling Green.
Last week, Berenson moved senior forward Scooter Vaughan — a former defenseman — back to the point on the top power-play unit, in large part due to his offensive success this season along with his defensive roots and speed that could eliminate counterattacks.
Replacing senior defenseman Chad Langlais on the point, Vaughan represents the only right-handed shooter on the blue line during the power play.
“Scooter’s got a good shot and he’s got some puck luck going right now,” Berenson said. “He’s got a lot of momentum and I think he’s a good fit up there.”
While Michigan counted on a late power-play goal from senior forward Carl Hagelin in the waning seconds of overtime last Saturday in the Wolverine's 5-4 victory against Western Michigan, senior forward Louie Caporusso emphasized the importance of emphatic — not dramatic — performances against the Wildcats.
“That was a big win for us on Saturday, but we don’t want to win like that every night,” Caporusso said. “That’s just not good hockey. We didn’t play good hockey throughout the whole game. It’s not as much about winning as how you win.”
Added Berenson: “We have something to prove, obviously. We know we need to play better than we played last weekend. So it’s week after week after week — we’re going to have to keep getting better if we’re going to be any kind of playoff contender.”
The Wildcats’ arena doesn’t feature an out-of-town scoreboard, so Berenson won’t need to worry about his players becoming distracted with the Fighting Irish’s results.
“Notre Dame’s a great team, and there’s nothing that we’re going to do that is going to change what they’re going to do,” Caporusso said. “We’ve got to concentrate on ourselves — Friday night, Northern Michigan.”