By Michael Florek, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 27, 2011
MARQUETTE — Never has the saying “defense wins championships” worked so literally.
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The No. 10 Michigan hockey team, heading into the final series of the regular season, needed two wins over Northern Michigan and a loss from Notre Dame to win to take the CCHA title. In the Wolverines’ back-to-back victories over the Wildcats inside the Berry Events Center, they showed two completely different, but effective performances.
In Friday night’s 3-2 victory, there was a moment that defined the whole defensive performance. Despite a relatively poor defensive showing in the second period, giving up 11 shots, Michigan headed into the final minutes of the game with a one-goal lead.
After senior defenseman Chad Langlais took a penalty with 2:04 left in the game Northern Michigan pulled its goalie, giving them a 6-on-4 advantage. As the game entered the final seconds, the Wolverines negated one scoring chance. They couldn’t clear the zone and Northern Michigan set up again.
This time, a Wildcat shot hit senior goalie Shawn Hunwick and bounced behind him. As the puck trickled toward the goal line, junior defenseman Brandon Burlon dove behind him and swatted away the puck with his glove.
“You’re instincts take over on a play like that,” Burlon said after Friday’s game. “(Hunwick) was the goalie on that one, but then, I’ve got to play goalie. You do anything for the team to get the win and that was just one of those plays.”
Saturday’s 5-0 win saw a defensive performance that didn’t have a defining moment — it didn’t need one. The Wolverines’ offense jumped on the Wildcats early and often to give Michigan the cushion. But even with the lead, the defensive unit continued to do what has made it give up the second least goals in the conference.
In the first period, the Wolverines gave up a mediocre seven shots. In the final two combined, they gave up nine. The 16 total was the lowest amount of shots given up this season. The previous low-mark was 18, which they did twice against conference-bottom dweller Bowling Green in the second and third games of the season.
“Part of it was our offense, part of it was we were playing in our positions more, coming back, creating turnovers and we’re getting the puck out cleaner than we did last night,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said after Saturday’s game. “We turned the puck over a lot in our zone last night and we turned the puck over a lot in their zone last night, which gave them rushes. And I thought our turnovers we much lower tonight.”
Notre Dame’s loss on Saturday means the regular-season CCHA championship is Michigan’s. It was defense that got it done. Now, heading into postseason with an identity as a defense-first team, it comes down to whether the defense can continue its consistency.
In the Wolverines’ current six-game winning streak, the team has given up an average of just two goals a game. On the season, Michigan is 18-1-1 when giving up two goals or fewer.
“I think the one thing that really stands out is that maybe we weren’t as prolific as maybe some of our teams have been in the past offensively,” Berenson said. “But we’ve one of the best defensive teams and our goaltending has been rock solid. We just found a way to win. We’ve been in a lot of close games night after night and this team’s been able to hang in there and get it done.”