AUBURN HILLS –
After this weekend’s sweep of Notre Dame, it’s easy to see how Michigan, once a warm-and-fuzzy surprise story, is now the nation’s top-ranked team by a convincing margin. The Wolverines epitomize teamwork. They’re a group of selfless, talented kids without egos or superstardom. And if you pick an athlete at random, there’s a 50-percent chance he’s a freshman – which makes this start that much more impressive.
Yes, this Michigan team is something special.
All right. That’s easy to say. But the rationale isn’t very interesting.
This team may be 22-2, but six minutes into their first legitimate CCHA test, the Wolverines were imploding.
A frazzled, vulnerable goalie.
Two scores down against a team the Wolverines needed to beat for a shot at the conference title.
And it looked like they were going to lose – badly.
In the end, when Louie Caporusso slapped the puck into the back of the net with 20 seconds left and the Yost Arena crowd exploded, the most exciting game of Michigan’s season (no, the double-overtime win against Michigan Tech to win the Great Lakes Invitational didn’t come close to this) proved what the polls have been saying for awhile now.
The Wolverines are among the best in the nation. And it’s not because they can beat the Western Michigans or Lake Superior States of the world.
It’s because they can kill five-minute majors in the third period of their toughest game while tied and, after returning to full strength, they’re the ones with the edge and the best chance to win.
It’s because they feed off the crowd and each other. As Michigan coach Red Berenson said, his team is “young and excitable,” and momentum means everything. Just look at Michigan State’s NCAA run last year.
But is Michigan the best team in the nation? No. Not right now.
I don’t believe playing the defending National Champion Spartans next weekend will be a bigger test than Notre Dame. But before the Wolverines travel to Oxford to play conference co-leader Miami (Ohio) in three weeks, they’ll need to rely less on lucky bounces and cut down on sloppy play.
Michigan got away with both in two blowout wins against Western Michigan last weekend, but the same mistakes – turnovers and defensive lapses – put them down two in just six minutes Friday.
As Caporusso rightfully said after his game-winning goal with 20 seconds left, “I think if we would’ve got off to a better start, we wouldn’t have had to end it like that, even though it was exciting.”
It doesn’t matter how much heart they have. No. 1 teams can’t get away with that.
Sure, Michigan has had some impressive games this year. And the reason the Wolverines are one of the nation’s top teams is that they know their weaknesses and aren’t afraid to face them. They’ll find more faults after playing Michigan State this weekend. With two top-10 CCHA teams behind them, by the time Michigan heads to Oxford, it will be a more poised and less scrappy team.
And then, three weeks from now, we’ll see if Michigan is No. 1.
Ratkowiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.