Lake Superior State has the eighth-best record in the CCHA. For all intents and purposes, that’s not good.
Ohio State has the best record in the CCHA. For all intents and purposes, that’s pretty good.
The Buckeyes and the Lakers play a series this weekend, with six points on the line. In most years, a January matchup between an eighth-place and first-place team wouldn’t be too significant.
But now let’s imagine that there’s a significant ice shortage in the greater Midwest area and the rest of the conference gets the weekend off. Oh, and imagine Alaska doesn’t have snow either — I’m not creative enough to come with a scenario where Alaska doesn’t have snow in January.
In this severely ice-lacking scenario, a sweep by Lake Superior State would vault it into first place in the conference. One weekend sweep — that’s what separates No. 1 from No. 8 in the CCHA right now. The conference is more packed than the bus shipping Engineering nerds up to North Campus. And with roughly two months left in the season, nine teams have a shot at finishing first.
It’s not like the conference is full of scrubs that can’t separate from one another. There are currently eight teams in the Pairwise top 17. Though it’s bereft of a standout team that’s a lock to win the CCHA, this conference is loaded from top to bottom — the difference between first place and not even securing a first-round bye in the CCHA Tournament is just four points.
But as daunting as it may be to finish off the season in the best conference in the country successfully, the No. 8 Michigan hockey team is going to be fine.
Two weeks ago, that statement would have sounded a lot more hollow, considering the Wolverines were entering their toughest two-week stretch of the year. Michigan had to go on the road against then-No. 2 Ohio State and then at then-No. 6 Notre Dame the next weekend, a four-game stretch that would decide a whole lot about the direction of the season.
The Wolverines emerged from that gong show of a stretch at 3-1, sweeping the Buckeyes and splitting with the Fighting Irish.
The games won during that stretch are obviously important, but not as important as the way Michigan played. The Wolverines went into Notre Dame and played their most physical series of the year, clawing their way to the split and not backing down an inch. The penalty-kill unit is back to where it was last year with the return of sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill, and the power play actually scored some goals in South Bend.
Most importantly, fifth-year senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick is playing out of his mind recently. His .958 save percentage in January will keep Michigan in the thick of things even if every other unit has a slip in production. 163 saves in 170 shots is more than good — it’s CCHA champion good.
And this team is getting hot at the right time. Its loss at Notre Dame was its first since Dec. 9. Michigan has traditionally been a second-half team, and this year isn’t looking any different. A lot of things could happen over the next two months, but right now, the Wolverines look as good as any team in the CCHA. Michigan just played its two best opponents of 2012 — and its upcoming schedule is a lot more manageable than January was.
The bye weekend following the Notre Dame series comes at the perfect time, giving Michigan a chance to recover physically. The Wolverines then close out the regular season against two of the worst teams in the conference, Northern Michigan and Bowling Green, which makes a late push at first place much more likely.
In October, Hunwick was toppled over in the net by a Northern Michigan player. He stood up and decked the Wildcat, getting himself thrown out of the game.
In January, Hunwick was toppled over in the net by a Notre Dame player. He stood up and skated away as a swarm of Wolverines flew toward the net to protect their goalie.
Tough conference or not, Michigan is going to be fine.
— Don’t worry engineers, Cook is LS and play and is significantly less intelligent than all of you. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @everettcook.