As the Michigan hockey team stumbled to the finish line in the last month of the regular season, the extra fat of a meaty theory was sliced away with every marginal performance when the Wolverines turn it on, they can beat anybody.
And when they fail to flip the switch, anybody can beat them.
The question in Grand Rapids was simple: Will Michigan decide to conduct the electrical current of emotion that”s necessary to win back-to-back games against top competition?
With nothing less than redemption for a second half of struggles on the line, the Wolverines said “yes.”
Michigan did the dirty work, the little things, the work in the trenches. Whatever you want to call it, the Wolverines” commitment to emotion”s intangibles have brought them to the doorstep of college hockey”s grandest estate the Frozen Four.
Michigan attacked St. Cloud on the boards, on both sides of the puck, with a fervor unmatched in any other game this season. The departure from its customary wide-open approach was brought about partly by necessity, and partly by a responsibility to unglamorous hockey.
“The ice was very bad in this game and I don”t know if it was because of the previous game, but we had to use the boards a lot more than we normally do,” coach Red Berenson said. “We had to throw the puck around the boards, whereas on better ice we would be passing the puck more.”
But everybody, from role player to star, bought into the board work. While nary a St. Cloud player ventured into Michigan”s corners without absorbing punishment, the Wolverines” third goal came as a result of taking the abuse.
Andy Hilbert and Geoff Koch dug the puck along the boards, while taking hits and pins by St. Cloud”s defense, before Koch fed it in front for Mike Cammalleri”s top-shelf drive and a two-goal lead.
“They were supposed to be the physical team and we came in to outman them and win all the little battles,” Joe Kautz said. “When it comes down to this, all the little things count because these teams are so good.
“Every little thing you can do, even chipping the puck out of the zone is huge.”
And that ties in with the Wolverines” defensive commitment. Michigan”s defensive zone on the penalty kill looked like backyard slip-and-slide, as just about every St. Cloud point shot was met instantly with a shot-blocking refute from Hilbert, Mike Roemensky, Mike Komisarek and the rest of the Wolverines” penalty kill unit.
“Our team played desperate defense and that”s what you need in these games,” Berenson said. “We realized “Hey, this is the last game of the year unless we all play our best defensive game,” and that”s how we played.
“They prepared that way and they put it on the ice. Everybody was on the same page.”
The team theme helped carry Michigan past St. Cloud, but ironically, it was the heroic, turn-the-amp-to-11 save Josh Blackburn made in the early-going of the second period that saved the day.
Blackburn slid across the crease on his stickside to thwart a 2-on-1 chance with his pads. The save evoked memories of Marty Turco”s acrobatics against North Dakota in Michigan”s 1998 regional final win.
Blackburn, like his team, was just a little bit better than usual when he needed to be.
The Wolverines are a good team, and would be remembered as such no matter what the outcome on Sunday.
A berth in the Frozen Four, however, proves what was in question for so long Michigan can bring the extra “umph” to win the big ones.