With the final seconds ticking away in the overtime period of the Michigan hockey team’s win over Ferris State on Saturday night, the Wolverines were at a clear disadvantage.
Playing without its goalie, Ferris State grabbed the puck in the corner and cleared through the center of the ice. Beyond the six men on the ice there was one more — forward Travis Ouellette, waiting behind the pairing of senior defenseman Lee Moffie and junior defenseman Jon Merrill.
It wasn’t a mistake by the veteran duo. Ferris State got away with seven men on the ice at a vulnerable time for the Wolverines.
And even with seven men, the Bulldogs couldn’t beat Michigan.
(If you’re as incredulous as I was that a team could get away with having seven skaters, see for yourself around the 1:30 mark.)
Ouellette drove to the net alone, deked to the right then to the left before trying to finish the Wolverines off. But freshman goaltender Steve Racine denied him and Yost Ice Arena erupted — the loudest it’s been all season.
And Racine’s save with eight seconds left, the one that barely shows up in the box score, made one of the loudest statements of the season.
None of this bodes well for the rest of the CCHA.
Singing ‘The Victors” after a sweep for the third time this year, winning their sixth game in the past eight, averaging four goals a game in those eight games with a goaltender standing on his head, the Wolverines have all the momentum, a necessary part to any serious playoff run in hockey.
“I don’t think anyone wants to play us right now,” captain A.J. Treais said. “It’s like playing in front of (then-senior goalie) Shawn (Hunwick) last year — when you have confidence in your goalie you don’t have to worry about who’s in net or your responsibilities. You expect him to make the right saves and even steal a few.”
Yet if Treais isn’t careful with his words, then he’ll awake the entire conference. His coach knows this; he answers without calling for attention.
“We have to go one series at a time,” Berenson said. “We know we have to play well at home and then play well on the road. Our goal is to get to Joe Louis (Arena for the CCHA semifinals and finals) to give ourselves a chance to make the tournament.”
And they have the personnel to give them those chances they didn’t have prior to this recent hot streak. Michigan didn’t previously have a goalie that could kick away a 1-on-1 opportunity with eight seconds left in overtime to salvage home ice. It didn’t have a defense that would get down on its knees to absorb shot after shot.
Now, the team has home ice in the first round when it needs the support the most.
This wasn’t a coach that gave up on his team, even after it was swept by Alaska at home for the first time in program history. Nor did Berenson quit when the Wolverines were swept by Western Michigan in January.
Instead, they continued to improve, continued to experiment and continued to fight when they could’ve thrown in the towel with the fourth- and fifth-ranked teams in the CCHA left on the schedule. And they’ve been rewarded.
“We’re putting the pieces together,” said senior forward Kevin Lynch. “Teams have seen how we can play. We’re playing Michigan hockey, and I think we’re going to be a pretty scary team in the CCHA Tournament.”
It’s scary because the team entered the playoff picture with a bang that no one predicted. The Northern Michigan hockey team is reviewing the video from the final 15 seconds, baffled and confused at how many men it will take to defeat Michigan.
A team in just seventh place, one that had its coaches, fans and players shaking their heads just weeks ago after giving up 13 goals to Notre Dame, is storming the CCHA, seemingly destined for Joe Louis Arena. No other team in the conference enters with as much momentum as the Wolverines.
“I still think we’re a team that has something to prove,” Berenson said. “Let’s face it, you can’t forget about the 30 games that we’ve played before. But nevertheless, I like our team, I think we have a chance to be a team that moves forward, and we’ve got to go one series at a time.”
You might not be able to forget the 30 games they’ve played before, but maybe you should give them another chance. Ignore the 54th place they sit at in goals allowed per game. Wipe the slate clean and rewrite the record: 3-0-1.
Because right now, “The Victors” has never sounded sweeter.
And now they have a reason to smile in a season that hasn’t provided many.
As sophomore forward Zach Hyman walked away from his press conference on Friday night, he stopped to greet five children sitting together, all between the ages of six and 10. He smiled with the sweat dripping off his head.
He turned to the children and asked:
“Did you have fun?”
How could they not?
Garno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org