DETROIT – Entering the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 27, the Michigan hockey team had two concerns: how rusty the Wolverines would look after a three-week layoff and how the offense would adapt to the absence of its leading scorer, sophomore Aaron Palushaj.
Louie Caporusso answered both questions in 12 minutes.
With eight minutes left in the first period of the tournament’s opening round against Michigan Tech, the sophomore forward completed a natural hat trick, effectively clinching the eventual 5-0 victory before the first intermission.
The Woodbridge, Ontario native added another goal the following night in No. 10 Michigan’s 5-1, tournament-clinching win over Michigan State. Caporusso’s prolific weekend earned him tournament MVP honors. The Wolverines (7-5 CCHA, 13-7 overall) have now won five of their last six games.
Junior forward Brian Lebler moved to the top line to replace Palushaj, who along with sophomore Matt Rust, missed the GLI to play with Team USA at the World Junior Championships. The trio of Lebler, Caporusso and freshman David Wohlberg combined for an eight-point weekend. Michigan coach Red Berenson admitted he was surprised how crisp his offense looked after having just three practices in the previous two weeks.
“We needed to play in (Michigan Tech’s) zone, and that’s where the chances occurred,” Berenson said after the opening game. “I thought Wohlberg made a couple of great plays to Louie. … And they worked hard. It wasn’t like the goals came easy. Louie was in the right place at the right time.”
The final two periods of play against the Spartans were perhaps the Wolverines’ most dominating performance this season.
Michigan scored four goals and outshot Michigan State 36-5 during the final two frames of the championship round. The Wolverines displayed excellent puck possession by winning almost every battle along the boards, beating defenders to loose pucks and putting relentless pressure on Michigan State goalie Jeff Lerg.
Forced to scramble so much in their own zone, the Spartans had few chances to break out in transition.
“I think Michigan played very well,” Michigan State coach Rick Comley said. “Good team, good speed, worked hard. And once they got going, there was nothing we could do.
“Our young kids just couldn’t handle that speed — their speed and their strength.”
Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell echoed a similar sentiment after the opening round, indicating his team played too hesistantly and wasn’t physical enough to keep up with the Wolverines’ superior talent.
“Michigan’s a very good skating team,” Russell said. “They get up on their toes and move their feet well. If you make soft plays and soft decisions, you’re going to pay for it.”
Berenson said the Wolverines must take the GLI title with “a grain of salt,” since the Huskies (1-11-2 WCHA, 5-15-2) and Spartans (3-9-2-2 CCHA, 6-13-3) are in the midst of horrendous seasons. Both teams are at the bottom of their respective conferences in scoring. Michigan Tech averages just 1.32 goals per game and Michigan State scores just 1.59.
The Wolverines were the clear favorite to win this tournament with or without Palushaj.
But Michigan’s season so far has been unpredictable. The Wolverines have lost to conference doormats Northern Michigan and Western Michigan. Michigan players admitted after a series-split with the Broncos on Nov. 14-15 that the team’s mental preparation was a concern.
That the Wolverines so thoroughly ripped apart two inferior opponents in the GLI suggests they finally realize they can’t take anything for granted. Besides recent victories over talent-deficient teams, Michigan notched its signature win of the season at No. 3 Minnesota on Nov. 28.
In its last five victories, Michigan has scored 27 goals, all in front of sophomore goalie Bryan Hogan, who appears to have locked up the full-time starting job in net. After a shaky start this season, the Wolverines appear to have finally found a sense of urgency.
And with games against top-ranked Notre Dame and No. 6 Miami (Ohio) this month, “urgency” will be the operative word with Michigan looking to solidify a spot in the NCAA tournament.