DETROIT — The thousand-pound gorilla was hoisted off the Michigan hockey team’s back on Saturday night and tossed aside. After the Wolverines poured out of the bench to celebrate their 2-1 victory over Northern Michigan and consequent CCHA championship, hoards of Michigan fans stuck around to watch the unveiling of the championship banner.
They certainly had something to celebrate as the Wolverines extended their record NCAA Tournament appearance streak to 20. And of all years, this one seemed like it might be the year Michigan would be left out of the 16-team field competing for a NCAA championship. Instead, the win vaulted the team to a first-round matchup with Bemidji State.
It took six straight wins in the CCHA Tournament for the berth to become a reality, after a season during which the Wolverines never strung together more than four victories. Saturday’s win epitomized the run — solid defensive hockey and timely goals.
“There is not many teams that are going to push you like those guys pushed us tonight,” Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. “They are fast and they came at us. I knew going into the year, everyone knew, that they were going to be good. For whatever reason, chemistry, injuries, etc., they stumbled a little bit, but when they found it, they found it.”
Junior forward Louie Caporusso, who scored both goals on Saturday, said Michigan has been playing its best hockey of the season. Michigan cruised through the CCHA Tournament, scoring 28 goals in six games to its opponents’ nine.
With the Wolverines winning the CCHA’s automatic qualifier for the tournament, Michigan (14-13-1 CCHA, 25-17-1 overall) now has appeared in the NCAA Tournament a record 33 times. The momentum from the conference tournament run could be a big factor in helping the Wolverines advance in the tournament if they can continue their high level of play.
“We realized that we were a team that could go places (after the last regular season series),” senior defenseman Steve Kampfer said. “When we started the CCHA Tournament, no one expected us to do well. We came out in those first two playoff series as a team that nobody wanted to play. That’s what we’re going to keep doing.”
Michigan found out Sunday morning that it will be the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region and will take on the No. 2 seed Bemidji St. in Fort Wayne, Ind. in the first round. The No. 1 seed in the region is Miami (Ohio), the regular-season CCHA champ which the Wolverines beat 5-2 Friday night on their path to the tournament, setting up a possible second-round matchup between the rivals.
But, the Wolverines say they’ll just take the tournament one game at a time, just like the CCHA tournament.
“We’ll focus on Bemidji now,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “They knocked Notre Dame out of the tournament last year. They beat Miami this year. So they’re a legitimate team. They beat Minnesota in a big game, and on and on. They’re a good team. They’re a legitimate program. They came out of nowhere last year. They’re not going to surprise anyone this year.”
Miami will play Alabama-Huntsville in the first round, the only team in the field with a losing record — which makes the second-round matchup between CCHA foes that much more likely.
With Michigan playing in Fort Wayne, which is just about two-and-a-half hours away from Ann Arbor, the Wolverines could be playing their third straight weekend in an atmosphere that resembles home ice. The Wolverines drew a large crowd when they traveled to Michigan State, and then again when Michigan made it to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA championship weekend.
“How many times have we sat here and I’ve said, ‘Geez, I’m disappointed for our fans because it’s going to be hard to get to Bridgeport, hard to get to Worcester, or its hard to get Albany, or Manchester and so on, on short notice,’ ” Berenson said. “But I’m happy to say now, it’s not hard to get to Fort Wayne. … You’ve got to take advantage of it. It’s all about how we play, but I can’t say enough for our fans how they helped us get to where we are right now.”
Michigan has fed off the crowd throughout the CCHA Tournament and it has only helped its rejuvenated defensive-minded hockey. Undefeated in March, the Wolverines could be a tough out when the tournament starts next weekend. And with plentiful support, Michigan could ride the momentum to the Frozen Four at Ford Field.
“I would not be surprised to see that team continue to advance,” Kyle said. “And hopefully somewhere, a long ways away, we can play them again.”