DETROIT For January, it just doesn”t get any better than this.
With the lockerroom door wide open, the exhausted, world-beating Wolverines broke out into a chorus of “The Victors” led by their hero, Andy Hilbert. The chants resonated through the halls of Joe Louis Arena to the point that they could be heard by pedestrians on Jefferson Avenue.
This wasn”t just any victory.
It was Michigan”s biggest win of the year in its biggest game to date on one of its largest stages, in front of a jam-packed capacity crowd of 19,618 fans that either had maize-and-blue or green-and-white blood racing through their veins.
It was against a Michigan State team that had the Wolverines” number in the past and was never afraid to let them know about it.
“I can remember numerous times they”ve been singing their fight song and they”ve opened the door so they can sing extra loud so we can hear it,” said senior Mark Kosick.
“That”s a pretty terrible feeling. So we gave it to them tonight.”
In knocking the top-ranked Spartans and other-worldly goalie Ryan Miller off their respective pedestals, the Wolverines shocked everyone but themselves.
Afterwards, the usually steady and media-savvy Wolverines couldn”t keep their feelings inside. The emotions that spread throughout the arena on Saturday night paralleled the feeling from 1998, the last time Michigan won a national championship.
When Hilbert tallied the game-winner with just under two minutes to play in overtime, it seemed like the Wolverines had just won the ultimate prize once again.
Usually-stoic Michigan coach Red Berenson stood on the bench and banged the glass with excitement when the red light flashed. Seconds later, a bench-clearing horde of Wolverines rushed the ice and mobbed Hilbert behind the Michigan State goal before bringing the celebration inside the locker room. That”s where the reverberating voices of the 24 Wolverines chanted their fight song with unyielding pride, capping a night to remember.
“I was pretty much as excited as I was when we won the national title,” senior Scott Matzka said.
There was no trophy presentation after the game, and a banner wasn”t raised, but the Wolverines got what they came for retribution, vindication and confidence
Retribution for being shut out at Yost on Nov. 4 after severely outplaying the Spartans and losing the No. 1 national ranking in the process.
Vindication by “walking the talk”, in the words of associate coach Mel Pearson. Going into the game, the Wolverines said all along that they could beat the Sparties. Michigan looked more focused in practice this week than it ever has this year, but the important thing is that the Wolverines actually proved it on the ice where it really counts.
And confidence was bred for Michigan”s two remaining meetings with the Spartans. On Saturday night, the Wolverines proved that Michigan State is not unbeatable, that Ryan Miller is not invincible, and that their previous Joe Louis hex is not a factor anymore.
Michigan beat the Spartans at Joe Louis Arena for the first time since the 1997 CCHA championship game, which removes a huge monkey off the Wolverines” backs before they return to the Joe for two more regular season games plus the conference playoffs.
With 14 games left and crunch time rapidly approaching, the Wolverines have positioned themselves right where they want to be. They”re only three points behind the Spartans in the heated CCHA race and more importantly, they”ve discovered a killer instinct that can help them find a way to win games, no matter what.
While Michigan realizes that the true, season-long battle is far from over, the Wolverines still relish a feeling and song that they will never forget.
“It feels great to sing that song and to be proud to be a Wolverine,” senior Josh Langfeld said.
After watching games like these, it”s awfully hard not to be.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com