Bang, crash, thump!
You hear that?
That’s playoff hockey. And, boy, is it beautiful.
The opening minutes of each CCHA quarterfinal game this weekend were, of course, crucial. And in both contests, the Wolverines got the first scores of the night.
But while establishing leads set the tone for the evening, Michigan had another important way to welcome Northern Michigan to Yost Ice Arena: bone-crunching hits.
Playoff hockey always calls for more physical play, and the Wolverines were dishing it out this weekend. From the littlest Wolverine, 5-foot-6 freshman Anthony Ciraulo, to the tallest, 6-foot-4 senior Tim Cook, each player stepped up with some rough and tough hockey.
Fans of the team should be relieved – and not just because Michigan has a hot offense that’s firing on all cylinders. After all the struggles down the stretch, the Wolverines showed they can put away their wavering intensity and turn up the heat when it counts most. They can get in that physical playoff mindset, even against a not-so-tame Wildcat squad.
Who knew a swift check into the boards could be so comforting?
“We wanted to establish a physical presence at home, especially against their top guys,” senior captain Matt Hunwick said following Friday’s 4-1 victory. “I think you really want to put the body on those guys a lot and just let them know it’s going to be a long weekend.”
When Andrew Sarauer scored the first (and only) Northern Michigan goal that night, the Wolverines didn’t take long to suck the fun out of the moment. A streaking Jack Johnson walloped Sarauer and his teammates, breaking up the goal celebration.
Now that’s stealing someone’s thunder.
Johnson may have been unable to stop from his speedy pursuit of Sarauer before the goal, and maybe a two-minute penalty for hitting after the whistle wasn’t the best thing for the Wolverines and their lackluster penalty kill. But smart or not, the hit made Northern Michigan’s shining moment dim quickly.
The Wildcats had to limp out of Yost Ice Arena Saturday night with bruised bodiess and egos – and that’s how it should be.
Everyone knew Michigan’s top-rated offense could score goals. Lots and lots of goals.
But now Northern Michigan can spread the word that the Wolverines aren’t a squad that’s all skill and no grit.
“I don’t think teams give us enough respect,” said senior T.J. Hensick after notching a hat trick in his final game at Yost Saturday. “They think we can score goals, but I don’t think they think we can play a hard-nosed, physical game. I think we can. I thought we showed tonight we’re one of the most physical teams in our league.”
This is the time to finish that check, muck it out in the corners and battle through that scrum.
And if there’s a guy caught skating with his head down, you better believe someone is going to make him regret it.
“That’s how it’s going to be from here on out,” sophomore grinder Danny Fardig said. “Every game’s going to get harder and every game is going to be more physical and more desperate.”
That’s why you have to have the fire in the playoffs, especially when archrival Michigan State is sneering in the distance. There’s no more room for wishy-washy hockey.
And surprisingly enough, the inconsistent Wolverine group from the regular season is fully aware of that.
“Consistency?” said Hensick with a laugh when asked about the subject. “You lose and you’re pretty much done. We know that we don’t have anything if we don’t win.”
Hopefully for Michigan fans, that message hits the team hard.
– Colvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.