When raucous cheering could be heard through the walls of the locker room yesterday morning, it was clear that the Michigan hockey team’s weekend couldn’t have gone much better.
On Saturday night, the Wolverines hoisted the Mason Cup, given to the winner of the CCHA playoffs, for the first time since 2005 after shutting down the nation’s top-ranked offense, Miami (Ohio).
Just over 12 hours later, the players gathered in their locker room to await their NCAA Tournament fate and watch ESPN2’s tournament selection show. Within the first five minutes of the broadcast, Michigan was announced as the No. 1 overall seed, resulting in the wild cheering from the team.
The Wolverines drew 16th-seeded Niagara (22-10-4), the automatic bid from the College Hockey America conference, in the four-team East Regional.
Clarkson (21-12-4), an at-large team from the Eastern College Athletic Conference, and St. Cloud State (19-15-5), a Western College Hockey Association team that swept tournament-bound Wisconsin in its conference tournament, are their two other teams in the regional.
The first-round matchup with the Purple Eagles comes as a pleasant surprise for Michigan after the Wolverines drew tournament-tested North Dakota in the first game the past two seasons.
“We’re where we wanted to be,” senior captain Kevin Porter said. “Those were the teams we wanted to play. Everyone’s going to be good in the tournament, but I think we’re in a great bracket.
“To play Niagara in our first game is great, especially having to play North Dakota the last two years. I mean, they’re going to be a good team, but it’s nice not having to play North Dakota in the first game.”
While the Wolverines (31-5-4) may be relieved to see anyone but the Fighting Sioux in their bracket, they know Niagara isn’t a team they can take lightly. The Purple Eagles boast an explosive and opportunistic offense, averaging more than 3.5 goals per game and converting 23.3 percent of their power play chances.
Led by forwards Vince Rocco and Matt Caruana (45 and 38 points, respectively), Niagara went undefeated this year against CCHA opponents. The Purple Eagles posted a win against Bowling Green and two against Western Michigan.
Michigan coach Red Berenson admitted that he and his staff don’t know too much about Niagara yet. Earlier this season, the Purple Eagles played Wayne State in the Palace of Auburn Hills before Michigan took on Notre Dame in the same building, and Berenson caught a few minutes of that game.
Other than saying Niagara looked far better than Wayne State, Berenson didn’t want to offer an opinion on the Wolverines first-round opponent until he could break down some film.
In the NCAA tournament two years ago, No. 1 overall seed Minnesota was upset by Holy Cross. Michigan, the two-seed in that regional, was in the building.
“No one thought it could happen, especially Minnesota,” Porter said. “They had a great team. All they could think about was the next game. I think that gave them some trouble. We can’t do that this year.”
Berenson knows the upcoming weekend won’t depend on prior successes. It’s a whole new game.
“This is the part of the year you’re going to be judged by, not what you’ve done up until now,” Berenson said.