KALAMAZOO—The goal was the Joe.
Two, even three weeks ago, when Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson would be asked about the Wolverines’ 22-year NCAA Tournament streak or what his team was hoping to accomplish this season, he’d say they were just trying to make it to Joe Louis Arena.
That’s where the semifinals and championship game of the CCHA Tournament are held, where Michigan will have a chance to keep the streak alive. First came Northern Michigan. The Wolverines were coming off a victory and a shootout win over Ferris State in the final week of the season and needed to defeat the Wildcats to advance in the CCHA playoffs and continue their season.
Easy. Michigan recorded its first home sweep of the season and handily advanced to the next round of the CCHA Tournament. But the Wolverines were slotted to travel to No. 8 Western Michigan where just two months before, Lawson Ice Arena was the scene of a sweep for the Broncos.
But this past weekend was different. Michigan had everything it didn’t have last time, when wins were coming about as frequently as the Boardwalk Monopoly game piece comes on your McDonald’s cup. The result was another sweep, but with the Wolverines doing the sweeping this time. It wasn’t a sweep of an inferior Northern Michigan team, or a sweep of a possibly overrated Ohio State team — see Feb. 22 and 23 — this was a sweep of one of the CCHA’s best and a possible NCAA Tournament-bound team.
“(Making it to Joe Louis Arena) sounded like a lofty goal to a lot of people about six weeks ago,” Berenson said. “We said our goal is to get to Joe Louis, and we knew it would be the hard way to get there, and here we are.”
The sweep of Western Michigan was a statement. And it was heard loud and clear.
It wasn’t luck that allowed Michigan to score nine goals in two nights against a team that allows just 1.97 goals allowed per game.
And it won’t be luck that will bring the Wolverines the Mason Cup next weekend. It will be the high-powered offense that embarrassed the second-best defense in the conference. It will be the defensive corps that is finally living up to its preseason expectations — and doing so while rocking pretty impressive playoff beards. And it will be in front of freshman goalie Steve Racine, who as of late has transformed into a sure-handed brick wall between the pipes.
The Wolverines will win the CCHA Tournament — bold, I know — next weekend because they are playing a full 60 minutes worth of desperation hockey every night. There are no more excuses because they know if they are making excuses, their season is over. Sometimes being pushed into a corner can be just what a team needs to find its fighting spirit.
“We’re hungry right now,” said senior forward Kevin Lynch. “We’re hungry for that CCHA Championship, and we’re not done yet.”
Just as the expectations were set on making it to the Joe, now the expectations are pretty clear — win it all and keep the streak alive, or nothing. It would be unfair to these players, who haven’t lost a game since Feb. 9, to say that everything they’ve accomplished in the past month was for nothing if they lose, but that’s the honest truth.
They won’t, though.
Earlier in the year, this team seemed destined to be the team that was going to break the streak. Even three weeks ago, this team was a long shot for a tournament spot.
Right now? The Wolverines have a spot in Grand Rapids waiting for them. They just need to take it.
Berenson compared the Michigan hockey team’s stock to that of General Motors on Saturday night because the Wolverines have “gone up and down” this season. Well, if the Michigan hockey team is a stock, then now is the time to buy. The Wolverines are on the rise.
Kevin Lynch said that “it feels like right now we’re on a streak and we can’t lose.” That’s because they can’t. I never thought I’d say it, but this Michigan team might have actually forgotten what it feels like to lose — it’s been that long. And the Wolverines won’t lose. They are playing their best hockey of the season right now, and barring any catastrophic events, we will see them in Grand Rapids, playing in a 23rd-consecutive NCAA Tournament.