The top-seeded Michigan hockey team finally disposed of No. 12 seed Lake Superior yesterday in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.
But while the playoff motto for most teams probably falls along the lines of “Survive and advance,” the Wolverines were not supposed to have to put that cliche into use.
Michigan entered the best-of-three series as one of college hockey”s hottest teams, having won nine of its last 10 games. The Lakers, meanwhile, were floundering all alone in last place in the conference and were riding a 10-game winless streak into Ann Arbor for the weekend.
On paper, this didn”t have the looks of an epic series.
Things changed after Lake Superior scored the first four goals of Friday night”s opening game, and it became clear that the Wolverines weren”t going to cruise into the CCHA semifinals.
“When you think you”re a first-place team and you”re playing what you think is a last-place team, you don”t always play your best,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said.
Lake Superior was in last place, and it was there for several reasons. It doesn”t have much of an offense, or that much talent, or even a clear No.1 goaltender before this weekend.
But what the Lakers did have was a solid enough game plan to give Michigan a quick lesson in Playoffs 101.
Lake Superior utilized a defensive trapping system to the best of its ability. The Lakers were clearly inferior physically and talent-wise, but their defensive-minded system kept them in the series for the entire weekend.
They didn”t have a chance of matching up with the Wolverines man-for-man so they, as Lake Superior coach Frank Anzalone described it, did the best with what they had.
It almost turned out to be good enough.
Statistically, it”s hard to say that Michigan didn”t play well in Friday”s 4-3 loss they outshot Lake Superior 42-15 and dominated the tempo for much of the game.
But Lake Superior had four legitimate scoring opportunities during the game off of blocked shots, bad bounces and poor defense and it capitalized on all four of them. That”s why the Lakers had the Wolverines facing elimination on Saturday and yesterday.
From here on out in the CCHA playoffs and the NCAA tournament, Michigan won”t have backup days to recover from the mistakes it makes early on. It”s one and done in the postseason now. And when that”s the case, it”s the teams that do what Lake Superior did and take advantage of their chances that continue to advance.
There also has to be some concern amongst the Wolverines about how successful Lake Superior was in its ability to execute its suffocating game plan.
If the outmatched Lakers were able to play Michigan as closely as they did for three games, what will the Wolverines do to counter the defensive-minded strategies of teams loaded with talent like Michigan State?
Looking back, Lake Superior”s onslaught in the first 25 minutes of Friday”s game might turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to the Wolverines.
They had been hitting on all cylinders at the close of the CCHA season and looked unstoppable.
All of a sudden on Friday night, the Wolverines were human enough to make the worst team in the CCHA look like world-beaters.
Thankfully for the Wolverines, they had enough to take out the Lakers in three games.
Now, and for the rest of the postseason, they need to show what they can do to the opposition when there”s only one opportunity.