EAST LANSING — Underneath the visiting team bleachers at Munn Ice Arena, outside of the visitors’ locker room, freshman forward Kevin Lynch strolled down a green and white corridor carrying a board.
On it was a maize mountain set against a blue background.
Moments earlier, screams of joy and elation were pouring out of the Michigan hockey team’s locker room. The Wolverines had just beat rival Michigan State 5-3 on the Spartans’ home ice to sweep the second-round CCHA playoff series 2-0.
Before the CCHA tournament started on March 5, the Wolverines knew they had a hike ahead of them if they were going to make the NCAA Tournament. Ten wins — that’s what they needed to make the tournament and win the national championship, and that’s where the mountain comes in.
“Our season was over if we didn’t emerge from this weekend, if we didn’t make it to Joe Louis,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “This is a real tribute to this team.”
Michigan had not played on the road to get to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA semifinals since 1987. But the Wolverines beat Michigan State 5-1 on Friday and 5-3 on Saturday to keep their season alive.
Coming into the weekend, the sweep seemed improbable since Michigan was 1-3 on the season against the second-seeded Spartans. But everything was clicking for the Wolverines, and Friday’s game was possibly their best game of the season.
Including the sweep over Lake Superior State the previous weekend, Michigan (14-13-1-0 CCHA, 23-17-1 overall) has exploded for 21 goals in four games. But the defense and steady play of junior goaltender Shawn Hunwick have paced the Wolverines as they climb that mountain.
Michigan has allowed just six goals in its last four games, and in the six games since Hunwick took over for an injured Bryan Hogan, the Wolverines have a 1.83 goals against average and two shutouts.
Berenson really wanted his team to put a greater emphasis on defense at the turn of the calendar year, well before Hogan got hurt. In his mind, if the Wolverines can play good defense and keep the puck out of the net, they’ll win. It just so happened that Michigan was able to score 10 goals this weekend and have both the offense and defense rolling.
On Friday, the Wolverines jumped out to an early 3-0 lead. The Michigan defense was sure to clear loose pucks away from Hunwick and limit the Spartans chances to get back in the game. Michigan State (14-8-6-2, 19-13-6) just couldn’t get anything going in the Wolverines’ zone.
The defense was challenged a bit more Saturday. Though Michigan scored two quick goals in the middle of the first period, the Spartans scored three power play goals to lead after 20 minutes of play.
That’s when the Wolverines’ defense turned in one of its best periods of the season. Michigan carried the play on offense, but clamped down on defense and outshot Michigan State 16-1 in the second period. But the Wolverines managed just one goal to tie the game at 3-3.
And after Michigan took the lead early in the third period, the defense stepped up once again. Eleven minutes into the third, sophomore forward Luke Glendening took a holding penalty — to that point the Spartans were a perfect three-for-three on the power play. This time, Michigan withstood Michigan State’s attack and Hunwick stopped all five of the Spartans’ shots. All of Michigan State’s four goals on the weekend had come on the power play.
“It was a good team effort, and that’s really what it’s all about this time of year,” Berenson said.
Hunwick finished the weekend with 15 saves on Friday and 18 saves on Saturday. It seems the team’s confidence in the walk-on goaltender is growing more and more in the walk-on goaltender with each passing game.
“I think our team is coming together,” Berenson said. “And when you come together it’s not just the offense, it’s not just the scorers. It’s not just the power play. It’s not just the goalie, it’s everybody. And whether it’s a commitment to backcheck, or a commitment to play in your own zone without the puck, then we’re doing a better job of it now than we were before Christmas. Our team has bought into what we have to do to win.”
Michigan is now heading back to Joe Louis Arena this Friday, where the Wolverines will take on the No. 1 seed, Miami (OH.)
“We’re on a roll right now,” Brown said. “This is the best hockey we’ve played all year. And going into the Joe, this is what we have to do. We have to be on a roll.”
When Michigan went into the locker room after Saturday’s win, the maize and blue mountain lay against the white board looking on as the seniors led the team in “The Victors.”
“We don’t get to sing this song very often in this locker room, and you guys earned it,” Berenson told his team.
The Wolverines were 10 wins away from the peak of the mountain when the CCHA tournament started. Now, it has been four games, and four wins. Michigan has reached a ledge, and the Wolverines are on their way up.
“Four games ago when we started the playoffs, we knew we needed 10 (wins) to win the National Championship,” Hunwick said. “We’re obviously worried about the first six to get there in the NCAA Tournament. But game by game, period by period, that’s all you can hope for. And hopefully at the end of the mountain, we’re on top.”