DETROIT One team was celebrating. The other team couldn”t bear to watch.
This was the scene after the CCHA Championship game on Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena. Unfortunately for the Michigan hockey team, it was once again the one hanging its head after a game against Michigan State.
For the fourth time in five meetings this season, the top-ranked Spartans (21-4-3 CCHA, 32-4-4 overall) throttled Michigan”s high-powered attack. With an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament hanging in the balance, the Spartans brushed aside the Wolverines, 2-0, to win their second-straight CCHA Tournament championship.
Behind 19 saves from CCHA Player of the Year Ryan Miller who notched the 18th shutout of his brief but brilliant career Michigan State wrote another chapter in a remarkably successful season and left little doubt about what team is the best in the nation.
“We tried to give it away a couple times early, but Ryan made some nice saves,” Michigan State coach Ron Mason said. “Once we got our feet on the ground, I thought we played as well as we can play.”
Most of the “nice saves” Mason referred to came on the first shift of the game. Off the opening faceoff, Michigan defenseman Dave Huntzicker got control of the puck and sent a pass to Andy Hilbert, who streaked in alone down the left wing toward Miller. Hilbert fired a wrist shot from the left circle that was ticketed for the far post, but Miller made a spectacular glove save on what was arguably Michigan”s best scoring chance of the game.
“Having played Andy a few times, I knew I had to get out and challenge him,” Miller said. “He tried to go low-glove, but from where he shot, I had time to react.”
Given new life by their goaltender, the Spartans wasted little time in taking the lead. At the 9:44 mark of the first period, Michigan State”s Adam Hall skated into the Michigan zone and beat Huntzicker around the corner. Hall flipped a shot from left of the net at Michigan goalie Josh Blackburn, who made the initial save.
But Blackburn was unable to control the rebound, and the Spartans” Joe Goodenow pounced on the loose puck to give Michigan State a 1-0 lead.
“I knew I had a one-on-one, so I just tried to drive wide there,” Hall said. “I ended up getting around the corner, and I tried to go far-side on the goalie. The rebound just came out, and Joe (Goodnow) did a great job crashing the net.”
Down only 1-0, Michigan still had a realistic chance of winning the game. But, the Wolverines” title hopes vanished at the 19:38 mark of the first when Blackburn did something he couldn”t afford to do give up a bad goal.
Once again, Hall was Michigan”s nemesis. The junior sniper skated untouched into the offensive zone and fired a slapshot from the top of the left circle that beat Blackburn five-hole. Hall”s 18th goal of the year gave Michigan State a 2-0 lead going into the intermission and broke Michigan”s back.
“Anytime a team scores in the last minute before intermission, it really helps the momentum of that team and I think it really deflates the other team,” Hall said. “It”s something that”s really tough to come back from.”
Two goals might not seem like much, especially considering Michigan”s potent offense. But a two-goal deficit against Michigan State is similar to a four-goal deficit against anyone else. With a stifling defense and the nation”s top goaltender, Michigan State simply sat back the last two periods and dared Michigan to try and score.
“We didn”t let them handle the puck in the neutral zone and stretch guys out, and I thought we took away their cross-ice passes pretty well,” Michigan State defenseman Andrew Hutchinson said.
Friday night”s semifinal game against Nebraska-Omaha went considerably better for Michigan. Seeking revenge for last season”s humiliating 7-4 loss to the Mavericks in the same round, the Wolverines came out flying and took a 3-0 first-period lead on goals by Craig Murray, Mike Cammalleri and Joe Kautz.
Nebraska-Omaha rebounded with a pair of goals in the second-period to trim the deficit to one, but the Wolverines held on for the win. Nevertheless, this was small consolation after the Spartans stifled Michigan for the fourth time this season.
“There”s not much separating these two teams, and I think it comes down to scoring the first goal,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I like the way our team played in tonight”s game.”