MARQUETTE — Louie Caporusso lay in a heap behind the Michigan net, clutching his knee in pain. The Wolverines held their breath — after four months of conference play, never had the chase for a conference title been further from the their minds than in those few seconds.
Caporusso had taken a knee-to-knee blow and crumpled to the ice, suffering an injury that Michigan coach Red Berenson later said was expected to have a “week-to-week” recovery scenario — 10 percent of the Wolverines’ total offense was down for the count.
The Wildcats took out one of the CCHA’s most dangerous players — a former Hobey-Baker finalist — but they awakened a furious beast. Most teams would be decimated after losing their best centerman. But Michigan didn’t skip a beat, because this team isn’t a one-man show.
Sophomore forward Chris Brown knew the team would rally around their fallen teammate.
“Hopefully we’ll be getting (Caporusso) back,” Brown said Friday. “If not, the guys will step up and take that spot.”
The first man to step up? The senior leader: captain Carl Hagelin.
Berenson slid Hagelin to center — a position he hadn’t played in over a year — and Hagelin responded with two goals and an assist on Saturday.
After Caporusso went down on late on Friday, the Wolverines scored the last five goals of the weekend.
The first four goals on Saturday came from Michigan’s leaders — captains Luke Glendening and Hagelin and assistant captain Matt Rust. Just as Berenson has preached all year: not only were his best players his best players, his best leaders were his best players.
They knew what needed to be done and did it. Every skater filled in to capture the CCHA regular-season crown and carry a six-game winning streak into the postseason opener at Yost Ice Arena in two weeks.
“This is the way to win anything — to win it on the road and to win it as a team,” Berenson told his team in the locker room on Saturday. “I don’t think we can pick any one guy to sing (The Victors). This is about the team, it’s all about the team.”
The defense doesn’t have to carry the offense. The offense doesn’t have to carry the defense. The CCHA’s top shut-down crew, allowing just a tick over two goals per game, is getting help from an offense that has scored 24 goals in the last three weekends.
Ultimately, the leaders have this team ready for the postseason.
And this isn’t the first time Michigan has rebounded from an injury like Caporusso’s. In the first round of last season’s CCHA Tournament, then-captain Chris Summers was on the receiving end of a knee-to-knee hit against Lake Superior State.
Summers was out for three weeks — Michigan went 5-0 in his absence.
And while Caporusso was gone against Northern Michigan, he wasn’t missing.
In the third period, he made his way down to the Michigan bench and gave his team all the motivation they needed.
“He was very pumped,” Hagelin said. “He came down in the third period saying that (Notre Dame) was down, and to make sure that this third period (was strong). I think that was our best period, too.”
It may have been their best 20 minutes of the year. In the third period, the offense exploded, finding the back of the net five times. Two of the goals were disallowed, but the game already was out of reach. After muscling out one-goal wins recently, Michigan finally buried someone in blowout fashion.
It wasn’t just the scorers getting in on the leadership act, either. During a timeout with six minutes remaining in the third period, Shawn Hunwick skated over to the Michigan bench and asked to be pulled.
Just minutes away from his fourth shutout of the season, Hunwick gave it up to let senior goaltender Bryan Hogan finish the game and see his first ice time since injuring his groin before The Big Chill at the Big House.
It was the epitome of sacrifice from a teammate who’s known both the spotlight and the shadows.
But the regular-season title isn’t enough for this set of seniors. They’ve been here before, but they couldn’t finish. As freshmen, they won the CCHA regular-season title as the nation’s top-ranked team before being upset in overtime by the Fighting Irish in the Frozen Final semifinal game.
“We won the league, but we’re not happy just with this,” Hunwick said. “If this is our only accomplishment this year, we’re going to be disappointed.”
There will undoubtedly be a void left until Caporusso returns, but all is not lost without No. 29.
This is no one-man show — it’s a 24-man machine, oiled and ready for a postseason run.