Since the creation of the current CCHA playoff format in 2006 in which the top five teams in the conference receive byes in the first round, the Michigan hockey team has only once not earned a bye.
That was in 2010, when the Wolverines struggled through the CCHA regular season and failed to earn a bye, but ended up getting hot at the right time and winning the CCHA’s Mason Cup as the playoff champion. As Michigan’s record was just two games over .500, it ultimately knew the only way to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament would be by winning the CCHA title and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it.
This weekend, the Wolverines will be hosting Northern Michigan in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. And even more than in 2010, Michigan (9-15-3 CCHA, 13-18-3 overall) will need to take home the Mason Cup if the Wolverines hope to keep their 22-year NCAA Tournament streak alive.
Michigan comes into the three-game series against the Wildcats (9-15-4, 15-17-4) with a lot of momentum, though. In the past two weeks, the Wolverines have gone 3-0-1 with the only tarnish to a four-game win streak being last Saturday’s shootout victory over Ferris State. During the present streak, Michigan recorded its first road sweep of the season at Ohio State and also proved itself against two of the top five teams in the conference.
And Michigan coach Red Berenson thinks not having a bye could actually benefit his team.
“Even in the years we’ve got the bye, a lot of us were wishing we could keep playing,” he said. “In the fall, you like to play games and practice because you’ve got so many things to work on in practice. After Christmas, you just want to play games and practice less.
“When you have that bye week, every coach will tell you they’re not sure what to do. Is it good for your team or not? You want it because it means you’ve had a good season, but you don’t want it because you can lose momentum.”
The Wolverines have only played Northern Michigan twice this year, during this season’s first road series. After slow starts in both games — they went into the second intermission with a three-goal deficit each night — Michigan left the weekend with just two points from a shootout victory.
The special teams played a pivotal role during the last meeting — Northern Michigan’s power play finished the series with an impressive 37.5-percent success rate — and will likely also be important this time. This bodes well for the Wolverines as the penalty-kill unit has been very solid during the final four games of the season, giving up just two power-play goals in the last 19 attempts.
Though the Wolverines’ man advantage went 3-for-17 during the final four games, the unit currently ranks fourth in the conference. Berenson knows this could play a factor, especially since Northern Michigan’s penalty-kill unit enters the weekend second to last in the conference.
“I’m hoping our special teams will be good,” Berenson said. “It’s hard to tell in practice, but (Northern Michigan) is the number-one (most) penalized team in our league, and if they take penalties and the game takes that direction, we want to be able to make our power play a factor.”
When Michigan was struggling this year, and there was just over a month left in the regular season, the players and coaches alike were saying that the team was trying to play “playoff hockey.” Now that playoff hockey has finally arrived, it seems the Wolverines previous attempts have prepared them.
And that means that they are prepared to potentially play three games in three nights, as is always a possibility in the early rounds of the CCHA Tournament. If neither team can sweep, a third game settles the series on Sunday night. Just as last-place Bowling Green made a Cinderella run through the conference tournament last year, Michigan knows a hot team can knock off anyone come March.
“Northern has always been a good squad,” said junior defenseman Mac Bennett. “They’re going to be good — it’s the playoffs. Whether you’re in first place or last place, it doesn’t matter because this is a whole new season and anything can happen.”