Friday, March 26, 2010

Midwest #3: Michigan

University of Michigan Wolverines

Michigan 3 seed vs. Bemidji State, Midwest Regional (Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, IN)
CCHA Tournament Champions
Record: 25-17-1
Coach: Gordon "Red" Berenson

I spent last Friday night in a cowboy bar in Houston, Texas. I was with my fiancee, talking with her friends and their significant others while listening to country music and watching people dance. Don't get me wrong; I like seeing them, and I was totally in favor of the evening. But the CCHA semifinal was going on at the same time. Every so often, my phone would chime, letting me know that I was getting another text message as Craig updated his status from inside Joe Louis Arena. I was terrified to look. Nothing good has happened to Michigan's hockey team this season when I was watching. They lost to Notre Dame and Miami in the only two games I attended and seemed to lose every time I watched them on TV. So I'd stopped watching, fearing I was a jinx. The second half of the season seemed to prove that it wasn't my fault, and at this point I was just worried that the other shoe was going to drop. Hard.

Beating Lake State wasn't something that had seemed out of reach. Not a slam dunk, but not prohibitively difficult. Yes, Michigan had struggled through a disappointing season. They had losing records in November (Hi there, 5-game losing streak!) and in February (Not much of a stretch run there). Yes, they were starting a goalie who's 5'7" on a good day. But the guy had split against Notre Dame, so it wasn't out of the question. It was Lake State; even this Michigan team would be a favorite. And so they swept the Lakers and the worrying could really begin.

The second round had seemed like karmic justice. You think you had us? Well, we wanted it more, and we came to end you. But this? This was Miami, a team that had dropped all of two games in conference play and had a pair of netminders any team would kill for.

And so I sat in a bar and listened to my phone while the DVR recorded the game. I didn't look at the messages, but there were 10 of them sitting there, waiting for me. When we got home, I started watching it. It was late/early, but I couldn't wait anymore. The Tristin Llewellyn goal was a shocking thing, and it gave me hope. It was Lee Moffie's goal on the spectacular 4-1 that made me think we were going to win. I was too exhausted, and fell asleep when the second period ended, but I thought we had a chance to hang on. When I awoke in the morning, I was dumbstruck by the third period. Lynch, Lebler, and then Lynch again, pouring it on, just torching The Dynasty. And I felt something for the first time since October: Confidence.

Northern Michigan was the last thing standing between Michigan and their 20th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, and I couldn't imagine them letting the Wildcats get in the way. That doesn't mean that I wasn't worried; far from it. I was furious at the FSN Detroit stream as herked and jerked along, sometimes skipping 12 seconds of gameplay, mostly because I was terrified it was going to catch up and Northern Michigan would have put a goal in the back of the net. And so it went for almost two periods, feeling like another one of those nights where Michigan could outplay the world and have nothing to show for it on the scoreboard. But in the dying seconds of the second period, the stream lurched ahead and Louie Caporusso scored a power play goal.

In the third period, the Wolverines clung to that 1-0 lead, and in the time it took me to restart the stream, Caporusso had scored one and Michigan gave it right back. It was a long, long 9:00 to end that game, rising to a crescendo with 3.5 seconds left and Ray Kaunisto cross-checking the hell out of someone's neck. And the refs called the penalty, and the game was over and Michigan was going to the NCAAs. The streak was safe.

And now I want more. I want the same thing that I wanted when Craig and I bought our Frozen Four tickets a year ago: Michigan hockey at Ford Field. It can happen, obviously, but it's another mountain to climb after a huge weekend. Can Michigan retain its focus after that? Can the defense keep Shawn Hunwick clean? Will the puck keep going into the net for the offense? I have no idea.

For non-Michigan fans, wondering who to watch, first and foremost you should keep your eyes on juniors Carl Hagelin (17-30--47) and Louie Caporusso (20-21--41). In addition to being the assists and points leader, Hagelin is a fantastic two-way player, usually dispatched to shut down the other team's top line. He plays left wing, with fellow junior Matt Rust (13-25--38) centering and freshman Kevin Lynch at RW. Caporusso is in the middle on the second line and a big force on the power play.

The defensive pairings have been shaken up a bit due to the injury senior captain Chris Summers suffered in the CCHA first round versus Lake Superior State. A preponderance of sources think he's back for this weekend. Steve Kampfer (leader in points among defensemen with 3-19--22) is probably the second best of the D.

Shawn Hunwick is the story that everyone wants to talk about, and why not? Pint-size goalie, prone to concussions, just short of giving up hockey. But he's the brother of ex-Michigan defenseman/current Boston Bruin Matt Hunwick and he walks on when Steve Jakiel leaves the team. And when Bryan Hogan (2.33 GAA / .901 SV%) injures his groin halfway through the first period against Notre Dame, Hunwick steps in to finish the game and complete the 4-0 shutout. He also happens to have earned MVP honors at that CCHA tournament while watching a Hobey Baker finalist get benched on the other end of the rink. All eyes will be on him in Fort Wayne to see if he turns back into a pumpkin. Even if he does, I just want to say thank you to him and to the whole team for making it this far. I'll be there, cheering them on and hoping they can keep the season alive.

1 comment:

Craig Barker said...

And John U. Bacon, the poet laureate of Michigan Hockey, adds his take on Shawn Hunwick