In a word: unreal.
The Michigan hockey team will be making its 20th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament this season after defeating Northern Michigan 2-1 in the CCHA title game, but the Wolverines took a wildly improbable path to get there. For the last few weeks, the team knew they had to win the conference tournament to secure an NCAA berth. With a 5-7 walk-on forced into goaltending duty and their best defenseman watching in a suit. As the seventh seed, when no team seeded that low had ever won the CCHA title.
The CCHA tournament was supposed to be Michigan’s wake, not its reawakening.
Not only did Michigan pull off a title run, but they did so emphatically: the Wolverines dispatched three of the top four seeds in the tournament, sweeping Michigan State at Munn, crushing #2 Miami 5-2 in the semifinals, and dispatching NMU in the final with a dominant defensive performance. In Michigan’s six tournament games, they outscored their opponents 28-9, with fourteen different players scoring goals and all 19 skaters who participated tallying at least one point.
This was no fluke. This was a team putting it all together at just the right time.
The final two games at Joe Louis Arena showed us the Michigan team everyone expected to dominate the CCHA heading into the season. The Wolverines chased CCHA player of the year Cody Reichard, who broke former MSU goalie Ryan Miller’s single-season goals against average record this season, from the semifinal with five goals by four different players while shutting down a Miami offense that averaged nearly 3.5 goals per game. In the title game, junior Louie Caporusso continued his recent hot streak by scoring both Michigan goals, the first a power play snipe when Caporusso jumped onto the ice mid-play after Matt Rust broke his stick, the second a perfect redirection of a Steve Kampfer pass after he had clanged a shot off the post just seconds earlier.
That would be all the scoring Michigan needed, as junior walk-on Shawn Hunwick, all 5-7, 163 pounds of him, came up big time and time again to secure the title, as well as tournament MVP honors, with 17 saves. Hunwick’s fairytale run has included wins in seven of his past eight games, since Bryan Hogan went down with a groin injury against Notre Dame in the regular season’s final series, and a 102-minute shutout streak. Looking at Hunwick’s post-game quotes, it sounds like even he has a hard time believing what has happened:
“It was nice [to receive the honor] but I think it takes away from the team,” said Hunwick, who is now 7-1 in his last eight games. “The guys played tremendous. I don’t know if I deserved to be MVP; I don’t even know that I deserved to be a star of the game. Six weeks ago if you told me I’d be sitting here, I would have said you were crazy but we have to keep going.”
The best quote of the night, in my opinion, came from Red Berenson himself. In the postgame celebration (which Michigan Sports Center has video of here, as well as highlights from the game), the sideline reporter for FSN-Detroit closed her interview with Berenson by saying, “it was a tall mountain to climb, but you guys did it step by step.”
Without missing a beat, Berenson had a response: “We’re still climbing.”
Michigan will play CHA regular-season champ Bemidji State on Saturday in Fort Wayne, with the chance to once again take on Miami if both teams can advance to the regional final. As perhaps the hottest team in the country heading into the tournament, with a fortuitous seeding from the committee (the Wolverines got the closest possible region, a first-round game against a champ from the weakest college hockey conference, and the one-seed is a team Michigan soundly defeated on Friday), this storybook run could potentially continue into the Frozen Four, which just happens to take place in Detroit this year.
We’re still climbing. Enjoy the ride.