The Michigan hockey team battled past the home-standing Western Michigan Broncos on Saturday night, sweeping them and punching their ticket to Joe Louis Arena for their 24th consecutive appearance in the CCHA Tournament semifinals.
Don't be misled by the final score. Michigan's 5-1 victory was a hard-fought one, a game where the Maize and Blue asserted themselves at both ends of the ice, refusing to allow the Broncos any room offensively, and pushing offensive pressure on the other.
Michigan found itself with a quick 1-0 lead, just 1:08 into the contest. Defenseman Jon Merrill slotted an ice-length pass right onto senior Kevin Lynch's stick. Lynch broke through two defensemen and rifled a shot into the corner of the net to give Michigan a 1-0 lead on the road.
Western Michigan finally got on the scoreboard after capitalizing on a Michigan turnover. WMU defenseman Garrett Haar intercepted an errant clear and sent a sharp wrister into the back of the net to tie the score.
Faced with a scenario that's haunted them so many times before this season, the Wolverines, who outshot Western 15-3 after one but stood tied 1-1, could've hung their heads. But coach Red Berenson was proud of his team, and knew they had gotten through a tough first period on the road with the momentum.
"We knew it was the score that counted, it wasn't the shots," he said. "We knew we were playing well and we had to build on that. We came here to play Michigan hockey on the road, and that's what we tried to do the whole game."
The tide began to turn for Michigan in the second period.
Sophomore Andrew Sinelli scored his third goal of the season at 2:53, which put Michigan back in front. His linemate, AJ Treais took a pass and fired a shot on net. Frank Slubowski made the initial save, but was awkwardly out of position. Treais got his own rebound, and slid the puck over to Sinelli, who found an open net. Michigan now led, 2-1.
The power play then went to work. Near the midway point of the game (10:09),sophomore Alex Guptill scored his 13th of the season. Guptill reeled in a rebound off a point shot, got Slubowski to go down in a vulnerable position, and lifted the puck over his outstretched glove hand.
"We got a lot of pucks to the net in the first period, we just didn't capitalize on them," Lynch began. "In the second, we got the power play going. Especially Guptill's goal, that changed the game, and we buried our chances from there."
The Wolverines were not content with merely a two-goal lead. Just seconds later, they struck again. Junior Derek DeBlois notched his 10th goal of the season after swatting in aPhil Di Giuseppe rebound that chased Slubowski.
What once were weaknesses are now proud strengths, as the defensive backchecking and special teams delivered for the Maize and Blue. The power play connected on one of three chances, while the penalty kill shut down WMU, stifling all five of their power plays. Captain AJ Treais speculated that Michigan's four-goal outburst in the second could very well may have been Michigan's best period all season.
"Just bearing down," he said. "That's a really good goalie, and we got the best of him today. Caught him out of position a few times. A few of those were empty nets, but just getting pucks to the net and getting guys to the net."
It was clear that by the time Michigan's fifth goal rolled around, the hockey gods were in their favor. On one end, U-M freshman Steve Racine suffocated a last-gasp Bronco attack, stoning them on a 2-on-1 chance. On the other, Guptill put the proverbial nail in the Broncos' coffin, scoring thanks to a brilliant move by Luke Moffatt. Moffatt skated in on a delayed 2-on-1, whirled, and hit Guptill with a pass. Guptill let go a hard shot over second-string Lukas Hafner's shoulder. Just like that, it's 5-1 Michigan, and that's the way the game would end.
Berenson would sum up the sterling road effort in typical, terse fashion.
"Everything went our way," he said. "It's just one of those games where we played well and we didn't let them play well. They're a good hockey team, let's face it. They've only lost one conference game all season here and for us to come in here and win two games, that's a good statement for us."