During its current six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1), Michigan has relied a little too much on freshman goalie Steve Racine, but on Saturday, in putting Northern Michigan out of its misery with a 6-2 win, the Wolverines showcased an entire team effort that makes their NCAA pursuits realistic.
There's one big caveat, of course - Michigan has to repeat its performance from this night, first in a CCHA quarterfinal next weekend (against either Notre Dame or Western Michigan) and then in potential conference semifinal and final matchups.
But make no mistake, if the team that dominated the Wildcats in every facet of the game shows up four more times, the Maize and Blue will extend their college hockey record NCAA consecutive appearance streak to 23.
"I was really impressed with our team tonight," head coach Red Berenson said. "I thought after last night's game, we didn't play that well. Their team outplayed us for big parts of the game, and even though we won, I thought if our team came in overconfident tonight, we were in trouble. And even before the game I couldn't have told you how ready this team was, but they were ready. They showed it and that was a convincing victory right from the start."
This was the Michigan team we've been waiting for all year. The Wolverines spent the majority of the first period in Northern's zone, using an aggressive forecheck and nifty passing to cycle the puck and create scoring chance after scoring. Just as impressively, U-M's defense spent the frame in lockdown mode as the Maize and Blue outshot NMU 23-6.
That was only the start. Michigan took it to another level in the second period defensively, relying on a simplistic approach of making the easy, routine pass, clearing the puck as quickly as possible from their own zone and, when necessary, selling out to prevent a shot. U-M would finish the second period with 16-3 shot advantage, and led 4-1 after 40 minutes.
"This is the time of the year where you try to get your team to really come together and play like a team," Berenson said. "I thought we did that tonight, and our goalie didn't have to be a factor, but good for him - he still kept the score down. They had some isolated chances."
They could have gotten lazy in the third, but the Wolverines played with equal intensity. Racine even made an incredible stop or two. In summary, this was the complete 60-minute contest the Maize and Blue have been searching for all season.
There is no guarantee that this team shows up again, and anything less than their best - unless Racine stands on his head - won't get it done against the Irish or Broncos, but there is reason to be optimistic; Michigan has been making substantial progress each of the past three weeks and appears to be peaking at just the right time.
That's great news for U-M and its fans. Bad news for everybody else.
""All I know is we have a game on Friday -- that's all we're focused on," junior defenseman Mac Bennett said. "With the group we have, and the goaltending we have, we're going to be a tough team to beat."