Michigan moved one giant step closer to an NCAA Tournament berth with a 5-1 series-clinching victory over Western Michigan Saturday, and now that U-M is within two wins of its 23rd consecutive NCAA appearance, it must finish the job.
"Obviously the goal is to win," senior center A.J. Treais said. "I was in a similar situation to this my freshman year [needing to win the CCHA Tournament] and we pulled through, and I have the same feeling about this team that I had back freshman year."
Every step of the way, Michigan continues to defy the odds. The Wolverines were a seventh-place team when the regular-season ended, they hadn't earned a single sweep until Feb. 1-2 (Michigan State), and they were considered a huge underdog entering this weekend's series in Kalamazoo.
But the Wolverines aren't playing like the middling, underachiever they were for the first 30 games of the season. They're now unbeaten in their last eight (7-0-1), and like they did a week ago in finishing off Northern Michigan in a CCHA playoff series, the Maize and Blue dominated from the opening faceoff until the clock struck 0:00 against the Broncos.
"The further you go in the playoffs, you have to ramp it up even more. You see that from our team. We're peaking at the right time," Treais said.
Michigan won 5-1, but Western wouldn't go down without a fight. The Broncos threw everything they had at U-M, even pulling their goalie twice while on the power play in the third period, positioning themselves for a 6-on-4 advantage. WMU couldn't score, though, Michigan freshman goalie Steve Racine turning everything away, and the defense limiting Western, largely, to odd-angle chances and shots from outside the faceoff circles.
"I've seen 4-1 and 5-1 games go totally the other direction," said coach Red Berenson, who called a timeout with Michigan up 4-1 but Western turning up the heat. "I thought our guys were tired, they needed a breather and we didn't want to let them get going."
Michigan would score that all-important next goal, taking a 5-1 lead into the second intermission. Still, the crowd stuck with the home team and Western battled, but the Wolverines ratcheted up their effort, and that's what it will take next weekend when they head to Joe Louis Arena for the 24th consecutive season.
Michigan will play a CCHA semifinal next Saturday, and whoever makes it to The Joe will be streaking, just like the Maize and Blue. Their mission, thus, gets harder, not easier, even if momentum is on their side.
"I don't think our mindset changes," Treais said. "We're hot right now but we're still the underdog. We'll be one of the lower seeds and we're going to keep that mindset."
Michigan has been the underdog, but no longer. With the 'M' on their chest, the Wolverines will become the hunted in Detroit, but that may not matter - this team believes in itself and as the last two weekends have shown, there may be no stopping them.
"We wanted to get to The Joe and then we want to do something when we get there," Berenson started. "That sounded like a lofty goal to a lot of people about six weeks ago. We knew it would be the hard way to get there. And here we are.
"Good for our team. You have to give our team a lot of credit. They've been through a lot this year, and they've stuck together, and they're having fun and having some success. We're getting better. we have a little mojo right now and we're going to Joe Louis hopefully to have some more fun."