After a loss to Cornell at Madison Square Garden in November, the University of Michigan was in trouble.
Entering February, the Wolverines were still struggling mightily, and at 11-18-2 overall by the end of the month, looked like they had absolutely no shot of continuing an NCAA tournament streak that began back in 1991.
Now the Maize and Blue are just one win away from getting back to college hockey's big dance for the 23rd consecutive season in the final campaign of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which will disband after the playoffs—and with the roll they're on, few teams would probably be lining up to take the Wolverines on in the first round.
No. 20 Michigan stretched its winning streak to five games and its unbeaten string to nine contests following a 6-2 dismantling of Miami in the late semifinal of the 2013 CCHA Championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
The Wolverines, who need to win the tournament to gain the CCHA’s last automatic bid to the NCAAs, have been on a tear the last few weeks. They registered consecutive two-step sweeps of Northern Michigan and Western Michigan before ousting the third-ranked Red Hawks on Saturday to even their record at 18-18-2 overall.
“The puck was going in for us,” said longtime Michigan head coach Red Berenson to the Ann Arbor News afterward.
Andrew Copp scored shorthanded early in the second period to put Michigan up, 1-0, following a blocked shot and a clear by the Wolverine defense. The bottom then fell all the way out for Miami, which claimed the final CCHA regular-season title earlier this month.
Copp, Luke Moffat and A.J. Treais all connected in a span of 2:11 to put the Wolverines up by four goals, drive starting goalie Ryan McKay from the Miami net and effectively put the Red Hawks away. Copp's second goal was a one-timer from the bottom of the right circle, while Moffat ripped a shot in from high in the slot and team captain Treais put home a pass on the doorstep to make it 4-0.
"It’s been good to get the first goal,” said Treais. “In the first half of the season that wasn’t happening.”
Sean Kuraly and Curtis McKenzie then sandwiched goals around one by Michigan’s Alex Guptill before Guptill closed out the scoring with his second score of the evening and 16th of the year. Michigan freshman netminder Steve Racine, who along with the rest of his teammates struggled through the veritable dog days of winter in Ann Arbor, made 33 saves to improve to 12-5-3 on the season. He has been in net for every game of Michigan’s recent nine-game unbeaten run.
Back in January, Michigan dropped a pair of games at home to Alaska (Fairbanks), whom they had never failed to at least split with in CCHA play since the Nanooks had joined the conference full-time in 1995. That was part of a six-game Michigan skid in seven games as the month came to a close.
Lately, though, the Wolverines have been reminiscent of those powerhouse Michigan teams of the 1990s that won two national titles and could fill opposing nets in bunches, even while skating a man down. They've outscored their opponents, 21-8, in their last four outings this year, while scoring at least four goals per game in that duration, and have also tallied 40 goals in all during their current unbeaten string.
Now Michigan, which had to pull off a similar feat back in 2010 when the Wolverines needed to win the CCHA tournament to gain the NCAA autobid, must defeat Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon in the final CCHA game for the final CCHA playoff title.
Next year the Wolverines will be off to the new Big Ten Conference with fellow members Michigan State and Ohio State. the Fighting Irish, who topped Ohio State in the other CCHA semifinal on Saturday and are assured of an at-large bid to the NCAAs, will jump to the Hockey East Association.
“Our goal was to get into the championship game and now we’ll be in it. Now it’s what we do with that,” said Berenson at USCHO.com. “The weekend’s not over and our team knows that, and they put it on the line tonight but they know that tomorrow’s game is going to be tougher.”
They’ve certainly put themselves in position, though, to make history—again.