By Stefan Kubus –
In the last year of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, a Michigan Wolverines squad that played underwhelming hockey the first half of the season is finding its groove just at the right time.
The Wolverines, manned by longtime head coach Red Berenson, are hunting for the chance to capture the 42nd and final CCHA Championship. Having compiled a 9-2-1 record since Feb. 1, including two playoff series sweeps against Northern Michigan and a strong Western Michigan squad, it’s hard to deny they’ve put themselves in a solid position to do so.
“I can tell you our team wasn’t playing like they needed to play so it was a challenge all year,” Berenson said of his team’s first half. “We’ve had some recent success and that’s good. Obviously getting to Joe Louis was a big accomplishment, and you’d like to make some noise at Joe Louis, but we’re playing maybe one of the best teams in the country in Miami.”
With said No. 1 seed Miami RedHawks awaiting, the Wolverines believe they are a completely different hockey club than they were in late October when they split with the RedHawks at Yost Ice Arena.
“Early on, everyone wasn’t on the same page, whether we weren’t playing for each other or we weren’t playing a full 60,” said senior forward Kevin Lynch. “Now, we have some confidence in ourselves and with our team, we believe and that’s pretty scary… We don’t care who blocks a shot, who scores a goal, we’re just doing everything for the team and that’s all that matters right now.”
Lynch, an alternate captain and native of Grosse Pointe, said he expects nothing but physicality and speed between the two schools.
“It was a hard-checking, fast-paced series and we expect the exact same for Saturday’s matchup,” Lynch said. “We’re a different team now than we were then and it’s going to be a great game.”
Meanwhile, for a young Miami team featuring 18 freshmen and sophomores combined, RedHawks head coach Enrico Blasi – 14th season behind the bench and his team’s eighth-straight top-four CCHA finish – shares similar feelings about the late-October series, adding that their season-long maturation process is nearing its climax.
“At the beginning of the year, our guys were trying to find themselves and an identity of who they were going to be,” Blasi said. “That was a long time ago in October, so our team is totally different. We’ve grown up a lot. This team has come together, they have a pretty good identity of who they are and how they want to play from night in and night out.”
Among that youthful group of 18 are a pair of Michigan natives who took the CCHA by storm, finishing first and fourth in the CCHA in overall scoring, respectively: Riley Barber (Livonia) and Austin Czarnik (Washington). Barber’s 38 points were good enough to make him the highest scoring freshman in the country this season.
The dynamic offense the duo has delivered all season for Miami earned praise from their head coach.
“We think very highly of those two young guys, Czarnik and Barber,” Blasi said. “They’ve had great years.”
However, when asked how the young duo compared to past standout players he’s coached, like Ryan Jones (Edmonton Oilers) and Andy Miele (Grosse Pointe Woods; Phoenix Coyotes prospect in the AHL), Blasi wasn’t prepared to get ahead of himself, saying it’s just too early to tell.
“Those two guys, one won a Hobey Baker (Miele) and the other was a Hobey Hat Trick playing in the National Hockey League (Jones), so let’s wait and see how things shake out and then we’ll talk about them when they’re done here at Miami.”
Blasi spoke to the hard-fought games shared between the two teams in recent years, citing ‘The Joe’ as a great venue to share one last CCHA game in.
“Over the years, it’s become a pretty good rivalry between us and Michigan,” Blasi said. “We feel that Saturday will be no different; the place will be rocking and we’ll have to be ready to go.”
And while the Wolverines may be clicking at the right time, Berenson said he knows they still have a monumental task at hand.
“They’re a scary team because they can score with anybody and, defensively, they’re the best team in our league,” Berenson said. “They don’t give up much, they don’t need much and they’ve got a lot of offensive firepower and skill. Their coaching staff has done a good job. They’ve been the team to beat all year in this conference.”
Notes: The annual CCHA awards banquet will take place at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit on Friday, March 22, with social hour kicking it off at 5:30. Just before award ceremony, there will also be a 30-minute world premiere of the league’s ‘Celebrate the Legacy’ DVD starting at 7 p.m.
Official 2013 CCHA Championship Schedule
- No. 3 OSU vs. No. 2 ND – 1:05pm Sat
- No. 4 UM vs. No. 1 Miami – 4:35pm Sat
- 2013 CCHA Championship – 2:05 pm Sun