WCHA Reigns Supreme Again
by James V. Dowd/CHN Correspondent
They're foes 363 days a year, but No. 6 Michigan State and No. 7 Michigan were cheering for each other this weekend at the 14th annual College Hockey Showcase.
Each year when it comes time for NCAA tournament selection, there's always talk of WCHA and Hockey East superiority. And, recently, each year when the Frozen Four rolls around, that talk validates itself.
Last year's tournament in Milwaukee included two teams each from the aforementioned leagues, and the previous tournament in Columbus was an all-WCHA showing.
Unfortunately, the Spartans and Wolverines did little to change that this season, losing three of four.
The last time that both Michigan and Michigan State swept their western conference rivals, during the 2000-01 season, the Wolverines and Spartans ended up in the Frozen Four. According to Michigan captain Matt Hunwick, correlation between success in the Showcase and success in the postseason is no coincidence.
"The non-conference schedules are huge in picking what conferences are actually better, and over the past few years, the WCHA has beaten us pretty good in these games," Hunwick said, prior to his team's win over Wisconsin and whooping at the hands of Minnesota on Saturday.
If there was ever a year for the CCHA to turn the tide, it looked like it could be this one. Michigan State played tough games against Michigan and Notre Dame last week and the Wolverines came in on their first six-game win streak in more than two years. And while Minnesota sits atop the national rankings, the defending national champion Badgers have fallen out of the top-20 with a 4-8-2 record on the season.
Regardless of its struggles, Michigan coach Red Berenson knew Wisconsin would challenge its CCHA foes.
"I know that (Wisconsin) is a good team," Berenson said. "They just played two good games against Minnesota — maybe they didn't win them, but they were two good games."
Michigan was able to get the 4-3 win over Wisconsin, but the Badgers shut down Michigan State on Saturday, allowing just 19 shots in getting a 2-0 win. That broke Wisconsin's six-game losing streak, and was sorely needed.
"They are two of the top-caliber teams in the country," Wisconsin captain Andrew Joudrey said. "If we can play well against them, that can help give us confidence. This is a measuring stick for us."
In helping to prepare for this weekend, the Badgers slowly but surely improved on their faults. Despite a slew of injuries that includes star forward Jack Skille — who returned Friday to score a goal in the loss to Michigan — Joudrey believes that his team can turn it around.
"Every day in practice we are working on systems and little things that we try to improve on from week to week," Joudrey said. "With a tough schedule, people can look at it and say it's tough and it's frustrating, but you want to play against the Boston Colleges and the North Dakotas because those teams will help you get better in the end."
The gameplan was simple for Michigan, as alternate captain Jason Dest pointed out.
"It comes down to burying our chances," Dest said. "When we do get our chances against these top teams, we have to bury them. Getting a couple of goals on the road is hard."
Michigan did exactly that Friday night, scoring four times against Brian Elliott. But Saturday's performance was listless and lifeless, and the Wolverines were humiliated by Minnesota.
So the end result this weekend was, in essence, more of the same, with the CCHA teams going home to lick their wounds, Wisconsin feeling renewed, and Minnesota feeling on top of the world — which is where it just might end up in April at this rate.