Michigan State, Michigan Meet in Rare Quarterfinal Series
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Both Michigan and Michigan State — two storied rivals — have both faced crossroads in recent years. One has gotten through the gauntlet, while for the other, it's still to be determined.
It's not only fitting, then, that these teams face each other this weekend in a best-of-3 quarterfinal series — as opposed to where this matchup would usually take place, Joe Louis Arena — but it's also indicative of the issue.
Like Boston College, Boston University, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Notre Dame have found out in recent years, the big boys can no longer expect automatic top 10 finishes just by throwing their sticks out on the ice. Defections, recruiting wars, other improving programs, attrition — these things have all leveled out the playing field, offsetting a trend that had been going the other way for years.
Last season, after three straight 25-win campaigns that included a 2007 national championship, Michigan State won just 11 games. Decimated by injuries, defections and suspensions, the Spartans went through a tumultuous season, and many wondered how long it would take to recover. One season later, with returning upperclassmen, a great recruiting class and renewed energy, the Spartans sit at 19 wins, and on the cusp of an NCAA berth.
Michigan's 2009-10 season has not been quite as tumultuous as Michigan State's was a year ago, but it's close. After making the NCAA tournament for 19 straight seasons — the longest active streak in college hockey — including two national championships, the Wolverines will not make it this year unless they win the CCHA tournament.
"We're in a mode now that we have to move on," Berenson said. "We got through last weekend, and we have to take advantage of this weekend. ... We can look back and we've had a lot of great teams and a lot of great players, but this year is this year. But we have a lot of life left, and I like our team right now. But it starts Friday."
Perhaps losing last year's NCAA First Round game to Air Force was a portend of things to come. But it goes back further.
Despite some extremely talented units, Michigan has not been able to hold onto its top players. And after a couple decades of going with four-year one-goalie systems, the Wolverines have been plagued by goaltending issues for the last few years now. First Billy Sauer was never really able to fully assume the hole left by Al Montoya's departure after three years, and Bryan Hogan spelled him. Hogan was then inconsistent in his time, and three weeks ago, he hurt is groin and is still not ready to return. So a little-used senior, Shawn Hunwick, was thrown into the fire, and now will face Michigan State for the first time.
"He's worked hard for three years, and never really got a chance to start. And when he did, he was thrown in and did a good job," Berenson said. "Then he went on the road and had his bubble burst a little bit [against Notre Dame], but he bounced back with a solid week of practice. He's got everyone on the team behind him, and he showed what he could do against Lake State. But this will be his toughest challenge yet, and my confidence is high."
Hunwick is the brother of former standout Michigan defenseman Matt Hunwick, now in the NHL.
"He talks a lot more than Matt," said Michigan forward Louie Caporusso. "He's always talking. He's a statistician. He's able to tell you any stat about any guy, and he has an opinion about everything. We get into it in the locker room a lot, but he's a good friend."
There are other injury issues too — Chris Summers was hurt against Lake Superior State and hasn't skated all week. His replacement, Scooter Vaughn, also hurt his shoulder.
On the other end, Michigan State's last four years — remember, those three 25-win seasons followed by last year's troubles — all had a rock in net named Jeff Lerg, a player who big game abilities and massive heart belied his small stature. "The man" now is sophomore Drew Palmisano, and, while he's been steady this season in splitting time with senior Bobby Jarosz, this is the moment of truth for him.
"Goalies are judged by how they play in big games," Comley said. I think Palmisano will be fine. We've made a decision to play him more down the stretch."
Michigan State turned this around this year after getting upperclassmen Nick Sucharski and Corey Tropp back in the lineup. Add in the emerging star in defenseman Jeff Petry, and a great freshman group led by another defenseman, Torey Krug, and the Spartans were able to rubber band back near the top of the league.
"Our young kids got us here, and with the right contributions from other players," Comley said. "In a big series you always look to your best guys in a sense. You look to Tropp, you look to Petry. ... They've played enough so you know who to trust and who you don't trust. Once you've played 35 games, there's nothing you're going to see that should surprise you."
Krug was a big addition to complement Petry, and he was recently named to the CCHA's All-Rookie Team.
"He plays in all situations. He's a coaches son, he's got a great feel for the game. He thinks the game well," Comley said. "He's one of those kids that you can coach at all times, and that's one of the best compliments I can give. You never have to shy away from saying something to him, because he knows. If something bad happens and he was at fault, he'll come off nodding his head, because he knows.
"The question was size. His last year of midget, he had three points. Then he went to Indiana [in the USHL] and had 47 in the best junior league in North America. You're like, 'How can that happen?' I was convinced we needed him. I was convinced he was going to make us better, which he's done. He's lived up to every possible thing you can identify to make us better."
Michigan's troubles came at both ends, but none more glaring than Louie Caporusso, a 20-goal scorer a year ago, who, left without as good a supporting cast, ran into major difficulties this season.
Caporusso, however, has seen his scoring pace pick up dramatically down the stretch.
"It's just been one of those years whether it's the bounces, or luck, or a little bit of confidence," Berenson said. "But Louie is playing like Louie now, and good for him, because this is when we need him."
Caporusso said, "If you're going to peak at any time, this is the right time to peak. I think coach is right about not getting the bounces, but that's the way life is."
Comley doesn't like that his team is coming off a bye week to get here, but it helps, he says, to be facing a rival.
"I don't think so, no, I think it's bad," Comley said. "It think it's an advantage for the team that plays the first week and is healthy. I only think it's good for us if we're not healthy. ... [But] I think the fact that it's Michigan, I think the edge will be created. Somebody else, we might be [concerned]."