DETROIT - With Michigan and Miami both knowing they had bids to the NCAA Tournament all wrapped up, you'd think a little of the luster may have escaped Saturday's CCHA Mason Cup championship final.
But both clubs made sure it didn't, with Michigan coming out victorious, 2-1, in a fast-paced, back-and-forth contest in front of 17,213 fans at Joe Louis Arena. With the win, the Wolverines won both the regular-season and tournament championships this season.
"I can't tell you we're better than Miami," Michigan head coach Red Berenson said to all the Wolverine faithful afterwards. "But I can tell you we won the game."
Although there wasn't any scoring, or many shots, the first period was anything but dull. Amid the frenzy were numerous big hits, tempers short-fusing, and even a few quality scoring chances. The best opportunity was by Tim Miller, who rushed into Miami territory, drew the puck from the left wing back between the circles, before he wristed a shot that beat Jeff Zatkoff - and clanged off the far post. Late in the period, a Ryan Jones wraparound attempt nearly beat Billy Sauer, but Sauer's left pad kept the game scoreless.
In the second, Michigan struck first, as Matt Rust hit a streaking Aaron Palushaj just outside the crease and Palushaj beat an outstretched Zatkoff for the 1-0 lead.
"I didn't think he'd play this weekend," Berenson said about Rust. "He didn't skate until Wednesday, and he tried, but he wasn't very good. He could hardly walk this morning, but he came up to me and said 'I want to play (again).'"
The goal seemed to intensify Miami immediately. Just minutes after the goal, Carter Camper walked unabated in front of the Wolverine net, but Sauer was able to come up with the right pad save.
Later on, Camper had another chance as he was hit in full stride with a pass from Jones, but again Sauer came up with a glove save.
In the waning minutes of the second, a real rarity occurred, when the CCHA's Best Defensive Defenseman, Alec Martinez, was stripped of the puck in Miami territory by Kevin Porter, the CCHA's Player of the Year. Porter proceeded to walk in on a breakaway, but Zatkoff made another lightning-quick stop with the left hand.
The score remained knotted at one apiece until midway through the third period. With a faceoff to the right of the Miami net, Miller quickly won the draw and sent the puck in front of the net, where Brandon Naurato chipped it past Zatkoff.
"Right before we went out there I said I was gonna go to the net," Miller, the Tournament MVP said. "I put it through his legs and Naurato put it in."
That was all the scoring the Wolverines would need, though Miami made it close.
With 38.6 seconds remaining, Martinez fired a slapshot from the point past Sauer, closing the gap to 2-1.
Sauer, who gave up four goals against Northern Michigan last night, finished with 27 saves, while Zatkoff, the All-Tournament Team goaltender, finished with 24.
It was the Wolverines' eighth CCHA Tournament championship and sixth time they have won both the regular-season and tournament crown.
With the win, No. 1 Michigan will assuredly receive a No. 1 seed, if not the No. 1 overall seed, in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The selections and seeds will be announced tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. on ESPN2.
There is a possibility of these two teams meeting again in the postseason, and Miami head coach Enrico Blasi said he would definitely welcome a rematch.
"If we are playing Michigan in Denver, Red and I will be very happy," said Blasi. "It would be great for the conference."
F Matt Siddall, Northern Michigan
F Ryan Jones, Miami
F Tim Miller, Michigan
D Alec Martinez, Miami
D Mark Mitera, Michigan
G Jeff Zatkoff, Miami
MVP - Tim Miller
Photo courtesy CCHA