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Michigan takes on top-seeded Miami (OH) in CCHA semifinals

Jake Fromm/Daily
Junior Matt Rust is third on the Wolverines in scoring this season with 35 points. Buy this photo

BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 18, 2010

Although the Michigan hockey team played at Michigan State, Munn Ice Arena was referred to by many as "Yost West" last weekend. Hoards of Wolverine fans made the drive up to East Lansing to support the team in the CCHA tournament quarterfinals. For the Wolverines, it was win or go home. And the maize and blue faithful could be heard loud and clear over supporters for the Spartans.

It did help that Michigan State was on spring break, and that Michigan jumped out to early leads in both games.

“I know as a player it’s important,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said of the fan support. “It definitely is important. That’s the reason any team in sports has a better home record than a road record. And the fans, and the support they give at home it’s huge. Could that be a factor? It could be.”

Tonight, when Michigan (14-13-1 CCHA, 23-17-1 overall) takes on No. 1 seed Miami (OH.) at Joe Louis Arena, the fan support could make a similar impact. The Wolverines are the closest remaining team to Detroit and Friday's semifinal matchup should be like a home game for Michigan.

So far, the Wolverines are 2-1 at the Joe this season, going 1-1 in the Great Lakes Invitational and beating then-No. 13 Michigan State, 5-4, on Jan. 30. Tonight's game in Detroit will be another win-or-go-home scenario for Michigan.

When the Wolverines faced the RedHawks (23-3-5 CCHA, 26-6-7 overall) back in early November, Miami came into Yost and swept Michigan 3-1 and 5-1. Entering that series, the Wolverines knew they were going to have their hands full, facing a roster of skilled forwards, talented defenders and two top goalies.

Since then, No. 2 Miami has only gotten better, easily winning the CCHA regular season title and earning the first seed in the conference tournament.

“Their top three lines are as good as anyone,” junior forward Matt Rust said.

But Michigan is playing its best hockey of the year during the CCHA tournament. In sweeps over Lake Superior State and Michigan State, the Wolverines have scored 21 goals in four games and held opponents to just 1.5 goals per game.

At the beginning of the season, the Wolverines were relying on their special teams to win games, but now Michigan’s five-on-five play has picked up considerably since November and is a big reason for its improved results.

After the Wolverines fell behind 3-2 after the first period last Saturday against Michigan State, they held the Spartans to just one shot in the second period. But it wasn’t just by playing in their own zone the whole period. Part of Michigan’s improved defense is its offense’s ability to maintain possession of the puck and keep it away from the opponent.

That, combined with a team effort on the defensive end, will be important if the Wolverines are able to topple the conference’s top team. A win would send the Wolverines into the CCHA Championship game Saturday night against either Northern Michigan or Ferris State giving Michigan a chance to make the NCAA tournament — even after starting the season 10-10.

“At the start of the year, I think one thing they exploited of us was our defensive zone," Rust said. "I think that’s one thing our team really grown (in), worked better on. We’re more of a defensive team now. So, I think if we take pride in that, like we’ve been saying all year long, I think we’ll do a lot better against them.”

But the offense has also improved by leaps and bounds, especially from junior forward Louie Caporusso, who is now second on the team with 35 points. Berenson noted that, since starting off slow, the team is getting balanced scoring across several lines.

And with a hot offense, the one-game series format this weekend could benefit Michigan because anything can happen in one game.

“It’s just like the NCAA tournament,” Berenson said. “I mean you’re in, it’s all or nothing. I like our chances. It’s what you want. ... I think it’s anybody’s game. I know they’ll be really good. And we’re going to try and be as good as we can be. The more I look at their team, the more I see us as a bigger underdog. But I still like our team, and we’re definitely going to show up, and we’ll see what happens.”