After the Michigan Wolverines beat the Northern Michigan Wildcats in the semifinal of the CCHA tournament last season, the Wildcats were resolute it would not happen again.
Very similar in tone and execution to last seasonâ€™s contest, this game was dominated by tight checking. Unlike last year, however, this time the Wildcats skated away with a 2-0 win.
â€œIt was a close game, obviously a one goal game,â€ Wolverine coach Red Berenson said. â€œWe just couldnâ€™t get one behind Stewart. They held onto their one goal lead. We knew it would be a close game and we needed to get some goals but it just didnâ€™t happen. We had our chances and I thought overall we did a lot of good things. We only let up one goal in a game on the road.â€
The Wildcats started the game strong and took a one goal lead at 7:50. Winger Ray Kaunisto shot the puck from the left point to Wolverine goalie Billy Sauer who had a kick save. The puck went straight towards the right circle where right winger Phil Fox shot it into a nearly open net. The second assist went to Matt Butcher.
â€œI saw that Butcher had the puck,â€ Fox said. â€œHe took it a shot and it deflected off Ray and I was crushing the net because it was Butcher shooting and it ended up on my stick. It was rolling and I put a good shot up and it went in.â€
The second period saw no scoring but plenty of penalties as the teams began to play with desperation. With 10 minutes of penalties in the first and 13 in the second including a five minute major from David Wholberg for kneeing, the game had 23 minutes of penalties total, divided 13-10, Michigan ahead.
â€œMichigan does a tremendous job blocking shots and if you get a shot on Billy Sauer itâ€™s an accomplishment,â€ Fox said. â€œWe just had to get through it and get to the net and capitalize on it. We had to come out and play Wildcat hockey. Get pucks down low, have possession, get them tired.We take pride in winning third periods and we stepped out onto the ice with that in mind for the last 20 minutes.â€
The third period went penalty after penalty just like the second. Michigan took two calls for charging the goaltender and roughing the goaltender while the Wildcats racked in eight minutes of penalty kill including a slashing call on Kaunisto with just 51 seconds left.
â€œRay was close to losing his head there,â€ Wildcat coach Walt Kyle said. â€œI was going to let him have it because you canâ€™t do that. He should know better; heâ€™s been here for three years. But there were several penalties that I was not happy with at all. They were legitimate calls, just bad penalties on our part.â€
During those last 51 seconds of power play, Michigan pulled Sauer to give them a two man advantage that nearly tied the game when a goal went under review and was called back.
â€œThere was a scuffle in front of the net and I go to stretch out towards the puck and the guy shoots it right towards the right side of my chest so I closed my arm and I felt the puck between my arm and body,â€ Stewart said. â€œI just barely caught it. I see all of them throw their arms up and I thought, â€˜God, it went through.â€™ So I look back and itâ€™s not in the net and I look at my arm and I canâ€™t see it. Then I looked back and it dropped in but the whistle had blown so it was ok. I was scared if they heard the whistle or not, but the refs made the right call. I was shaky waiting for that call to end.â€
Moments later, the Wildcats scored an empty netter courtesy of Nick Sirota, Mark Olver and Alan Dorich to give them a 2-0 final victory giving Stewart his first shutout of the season with 15 saves.
â€œThe defense was shutting their top guns down and they established a pretty good fore-check in the zone and didnâ€™t give them much to start with, but they played pretty solid and it made it a lot easier for me,â€ Stewart said.
â€œStewart played tremendous,â€ Fox said. â€œHeâ€™s unbelievable. Having him in the net is just a relief every night and for him to come out and play like that gives us a chance to put a couple goals in and come out with a win.â€
â€œOur team played great,â€ Stewart said. â€œI think we did really well defensively; we kept them to 15 shots. It makes my job a lot easier but you know theyâ€™re going to be coming back tomorrow harder than ever. Iâ€™m pumped about todayâ€™s win but weâ€™ve got to think about tomorrow. At this point, anything less than two wins wouldnâ€™t be good. The point of the weekend: we wanted two wins, so weâ€™re going to battle.â€
â€œWeâ€™re looking at this one game at a time,â€ Kyle said. â€œThis one is behind us right now and so now weâ€™re looking at tomorrow. Weâ€™re halfway there; itâ€™s half a job. It was anybodyâ€™s game at the end there. We were fortunate to get out of our zone and to get the extra goal.â€
â€œI expect a better Michigan team tomorrow,â€ Stewart said. â€œTheyâ€™re going to bring everything. They donâ€™t want to leave Marquette without a win. Theyâ€™re the number two team in the country for a reason.â€