Back in 2009, I bumped into Red Berenson outside of the Red Wings locker room at Joe Louis Arena.
It was CCHA Tournament weekend and Berenson’s Wolverines had just finished practice. Players, half out of their gear, milled around while equipment managers and trainers tended to post-practice needs. It resembled a military brigade setting up camp for the night. There wasn’t much for their buzz-cut general to do but stand there with a cup of coffee, which is Berenson’s norm after practice and during post-game press conferences and pretty much anywhere else, it seems.
We started talking hockey.
Western Michigan was on his mind. The Wolverines had swept the Broncos with ease in the quarterfinals in Ann Arbor the week before. Berenson said it was a “shame” that WMU’s program wasn’t better. He talked about what a great hockey town Kalamazoo was and how the fans deserved better. He said there was absolutely no reason why the school shouldn’t have a great team, why Lawson Arena shouldn’t be sold out every weekend. And he meant what he said, as if he was genuinely frustrated by it.
Well, Berenson’s wish came true Saturday night. His Wolverines were on the business end of a 5-1 bulldozing that was more than just a victory over Michigan.
It was an all-out embarrassment in front of a regional TV audience – Michigan’s regional Fox Sports Detroit audience — with a packed and insane full-moon Lawson Arena crowd taking every opportunity to remind the Wolverines of who’s driving the CCHA car in its final season.
And this is new territory: the victories this weekend marked the first weekend sweep of Michigan since 1986 and the first ever in Kalamazoo. But beating Michigan isn’t new. The Broncos have now defeated the Wolverines at least once in four of the last five years, including a 2-1 victory in Ann Arbor earlier in that 2009 season.
In each of the last two years, Western has beaten Michigan where it counts: on championship ice at The Joe, just down the hallway from where Berenson stood four years ago lamenting the lack of a stiffer West Michigan opponent.
But if those victories were tone-setters, Saturday’s was a culture-shifter.
And remember: this was supposed to happen.
Western is in first-place, the ninth-ranked team in the nation. At 8-16-2, Michigan is tied for ninth-place. It wasn’t all that long ago when those standings were reversed.
Skill, swagger, stability: Slubowski
Western’s defense is its best asset, and many would list Luke Witkowski and Danny DeKeyser as exhibits A and B.
But let’s not overlook the man behind the men.
The Broncos possess a sense of calm that has helped them stay focused in crazy situations this season, including Saturday’s first period, and the zen master is goaltender Frank Slubowski.
He plays with a rhythm and coolness that nobody and nothing seems to interrupt. Michigan scored first both nights this weekend. So what? Doo-do-do… Slubowski simply made the next save. And the one after that. And the one after that.
He’s unflappable, especially mentally. You see it in his between-whistle routine, the way he loops in and out of the crease with his 100-yard stare fixated on the glass; you see it in the way he attacks shots and calmly steers away rebounds. He’s almost robotic. Like one of those cordless vacuum cleaners that methodically scans your living room (only Slubowski is better at sucking up debris).
You could argue that he also influences the Broncos’ unwillingness to retaliate when things go overboard, physically — which has proven to be one of their most valuable assets. When you’re the team on top, everyone else wants a piece of you. Opponents hack and poke and goad and try to intimidate. Ask Michigan.
But the Wolverines found themselves in the unfamiliar position Saturday of being the hacker and poker and goader. Thinking little brother was still little, the Wolverines turned to physical intimidation as a method for reinforcing their name and tradition and status. There was the pair of dustups during the first shift of the game that had a staged feel to them. When those didn’t work, the Wolverines slashed and hacked and tripped, especially defenseman Kenney Morrison with the hope that the freshman would be fragile and afraid.
Then Morrison whistled a blinding wrist shot into Michigan’s net to give Western the lead for good.
Later, when the score grew to 3-1 … then 4-1 … Michigan stood around dumbfounded, like square-jawed fraternity brothers who just had their girlfriends stolen by the calculus team.
Hey, calculus is cool.
And we’ve seen Western’s cool side all season. In fact, it’s not a side. It’s who they are. Northern Michigan tried to bait them into undisciplined penalties in December, but the Broncos didn’t bite. Credit the coolness to coaching, but don’t underestimate the calming effect Slubowski radiates from his crease.
And don’t expect any further idealistic waxing from Berenson.
ALONG THE RAIL…
- The Wolverines looked defeated from the beginning. Their body language reeked of insecurity — and it’s been this way all season. At the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit last month, I predicted they’d lose to Michigan Tech before the game even started because of the body language both teams displayed while skating warm-up laps before the national anthem. Tech was hungry and excited and buzzing. Michigan looked entitled, arrogant and almost bored. Same was true Saturday night.
- Credit Berenson for his success: 22 straight NCAA tournament appearances is no small feat. But there’s something different about that program now. The luster has worn off. The foam number-one finger is pock-marked and droopy. Berenson signed a contract extension last summer that will keep him behind Michigan’s bench until 2015-16, but you have to wonder if he’ll stay that long. This team plays like it’s not paying attention to its coach.
- Colton Hargrove, hello. Three goals this weekend, including the game-winner Friday, is the kind of production WMU has needed from its underclassmen all season. If this keeps up, scoring may not be a problem, after all.
- Speaking of upper and underclassmen, Berenson said the following after Saturday’s game: “You can always say you are as good as the senior class. If your senior class is not strong, then you are not going to have a strong team.”
- We’ve waited for Josh Pitt (freshman) to bust out his speed and skill all season, and it arrived in a big way Saturday. His soft saucer pass to Hargrove (freshman) for the 3-1 goal in the second period was deft, while his third-period goal when he skated wide on the Michigan defender showcased his extremely fast first stride.