MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University goaltender Jared Coreau was supposed to be the man in net for the Wildcats a year ago in a CCHA first-round playoff series against Bowling Green State.
Having spent most of the season splitting time with veteran senior netminder Reid Ellingson, Coreau had emerged as the 'Cats go-to goalie and head coach Walt Kyle planned to ride the 6-foot, 200-pound lefty straight through to the CCHA Championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
That never happened, however.
Northern?Michigan University goaltender Jared Coreau grabs a drink during a break in the action of Game 3 of a best-of-three first-round CCHA?playoff series against Bowling Green State on?March 4, 2012, at the Berry Events Center in?Marquette. Coreau started Game 1 of the series, missed Game 2 due to illness and played under the weather in?Game 3. He made 19 saves in the March 4 loss that ended NMU’s season. (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)
Northern?Michigan University goaltender Jared Coreau allows the second of four goals in Game 3 of a best-of-three first-round CCHA?playoff series against Bowling Green State on?March 4, 2012, at the Berry Events Center in?Marquette. (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)
Coreau fell ill after making 31 saves in a Game 1 victory, sat out of the Game 2 loss in favor of Ellingson the next night and then returned under the weather for Game 3 to stop only 19 of 23 shots in the decisive loss that ended Northern's season.
Now Coreau gets a second chance to lead the Wildcats on a postseason run, this time as a No. 10 seed against No. 7 Michigan tonight through Sunday with the puck dropping at 7:35 p.m. each night of the best-of-three series at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor.
"I've been watching everything I touch now," Coreau said. "I don't want to get sick right now.
"It's a big weekend against Michigan. I think there's a lot of pride on the line for this series, especially being from the U.P, going down to play a team in the land of trolls.
"Growing up I always embraced the challenge of the playoffs. It's a big opportunity and I'm very excited."
Coreau started all 36 games for Northern this season as a junior who is expected to turn pro this spring, but was relieved on four instances by true freshman netminder Michael Doan.
In his 2,062 minutes, 43 seconds - second only to the 2,103:52 by Western Michigan sophomore Frank Slubowski - Coreau has made a league-leading 1,043 saves for a .921 saves percentage and 2.59 goals against average.
NMU head coach Walt Kyle said Coreau doesn't need to be a wall this postseason for Northern to upset the Wolverines, but the junior netminder does need to be good.
Coreau was that last Friday, making 50 saves in a 3-1 home win over Lake Superior State. He wasn't the following night, though, having been responsible for two shorthanded goals in a 3-0 loss.
"A goaltender can almost win you a series," said Kyle, who has led the 'Cats to JLA in seven of his 10 previous seasons, but not since 2010 when NMU lost the CCHA championship game to Michigan, 2-1.
"Nobody is moving on if their goaltending is not good. I don't care who. If Western's goaltending is not good (next) weekend, Western is not going to win."
The Wolverines are well aware of what hot goaltending can produce in the postseason, having rode Shawn Hunwick to the Mason Cup in 2010 just to reach the NCAA tournament. Michigan fell to Miami in double overtime of the Midwest Regional final.
The following year, Hunwick took the Wolverines to the NCAA championship game where the Maize and Blue lost to Minnesota-Duluth.
This season, there has been no Hunwick, however, and Michigan has been playing musical goaltenders all year long trying to replace the former CCHA playoff MVP and 2011-12 Hobey Baker finalist.
True freshmen Jared Rutledge (10 games played) and Steve Racine (18 GP) along with junior Adam Janecyk (11 GP) have not only rotated starts, but periods in head coach Red Berenson's own personal game of musical goalie.
The music has stopped as of late, though, with Racine grabbing the final chair. He enters the postseason with an .892 saves percentage and 2.82 goals against average this season.
The Wolverines are 3-0-1 in their last four games with Racine in goal and clinched a first-round home playoff series following a 22-save performance in Friday's 4-1 win over Ferris State and a 24-save performance the following night in a 1-1 tie against FSU.
Racine, who was in net Nov. 2-3 at NMU for a 4-4 Michigan shootout win and 4-3 loss, also stopped all three Bulldogs attempts in the shootout.
"They have good goaltending now," Kyle said. "Racine has been really good for them. They're 3-0-1 in their last four. The kid has emerged as a goaltender. They're strong there."
Michigan, with its league-leading offense averaging 3.06 goals per game, also has the weapons to go with their new-found goaltending.
Sophomore forward Alex Guptil is leading the Wolverines - who also happen to have the worst-ranked defense in the CCHA giving up 3.44 goals per game - with 11 goals and 15 assists while senior forward A.J. Treais also has double-digit goals (11) and assists (12) for Berenson's team.
"They got the skill and I don't think they are really given the credit," Coreau said. "They're not the typical Michigan team. They didn't finish in the top five, but they still have (Lindsey) Sparks and Treais and they have some good guys.
On the blue line they have (Jon) Merrill and (Jacob) Trouba and (Luke) Moffie. They're all high-skilled guys who can put the puck in the net."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens