ST. PAUL, Minn. — The adage goes, “You have to be good to be lucky.”
It’s unclear where it originated from, but that’s not really the point. Wherever it was first uttered, it might as well have came about specifically to describe the Michigan hockey team’s 2017-2018 season.
On Nov. 10, the Wolverines capped off what was then their biggest win of the nascent Mel Pearson era by erasing a three-goal deficit to take down Minnesota in overtime. The winning goal was a Will Lockwood laser that deflected off of senior forward Alex Roos’ helmet and into the net — a “good” rally with a “lucky” ending.
On Feb. 18, Michigan led No. 1 Notre Dame, 1-0, at Yost Ice Arena. With under a minute to play, Fighting Irish forward Andrew Oglevie pushed a shot behind sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne. The hockey gods themselves seemed to ensure the puck didn’t find twine, instead sending it all the way across the goalmouth and past the left post.
Lavigne made 35 mostly tremendous saves that day. If not for that lucky break, they might not have mattered at all. But he earned his good fortune, if you will.
The same thing happened in the NCAA Tournament Northeast Regional final. Boston’s Brandon Hickey whiffed at the puck in his zone, sophomore forward Jake Slaker snatched the loose change and rifled home a game-winning goal off a Terrier’s leg to send the Wolverines to St. Paul. Of course, Slaker’s hard-nosed forecheck at the end of a shift made it all possible.
No team gets to the Frozen Four entirely by sheer luck. On the flip side, no team gets to the Frozen Four without any of it.
Michigan exemplified that all season. But so did Notre Dame.
Coming into the Frozen Four, the Fighting Irish had won four straight games by scoring in the final minute or overtime. Sure, they were ranked No. 1 or No. 2 for basically the entire season and ran ragged through the Big Ten. But those kind of runs don’t just happen.
Something was going to have to give, though. There were going to be bounces and bloopers Thursday night, and they were going to go one way or the other.
At first, it was the Wolverines that profited from them. Mere moments into the second period, senior forward Dexter Dancs skated into the circle and threw a puck at the net. It hit off of the shoulder of Notre Dame defenseman Dennis Gilbert and into the net for a two-goal Michigan lead.
Probably not the way Dancs drew it up. But as anyone and everyone involved in hockey will tell you: get pucks to the net and good things will happen.
“I don’t even know what it went off of,” Dancs said. “I was just trying to get a shot through the defenseman. Luckily it went in.”
But it didn’t do much to change the fact that the Fighting Irish had been in total control until then. They had outshot the Wolverines, 7-4, to close the first period, and scored a power play goal in response just two minutes later.
It didn’t help that the bounces that had gone Michigan’s way at first had stopped coming. But Notre Dame thoroughly controlled the second period regardless.
“Our game plan was keep them off the power play,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “And we gave them a power play, and they were able to score on it.”
Single-elimination postseason hockey is a crapshoot, in no small part due to goaltending. The Wolverines began to seize momentum midway through the third period, their only real positive stretch other than the game’s first 10 minutes. But Morris was simply everywhere for the Fighting Irish, spreading out all across the crease and denying waves of grade-A chances.
Pretty much any goaltender can catch fire and carry his team through a game. But Morris is not just any goaltender. He’s the Big Ten Player of the Year and a Hobey Baker Award finalist, and Thursday was just another night at the office.
But with five minutes to play, freshman forward Mike Pastujov slashed one past Morris to tie the game at three. Pastujov had two golden opportunities denied in the previous 30 seconds alone.
Still, Pearson and his team were well aware of Notre Dame’s unbelievable success in the clutch. They had seen Jordan Gross’ overtime winner against Michigan Tech, were familiar with Dylan Malmquist’s clincher against Providence.
But how do you prepare to stop the luck of the Irish, even if you can almost sense it coming?
Michigan had a chance to win it in regulation, but the puck was knocked away with 12 seconds to go. Fighting Irish forward Cam Morrison took the stretch pass from his own zone, flew down the left flank and laced a pass into the middle.
Jake Evans was on the receiving end, tied to defenseman Quinn Hughes’ hip.
“Just a bad bounce there at the end.”
Evans got his stick on the puck, and it trickled under Lavigne’s pads and across the thin red line.
Twenty blue winged helmets slumped in unison.
On the bench, Pearson had already been thinking ahead to overtime. Now, in the blink of an eye, the season was over.
“Last goal we weren’t too concerned,” he said. “It was a basic two-on-two. I give them credit, they made a good play, drove it wide and just threw it across the crease. And they were able to get a stick on it.
“Tough way to lose. … I don’t know if there’s any easy way to lose.”
Fifteen minutes after the game, Dancs joined Pearson and Calderone in the belly of the Xcel Energy Center. Cheeks painted scarlet, he bit back tears to choke out some final words about his senior season.
“It wasn’t the most talented team I’ve had here in four years, but it was the best team,” he said. “… To see it end like that is obviously tough. But (Notre Dame is) a great team, and they’ve been great all year and hats off to them.”
Dancs is right. The Fighting Irish were the better team on Thursday night. They controlled the flow for longer stretches and Morris outplayed Lavigne in goal.
And in the end, they earned the break they needed to advance to the national championship.
Good, bad or unlucky? For the Wolverines, it hardly made a difference.
Shames can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.