ST PAUL, Minn. — It could be called “The Luck of the Irish.”
With 5.2 seconds remaining in regulation, Notre Dame forward Jake Evans pushed the puck five-hole past sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne to end the Michigan hockey team’s unexpected NCAA Tournament run right then and there.
But more than luck were inconsistencies in play throughout the national semifinal game that led to a 4-3 heartbreaking loss for the Wolverines on Thursday night at the Xcel Energy Center.
Michigan reached the Frozen Four on Lavigne’s solid goaltending, timely scoring from secondary players and an explosive first line of senior forwards Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone and junior forward Cooper Marody.
However, the story of the year for the Wolverines has been an inability to capitalize on the power play and step up on the penalty kill — ranked fourth-worst in the country, stopping just 75.33 percent of opponent’s man advantages. Michigan was unable to reverse the trends, leading to costly miscues and missed opportunities to put the game away for good.
With an extra week of preparation before the Frozen Four, Michigan coach Mel Pearson slowed down practice to specifically focus on special teams. Against a Fighting Irish power play that was successful on 22.83 percent of their opportunities, the Wolverines needed to be the aggressors to stifle chances.
After quickly killing a penalty just 34 seconds into the first period, it appeared Michigan’s Achilles heel was solved. After scoring two unanswered goals early, one from Dancs and another from Calderone, it appeared the Wolverines were in complete control.
But that was when Notre Dame began to strike. After a two-minute holding penalty to junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi, Fighting Irish forward Andrew Oglevie unloaded a slapshot from the point that passed Lavigne to cut Michigan’s lead in half and breathe life into a dormant Notre Dame offense.
“Our game plan was to keep them off the power play,” Calderone said. “And we gave them a power play and they were able to score on it. … They made some big plays and more power to them.”
Minutes later, with both teams down a man and four-on-four play, Evans found open space between the circles with no maize and blue sweaters in sight and fired a one-timer into the back of the net to knot the game at two goals apiece.
“We’ve been much better lately,” Pearson said. “(Senior defenseman Sam Piazza) blocked that shot, so we had to recover because he on the ice. That opened some things up and they had a seeing-eye shot there.”
After relinquishing a third straight Fighting Irish tally at the beginning of the third period, the Wolverines found themselves in a do-or-die situation, pressing to tie the game and keep their tournament journey afloat.
With 8:15 to go in the final frame, Michigan had its opening. Handed their third power play opportunity of the evening, following a Notre Dame hooking penalty, the Wolverines had a chance to respond.
But for a team that has struggled mightily with the man advantage all season long, ranked 33rd in the nation with an 18.37 percent success rate, Michigan couldn’t answer. A forceful Fighting Irish penalty kill squashed all the Wolverines’ chances to advance to the national championship game against Minnesota-Duluth.
“I thought we had a couple of decent chances but their penalty kill is great and their goalie is phenomenal,” Marody said. “It’s tough to beat and unfortunately, we didn’t get one by them today.”
Added Pearson: “We’ve got to get better with that next year, there’s no doubt about it. And we will.”
Michigan may get better on special teams next season, but at this point, it doesn’t really matter.
Goals from Calderone and Dancs helped the Wolverines take the lead early, just as the “DMC” line has done all season. Twenty-five saves on 29 shots from Lavigne kept Michigan in the game late. A goal from freshman forward Michael Pastujov with 5:22 remaining gave the Wolverines a last chance.
But Thursday night, it wasn’t enough to propel Michigan to the national championship game. Season-long problems again haunted the Wolverines and this time, it ended their season for good. What looked like a game Michigan had for the taking slowly turned into a repeat of the struggles seen all year.
The lucky bounce at the game’s end wasn’t the deciding factor. It was what came before that.