ST. PAUL, Minn. — For the final time as Michigan hockey players, senior forwards Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone stood up to leave the postgame press conference.
After mounting a 14-4-1 record in their last 19 games heading into the Frozen Four on Thursday night, the Wolverines lost, 4-3, to Notre Dame in heartbreaking fashion, allowing the shocking game-winning goal with just 5.2 seconds left in regulation.
As the puck left Fighting Irish forward Jake Evans’ stick and slipped through sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne’s blocker pads, so did Michigan’s chance at a 10th national championship.
A puffy-eyed Dancs and subdued Calderone — a Michigan hat shading his face from reporters — began to walk off the stage, and the college hockey scene. It was the last time the best friends represented the maize and blue, and maybe the last time playing hockey together, with Calderone signing a contract with the Dallas Stars Sunday night.
Before the seniors could leave, Michigan coach Mel Pearson, seated next to the players, rose to his feet and blocked the steps down from the stage.
First, he grabbed Dancs and pulled him in for a hug. Three slow pats to the back of the head, one to the back and a smack on the shoulder.
Then came his captain, Calderone. One hand on his back, the other on his head and then two taps on the back.
And then they left.
Pearson sat back down, let out a deep exhale and puffed out his cheeks. Then he began answering questions from the media. First, Pearson congratulated Notre Dame and coach Jeff Jackson. Then, he spoke about his seniors.
“I’m extremely proud of our team, especially our seniors,” Pearson said. “I thought as the game wore on there, we were starting to play. … Unfortunately, it was just a bad bounce there at the end.
“My only regret is I don’t have more time with the seniors. The seniors have been outstanding for us this year. And I wish I had them back for another few years.”
The impressive senior campaigns began during the first half of the year. Calderone, Dancs and junior forward Cooper Marody led the way for a struggling Wolverine offense. At that point, the “DMC” line accounted for almost 40 percent of Michigan’s total points on the season.
If the trio was connecting on all cylinders, the Wolverines won games. If they were off their game, the team faltered.
Halfway through the season, Michigan was 8-10-2, but Pearson continued to trust his veterans to pave the way to win and inspire their teammates.
“I think there’s always a little bit of a worry when you get a new coach,” Dancs said late Thursday night. “It’s easy for new coaches to come in and play the young guys and get things going. But Coach Pearson was so good to us seniors and … we really appreciated it, for everything (he’s) done for us.”
For their swan songs, Calderone and Dancs both posted career-highs in goals, assists and points. An All-Big Ten second-team honoree, Calderone ended as the top conference scorer with 25 goals, to go with 19 assists and 44 points. Dancs added 11 tallies and 15 helpers for 26 points.
Both contributed two goals and three assists in the NCAA Tournament, including the first two scores against Notre Dame, which helped open a 2-0 lead early in the second period.
Then there was senior defenseman Sam Piazza. The two-year alternate captain became the first Michigan player to earn Senior CLASS All-American honors since the award’s inception in 2006, recognizing an athlete who uses his “platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.” Piazza also provided a solid blueline presence, notching nine goals and 27 assists in 96 career games.
Defenseman Cutler Martin and forwards Niko Porikos and Alex Roos rounded out the six-person graduating class. This was a group handed the daunting task of playing under a new coach and steering a team of 17 underclassmen. They labored through matchups against Big Ten powerhouses and faced adversity during what was supposed to be a rebuilding season.
“They’ve been tremendous to our young players in that locker room,” Pearson said. “They’ve given us everything they have. And that’s all we ask of our players, just give us everything you have. Nothing more, nothing less.
“The seniors are not only good hockey players, they’re tremendous people, good students. They represent Michigan in the right way. And I’m very proud of those guys.”
Following Thursday night’s loss, in the hallowed underbelly of the Xcel Energy Center, the Wolverine dressing room was filled with slumped shoulders and bowed heads.
Suddenly, an emotional freshman stood and began to speak, according to Pearson. He thanked the seniors for taking him and many other rookies under their wings. He thanked them for accepting him as a part of the team, for welcoming him to the Michigan hockey family.
Calderone, Dancs and the rest of the upperclassmen began the season carrying the Wolverines. As if that wasn’t enough, it was what they did away from the ice — especially for the youngsters — that made a significant difference down the stretch.
Earlier in the season, the coaching staff emptied forward Dakota Raabe’s locker to send a message to the freshman about working harder on and off the ice. Highly-touted freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes had amassed a stretch of 24 scoreless games, his lone tally before Feb. 9 coming in Michigan’s season opener against St. Lawrence. The seemingly never-ending battle for the starting goaltender position kept a leader from emerging in net.
In the meantime, Calderone and the other seniors took control. They led by example. Though Calderone knew how to score, Pearson told him last April that he needed to improve his all-around commitment to the game of hockey. He needed skating, speed and conditioning if he truly wanted to play at the next level.
Calderone worked day in, day out to improve, and did. The effort was contagious.
As the back half of the season began, the underclassmen began to up their games. Raabe became a bright spot on the penalty kill, regularly the first skater down the ice to challenge an opponent’s power play unit. Hughes, a probable top-five pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, racked up four goals and nine assists in his last 12 games. Many others came to life during nail-biting games against formidable enemies.
Then there was Lavigne who won the starting job and became the Wolverines’ defensive backbone. After Thursday’s game, Calderone called him the team’s best player the second half of the year and a bedrock for Michigan’s program looking forward.
By the end of the season, the torch had been passed, the drive and determination trickled down to underclassmen. Just as Red Berenson had laid the foundation for Pearson to take over, so had Calderone and the seniors for the players who followed.
“Honestly, I think it might have been my favorite year of hockey in my life,” Calderone said. “I think being announced captain, just being a senior and getting to see some of these younger guys was truly special.
“Like Dexter said, we had so much fun this year on and off the ice, (it was) never a dull day coming to the rink. I want to thank Coach Pearson for that and the guys in that room. I think, we’re life-long friends and we’ll have each other forever.”
The friendships will last forever. And they may not have won the national championship, but Calderone, Dancs and all the skaters who laced up for the last time in Michigan colors have their fingerprints all over the team, their legacy ready to live on for years to come.
From the season’s start, it wasn’t a secret the Wolverines weren’t the best group of players in the country, and they accepted that.
“It wasn’t the most talented team I’ve had here in four years,” Dancs said, “but it was the best team and we just loved being around each other
The talent may not have always been there, but new leaders have since emerged. The third-youngest team in college hockey is now full of relative youth ready to take the next step in re-energizing the Michigan hockey culture and re-solidifying itself as one of the most storied programs in the nation.
With 5:25 left in the third period against Notre Dame, the line of freshmen forwards Jack Becker and Michael Pastujov and sophomore forward Nick Pastujov applied 45 seconds of pressure in the Fighting Irish zone. It was Michael Pastujov who hacked and whacked at the puck until it found its way into the back of the net to knot the game, 3-3.
It wasn’t Calderone or Dancs or another veteran. It was a freshman — and one who hadn’t seen consistent playing time until January. The moment personified the expectations for years to come — young players gaining experience in big moments and leading the team in the right direction.
“I think a lot of people, when they talk about us, (they) talk about how we lacked that depth,” Calderone said. “But the goal coming from Mike Pastujov like that, just shows that (we have depth). They’ve done it multiple times this year in the second half of the year we had all four lines going. And that’s what got us going.”
From 1991 to 2012, Michigan made 22 consecutive tournaments, an NCAA record that still stands. In that time, the Wolverines advanced to 11 Frozen Fours and captured two national championships, in 1996 and 1998.
But in Berenson’s last five seasons, Michigan failed to qualify for the tournament four times. After going 13-19-3 last season, the chances to return to the playoffs anytime soon, let alone in the first year of the Pearson Era, looked bleak.
This season’s late push and the unexpected tournament run positions the Wolverines in a positive light. With seniors and underclassmen forging the way for Michigan, the team isn’t the underdog anymore, but now a viable contender for next year’s title.
As Pearson sat with Dancs and Calderone, a choked-up, yet confident coach began the press conference with neither grief nor disappointment, instead beaming with pride for his players and a promising future.
“It’s good to be back here,” he said of the Frozen Four appearance. “Michigan will be back here again.”