The Michigan hockey team’s Senior Night officially took place last Saturday against Arizona State. After the Wolverines closed the regular season with a 5-3 victory over the Sun Devils, the sellout crowd at Yost Ice Arena honored the six-man senior class — forwards Tony Calderone, Dexter Dancs, Alex Roos and Niko Porikos, along with defensemen Sam Piazza and Cutler Martin.
Traditionally, Senior Night marks the last time that a graduating class plays in its own arena in front of its own fans. But that wasn’t the case this year.
One week after the festivities, Michigan was back at Yost — this time to take on Wisconsin in a best-of-three quarterfinal series of the Big Ten Tournament. With two straight wins, the Wolverines advanced to the semifinals, where a road trip to No. 6 Ohio State awaits.
Saturday’s 7-4 triumph over the Badgers was, in all likelihood, Michigan’s last game at Yost this season — only a Wolverine win in Columbus, coupled with a Penn State victory over Notre Dame in the other semifinal, would change that. However, there was no official tribute, no large-scale displays of gratitude, no post-game tears at center-ice — after all, you can only say goodbye so many times before its significance is diluted.
Instead, this weekend’s series felt like an encore from Michigan’s seniors — a show of thanks to their fans, their program and their university, giving them one final moment to remember them by.
Calderone and Dancs, first-line mainstays all season, scored the game-winning goals on Friday and Saturday, respectively, and led the way with six of the Wolverines’ 13 goals. Piazza and Porikos added crucial assists both nights as well.
“Really happy for our seniors,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “If this is our last game at Yost, which it might be, good way to go out.”
Calderone, in particular, saved his best for last. The Wolverines’ leading scorer found the net a career-high four times in Friday’s win, striking in every way possible.
A searing one-timer from junior forward Cooper Marody off an odd-man rush. A close-range redirection of freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes’ shot from the point into the net. Another one-timer off a gorgeous feed from Hughes. And to cap it off, a garbage goal after a rebound off the goaltender’s pads, giving Michigan a 6-5 lead that it would hold for the rest of the game.
“He’s a shooter, he’s a scorer,” Pearson said. “I’m so happy for him. You want your seniors to have your best year and he’s far exceeded my expectations. He’s not done and we’re not done.”
While Piazza and Porikos didn’t light the lamp themselves, they were integral in the buildup to two of the Wolverines’ prettiest goals not just of the weekend, but the entire season.
During a power play in Friday’s first period, Piazza received the puck on the left circle with no Badger in his vicinity. With oceans of space, Piazza sliced the Wisconsin penalty kill wide open, firing a pass across the slot to an open Jake Slaker for the game-tying goal.
A day later, Porikos won the puck after a neutral zone giveaway and burst down the left wing. Porikos, along with junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi, freshman forward Dakota Raabe and sophomore forward Adam Winborg, bore down on Badger defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk at full speed. The resulting “tic-tac-toe” goal — Porikos-Cecconi-Porikos-Raabe — belonged in the Louvre.
And then there was Dancs, the oft-overlooked member of the high-scoring “DMC” top line, with just 22 points on the season compared to Marody and Calderone’s 44 and 39, respectively.
No one would be able to ignore the North Vancouver, B.C. native’s presence on Saturday, however. He made that clear with a wrister from the high slot four minutes into the game to tie the score at one apiece. And another wrist shot on a two-on-one with just seven seconds remaining in the second period took Michigan to the intermission riding all the momentum.
Guess who assisted on both goals? None other than Calderone.
“It’s really special, obviously Tony’s night last night was incredible and he had another great night tonight,” Dancs said. “He’s been my best friend for four years now, and we’ve played together for pretty much our whole time here. So for him to get the assist on those goals, it’s pretty special and will be something to talk about for our whole lives.”
As the Wolverines’ seniors skated off the ice after the final horn, the poignant realization that they had likely done so for the last time had yet to hit home.
“Last weekend, senior night was sad, and this weekend was all business and stuff, try not to think about it, I’m sure,” Dancs said Saturday. “Tonight and tomorrow, the seniors will talk about it and it will kind of sink in, but we’re enjoying it right now.”
And courtesy of Michigan’s senior class, there’s a lot to enjoy.
It’s a group that has been through just about everything in four seasons. As role players just finding their way in college hockey, they came oh-so-close to the NCAA Tournament their freshman season, losing in the Big Ten Tournament championship to Minnesota. A year later, they would get their revenge on the Golden Gophers in the title game, helping the Wolverines return to the NCAA Tournament after a four-year drought.
As juniors, they endured the malaise of Michigan’s worst season in 30 years, despite playing more prominent roles than ever — Calderone led the team with 15 goals, while Piazza led all defensemen with 14 points en route to being named the Wolverines’ only All-Big Ten honoree.
This season was supposed to be one of transition. With a first-year head coach and young talent such Hughes, Slaker, Josh Norris and Will Lockwood continuing to grow and develop, the upperclassmen were expected to bridge the gap and impart their wisdom on the youthful Wolverines in hopes of building an eventual juggernaut under Pearson.
Instead, they took the reins, leading Michigan to 12 wins in its last 16 games and an all-but-guaranteed NCAA Tournament bid.
“They’ve had some struggles here and they’ve had some good moments here also,” Pearson said. “Really happy for them. You need your seniors to be your leaders. … Those guys have really stepped up so good for them and good for us, we need them.”
The seniors’ time at Yost is probably over. But with a dominant performance in their final appearance, their legacy is secure.
Oh yeah, a second Big Ten championship — and maybe more — is still very much in play.
“It’s been an awesome ride here at Yost,” Dancs said. “Sad that it’s coming to an end, but … I love the team we have right now, we’re really hot, so we’re having a lot of fun right now and we’re going to try to keep going.”