ST. PAUL, Minn. — Wolverines’ coach Mel Pearson has said throughout the season that the name of the game is speed and grit.
The Michigan hockey team lived up to Pearson’s image for the team, but it would be Notre Dame that would emerge on top, as forward Jake Evans found the back of the net with 5.2 seconds remaining to send the Fighting Irish to the National Championship with a 4-3 victory.
“They drove wide and just threw it across the crease and they were able to get a stick on it,” Pearson said. “And tough way to lose. It’s never easy to lose. … From the bench it didn’t look like it was going to amount to much. I thought we were going into overtime.”
Even before puck drop, it was clear that the second-seeded Wolveirnes’ high-output, shifty offense would clash with No. 1 Notre Dame’s (17-6-1 Big Ten, 28-9-2 overall) juggernaut of a back line.
And Ohio State’s unpredicted loss at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth in the other semifinal matchup just an hour prior proved that playoff hockey is anyone’s game.
At the outset of Michigan’s (11-10-3, 22-15-3) 25th Frozen Four appearance, junior forward Cooper Marody drew a whistle 34 seconds in for hooking to send the early momentum in the Fighting Irish’s favor.
After some dangerous looks at sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne that yielded no fruit, it was evident that the Fighting Irish’s plethora of two-way players — exemplified by Evans, who had 11 goals and a team-high 31 assists prior to the semifinal — were giving the Wolverine skaters considerable trouble.
But Michigan didn’t hold back either. Freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes drove down the ice with electric dangles and delivered a pass through the crease that just missed its mark.
But the Wolverines’ speed was the first to take the upper hand, as senior forward Tony Calderone drove into the slot to fire a shot past Cale Morris — who has a nation leading save-percentage at .945 — for the first tally of the game 8:19 into the first period.
While Michigan continued to beat the Notre Dame defensemen with an aggressive forecheck and speed down the left side of the ice, the Fighting Irish kept generating odd-man rushes that all ended in acrobatic saves from Lavigne.
With Morris and Lavigne both notching nine saves in the first, there wasn’t much that differentiated both teams, only further securing the fact that the game would be won with sweat and, for one team, tears.
However, 17 seconds into the second period, senior forward Dexter Dancs disturbed that equality by firing a shot that ricocheted off Fighting Irish defenseman Dennis Gilbert up and over Morris’ glove to give the Wolverines a two-goal lead.
“Yeah, Coach Muckalt always says put pucks on the net,” Dancs said. “I don’t know what it went off of. I was just trying to get a shot through the defensemen. And it went in. Luckily it went in.”
Notre Dame quickly retaliated twice, once on the man-advantage. After a holding penalty from junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi, Fighting Irish center Andrew Oglevie let one fly from near the blue line that snuck past Lavigne to cut the Notre Dame deficit to one.
Evans subsequently found the equalizer at two apiece on a four-on-four one-timer off a dish from defenseman Jordan Gross. The Fighting Irish’s pressure — highlighted by its nine shots less than eight minutes into the second — was bound to yield something, and its best offensive performer simply lit the fuse.
“I think our game plan was to keep them off the power play,” Calderone said. “ … They played really well throughout the whole thing I can’t say if we relaxed too much, they made some big plays.”
Outshooting Michigan, 15-7, in the second that returned two tallies, the Fighting Irish unmistakably won the second frame. But at the same time, the Wolverines dominated the first.
With the contest tied at two heading into the third period, it would be Notre Dame that would take the initial upper hand in the third, as forward Cal Burke drove down the left flank and snuck the puck past Lavigne’s left skate to give the Fighting Irish their first lead of the night, 3-2.
“Once we got behind, you saw the desperation that we needed to play with right from the start,” Pearson said.
But Michigan had its chance to reclaim the deficit on a power play 8:15 into the period on a hooking call on Notre Dame forward Jack Jenkins but couldn’t seem to find its way past Morris on multiple dangerous chances.
And just as hopes began to dwindle, freshman forward Michael Pastujov answered the Wolverines’ prayers, as he punched the puck in off a scrum in front of the net with 5:22 remaining in regulation.
“Yeah, it shows our depth,” Calderone said. “I think a lot of people, when they talk about us, talk about how we lack that depth, but a goal coming from Mike Pastujov like that just shows that … in the second half of the year we had all four lines going and that’s what got us here.”
In the end, though, just as postseason hockey games go, all it takes is one slim chance. Evans just happened to be the one to get that chance.