WORCESTER, Mass. — When Mel Pearson was introduced as the coach of the Michigan hockey team on April 24, 2017, he compared it to being given the keys to the prized family car.
“The car is in great shape,” Pearson said then. “It’s got a great engine, the body looks fantastic. We might have to make a couple of repairs here this summer — minor, minor repairs. And then we’re going to get that car ready to go on the road.
“And come September, that car is headed in one direction. And that direction is St. Paul, Minnesota.”
Prior to the 2017-2018 season, St. Paul — the location of the 2018 Frozen Four — might as well have been the moon for the Wolverines. They had won just 13 games in Red Berenson’s final year and were preparing to go into the year with the third-youngest roster in the nation. Their predicted finish of sixth, via the Big Ten Preseason Coaches’ Poll, was a product of those factors.
Boston University, on the other hand, received a No. 2 ranking in the USCHO preseason poll and possessed a deep, talent-loaded roster with 12 NHL draftees.
So you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody at that point who thought that these two teams would be meeting on Sunday in Worcester, Mass., with a spot in the Frozen Four on the line.
And yet, with a 6-3 win over the Terriers (22-14-4 overall) at the DCU Center, Michigan clinched its 25th all-time appearance in the national semifinal, and first since 2011.
Much of the game was marked by alternating stretches of dominant and embarrassing play for Michigan (22-14-3) — the Wolverines would play to the fullest of their potential before committing just about every gaffe in the book.
“We got lucky, we got lucky,” Pearson said. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but we were good and lucky. We were fortunate, but we’ll take it.”
This theme began right after the initial face-off, which junior forward Cooper Marody won from Jordan Greenway. Marody’s “DMC” line with senior forwards Tony Calderone and Dexter Dancs then controlled the puck in the Boston zone for the entirety of the game’s first minute.
Five minutes in, however, Michigan had yet to register a shot. Quinn Hughes would change that in a hurry. Taking possession in his defensive zone, he broke across center-ice and dashed through multiple Terriers before being stripped. The Wolverines regained the puck, however, and worked it back around to the freshman defenseman, who caught twine with a laser from the high slot area.
But Michigan let the Terriers right back into the game thanks to a turnover at the edge of its defensive zone, which Boston forward Brady Tkachuk grabbed. Tkachuk laid the puck off to Greenway, whose shot snuck just under the bar with 7:43 left in the period.
Three minutes later, the Wolverines took advantage of a Terrier interference penalty with a well-worked power play, which culminated in Calderone’s wide-open shot from the right slot beating Jake Oettinger. But just as soon after, Michigan nearly gave it right back.
Sophomore forward Jake Slaker took down a Terrier from behind with an arm tackle, but instead, it was Boston’s Logan Cockerill who went to the box for holding. Maybe the Wolverines felt guilty about taking advantage of an apparently obvious missed call, or maybe they felt it wasn’t quite time to pull away. Whatever it was, the Terriers dominated Michigan with their penalty kill, and nearly scored themselves when Greenway forced a neutral-zone turnover and forced Lavigne into making a save on the breakaway.
All in all, though, the Wolverines surely couldn’t complain with a one-goal lead at the first intermission. But they wasted no time in adding to it. Two minutes into the second period, freshman forward Josh Norris fired a cannon from outside the slot, ramming the puck off the back wall. However, the rebound bounced off of Oettinger’s pads and bounced from one side of the net to the other, giving junior forward Brendan Warren a point-blank tap-in and Michigan a 3-1 lead.
Halfway through the period, the tide began to turn, thanks to both Boston’s supreme talent and the Wolverines’ mistakes. Lavigne was late in moving from his left post to his right, and Patrick Curry snuck a wraparound goal behind him, a rare soft goal for Michigan’s normally solid netminder.
A flood of Wolverine turnovers and close shaves followed. If the previous ten minutes displayed a well-oiled, cohesive outfit, what ensued was Michigan at its shakiest — desperate, undisciplined and error-prone.
The Wolverines escaped the period up 3-2. But the shakiness that plagued them reared its ugly head once again with 16:30 to play. Greenway intercepted junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi’s absent-minded pass right in front of the crease, and Drew Melanson jumped on the loose puck and deked out Lavigne to the right to tie the game.
Michigan was bailed out three minutes later — by a Boston blunder, of all things. Brandon Hickey whiffed on a pass on the edge of the defensive zone and fell backwards. On the forecheck, Slaker picked up the puck, skated into the middle of the zone and zipped one into the nylon to push the Wolverines back in front.
“It was at the end of the shift so I was pretty tired, I was kind of looking for a change and I saw the puck squirt free kind of in the slot,” Slaker said. “I saw that (Boston) was kind of out of reach of it, so I just tried to push it past them and shoot cross-body… Coach reiterated, get pucks on net all year and good things happen.”
With just under four minutes to play, Dancs carried the puck down the right flank with Nicholas Boka streaking into the slot. Dancs took his time and beat the Terrier defenders with his centering pass. Boka caught the puck on his left, swerved his stick around Oettinger and deposited it into the back of the net.
The all-important insurance goal — the junior defenseman’s first of the season — put Michigan up 5-3. Shortly after, sophomore forward Nick Pastujov fired from his own zone toward the recently-emptied Boston net for a three-goal lead.
“We’ve seen some crazy stuff happen,” Calderone said. “We’ve come back from four-goal deficits, so I think we just needed to play until we heard that buzzer.”
One minute and 40 seconds later, the Wolverines heard that buzzer, and it all set in.
“Things went in for us tonight,” Pearson said. “But you have to be ready and you have to play and we were very fortunate and we got some bounces. The hockey gods were looking down on us tonight, no doubt about it.”
Michigan needed its share of lucky bounces and fortunate breaks on Sunday. Pearson said it himself.
But the prized family car has reached its destination.