CINCINNATI — Tyler Motte went down the line, shaking the hands of the men who had just ended his season. When he finished, he watched his team begin exiting the rink.
But the junior forward went in the opposite direction. He went past the bench and buried the toe of his stick in the ice between the two circles Michigan had been defending in the third period. He left his helmet on, put his hands on the butt end of his stick and just stared off into the distance.
Maybe he was wondering what could have been. But more likely than that, he just wasn’t ready for it to end. Motte spent a couple minutes prolonging the inevitable, but eventually he retired to the locker room, forced to accept that his season was over.
In the end, No. 2 seed Michigan ran out of comebacks. The clock hit zero, and the Wolverines couldn’t preserve their season any longer. They lost, 5-2, to No. 1 seed North Dakota in the Midwest Regional final of the NCAA Tournament.
“We think we need to do three things in these big games,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “One, you need goalkeeping. Two, you need to put your chances in. And three, you need to check the other team’s best players. I thought we did one of those three — and it was goalkeeping.”
There were glimpses of the game when Michigan looked like it was going to need a flight to Tampa, Fla.
Michigan (25-8-5) came firing right out the gate in the first period, but its momentum was stolen quickly.
After winning the opening faceoff, freshman forward Kyle Connor set up Motte with a point-blank chance on a 2-on-1. Motte had the door shut on him, and things started to decline for Michigan from there.
North Dakota (32-6-4) matched Michigan’s pace with a faster one of its own. And it didn’t take long for that to create problems. The Wolverines were effective defensively, but they were also put on their heels as North Dakota dominated the offensive possession.
Though the statistics didn’t originally align with Michigan’s performance, eventually the numbers started to tell the story of the Fighting Hawks’ dominance. They ended with a 24-8 shot advantage after the first period.
For the majority of the frame, the Wolverines looked capable of weathering the storm until intermission. Time just ran out on them.
With 1:06 remaining in the frame, North Dakota defenseman Troy Stecher forced senior forward Boo Nieves to turn the puck over at Michigan’s offensive blue line. Stecher fed Drake Caggiula, who caught sophomore defenseman Cutler Martin on a line change.
Senior goaltender Steve Racine turned away Caggiula’s first shot, but was beat on the rebound — giving North Dakota a one-goal advantage headed into the break.
Then Michigan found an answer from its junior captain.
With 5:33 off the clock in the second period, JT Compher collected a puck from Motte along the right boards. He carried it across the top of the circle to the point and sniped the top shelf with a sea of players in front of net.
With 45 seconds left to play, Compher attempted to clear the puck through the middle of the ice with a backhand. North Dakota forward Luke Johnson picked off the pass easily, and he punished the Wolverines for their captain’s rare mistake.
Yet Michigan had one more comeback left, and it came out looking rejuvenated to begin the final frame. The Wolverines looked like the antithesis of the team that played a late overtime game the night before, and they finally had the benefit of their first full power play of the game at the 13:47 mark.
As the two minutes with a man advantage started waning away, it looked like North Dakota would avoid any danger and kill the penalty with ease. The Fighting Hawks weren’t allowing the Wolverines to set up their power play, and things were looking bleak.
It only took one chance, though. Michigan established formation and rotated the puck until it landed on Compher’s stick. The Wolverine captain fired and found the back of the net to even the game at two.
“JT gave us as good of leadership as we had in a long time at Michigan,” Berenson said. “When the game is on the line and we were behind, it was JT Compher that kept getting us back in the game. His will is tremendous.”
But that was the closest the Wolverines would come to the Frozen Four.
Less than 90 seconds later, Rhett Gardner added another to North Dakota’s total with a shot from the point, before the Fighting Hawks notched a fourth.
And finally, after Racine abandoned the net, came the fifth — an empty-netter from Paul LaDue that snuck narrowly inside the right post and simultaneously pulled the plug on Michigan’s season.
The comebacks ended in Cincinnati. And Motte was just left there, with his stick in the ice.