CINCINNATI — The buzzer sounded at U.S. Bank Arena on the Michigan hockey team’s season-ending loss to North Dakota, and like after every game, the Wolverines emptied off the bench to give Steve Racine a helmet-to-mask tap before getting in line to shake the opposing team’s hands.
While every Michigan player gave Racine a tap, he didn’t move, seemingly frozen in time. Racine’s head hung down. His body stood still.
But after the game Michigan played, against the opponent that it played, there is no reason for Racine to hang his head.
Yes, the Wolverines season ended, and yes, Racine’s career at Michigan was over, but North Dakota was the better team on the ice.
While the Wolverines gave a valiant effort, the Fighting Hawks were just too much to handle.
And they knew that early on, too.
“After all our first shifts (we knew),” said senior forward Boo Nieves. “They were hitting us, they were getting shots on net, and we couldn’t get out of our zone,”
Added Racine: “I think (I knew) about a minute in. Their pace in the game was way faster than any game we’ve played so far this year.”
And if it wasn’t clear to anyone watching, the shot totals after the first period were 24-8 — a definitive indication of North Dakota’s dominance.
The problem, though, wasn’t lack of effort by Michigan. The Fighting Hawks were just too good.
Not only does North Dakota have the second highest scoring line in the nation in forward Brock Boeser, Nick Schmaltz and Drake Caggiula, they also have a goaltender who boasts the second-longest shutout streak in NCAA history as well as a relentless defense that allowed freshman phenom Kyle Connor little room to operate all night.
Combining all that, the odds were stacked against the Wolverines.
And to add to that, Michigan played three and a half periods of a close hockey game the night before, while the Fighting Hawks cruised to a blowout victory.
But despite that, the Wolverines went into the break down by only a goal, spirits unbroken.
“After the first period, coach Powers came in and said ‘Hey, that’s the best they’ve got. We’ve survived that period,’ ” Nieves said.
And while it might’ve been the best the Fighting Hawks had, they were able to keep their play consistently at that level for three full periods.
In the second period, the tide started to turn for Michigan as it tied the game. But a bad giveaway by the Wolverines with 45 seconds left in the period gave North Dakota the lead right back.
Even after one of Michigan’s strongest defensive performances, if not its best, the scoreboard still favored North Dakota after two periods — another sign that maybe the Wolverines were overmatched.
Of course, Michigan kept it close, even tying the game 8:39 into the third period.
But North Dakota was relentless. Its forecheck worked even harder, and it continued to pepper shots at Michigan’s net.
And while Michigan boasts four lines that can score at any time, North Dakota let its four lines do its talking, especially in the third period.
The Fighting Hawks got goals from forward Rhett Gardner, a second-line winger, and forward Coltyn Sanderson, a third-line center, to grab hold of the lead for good.
“I don’t think they have any player on their team — four lines and six (defenseman) — that wouldn’t be first liners on any other team,” Racine said. “They’re a heck of a team. You have to tip your hat to them. They had a great game.”
There just wasn’t a lot Michigan could do.
“There have been some players that we’ve seen (that have been able to skate with us), but not collectively as a team, and I think that’s something that definitely killed us,” Nieves said. “We’re not used to playing teams that are as fast or faster than us.
“Speed kills, and if you’re not skating faster than the other team, then they’re going to control the puck.”
After the game, a popular topic of conversation in the press box was which Michigan players would leave early for the NHL.
But for the players who come back, the season-ending loss will make an impact heading into next season.
“I’m jealous of them,” said senior forward Justin Selman. “They are going to have the opportunity to know what it takes now. I never got that experience until this year of knowing how hard tournament games are and what these games mean.
“Hopefully this lights a fire under their butt, and they get a crack at these guys next year.”
Maybe they’ll be the better team next year. But for now, Michigan should have no regrets following its NCAA Tournament exit.
Because after winning the Big Ten Tournament, after defeating Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and after going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country for two-plus periods, the Wolverines have nothing to hang their heads over.
They were simply beat by a better team.
Minh Doan can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or on Twitter @_minhdoan.