Michigan seals semifinal berth, likely NCAA Tournament bid with 7-4 win
The chanting began with 17 minutes to play in the third period.
Michigan sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce lasered a shot from the left point past Jack Berry, giving the Wolverines a three-goal lead. “Be-rry, Be-rry, Be-rry,” the Children of Yost taunted the Wisconsin goaltender, who had allowed six goals off 22 shots for a ghastly .727 save percentage. Later in the period, the jeers returned — “You suck!” followed by an obscenity.
With four minutes to play, Berry was gone. The Badgers pulled him in favor of an empty net, sacrificing their last line of defense for a desperate chance at the two goals that would have extended their season.
The Children’s chants kept coming. But the goals didn’t.
With a 7-4 victory Saturday at Yost Ice Arena, the Wolverines (20-13-3 overall, 11-10-3 Big Ten) not only clinched a semifinal date with No. 6 Ohio State next week, but also all but punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament in coach Mel Pearson’s debut season.
Wisconsin (14-19-4, 8-13-3) opened the scoring just 23 seconds after the initial puck drop when forward Ryan Wagner slipped around junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi and fired just above sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne’s right shoulder. But Michigan was quick with a response.
Four minutes and 18 seconds into the game, Badger forward Trent Frederic was knocked off the puck in his own zone, the loose change bouncing to Dexter Dancs in the high slot. On Friday, the senior forward hit the pipe deep in the third period with the Wolverines up one, missing a chance to potentially seal the game. Dancs made no such mistake this time, snapping a wrister into the upper-left corner to equalize.
The rest of the period trended in Michigan’s direction. With 6:19 remaining, sophomore forward Nick Pastujov found Jack Becker with a line-drive pass from the right wing, and the freshman forward’s eighth goal of the season gave the Wolverines a 2-1 lead that stood until intermission. It could have been more — just 30 seconds prior, sophomore forward Adam Winborg’s tip off a point shot was disallowed after official review.
In the second period, it was Michigan’s turn for a first-minute goal. A hard-nosed forecheck effort by junior forward Brendan Warren led to an attacking opportunity, but Wisconsin defenseman Peter Tischke cleared it inches in front of the line. Tischke was merely delaying the inevitable, though — the rebound bounced outside to freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes, and Warren finished what he had started by tipping Hughes’ point shot past Berry.
However, the Wolverines were unable to make it four straight goals, as the next 19 minutes were effectively played on a seesaw. Six minutes into the period, Badger forward Linus Weissbach shot just wide from the point, but Lavigne left his left post open and Cameron Hughes took advantage off the rebound to make it 3-2.
Twenty-six seconds later, Michigan came roaring back. Senior forward Niko Porikos jumped on a turnover in the Wisconsin zone and bolted down the left flank, with Cecconi and freshman forward Dakota Raabe joining him on a three-on-one. Four flicks of the stick later — Porikos to Cecconi to Porikos to Raabe to the net — the Wolverines were back in front by two.
“I’ve talked about that a lot, our secondary scoring — we’ve got more guys contributing which we need,” Pearson said. “And I think that’s part of the success of the second half, that’s why we’ve won, whatever it is, 12 games second half of the year. But we’re getting more contributions from more players. We put a couple guys in tonight, we won a game, we were able to slot two guys in tonight. Porikos does a nice job on the one goal, makes a great play to Raabe.”
Wisconsin replied halfway through the period, as its top line continued to match Michigan blow for blow. Wagner found Frederic all by himself in the middle of the slot, and Frederic’s shot hissed past Lavigne’s glove.
The two teams held serve for almost the entire remainder of the period. But “almost” wasn’t enough for the Badgers — on a two-on-one with seven seconds to go in the period, Dancs, who opened the scoring, fired home the eventual game-winner to put the Wolverines up, 5-3.
“To be honest, I didn’t know there was seven seconds left on the clock,” Dancs said. “We were in the middle of a shift, and I just shot and it went in, and it was a good goal.”
Wisconsin forward Matthew Freytag added a garbage goal in front of the net with 4:42 to play, forcing Michigan to keep its feet glued to the gas pedal. The situation was reminiscent of so many that took place down the stretch of the season, where Pearson has constantly stressed the importance of learning to play with a lead.
“I was never comfortable in the game,” Pearson said. “Even when it was 6-4, I was never comfortable until that last goal, then you could breathe a sigh of relief. That’s just the way the game was. They’ve got so many dangerous players, you give them a little bit of room or time or space, they make plays and they can score.”
But Lavigne was never seriously threatened, needing to make only one save. And with 18 seconds left, sophomore forward Jake Slaker chipped home the empty-net clincher, allowing Pearson and the Wolverines to breathe easy.
Michigan was able to exhale in a larger sense, too. With the win, the Wolverines maintained their position at No. 8 in the Pairwise Rankings, far beyond the precarious influence of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Their season is basically ensured to continue, regardless of whether or not they fall to the Buckeyes next weekend.
“Well, I hope so,” Pearson said. “I don’t know where we’re at, but we’ve got a goal of winning the Big Ten championship. We’re trying to get as far as we can and then let the chips turn and fall where they may. We know that if we just continue to win, we’ll be in great shape.”
Of course, winning the Big Ten championship would automatically put Michigan in the tournament — no ifs, ands or buts about it.
And the Wolverines — after winning just 13 games last year, their lowest since 1987, after being picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in a loaded Big Ten, after languishing in the high-20s in Pairwise as late as mid-January — are now just two games away from doing so.
“We’re playing really good hockey right now,” Slaker said. “We have six games left to win a national championship. We’re not looking too far ahead, we’re just going to focus on the next game.”