DETROIT — When the Michigan hockey team squared off against N0. 9 Notre Dame in the CCHA Championship on Sunday, 22 years of history were on the line.
The Wolverines would either win and make a 23rd-consecutive NCAA Tournament, or lose and go home.
And the CCHA’s final Championship game at Joe Louis Arena didn’t disappoint. It was either tied or a one-goal game until the final minute. But Michigan (11-15-3 CCHA, 18-18-3 overall) couldn’t overcome the Fighting Irish’s constant pressure and its own inability to get shots on net, falling 3-1. For the first time since 1990, the Wolverines will not be playing in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines started out Sunday’s game like it ended a day earlier, when it bombarded No. 3 Miami (Ohio), 6-2, by dominating the play and controlling the puck in Notre Dame territory. But after the first shift was over, the Wolverines rarely controlled the puck again. The Fighting Irish (17-8-3, 24-12-3) used a strong forecheck to keep the play deep in Michigan’s zone, and dominated the first period with 18 shots compared to the Wolverines’ 6 — a trend that would plague them all game.
Freshman goaltender Steve Racine bailed out the Michigan defensemen on more than one occasion, and just when it seemed like Notre Dame might finally get on the board during a late power play, the game decided to take a different path.
The Wolverines got a steal at their own blue line, going on a 3-on-2 rush. After freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba, senior forward Kevin Lynch and sophomore forward Derek DeBlois bounced the puck around the crease, DeBlois knocked it home. This was the second-straight game that Michigan opened up the game’s scoring with a short-handed goal.
Despite being outplayed and outhustled for almost the entirety of the first 20 minutes, the Wolverines managed to take a 1-0 lead into the first intermission.
“We knew we could play better than we played in the first and we escaped the first period and we just had to play better in the second,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “I thought penalties really kept us on our heels in the second period, but we were fine.”
The momentum wasn’t enough, though. The combination of Notre Dame’s constant offensive pressure and Michigan’s inability to stay out of the penalty box — it spent six of the period’s 20 minutes in the box — allowed the Fighting Irish to even up the score at one on an Anders Lee goal, who has had a lot of success against the Wolverines this year.
When Michigan was swept by Notre Dame on Feb. 8 and 9, Lee finished the weekend with three goals and two assists. And the trio of Jeff Costello, Lee, and Bryan Rust have been one of the most prolific lines in the entire CCHA, finishing the season with a combined 98 points.
After two periods, the Fighting Irish had tallied an impressive 28 shots, compared to Michigan’s 10. Notre Dame led the CCHA in scoring with 3.21 goals per game this season, and the constant peppering of Racine showed why. The Fighting Irish finished the game with 33 shots on net, which is the highest total the Wolverines have given up throughout their tournament run.
“They had a good cycle going against us (on offense),” said senior defenseman Lee Moffie. “They’re a physical team and they’re a big team, and they really pushed us in our zone and that was the big issue. We were having a hard time d’ing up on them and stopping their cycle.”
But 21 seconds into the third period, the Wolverines luck ran out. Racine let a rebound get away from him, and Notre Dame’s T.J. Tynan buried it, giving the Fighting Irish a one-goal advantage.
Though Michigan picked up the intensity following the Notre Dame’s go-ahead goal, the Wolverines couldn’t find that last-minute tally. With 1:07 left, Racine was headed towards the bench for a six-on-five, and Notre Dame turned a turnover at mid-ice into an easy empty-net goal to secure the victory.
“I thought our team would bounce back in the third and they tried,” Berenson said. “Goals were precious tonight and you knew there wouldn’t be many of them, and giving up that early (third-period) goal was a tough one and we just couldn’t get that back.”
The NCAA Tournament Selection Show is Sunday night, and though Michigan finished the season with an impressive nine-game unbeaten streak, the loss to Notre Dame all but eliminated it from one of the few at-large bids.
Now, on Sunday, the Wolverines Cinderella run through an impressive CCHA has ended.