BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — One by one, members of the Michigan hockey team filed out of the locker room, their faces blank and emotionless.
The team was shell-shocked. After Friday’s 2-0 loss to Air Force in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines didn’t immediately seem to grasp the concept of a season-ending defeat.
But the Falcons certainly understood the idea of an underdog victory, their first tournament win in program history. As the final buzzer sounded, they stormed onto the ice toward junior goalie Andrew Volkening, who had just posted his third straight shutout.
And Michigan’s fourth shutout loss of the season encapsulated many aspects of its up-and-down year.
The inconsistent play of sophomore goalie Bryan Hogan was at the forefront. He had been solid throughout most of the season, but he collapsed against Notre Dame in a 5-2 CCHA Tournament championship loss on March 21. In the Wolverines’ final 97:50 of play this year, Hogan gave up seven goals — while his teammates couldn’t find the back of the net once.
Like in Friday’s contest, the team struggled to find constant sources of offense all season.
Multi-line scoring was the Wolverines’ mantra, and it worked for a while. They even found success for two periods against Notre Dame last weekend — their two-goal lead came from their first and fourth lines.
But despite outshooting Air Force by 30 shots Friday, Michigan came up empty. It tallied 43 shots on Volkening. It dominated time of possession, even posting a stretch of almost four minutes where the puck didn’t leave the Air Force zone. Friday’s game marked the sixth time this season in which Michigan outshot its opponent but lost the game.
The Wolverines demonstrated the speed, skills and playmaking ability to win the game, but their luck ran out against a white-hot goaltender.
“We got 40-some shots, we probably had 10 or 12 Grade-A scoring chances,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “That’s the most you’re going to get in any game. We didn’t capitalize on them. Then their goalie played a terrific game. It’s as simple as that.
“Somebody told me a long time ago, when you get to this tournament, the team with the best goalie wins.”
His team echoed many of his sentiments after the season-ending defeat.
Sophomore forward Aaron Palushaj said it was quite apparent that the Wolverines outplayed Air Force — the bounces just didn’t go their way.
Sophomore forward Matt Rust said he and his teammates had enough scoring chances to win the game, but running into a hot goalie made the task nearly impossible.
Junior co-captain Chris Summers, who usually cracks light-hearted jokes at press conferences, gave short, one-word answers to reporters after Friday’s game. When asked how he felt following the loss, Summers simply glowered. His deadly glare seemed to showcase a variety of emotions — from anger to disappointment to sadness.
And there’s no doubt that, on paper, the loss was shocking. A No. 4 seed knocked off a No. 1 seed. Air Force, a team that had never won a tournament game, beat Michigan, a team with nine NCAA Championship titles.
It would have been easy for the Wolverines to overlook the lowly Falcons. It would have been easy for them to chalk it up as a crazy upset. But for Berenson, it was neither. He stood firm, stating repeatedly that his team had been well-prepared.
“We expected a tough game, so this wasn’t an upset,” Berenson said. “This was a real good Air Force team. … I can tell you, (my) team did not look ahead. We put everything we had into this game, and the puck just didn’t go in.”