DENVER – None of the Michigan hockey team’s opponents this season have produced as many heart attack-inducing moments as Notre Dame.
Two games against the Fighting Irish – last night’s 5-4 overtime loss in the NCAA semifinals and a Jan. 18 3-2 thriller – were among the year’s most exciting.
One legitimized the young, inexperienced Wolverines’ improbable midseason run to the top of the national rankings.
The other ended Michigan’s season one game early.
“It’s devastating,” freshman Matt Rust said. “Just to see one shot end your season. I feel bad, but I feel worse for seniors like Chad (Kolarik) and (Kevin) Porter. They’ve given it their all, and their one goal in college hockey was to win a National Championship. It just sucks.”
The January game was the Wolverines’ first true test of the season. Six head-scratching minutes in, Michigan (33-6-4) was down 2-0 and seemed dead on arrival. But the Wolverines clawed back into the contest, capping off the comeback win in the final minute of regulation.
After a 22-second span in last night’s first period, Michigan was in an eerily familiar two-goal hole.
Notching its second goal of the night before the announcer could call the first, Notre Dame went up 2-0 less than six minutes into the game. The Wolverines saw their stock crumble from the favorite to win the Frozen Four to a team that looked wholly unprepared for college hockey’s biggest stage.
A year removed from giving up seven goals in an NCAA Regional game at the Pepsi Center, junior goaltender Billy Sauer entered the same building last night hoping to prove his mettle in big games.
Nine shots on goal, six saves and three lamp-lighters later, the netminder skated into the locker room for the first intermission without a single acknowledgment from a fellow Wolverine.
During the break, Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson had a simple message for his team.
“Just like in Ann Arbor.”
And for the next two periods, it looked like the Wolverines took those words of encouragement to heart. Notre Dame (27-15-4) got just 15 shots through to freshman goalie Bryan Hogan, who replaced Sauer after the first frame, in the final two periods of regulation.
With the Irish offensive onslaught successfully derailed, Michigan vaulted itself back into contention with two goals in a 15-second span.
The rest of regulation was a back-and-forth struggle for momentum and ended in a 4-4 tie.
“Games like this, all the games in the tournament are going to be roller coaster games,” freshman Aaron Palushaj said. “And you just have to take it shift by shift, and go as hard as you can.”
Although the Wolverines seemed to carry momentum into the sudden-death stanza, the Irish dominated the play, controlling the puck inside the Michigan zone.
“We didn’t look good in overtime,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We were on our heels. We’re a team that plays to win, and we like overtime. I felt good about our team. Our team felt good about it, but we didn’t play well.”
And when Irish freshman Calle Ridderwall’s tip-in goal hit the back of the net, the biggest difference between tonight and Michigan’s first classic matchup with Notre Dame became clearly evident.
That night’s maize-and-blue celebratory mob was replaced by a raucous blue-and-gold one.