BUFFALO, N.Y. – Michigan went into the Frozen Four believing that the first period was the key to advancing past the first round. The Wolverines vowed not be knocked out before they were even in it. They said they were “on a mission,” and they took that steely determination into Buffalo’s HSBC Arena, attacked in the opening period and grabbed the lead.
And it still wasn’t enough.
Michigan led 2-0 in the second and looked like it might get over the semifinal stumbling block, but it was just a tease. In the end, the Wolverines saw their ticket to the title game slip away for the third straight year.
A red-eyed Eric Nystrom tried to convey the pain of loosing in overtime on a Thomas Vanek shot after leading early on: “Take your worst feelings and multiply it by 10 to see that goal go in.”
“We took it right to them,” junior Andy Burnes said of the first period. “We were in their face, and we were dominating the play.”
Nystrom agreed that Michigan followed its gameplan, and both were at a loss as to why it didn’t produce the result they wanted.
Maybe it was injuries or inexperience finally catching up to the Wolverines.
Maybe it was an inability to put together a complete game – the Wolverines seem to always have one lapse, one stretch like last night’s second period when they only mustered six shots after firing 15 in the first.
Maybe it was the little things that Minnesota did in crunch time – a blocked shot by Paul Martin when Michigan’s Jason Ryznar seemed to have an open net at the end of the third, or a great individual effort by Thomas Vanek for the game winner.
Whatever the problem was, it certainly wasn’t lack of effort. Minnesota coach Don Lucia said his team had the heart of a champion, but it seemed that Michigan did as well this season. With a freshman goaltender, a thin defense, injuries galore and no real go-to guy, the team could have easily made excuses for its season well before this weekend.
Instead, Al Montoya shook off enormous pressure and, remarkably, played like a veteran between the pipes down the stretch. What captain Jed Ortmeyer and alternate captains John Shouneyia and Andy Burnes lacked in the scoring department, they more than made up for with leadership. And all of the Wolverines bought into coach Red Bereson’s belief that this was the year of the team – they all took turns donning the superhero’s cape and coming up with the big play.
Although Michigan has become a fixture in the Frozen Four, it was anything but a given that this team would come this far, and the fact that it did is a considerable accomplishment.
When Vanek slung that final shot of Michigan’s season through an invisible space between Montoya’s right shoulder and the post, senior Mike Roemensky froze in place, bent at the waste, unwilling or unable to skate off for the last time. This was the seniors’ team, and it was crystal clear that they won’t take any solace in getting this far.
The guys lucky enough to come back next year can’t either.
There’s a saying in hockey that the players use constantly – you have to bury your chances. It was true on the ice in this game, but also in a larger sense. Three straight Frozen Fours and three straight years of going home two nights too early has to make you wonder how many opportunities you’re going to get. The Wolverines came so close to the championship game – much closer than the past two years when they spent much of the semifinal game digging themselves out of a hole – and again they let it slip away.
The desire and commitment is there, but last night proved that those aren’t enough.
The Wolverines have to find a way to grip tight that chance to do something special when it lands in their hands, rather then watch it slide through their fingers.
Courtney Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.