SOUTH BEND – Though it sat in sixth place in the conference just over a week ago, the Michigan hockey team still had a shot at defending its CCHA regular-season title.
Despite playing poorly for the first two periods Saturday, the Wolverines still gave themselves a chance to beat No. 1 Notre Dame.
Even against the nation’s best scoring defense (just 1.59 goals per game allowed), No. 8 Michigan still nearly overcame a three-goal deficit in the third period.
All of that makes Saturday’s 3-2 loss completely agonizing because it came down to poor refereeing — plain and simple.
And it’s not difficult to decipher what Michigan coach Red Berenson thought about its effect on the game.
“I’m not here to discuss the officiating, but this was a big series, and obviously you want top officials here,” Berenson said.
The referees in question: Brian Aaron and John Philo.
Before this season, Aaron had a questionable reputation in many people’s books.
“(Referee Brian Aaron) needs a big red nose and floppy feet,” Northern Michigan play-by-play announcer Dave Danis commented during a November loss to Michigan State in 2005.
Philo is a first-year referee and was promoted to the position in the offseason when the CCHA switched from a one-referee to a two-referee system.
The game could have easily been a 3-1 Michigan win if it weren’t for two blatantly botched calls that stood out in a contest filled with questionable ones.
The first was Notre Dame’s goal midway through the opening period. Freshman Irish forward Billy Maday redirected a puck with his left skate, and pushed the puck past sophomore goalie Bryan Hogan’s right leg.
The play was illegal — and there’s really no room for debate.
“A goal shall not be allowed if the puck has been kicked or directed into the goal off an attacking player’s skate,” the NCAA rule reads.
The problem: was that none of the officials saw the obvious play, and when it went to video review, the kick took place outside of the frame of the camera hanging over the net. And that’s the only angle that Aaron was allowed to look at, due to CCHA rules, meaning there wasn’t enough video evidence to overturn the call.
“If that would have been reviewable — the camera couldn’t see it — it would not have been a goal,” Berenson said.
Still, it’s tough to argue the referees mangled the entire game with one bad call eight minutes and 15 seconds into the game. Michigan had plenty of time to even up the score.
But the only thing to excuse Aaron’s premature blowing of the whistle with less than a minute left in the game is blindness. Hell, that might not even be a good enough explanation.
As junior defenseman Steve Kampfer poked away at a loose puck next to sprawled-out Notre Dame goalie Jordan Pearce, Aaron blew the whistle because he supposedly saw the net come loose.
For what it’s worth, he was standing 60 feet away at the blue line, and a scrum occurred in front of the goal, obstructing Aaron’s view. Philo, who was positioned right next to the goal, didn’t make a call on the play.
And a split-second later, Kampfer put the puck into the net, potentially tying the game and causing senior forward Travis Turnbull to throw his hands up into the air in celebration. But the play was ruled dead, and Aaron reviewed the play and waved off the apparent goal. The Wolverines had to settle for the split when they had a legitimate shot at making a run at another conference title.
“Now, if the net comes off because their player pushed it off, I mean that’s a serious infraction in the last two minutes of the game,” Berenson said. “But I don’t know (whether) they pushed it off or if it was just the scrum that pushed it off.”
And he probably doesn’t know because not a soul in Yost Ice Arena saw that post move a hundredth of a centimeter except Aaron, and that cost the Wolverines the game.
How did he end up with a whistle?
—Eisenstein can be reached at email@example.com.