Going into the season-opening Ice Breaker Invitational in St. Paul, expectations couldn’t have been much lower for No. 9 Michigan. Facing No. 2 Boston College in the first game, the young Wolverines should have been happy to just keep up with the Eagles.

Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos

1. Setting the tone

Instead, Michigan opened up a 3-1 lead with less than 12 minutes left in the game. But Boston College didn’t go quietly. The favorites tied the game with just over six minutes left in regulation. Michigan goalie Billy Sauer was shaken, and the Eagles had all the momentum.

But when a Boston College defenseman cleared the puck off his own teammate and into the net halfway through overtime, Michigan got the win and the crucial start to a surprising season.

Although Michigan lost to Minnesota in the next night’s championship game, getting the win against Boston College was the key to starting the season fast. If the Wolverines had given up their two-goal lead and lost in overtime, the team’s outlook could have been entirely different for the rest of the year.

If the puck hadn’t bounced right for Michigan that night, things wouldn’t have gotten off on the right foot. Sometimes the difference between a good season and a great season is one lucky break.

– Nate Sandals

2. An 11-year hump

A 16-2 start and a No. 1 ranking wasn’t enough to convince many people that Michigan was a National Championship-caliber team.

The Wolverines’ schedule difficulty was questioned – perhaps the fast start was a deceiving. Could Michigan continue that pace after 20 days off? Could goalie Billy Sauer carry the Wolverines? Could Michigan win without scoring three goals?

Overcoming an 11-year stretch of losses in the Great Lakes Invitational silenced almost all those doubts.

Sauer, who has struggled at times to complete shutouts, backstopped a pair of them on the weekend with 87 saves. Michigan showed it could blow out a team, thrashing Providence 6-0, as well as win tight contests, beating Michigan Tech 1-0 in the second overtime of the championship game. The victory validated the Wolverines’ school-best season start.

Even more impressive was Michigan’s ability to win despite playing with a depleted roster. It had the depth to overcome the loss of three of the team’s most prolific freshmen and one of the squad’s three experienced defensemen to the World Junior Championships.

But most important is what happened last time the Wolverines brought back the GLI trophy – they went on to win their first National Championship in more than 30 years.

– Michael Eisenstein

3. Buzzer-beater

After boasting a 16-2 record in the first half of the season, Michigan had its first real CCHA test during the Notre Dame series on Jan. 18-19. With weekends against CCHA contenders Michigan State and Miami also looming, the Wolverines needed to convincingly beat the Fighting Irish to prove their fast start wasn’t a fluke.

But after just six minutes of play, the Wolverines were in a 2-0 hole and looking vulnerable. In the second period, they scored two goals 21 seconds apart to tie the game. And with 20 seconds left in the third period, forward Louie Caporusso poked in the game-winner to give the rocking Yost Arena crowd little doubt Michigan could deliver in high-pressure situations.

Every part of the Wolverines’ winning machine had a newsworthy performance. Captain Kevin Porter came through with the game-tying goal. One of the team’s 11 freshmen pulled through when it counted to seal the game. Goalie Billy Sauer, who had fought all season to erase his reputation of choking in important games, regained his composure to record two shutout periods. The defense killed a five-minute major penalty in the third period by blocking a barrage of shots while dealing with few line changes.

After a lackluster start to the game, the Wolverines came together – and they showed that once they were on, they were almost unstoppable.

– Courtney Ratkowiak

4. 1-2 showdown

After 24 games of overachieving, it looked like Michigan, boasting a freshman-laden roster, had finally run out of steam. The Wolverines limped into a weekend series at then-No. 1 Miami (Ohio) with a 0-1-3 record in their last four games.

Even though Michigan brought a No. 2 ranking into the series, the optimism surrounding the program through the first half of the season was nowhere to be found.

Most college hockey pundits thought a crushing defeat at the hands of the RedHawks seemed almost inevitable.

Miami students lined up for free tickets almost two days in advance to watch their team claim the top spot in the race for the CCHA regular-season title.

But that’s why games are played.

The Wolverines shirked the negativity of their last two weekends, pouncing early and often on Miami goaltender Jeff Zatkoff to the tune of four goals in the first period. It was a hole the RedHawks’ powerful offense couldn’t climb out of, losing 4-2.

Using the momentum from the surprising victory, Michigan has since scorched through its schedule. The Wolverines won both the CCHA regular-season and playoff title, posting a 10-2-1 record on their way to the program’s first Frozen Four appearance since 2003.

– Andy Reid

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