After No. 4 Michigan’s lopsided 10-1 victory over Notre Dame to open the teams’ first-round CCHA playoff series at Yost Ice Arena on Friday, freshman forward Chad Kolarik uttered one of the most oft-used clichés in sports.
“It’s the playoffs,” Kolarik said. “Anything can happen, so you have to come prepared.”
Kolarik was attempting to dispel the notion that the Fighting Irish would lay down on Saturday as they faced elimination in the best-of-three series.
Still, few expected the tight contest that played out in the Wolverines’ last home game of the year. Despite racking up an awe-inspiring 39 goals in its five previous matches this season against Notre Dame (3-20-5 CCHA, 5-27-6 overall), Michigan (23-3-2, 28-7-3) found itself heading to overtime with both the Wolverines’ Al Montoya and the Fighting Irish’s Morgan Cey working on shutouts. One goalie was bound to give up the game-winner, and it turned out to be Cey.
Even though he stopped an impressive 43 shots, the Notre Dame senior allowed Michigan senior defenseman Eric Werner to flip a rebound shot over his glove and into a largely unprotected net just 2:05 into the extra frame. Werner’s sudden-death tally gave Michigan the 1-0 win, ending Notre Dame’s season and propelling the Wolverines into the CCHA Super 6 Championships at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit next weekend. The sweep put Michigan in the Super 6 for the 16th consecutive year, and Werner’s goal snapped the Wolverines’ 12-game winless streak in overtime games (0-5-7).
“It’s quite a blur, really,” Cey said as he replayed the game-winner in his head. “(Senior David Moss) took a slapshot on the ice, and it hit my stick. The rebound came out, and I went to poke check it. Then one of our guys came in. I thought he was going to get it, and then I kind of hesitated for a second. By that time it was too late. Werner came in and buried it on me.”
Michigan was on the attack throughout the overtime period, but Cey denied both T.J. Hensick and Brandon Rogers on quality scoring chances. Moss also fired a shot from the left slot that the Irish’s netminder stopped, but the rebound ricocheted out to Werner in the low right circle. An out-of-position Cey had no chance to stop the soaring puck, and the Michigan bench rushed the ice to congratulate Werner, who was standing in the right corner of the Notre Dame zone.
“My emotions were running,” said Werner, who waved goodbye to the Notre Dame bench just seconds after he ended the series. “I couldn’t move. I had sticks flying everywhere. I think I got stepped on one time. It was pretty chaotic — just a good feeling all around.”
But the Wolverines weren’t filled with cheer for most of the evening. The majority of the contest was characterized by tense play and Michigan opportunities that went unconverted.
“The longer the puck doesn’t go in, the harder it is to score one,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “And you could see that every time we missed one, we were squeezing our sticks a little tighter. We were trying to play with confidence, but it’s an important game. You don’t want to lose it, and certainly, you want to try to find a way to win it.”
Nevertheless, Berenson decided to put his more offensive-minded players on the ice during overtime, even though he knew some of his scorers were “defensive risks.”
“We’re playing to win,” Berenson said. “We’re trying to score goals and win the game. It’s entertaining for the fans, and it’s hard on an old coach.”
Notre Dame coach Dave Poulin, on the other hand, was happy just to be in overtime with a heavily favored Michigan squad.
“You know what? It was fine that we were there (playing in overtime),” Poulin said. “That’s where we were at that point. Michigan wasn’t supposed to be there, and we were fine being there.”
Though Cey didn’t come away with the win, he did finish his collegiate career with a spectacular performance. From the opening faceoff, Cey was confident and stoic. He denied shot after shot from the Wolverines, despite constant heckling from the crowd.
“I went out there thinking I wanted to shut up 6,000 Ann Arbor fans,” Cey said. “Needless to say they’re not very nice to visiting people. I really wanted to win to keep them quiet for a bit.”
But Cey’s admirable showing wasn’t enough to hold off the Wolverines. It was Montoya who ended the night with the shutout, and he credited much of his success in stopping all 19 shots he faced to the strong defense protecting him.
“I felt good tonight,” Montoya said. “My team helped me out a bunch and didn’t really give up too much tonight. That’s a credit to them and the defensive game that we’ve been playing.”