GRAND RAPIDS They just couldn”t contain themselves any longer. As the final seconds ticked away, and as Michigan clinched its first trip to the Frozen Four since 1998, the Wolverines leaped over the bench and rushed the ice. By the looks on their faces, and the emotions shown by their interactions, one would think they had won the national title.
Not yet, but almost.
On the bench, the usually stoic Red Berenson embraced associate head coach Mel Pearson. On the ice, sophomore J.J. Swistak leaped into the air like a kid who just got out of his last day at school. At the same time, 22 other Wolverines swarmed goalie Josh Blackburn knocking the net off its posts and raising the crowd to its feet.
“It”s the best feeling right now,” senior Mark Kosick said. “We held on in the end, which was awesome.
“This is the best weekend this team has had so far. No question.”
It wasn”t just that Michigan won, but how it won.
An exhausted bunch of Wolverines unexpectedly had trouble with Mercyhurst the night before, squeezing out much needed energy for their most important game of the year when everything was on the line.
Staring Michigan right in the eye, fresh off a first-round bye, was No. 2 seed St. Cloud. Not only were the Huskies rested, but they were also loaded.
Winning 12 of its last 13 games coming into the Regional final against Michigan, St. Cloud boasted the nation”s best offense and powerplay. Berenson considered the Huskies the hottest team in the tournament, a dangerous team that Michigan had never played in its history.
Meanwhile, Michigan ended its regular season on a downslide, going 1-4-1 in its last six games. Adding injury to insult, Michigan was without one of its top defenseman, Andy Burnes, and its best two-way player in Jed Ortmeyer.
Plus, the past two seasons the Wolverines used up most of their energy in the first round game. This did Michigan in, as it ran out of gas the past two seasons and subsequently it fell short of the Frozen Four.
The Wolverines were underdogs again, and they didn”t seem to mind a bit. They answered the bell, with undoubtedly their best effort of the season when it counted the most. And more importantly, they did it together.
“They were so together tonight,” said Berenson outside the team bus where his players were embracing in hugs and picture-taking with their parents. “I can”t tell you how together this team was tonight. And that”s why they won the game, because the team was so together and everyone was on the same page.”
Playing on the same page is something Michigan has failed to do for most of the season. While the Wolverines remained close off the ice, they couldn”t seem to transfer that onto the ice and gain the desired chemistry until now.
A similar situation aroused in 1998, the last time Michigan won a national title. The Wolverines didn”t quite breeze through the regular season, mounting 10 losses. But they came together at the right time, and the rest is history.
“In 1998, no one asked us how our regular season was,” Berenson said earlier this week. “I hope the seniors are desperate their next loss is their last at Michigan.”
The seniors sensed this ultimate desperation and the urgency of the finality of their careers this past weekend. They all showed more emotion than usual, and played with a little extra jump in their skate which seemed to snowball onto the rest of the team.
“We didn”t want to go out losers,” senior Josh Langfeld said. “We want to be playing in two weeks.”
Surprising everyone but themselves, the Wolverines are still alive in the NCAA playoffs. Although they”re still underdogs, they all have the same hunger and desire to win with the confidence to pull it off.
And if the Wolverines” inspired play continues, the Michigan seniors will leave the same way it came in as national champions.