GRAND RAPIDS — The players on the Michigan hockey team didn’t travel to the NCAA Midwest Regionals for this.
They didn’t take the ice at Van Andel Arena to see their three-goal lead evaporate into the tension-filled air, their national title hopes obliterated by four unanswered goals from the Tigers of Colorado College. They didn’t pour out blood, sweat and tears all season long only to be denied a trip to the Frozen Four for the second straight season. And they certainly didn’t plan on Saturday’s game being the swan song for Michigan’s 10 seniors.
But that’s exactly what happened in the Wolverines’ heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Colorado College on Saturday night, just a day after ousting Wisconsin in an impressive 4-1 win. The defeat knocked Michigan out of the NCAA Tournament and ended its season earlier than senior captain Eric Nystrom would have liked.
“It’s ridiculous,” Nystrom said. “I’m so upset. I’m so pissed that we lost this game tonight that I can’t even talk about it without wanting to throw this microphone across the room.”
Despite first-period power play goals by juniors Jeff Tambellini and Brandon Kaleniecki and Nystrom’s own score 1:32 into the second frame, the Wolverines seemed to become somewhat complacent midway through the game. Rather than attacking the net and holding the puck in the Tigers’ zone, much of the last 30 minutes of play saw Michigan reacting to, rather than assertively countering, Colorado College’s persistent and methodical comeback.
“We couldn’t put that team away,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I thought their goalie really played well in the last half of the game. And their team came back and got the goals they needed. Sometimes the ugly goals are the goals that kill you.”
Until Saturday, Michigan hadn’t blown a three-goal lead since 1987. So when the Wolverines led the Tigers 3-0 with 18:28 left in the second period, many Michigan fans had already begun celebrating.
But the players knew the game wasn’t over, and Colorado College remained focused. The Tigers’ comeback began with Marty Sertich’s goal 6:13 into the second. With Colorado College on a two-man advantage, Sertich, the nation’s leading scorer, beat Michigan goalie Al Montoya glove side on a rebound from Lee Sweatt’s right-slot blast. Sertich was waiting in the low right circle, and when the puck bounced off Montoya’s left pad, the high-scoring forward capitalized to put the Tigers on the board.
But it may have been the Tigers’ second goal of the night that broke the Wolverines’ spirits. With Sweatt in the penalty box and Michigan on the power play, Colorado College was able to mount a shorthanded rush into the offensive zone. After Montoya saved defenseman Mark Stuart’s shot, forward Trevor Frischmon scooped up the rebound and put the puck past Montoya low to the glove side with 4:33 left in the second period.
As the Tigers climbed back into the game, the strongly pro-Michigan crowd became a non-factor and the arena fell ominously silent as the final chapter in the Wolverines’ season unfolded in tragic fashion.
Colorado College tied the game 4:24 into the third period on forward Joey Crabb’s wrist shot from the left slot. The puck appeared to have been tipped by Frischmon’s raised stick before it found its way past Montoya’s glove side to the back of the net. After the goal was reviewed, the officials upheld the call since it was unclear whether or not the puck was illegally tipped by Frischmon. The call remained a point of contention between the teams even after the game.
“To me, it looked like a high stick,” Montoya said. “It hit the stick, obviously, but it might not have been over the net.”
Said Nystrom: “They’ve got video replay, and the camera doesn’t lie, I guess. But I thought it got tipped down with a high stick. They went to replay, and the goal stood, and that was the difference.”
But Frischmon told a different story.
“I don’t think it did (hit my stick),” Frischmon said. “I didn’t feel it hit my stick at all. But when you looked at the replay, it kind of looked like it might have. It was a great shot by (Crabb).”
Junior Andrew Ebbett nearly regained the lead for Michigan at the 10:30 mark of the third, but his wide-angle shot from the left side of the net passed through the crease just in front of the posts.
Just 30 seconds later, Frischmon notched the game-winner. After Montoya stopped forward J.P. Brunkhorst’s shot, the rebound came out in traffic. Frischmon wound up with the puck and fired it past Montoya from the left circle for Colorado College’s first lead of the game.
“The coaches had been telling us all game just to put it on net, put it on net as much as you can,” Frischmon said. “(Brunkhorst) made a great shot, got it on net, hit (Montoya’s) pads and it pretty much just came right out to me. I just went to the net and the puck was sitting there for me, and I just banged it in.”
Despite a power play opportunity in the waning moments, Michigan was unable to convert. The Wolverines’ best chance came with about two minutes left on a one-timer by senior Milan Gajic from the low left circle. Colorado College goalie Curtis McElhinney was out of position, but he threw his stick behind him to deflect the shot away from the empty net.
“I caught a lucky break there,” McElhinney said with a smile. “Desperate measures — you just kind of do things that you don’t really expect. Fortunately for me, my stick was there, and I’m very happy about it.”
Colorado College coach Scott Owens was proud of his team’s effort, especially against a squad like Michigan, which Owens called “probably the hottest team in the country.” The Tigers’ trip to the Frozen Four in Columbus will be Owens’s first.
On the other hand, some Wolverines were left despondent as they faced the prospect of a long offseason. Others mourned the end of their Michigan careers.
Nystrom took the loss particularly hard, but he cited even more important reasons for his sorrow.
“The hardest thing is going around the locker room and hugging those guys for the last time,” Nystrom said. “We’re never going to put the Michigan jersey on together ever again. So that’s the hardest part. The game is just a game. It’s a big game, and it hurts to lose it, but these are your closest friends. To not be able to play with them again is even harder. There’s just been so many memories, highs and lows, good and bad. It’s been a hell of a run, and it sucks (that) it ends like this.”