ALBANY, N.Y. – There were nine and a half seconds left. The whistle blew, but the buzzer might as well have sounded.

Brian Merlos
The Michigan hockey team moved one step closer to a national title this weekend, beating Niagara and Clarkson to earn a trip to the Frozen Four in Denver. (AP PHOTO)

With the Wolverines down two men, goalie Billy Sauer had just stopped a 90-second barrage of shots fired by the desperate Clarkson offense.

The bench erupted. Freshman Aaron Palushaj whacked junior Brandon Naurato on the back in elation, leapt over the bench with two seconds still on the clock and led the charge onto the ice. The Wolverines collided in a glass-shaking, maize mob, celebrating their 2-0 win Saturday and first Frozen Four berth since 2003.

In last weekend’s CCHA Tournament games, the top-ranked Wolverines (20-4-4 CCHA, 32-5-4 overall) relied on fourth-line forwards like Miller and Naurato to score key goals. But at the Times Union Center in Albany, Michigan’s usual top performers were again the center of attention – senior captain Kevin Porter scored five goals and Sauer allowed just one goal in two games.

The Wolverines began play Friday against No. 19 Niagara (12-6-2 College Hockey America, 22-10-4) with an uncharacteristically sluggish start, taking five minutes to record their first shot on goal. But on the first shift of the second period, freshman Max Pacioretty notched Michigan’s first score.

From then on, it was all Porter.

The senior forward scored Michigan’s last four goals in its 5-1 win against the Purple Eagles, setting an NCAA record for most goals in a tournament game and prompting “Hobey Baker” chants that echoed through the half-empty arena.

The first line of Pacioretty, Porter and senior Chad Kolarik combined for 13 of the team’s 15 points Friday.

“If you look at the scoresheets of our games, it’s been Porter, Porter, Kolarik,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I’ve never seen two seniors take over a team the way these guys have and then have everyone follow.”

Niagara couldn’t get off a shot in more than 22 minutes of play during the first and second periods.

“I was trying to not snooze off for a while there,” Sauer said. “I really just tried to stay in it, be vocal and skate around to just keep myself into it. Those games are tough when you’re not seeing a lot of shots.”

The next night, the 10th-ranked Golden Knights (15-4-3 Eastern College Athletic Conference, 22-12-4) proved to be a feisty, aggressive team. The Wolverines jumped to an early lead in the first period after a Palushaj deke left Clarkson goalie David Leggio confused and the forward’s wraparound found a wide-open net. But Clarkson’s defensive-minded play kept the Wolverines scoreless until Porter tallied his fifth goal of the weekend 26 seconds into the third period.

“They always had three or four guys back, so it was pretty frustrating,” Porter said. “But it was great getting that goal, and after that, we kept it rolling.”

Despite their 6-on-4 advantage in the game’s closing moments, the Golden Knights couldn’t push the puck past Sauer. The junior goalie preserved the Wolverines’ first shutout in an NCAA Tournament game since a 4-0 win against New Hampshire in 1998 – Michigan’s last national championship season.

Michigan will play Notre Dame in a national semifinal on Apr. 10 at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

After Michigan was named the No. 1 overall seed and the favorite to win the national title in last week’s NCAA selection show, this weekend’s victories were almost expected. But for a team with 11 freshmen, each of the Wolverines’ big wins this year has continued to prove October’s preseason predictions of mediocrity wrong.

“We’re going to enjoy this when we get back,” Kolarik said Saturday. “But right now, we’re pretty tired.”

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