ST. PAUL, Minn. – All season long, the Michigan hockey team had been accomplishing feats nobody believed possible. With all its inexperience, Michigan wasn’t expected to reach the Frozen Four for a second straight year. But the Wolverines ignored the non-believers and focused on their goals, as they fought their way to a CCHA regular season title, a CCHA Tournament title and a berth in the Frozen Four.
Last night against Minnesota, they had yet another opportunity to win a game in which nobody was ready to give them a chance. But after surprising so many people down the stretch with their success, the Wolverines just didn’t have enough left to do it again and lost to Minnesota 3-2 in the national semifinals. The Gophers will face Maine in tomorrow night’s championship game.
Minnesota’s speed, aggression and home-crowd advantage, combined with a lackluster all-around effort by the Wolverines, allowed the Gophers to dominate the game at both ends of the ice.
“From our perspective, we didn’t get the kind of flow we needed,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I thought we struggled in finishing on (Minnesota goalie Adam) Hauser. We knew it would be a big home-ice opportunity for them and a challenge for us, and they were a great team.”
It became an uphill battle very early on for Michigan, as a turnover by defenseman Eric Werner in front of his own net led to Minnesota’s first goal by Grant Potulny just 4:20 into the game. Werner attempted an outlet pass from behind the net, but it hit Minnesota’s Jeff Taffe and deflected toward Michigan senior goalie Josh Blackburn. The senior, who played in his final game for the Wolverines, made the initial stop, but Potulny was on the doorstep to hammer it home.
The early goal drastically shifted the momentum in favor of the Gophers, whose size and quickness seemed to overpower the Wolverines from that point on. Outside of a few scattered chances, the Wolverines failed to generate any sort of rhythm on offense, often being pushed back on their heels by the Gophers.
Potulny struck again early in the second period, this time on the powerplay. The sophomore, who was positioned in front of Michigan’s net to screen Blackburn, made a perfect deflection on a point shot from teammate Jordan Leopold to put the Gophers up 2-0.
Michigan’s best opportunity to get back in the game came halfway through the second period, when it received a 5-on-3 powerplay opportunity for 39 seconds. A goal at that point would have cut the deficit to one and given the Wolverines a crucial surge of momentum. But Minnesota’s penalty kill was unbreakable, not only killing the 5-on-3, but also killing all six of Michigan’s chances on the night. “Our penalty kill was solid tonight,” Minnesota defenseman Jordan Leopold said. “Everybody did the job tonight. You don’t like to deal with 5-on-3 chances going against you, and it was a little nerve-wracking as guys started to get tired out there, but we killed it off.”
The Wolverines had not come back from a 2-0 deficit all season, and were just 2-8-1 when trailing after two periods. But an early goal in the third period would still have brought them back into the game. Unfortunately for Michigan, the early goal came from the Gophers.
Taffe drove the nail into Michigan’s coffin with a breakaway goal less than two minutes into the third period. His goal, which turned out to be the game-winner, gave Minnesota a 3-0 lead.
The Wolverines made it interesting in the end, as J.J. Swistak scored a shorthanded goal at 13:55 and Ortmeyer scored with the extra man at 1:34 to bring them within one. But that was as close as they would come.”You could tell that Michigan was going to keep pressing,” Hauser said. “They got two goals, and they were pushing hard. But we made the plays to hold them off.”