DETROIT — Jeff Jackson woke up the morning of March 10 and exhaled.
The Notre Dame coach checked the score of the previous night’s game between Michigan State and Alaska, saw that the Spartans had survived, and let out one massive sigh of relief.
Michigan State’s win, stretching into the wee hours of Monday morning, meant that his Fighting Irish would avoid playing Michigan in the CCHA quarterfinals.
Jackson was relieved then. He’s relieved now. Nobody wanted to play Michigan — not in the quarterfinals, not in the finals, not in the NCAA Tournament, where the Wolverines would have landed with a win in Sunday’s title game.
The Fighting Irish dodged a bullet in Fairbanks. They dodged a more dangerous one on Sunday.
Jacob Trouba stopped the puck, tantalizingly close to crossing the goal line for Miami (Ohio) fans, gravely near it for Michigan fans, calmly with his stick. That puck would’ve crossed a few short months ago.
And had Trouba arrived to the puck a split-second later in the first period of Saturday’s CCHA semifinal against the RedHawks, Michigan might not have reached Sunday’s stage where the Wolverines faced an all-or-nothing game for the ages.
Win, or the 22-year NCAA Tournament appearance streak — the one that predates the birth of all but two of Michigan’s players — would be over.
After one shaky, how-did-that-not-go-in first period, the Wolverines came out in the second period and took the pressures that come with manning a program so accustomed to postseason success and shoved them down the RedHawks’ throats.
Somewhere along the way, Michigan redeemed itself. Coach Red Berenson said he began to see a change in early February, when the Wolverines played at Notre Dame. The signs of improvement were there, but the results weren’t — Michigan gave up 13 goals on the weekend and was swept.
This weekend, the Wolverines held two of the best offenses in the CCHA to two goals apiece, minus an empty-netter.
This hockey-loving university didn’t yet forgive them after that February series for a season that was, more often than not, miserable. Perhaps for some, that forgiveness didn’t come until Trouba’s play, an overwhelming display of grit that signified just how far the Wolverines have truly come.
Notre Dame was clearly the better team Sunday. This time, there was no way around it for the Fighting Irish — they were playing Michigan. And they couldn’t have made things harder on the Wolverines, controlling play for much of the afternoon.
Inevitably, this team will be known as the one that broke the streak. When the pride and joy of the program expired after Sunday’s 3-1 heartbreaker, that became reality.
But because of the turnaround that nobody saw coming, nobody will blame them for that. After all, Michigan won’t be gone from the NCAA Tournament for long. And teams out there would give up anything for 22 out of 23.
Lee Moffie broke off from the line of his teammates. They had been tortured far too long by then, straddling the blue line at Joe Louis Arena, watching as their now-former conference rivals accepted the Mason Cup.
Before the playoff trophy could disappear, bound for Toronto, the Hockey Hall of Fame and posterity with a quick detour in South Bend along the way, Michigan dipped into the tunnel.
But not before Moffie said goodbye to the Wolverine faithful, who hoped to see a team that was once 10-18 punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. That would signal that the group Berenson repeatedly called “vulnerable,” and once, a “train wreck” midway through the season was now magical.
Moffie skated a quick circle, waving his stick to the Michigan fans who remained in Joe Louis Arena, while the rest of the team quickly stepped off the ice.
All of their last-ditch efforts, like goalie Steve Racine turning on a dime on his way to the bench and diving back toward the crease to stop the empty-net goal that sealed the Wolverines’ fate, had fallen short.
Moffie’s goodbye as he stepped off the ice for the last time in maize and blue might as well have been a white flag, but he didn’t do it until after the game. Most everyone else, besides the players and coaches, had waved one in surrender months ago.
Everybody except for the people in the locker room gave up on this team.
Don’t feel bad for them. Berenson said all year that this team was going to earn its fate. If the Wolverines didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, they’d have nobody to blame but themselves.
But how can we blame them?
Because for the last month and a half of this season, when Michigan’s unbeaten streak that ended at nine games began, the Wolverines had everybody believing they were going to catch lightning in a bottle. Even Jeff Jackson.
It was just a little too late.
— Slovin’s mom was pregnant with him when the NCAA Tournament streak began. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @MattSlovin.