ST. LOUIS — Lounging in the hotel and recovering from a 3-2 overtime win over Nebraska-Omaha on Friday, the No. 6 Michigan hockey team couldn’t get comfortable.
On the TV in front of them, upstart Colorado College was obliterating No. 1 seed Boston College with an eight-goal onslaught.
But in the NCAA West Regional final at Scottrade Center on Saturday, the Wolverines decided to run away quickly — with the lead. Michigan captured an early two-goal lead and battened down the defensive zone to secure a 2-1 victory and the program’s 24th Frozen Four berth.
“For Colorado College to score like they scored against arguably the best team in the country, I think it put the fear of God in our team,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “So we might have played a little better defensively just in respect for their team.”
Against the Mavericks on Friday, the Wolverines entered the first intermission trailing 2-0. On Saturday, they flipped the equation on its head.
Just over two minutes into the opening stanza, senior forward Scooter Vaughan collected the puck in the neutral zone with four defenders ahead of him. Vaughan gained a step on the defender with a nifty toe-drag, and then flipped the puck over Tigers goaltender Joe Howe’s glove-side shoulder.
The goal, Vaughan’s 13th of the year, gave Michigan the quick 1-0 lead.
“I knew my man was a little flat-footed,” Vaughan said. “I just used my speed and got by him and got a good shot off above his glove.”
On the other end of the ice, senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick understood how vital the first goal was. The Wolverines have a 21-1-3 record when tallying the first goal of the game.
“If they scored early tonight, the momentum is going their way and it’s a totally different game then,” Hunwick said. “I knew we would throw everything at them, and I just had to play my game.”
In the closing minutes of the period, Michigan fought off a 5-on-3 and was awarded its own two-man advantage. And sophomore defenseman Lee Moffie blasted a bouncing puck past Howe from the right circle to extend the lead to 2-0.
Colorado College, which rebounded from a similar early deficit against the Eagles on Friday, was on its heels for good.
“We didn’t have quite the same jump as (Friday). We were a little bit tired in some areas,” Colorado College coach Scott Owens said. “Part of that had to do with Michigan — they’re big, they’re strong, they’re old and they skate well.”
Entering the first intermission backed by a pair of what Berenson called “opportunistic goals,” the Wolverines turned up their intensity — a trip to the Frozen Four was just 40 minutes away.
The depleted defensive corps — with junior defenseman Brandon Burlon absent due to an inflamed esophagus — took control. Hunwick faced just seven shots in each of the first two periods and 15 in the third period.
Meanwhile, the Michigan offense didn’t slow down, pelting Howe with 43 shots — 20 of which came in the second period alone.
“There were probably 30 minutes there in the middle there that we couldn’t get much going,” Owens said. “Michigan was very sound defensively — I can see why they’ve won 10 of their last 11 or now, 11 of their past 12 games.”
In a penalty-filled game, Michigan depended heavily on its penalty-kill unit, which finished with only one dint in its armor — a Tigers’ goal from forward Rylan Schwartz in the final five minutes of the game.
In the race for a title, Michigan’s early breakaway speed proved too much for the Tigers’ comeback hopes, sending the Wolverines back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2008. The buzzer sounded with Colorado College swarming around the net in one last desperate dash, effectively ending the Tigers chase of a national championship.
The Wolverines now have two weeks to prepare for Midwest Regional No. 1 seed North Dakota. Michigan will have a Frozen Four date with the Fighting Sioux in St. Paul, Minn. on April 7.