DETROIT — After Michigan senior Jason Ryznar scored an empty-net goal with less than a second remaining in Michigan’s 4-2 victory over Ohio State, Wolverine goalie Al Montoya left the net he had been guarding so closely. He skated throughout his zone and along the boards with his hands raised in celebration. He even banged the glass with his goalie stick as the 16,000-plus fans in attendance at Joe Louis Arena — most of whom were clad in maize and blue — cheered. And because the final buzzer hadn’t sounded yet, all Ohio State could do was watch.
And after the formality of a faceoff, the Wolverines players flipped their helmets and gloves in the air and continued the celebration of their third CCHA tournament victory in the last four years. With Saturday’s win, No. 4 Michigan (30-7-3) avenged its loss to the No. 10 Buckeyes (27-10-4) in last year’s CCHA Tournament final and wrestled the Mason Cup back to Ann Arbor.
“Last year was tough, watching them skate around with the Cup,” Michigan forward Jeff Tambellini said. “We came out, played hard and got it done. Any time you can beat Ohio State — with that rivalry they have with Michigan — it’s a great feeling.”
Yesterday, the NCAA Selection Committee set the bracket for the NCAA Tournament. The committee placed Michigan in the Midwest region as the No. 2 seed in the four-team Grand Rapids regional. It is Michigan’s record 15th-straight tournament appearance. Michigan will play the Midwest No. 3 seed Wisconsin. Despite the loss, Ohio State is a No. 3 seed in the West regional and will take on No. 2 Cornell.
The Wolverines took the lead early in the third period when Tambellini — the tournament’s Most Valuable Player — flipped a shot at the Ohio State net from deep in the corner. The puck took a fortunate bounce off of Ohio State defender Jason DeSantis and slipped past Ohio State goalie David Caruso to give Michigan a 3-2 lead that they would not relinquish.
“It’s a typical Tambellini kind of goal,” Tambellini said. “I’ve scored half my goals in my career like that. I just shoot the puck, throw it to the net, and usually good things happen. We got a good bounce tonight.”
Ohio State got one too. In the second period, just 11 seconds after senior Milan Gajic gave Michigan a 2-1 lead with his second power play goal of the game, Ohio State captain J.B. Bittner centered a puck from behind Michigan’s net. The pass deflected off of Michigan defenseman Eric Werner’s skate and into the net to even the game at 2-2.
The game — a matchup between the CCHA’s top two teams — was hard-hitting and close throughout. Werner set the tone less than a minute into the game when he leveled Ohio State forward Andrew Schembri in the neutral zone. And until Ryznar scored the empty-net goal to push the lead to 4-2, the margin was never more than one goal.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Ohio State has had a great year, and they lived up to their billing tonight. It was a game that could have gone either way.”
Ohio State coach John Markell wished that one whistle, in particular, went the Buckeyes’ way. In the first period, with Michigan leading 1-0, a Buckeye sent a shot at Montoya from the point. Montoya made the save and the puck disappeared, for just a second, somewhere in the clutter of his jersey and pads. Then the whistle blew.
An instant later the puck became visible behind Montoya. Ohio State forward Kenny Bernard slapped the puck into the net and Ohio State thought they had evened the score. But the play was reviewed, and because the whistle had blown, the goal was disallowed.
“The puck was held for a millisecond, and the whistle was gone,” Markell said. “(The referee) lost sight of the puck. That was a legitimate goal. Any time you can score a goal in a game with this kind of magnitude — I think we had other mistakes, but that kind of goal being called back is positioning by the referee. We have to live with it.”
He also had to live with the stellar play of Montoya. The junior made 27 saves and faced significantly more pressure than he had seenh in the earlier rounds of the tournament. After a sub-par regular season, Montoya has raised the level of his game in the playoffs. In four playoff games this season, Montoya has surrendered just four goals.
On Friday, Michigan beat Alaska-Fairbanks 3-1 in the semi-finals. Juniors Tambellini and Brandon Kaleniecki and freshman Chad Kolarik scored and Al Montoya made 12 saves to put the Wolverines in their fifth CCHA Tournament final in a row.