As a young and fickle hockey fan, I was the guy that die-hard fans hated. I watched regular-season games essentially just so I would know who was on what team once playoffs came around. I can honestly say that watching a professional hockey game this time of year was a priority only when college basketball, spring training baseball and the NFL draft were not available.
But when playoffs came around, it was a whole different story.
It’s seems like playoff hockey games always have storylines worth watching. There is always an old timer — a Ray Borque or a Dave Andreychuk — helping his team through the playoffs and kissing the Cup. It’s the mystique of the playoffs that makes this time of year special.
College hockey’s no different. You never know what a senior will do when playing in possibly his final game. In Michigan’s run through the NCAA Tournament in 1998, senior Marty Turco put the team on his back and carried the Wolverines. It’s the mystique of the playoffs that makes this possible.
After he won the Hobey Baker in 1997, Michigan’s Brendan Morrison said, “Sometimes the best team doesn’t win.” His team, with his class of nine seniors, had just lost 3-2 to Boston University in the semifinals of the Tournament. Last year, Nebraska-Omaha came into Yost and stole one from the Wolverines. The point is: anything can happen — playoff hockey has a mystique to it.
Knowing all of that, I was light on my feet as I made my way into the Yost Ice Arena press box for the final weekend of the year. I had a plate of subs and a plastic cup full water. Even the event staff at Yost stepped it up for the playoffs this weekend with enough cupcakes, cookies and brownies to satisfy the entire hockey team.
When Friday’s game started, Notre Dame looked like it might put up a fight and make it a true playoff matchup. Notre Dame was a team that had allowed Michigan to score in the first six minutes of every game this season, but it was still able to shut out the Wolverines in the first period. Their 1-0 lead at the first intermission was their only lead of the year against mighty Michigan, and the tension was beginning to mount like a true playoff game. But then I was robbed. The Wolverines stole the playoff hockey game that I had so desperately been waiting for right out from under me with a seven-goal second period, and the rest of the game was a wash.
I went back to Yost on Saturday with a little less hope. Maybe the playoffs don’t really start until it’s a do-or-die situation. After all, the Wolverines have been a lock for the NCAA playoffs for about a month now, and the Irish — a team that hasn’t won since Jan. 2 — were probably hoping that their nightmare season would end. So I began thinking that I would have to wait until next week’s Super 6 to see a true playoff hockey game. For me, Saturday’s game started without the same playoff feel from the night before. I had mentally made the switch back to regular-season mode, fully expecting to see another Michigan blowout.
But the players didn’t make the same switch. Before the game, Brandon Rogers, one of the 10 seniors on this team, told his teammates to expect a 1-0 game. Despite the fact that they had handled Notre Dame to the tune of a 39-7 combined score in their first five meetings, the seniors knew that this game would be different. Why?
“It was their make-or-break game,” senior Milan Gajic said. “They knew they were done if they lost, and we were expecting everything they gave us tonight.”
On Saturday, the Irish — or maybe just Morgan Cey, taking on the Turco role — played like they wanted to win, and they gave me the playoff game I wanted so badly.
Four minutes into the third period, it was clear that Notre Dame wasn’t going to roll over, and the chances were running out for Michigan. When freshman Chad Kolarik, who leads the team with four game-winning goals, missed an open net, he slammed his stick against the ice in disgust. The pressure was mounting, and everyone was on the edge of their seats. It wasn’t quite overtime, but, with the way the goalies were playing, it was transformed into a sudden death game.
In overtime, sophomore T.J. Hensick, who leads the Wolverines with 22 goals, skated around the net and looked like he was going beat Cey to the far post. One of the Michigan coaches in the press box shouted, “Game over!” But it was a little too early. Moving a little faster in what could have been his last collegiate game, Cey beat Hensick to the far post. Hensick skated away with his hands over his head. Every goal counted, every move was important and every save was game-saving.
Only in the playoffs is the pressure this high.
And then the real kicker came. The announcer came across the sound system and announced the scores from around the CCHA. Michigan State was in overtime, tied at 4-4 with Miami (Ohio). Ohio State was in overtime, tied at 0-0 with Ferris State. Two underdogs taking good teams to overtime told me what I already knew: Playoff hockey was in full swing.
And when the game I was watching made its way into overtime, I got giddy. As a writer and a fan of the game, this is what you live for. You live to watch Cey, a goalie who has been walked all over by the Wolverines so far this season, stand on his head, get injured and stay on the ice to finish the game. You live to watch the Michigan seniors in their last game at Yost — senior Eric Werner score the game-winning goal off a rebound from senior David Moss off a pass from senior Nick Martens with senior Milan Gajic also on the ice. You can’t write a script any better than this.
And of course, it’s in the playoffs.
Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.