DETROIT – At the end of last season, “Billy Sauer” chants were nearly unimaginable.
Despite a stellar performance between the pipes for the majority of the CCHA championship game last year, Sauer committed a critical mistake, the kind that prevents a team from achieving its highest goals.
Sauer made an easy save but couldn’t clear the puck, allowing Jason Paige to stick it between the goalie’s legs to seal Notre Dame’s 2-1 win and conference championship.
His inconsistent play plagued the team all year.
But this weekend – and season – was a completely different story.
Once the horn sounded to seal the Michigan hockey team’s 2-1 victory and CCHA playoff championship over Miami (Ohio), the Wolverines bull rushed the junior as congratulations for his near-shutout, 27-save performance.
“I just tried to tackle Bill as hard as I (could),” defenseman Chris Summers said. “He gave us a chance to win and that’s all you can do. He played out of his mind today.”
During the on-ice celebration, Michigan coach Red Berenson’s first words over the loudspeaker singled out the netminder’s play in front of the Joe Louis Arena crowd. And as the Mason Cup trophy presentation began, the Wolverine faithful chanted his name from the arena’s upper bowl.
It was Sauer’s weekend performance that anchored Michigan (31-5-4 overall), a team picked to finish fourth in the CCHA during the preseason, in its playoff championship run.
With Michigan on the penalty kill late in the second period, Sauer came up with not one, but two eye-popping saves against Miami (32-7-1).
Sauer saved RedHawk forward Pat Cannone’s point-blank shot from the right crease before the rebound was fired back at the goalie. The puck flew between Sauer’s legs and hit the post before the junior sprawled onto the ice to trap the rubber disc under his maize sweater.
Thirty seconds later, Sauer found himself splayed along the goal line once again. Sauer dove to the left post with his glove to stop a follow-up Miami shot after blocking a bullet from the opposite side of the crease.
“I think that could’ve been the turning point of the game,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “He made it look easy tonight, and when goalies are playing well, they make it look easy.”
The previous night, Sauer was just the opposite. He had difficulty finding a rhythm between the posts, facing just eight shots and letting in three over the first two periods of the high-scoring 6-4 win over Northern Michigan.
But against 13 shots in the third period Friday, Sauer displayed the poise that catapulted the Wolverines to their eighth all-time CCHA championship the next night.
“As the game wore on (Friday), we’re hanging on the last five minutes and he fought hard to keep that win,” Berenson said. “He was the difference in the game last night and he carried that on for (Saturday’s) game.”
Sauer’s performance didn’t garner All-Tournament team honors – Miami goalie Jeff Zatkoff won instead – but the junior brushed the snub aside in light of the team accomplishing another of its preseason goals.
“When we get our rings in the summer I won’t be feeling too bad about it,” Sauer said. “That’s the most important part of it, just that we went out there and got the win.”
“It’s exciting because we haven’t had a Michigan banner since our junior class has been here,” added Tim Miller, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player with two goals and two assists. “It’s been really disappointing. To get one up at the GLI was really exciting and especially to get the second one up (for the CCHA title).
“Every time I come to a Red Wings game now I can see those two banners for the whole year.”
All that’s left – a National Championship for the East Regional-bound and top-seeded Wolverines.
“We have one more goal we need to accomplish and then we’ll be set,” said freshman Aaron Palushaj, who had a goal in the championship game. “But for right now, it feels very good.”