DENVER – Maybe we were just a little too spoiled, watching Michigan get everything it wanted.
College Hockey Showcase champions. Great Lakes Invitational champions. CCHA regular-season, then CCHA tournament champions. A trip to the Frozen Four.
None of it was originally expected, but all of it happened.
And then the Wolverines found out they were playing Notre Dame in the NCAA semifinals, a team they beat twice in the regular season. They were playing a team that completely folded in the CCHA Tournament and slipped into the NCAA Tournament.
Even though Michigan insisted it wasn’t so, a maize-and-blue spot in the national championship game was almost taken for granted.
Game time. The Wolverines allowed two goals in the first six minutes of the first period. All of a sudden, the game was looking a little too similar to that now-infamous 3-2 comeback win against the Irish at Yost Ice Arena.
There was still hope, right?
Then, the Fighting Irish struck once more. Sauer was collapsing for the second straight year in Denver.
The first period mercifully ended.
And at the start of the second, Bryan Hogan was between the pipes for the Wolverines.
That’s when I thought I was watching the last Michigan hockey game of the season.
Michigan coach Red Berenson called Sauer rock-solid nearly all season, yet pulled him after one period and three goals allowed. He replaced the junior with a freshman who has played just five games all season.
But the magic of this team, the reason the Wolverines got to the Frozen Four, is that regardless of the situation, they’ve fought back.
It’s worked for them all season. It’s made us all spoiled.
When the Wolverines scored twice in 15 seconds to narrow Notre Dame’s lead to one, it felt like it might happen.
When Chad Kolarik poked the puck in the net to tie the game, sliding headfirst on the ice in celebration, it looked like it would happen.
But after clawing back and forcing everyone to believe they could do it again, the Wolverines saw their season end as suddenly as it began.
It started almost exactly six months ago with an improbable 4-3 overtime win against Boston College and a fluke goal by Louie Caporusso.
It ended with an overtime loss, but the slaying shot was so dead-on that the puck rocketed right back out of the net. Hogan was frozen on the ice in the same half-sprawled position in which he had tried to save the puck.
He was there for fifteen seconds, maybe more, until Kolarik skated up and said something in his ear.
“He’s a freshman, and he played, what, four or five games all year?” Kolarik said. “I just thanked him because he gave us seniors a chance, and that’s all you can ask from a goalie is to give you a chance.”
He did give them a chance. The seniors, especially Kolarik with his two goals, gave them a chance.
And all year, this team turned doubters into believers. Even in its last game, even in overtime, Michigan made fans believe it could get what it wanted one more time.
That’s why, until I saw the lamp light up behind the Wolverines’ net, I didn’t know I was watching the last Michigan hockey game of the season.
– Ratkowiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.