Rocky Mountain Low: Michigan Stunned in OT
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
DENVER Senior captain and Hobey Hat Trick finalist Kevin Porter, who entered the Frozen Four as the nation's leading scorer, came to the postgame press conference with his eyes a bright and watery red, having just seen his college hockey career come to a jarring end.
The emotion on his face, as he quietly sat at the podium, answering questions with only a few words at a time, certainly reflected the feeling of the entire Michigan team — a squad that had enjoyed as close to a dream season this year as a college team can have.
The Wolverines were the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, with a nation's-best 33-5-4 record heading into Thursday's Frozen Four showdown. They had defied preseason expectations, and with 11 freshmen on the team, they had rolled into the Frozen Four by playing dominant hockey of late.
But on Thursday, after battling back twice — first from a 3-0 deficit after the first period, then from a one-goal disadvantage late in the third period — Michigan was stunned in overtime, falling 5-4 to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who will now play in their first-ever NCAA championship game.
Much like Porter, Michigan coach Red Berenson appeared similarly stunned.
"I don't want to talk about our season right now, but talking about the game, it's disappointing," said Berenson. "Our team really wanted to win this and really thought they could."
With a win on Thursday, Berenson would have reached 26 NCAA tournament wins in his 24-year coaching career — a mark that would have tied him with Boston University's Jack Parker for second all-time, just one win behind Boston College coach Jerry York, who will coach the Eagles in the title game Saturday.
And the veteran coach was quickly faced with arguably one of the tougher decisions of his career following the first period against Notre Dame.
Berenson chose to remove junior goaltender Billy Sauer from the game after the first period in favor or freshman Bryan Hogan. Sauer, who entered the Frozen Four with a sparkling 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, allowed three goals on nine shots in the first period — the third of which was a weak short-side tally by Notre Dame's Ryan Thang.
Sauer also had an eight game winning streak entering Thursday's game, stopping 43 of 44 shots in the NCAA East Regional 10 days ago. Hogan, on the other hand, was asked to come in and be a hero. But he had only played in five games all year.
"Had I not watched the North Dakota game, I may not have pulled him," said Berenson, referring to BC's 6-1 triumph over goalie Jean- Phillipe Lamoureux and North Dakota earlier in the day. "I mean, [Sauer] has been our bread-and-butter goalie all year, but I just didn't like the way the game was going. Billy looked like he was fighting the puck. There were two goals that he probably would have stopped another night. And we just watched the number one goalie in the country give up six goals. So it doesn't matter what you've done. We had to change the momentum in the game. So I think that helped our team a little bit.
"It was a tough decision, but you're trying to win the game."
Indeed, the rookie came in and played an inspired game, giving life to the Wolverines as they stormed back to tie the game 3-3.
Continued Berenson, "I just told our team, 'We're going to put [Hogan] in, and we're going to give him a chance to play well.' Usually when you do that, the team responds, and they did."
After Hogan gave up a third-period tally to Kevin Deeth, the Wolverines tied the score again, on a goal by freshman Carl Hagelin. Ultimately, though, Notre Dame's Calle Ridderwall shot the puck through a screen in overtime, sending the Irish to the title game in Denver.
Hogan, meanwhile, finished the game with 18 saves on 20 shots.
And afterwards, senior assistant captain Chad Kolarik expressed nothing but gratitude for Hogan's efforts in relief.
"He came in, he's a freshman, he's played — what? — four or five games all year," said Kolarik. "He did a heck of a job. I just thanked him [at the end of the game] because he gave us seniors a chance. And that's all you can ask from your goalie. He played really well. It wasn't his fault. He played a heck of a game."
For Sauer, it was a shocking end to what had appeared to be a turnaround season. Despite coming into the year with sub-par career numbers, the junior netminder had rebounded, often crediting new Wolverines goalie coach (and former Michigan netminder) Josh Blackburn for helping with the improvement.
During the last offseason, Sauer had to live with the memory of allowing seven goals in the Wolverines' first-round NCAA game against North Dakota. Now, he'll have to live with not even finishing the game against Notre Dame.
His goals-against average this season, 1.95 when all was said and done, broke Marty Turco's school record (2.16 in 1995-96). Indeed, getting pulled 20 minutes into his first-ever Frozen Four game was just not something anyone saw coming.
Said Berenson, "It seems like there's so much pressure on these kids. Sometimes, you'd rather just keep playing after the previous weekend. You get two weeks to think about it. Regardless, [the goaltender] is the pressure position on the team. These are young kids. Billy Sauer just turned 20. And he's a junior. I mean, there are freshmen older than he is in our league."
Berenson, a 1962 graduate of Michigan, has seen it all — at both the college and NHL levels. He was even named NHL Coach of the Year in 1981 as head coach of the St. Louis Blues.
Now, Thursday's loss to Notre Dame leaves Berenson — and Michigan — feeling blue.
"It's tough," said Berenson. "It's really tough. This team has had a terrific season, right from game one. They've been an absolute delight to coach, and to watch them have fun and work hard and succeed and to get this far, it wasn't a fluke. It's disappointing for them. I think they really thought they could pull this off, and I thought they could too. Porter and Kolarik have run out of time. And I'm running out of time, obviously. But I can't tell you I've enjoyed a season any more than this."