I could tell it was coming. Michigan couldn't clear the zone. They were gassed, desperately flailing about trying to get the puck out of the zone, but couldn't. Everyone was exhausted but at the same time trying to do too much in their defensive zone. And then it finally happened. The Bulldogs found the back of the net, the final buzzer sounded and the game, and Michigan's season, were over.
But I wasn't mad. I wasn't even upset. Sure I was a little disappointed by the outcome, but when I turned off the television that faded away as well. The season was over.
Regardless of the ending, I'm proud of this team. They weren't very deep. They weren't the most talented squad. They had trouble scoring. They were starting a former walk-on as their goalie. They didn't even sport a 20 goal scorer this season. And yet there they were. Playing in the national championship game despite it all. Not only that, they were a goal in overtime from winning the whole damn thing. That is something to be proud of, regardless of the final score.
Michigan ended the season the way it played 90% of it; in a low scoring nail biter. In a lot of respects this game was similar to Michigan's 2-0 shut out of North Dakota. Michigan was obviously the weaker offensive team. They were the slower team. They knew the only way they were coming out with a win was to play defensive, counter attacking style. And that's what they tried to do. Unfortunately, they just didn't have enough gas in the tank to pull it off.
As I watched the game I saw Michigan's defensemen and forwards getting beaten to loose pucks, having spacing problems in the defensive end, allowing oodles of point shots by UMD's defensemen, and watching draw after draw going UMD's way. These things weren't happening when Michigan shocked the hockey world on Thursday, but they were happening on Saturday. And then there was the constant parade to the penalty box. Say what you want about the officiating, but Michigan was rightfully called for 7 of the 10 penalties it took. And they were penalties that tired players take. Holds, trips, interference. The types of penalties you never take when you're running at the same speed as your opposition. They were obvious indicators that Michigan was pooped.
But who can blame them for being tired? This team had been on a 13-1 run prior to the game. They'd played the most talented team in the nation two days prior in what was ostensibly a one goal game. They were out shot, out chanced, and out whatevered. The only difference was Michigan had the heart and the spirit to battle through it and upset the more talented team. Having been through something like this on the ice before (albeit at a much, much, much lower level) I can say confidently that the amount of energy and intensity it takes to pull out a game like the North Dakota game is immeasurable. It leaves you elated but at the same time it drains you to your core. And no matter what the story was supposed to say, you don't always bounce back. Take a page from Michigan's own history. In 1997, Michigan lost a nail biter to Boston University despite out shooting and outplaying the Terriers. The next game, Boston was swamped by North Dakota in the finals. It happens. And it's more common than we like to think.
Despite the dissappointment I feel over the loss, I can't help but be happy for this group that they got this far and that they did this much. Two Frozen Four appearances. CCHA championships, regular season crowns, GLIs. This was a team of over-achievers and young stars. This wasn't a murderers row of scoring demons, this was a team that played the only system it could and played it to near perfection. They were arguably one of the best "teams" I've seen at Michigan. They played together, and they paid the price together, and they were successful together. And Their grit and determination are only two of the admirable things about them. This was a special team.
I'll be sad to see some of the players depart. Over the last few months I became a huge Scooter Vaughn fan and have always had a soft spot for Michigan's tiny sniper Louie Caporusso. But as we say good-bye to these players we'll welcome new ones and the cycle will go on. Michigan will remain Michigan and we'll move forward together. So, there is sadness and gratitude in my voice. This team gave everything they could for each other and Michigan.
It's been a hell of a ride this season, irrespective of how it finished. I couldn't be prouder of this group of young men. Go Blue!
Bullets after the jump...
NCAA Finals Bullets:
Congratulations to Minnesota-Duluth - The Bulldogs deserved to win on Saturday. They played like a team possessed throughout the tournament. I had a chance to watch on number of their tournament games and I could not have come away more impressed with UMD. Their spacing, puck control, and speed were at another level compared to their competition. I honestly still marvel at how well they adjusted and created space against their opponents. Michigan hadn't given up scoring chances like that since the Miami series. The Bulldogs were the better team on Saturday and they deserved to win. Congratulations guys. Well done.
The Waived Off Goal - I have no clue how or why that wasn't a goal (rules aside). The puck clearly, clearly, clearly crossed the line before the whistle. And I have no clue why those two bozos in the striped shirts went to "review" a video replay that clearly, clearly, clearly showed the puck crossed the line before the whistle. The explanation of the waive off was simple enough:
SECTION 3. The duties of the referee are as follows: a. Have general supervision of the game and full control of game officials and players from the time the teams exit their dressing rooms, during the warm-up, during the game, including any stoppages or interruptions of play, and after the game until such time as the teams enter their dressing rooms. In case of any dispute, the referee may change the decision or that of any other official, provided the change is made before play is renewed. The referee’s decision is final; there is no appeal. As there is a human factor involved in blowing the whistle to stop play, the referee may intend for the play to be stopped slightly before the whistle actually being blown. For example, the fact that the puck may come loose or cross the goal line before the sound of the whistle has no bearing if the referee determined that the play had stopped. (From the NCAA Hockey Rule Book, HR-52, Rule Five - emphasis added)
SECTION 3. The duties of the referee are as follows:
a. Have general supervision of the game and full control of game officials and players from the time the teams exit their dressing rooms, during the warm-up, during the game, including any stoppages or interruptions of play, and after the game until such time as the teams enter their dressing rooms.
In case of any dispute, the referee may change the decision or that of any other official, provided the change is made before play is renewed. The referee’s decision is final; there is no appeal.
As there is a human factor involved in blowing the whistle to stop play, the referee may intend for the play to be stopped slightly before the whistle actually being blown. For example, the fact that the puck may come loose or cross the goal line before the sound of the whistle has no bearing if the referee determined that the play had stopped. (From the NCAA Hockey Rule Book, HR-52, Rule Five - emphasis added)
It's a rule. It's on the books. But if the ref decided the play was dead, why in hell did they waste time "reviewing" it? There's nothing that we can do about it. It is, however, a rule that must, must, must be changed. The subjective thinking process of the referee leaves too much lag time and too much discretion to the referee to stop play. Play should be stopped when, and only when, the whistle is blown. But that's not how it reads, so we're stuck with it.
The Waive Off Didn't Cost Michigan the Game - While the waive off sucked, I don't think it was what kept the NCAA trophy out of Michigan's trophy case. The Wolverines were outshot in every period (again) and, unlike the North Dakota game, gave up more quality scoring chances than I can remember them allowing in months. I'd venture a guess that UMD had double the prime scoring chances that NoDak did. As it was, a goal from Ben Winnett put Michigan ahead early anwyay. The issue was that Michigan could never build on that lead. UMD stormed back in the second to take a two goal lead and only an incredibly flukey goal from Jeff Rohrkemper pulled Michigan even. UMD controlled the flow and the pace of the game, and watching it I was filled with a sense of dread that the inevitable would happen. Michigan's inability to maintain any sort of actual pressure on Kenny Reiter was the determinative factor, not the waive off.
Top Line Struggles - One of the biggest stories for Michigan throughout the Tournament was the lack of production from the Wolverines' top line. Caporusso and Hagelin produced a combined four points during the tournament and 2 of those were on Scooter Vaughn's empty netter against North Dakota. I was a huge fan of Red's decision to put Vaughn on the Capo/Hags line in the third period even though, sadly, it didn't turn in to a goal. The first line was shut down pretty thoroughly, and it's tough to win a national championship when that's the case.
Tired Legs - As I alluded to above the fold, Michigan looked exhausted. I must've yelled at the tube two dozen times "He's Just Standing There!" Excuses are a penny a piece, but Michigan didn't have it's legs on Saturday. UMD controlled the offensive boards and found space in the middle of the slot like no other team Michigan's faced this season. Part of it was disciplined play by the Bulldogs, creating space, but the other part was that Michigan didn't have the gas in the tank to skate with them. Sometimes you can overcome weariness with spirit and emotion, but I didn't see that from the Wolverines. I think they spent too much physical and emotion fuel against NoDak to have enough in reserve against Duluth. That's my observation anyway, take it FWIW.
Hunwick Was Great - The caveat to the bullet above is that Shawn Hunwick was a ball of fire all game. I absolutely loved that he lost his mind and went after the whole UMD team when Connolly flicked the puck into his net after the whistle blew. That was the first time I'd seen any of the Wolverines get mad, and I was hopeful it would put some fire in their bellys. And to an extent it did. The first line's best shift immediately followed Hunwick flip out. If personally think he was the Tournament's most outstanding player, regardless of them handing it out to J.T. Brown. He was simply outstanding and gave one of the great individual performance of the course of the torunament that I've ever, and likely will ever see.
Did Jon Merrill Ever Come Off The Ice? - Halfway through the game I started to wonder if there were two of him. I'm willing to bet that Merrill probably saw more ice time this season than any freshman defenseman in Michigan history. I'm even more willing to say that he probably played more NCAA tournament time than any freshman in tournament history. Holy crap did he have a tournament. Please stay Jon. Please.
Michigan Loses A Lot of People This Offseason - Seven players to be exact. This includes its top three scorers (Hagelin, Caporusso, Vaughn); its best faceoff man are arguably its best forward in the tournament (Matt Rust), a solid defenseman in Chad Langlais, and back up goalie Bryan Hogan and Forward Ben Winnett. That's a lot of offense heading out the door that the Wolverines are going to have to replace.
The Defense Returns - I'm praying that New Jersey let's Merrill stay in Ann Arbor another year, and if that's the case the Wolverines should be solid on the blue line next season. With only one departure on the back end, Michigan could be one of the better defensive teams in the conference next year.
What a Year - When you sit down and think about it, really look at the year, this is a team that should be celebrated. It wasn't too long ago (middle of February) that Michigan was in the midst of a three game losing streak and not firing on all cylinders. In response, they went on a huge run that saw them advance to the NCAA Finals. There was the Big Chill at the Big House and Michigan's dismantling of Sparty. Winning the CCHA regular season title. Upsetting the No.1 team in the country in the NCAA semis. It was awesome.
My thanks to the Seniors for a magical year and a tremendous run to the finals. Go Blue!