The Michigan Wolverines lost 3-2 in overtime to the Denver Pioneers in one of the best college hockey games of the season.
Michigan came out of the gates nervous and sluggish and it felt like Denver was playing with seven players on the ice. Every time the Wolverines entered the zone there were two Pioneers waiting to double team them with reinforcements lurking nearby. Offensively, Denver was suffocating for the first 15 minutes of the period and its clear speed advantage was a problem for the Wolverines.
Michigan goalie Erik Portillo’s biggest problem all season (rebound opportunities) bit him early in this one. Portillo conceded several big rebounds in the first and at the 8:38 mark, Brett Stapley took advantage of a rebound — and poor discipline by Luke Hughes — to put the Pioneers up 1-0.
The Wolverines finally registered their first shot on goal with just under four minutes remaining and you could feel the air re-enter the building. Michigan finally started to play looser and generated three more shots and a few scoring chances as the period came to a close.
The Wolverines were lucky it was only 1-0 entering the intermission, but the odds were already stacked against them. Entering this game, Denver was 15-0-1 on the season when leading after the first period.
In the second period, Michigan answered the bell and finally started to resemble the team from Allentown. The Wolverines came out physical and began to match the speed of the Pioneers. Just under four minutes into the frame, Michigan tied the game.
Nolan Moyle instigated a rush and pushed the puck deep into the zone, before dropping it off to Garrett Van Whye on the boards. GVW played a puck back to Moyle behind the net who fed a late-trailing Jimmy Lambert for the equalizer.
Michigan controlled the puck for most of the second, but was unable to find the go-ahead goal. Denver pushed back to close the period and had a late-push with the first power play of the game.
But Portillo was on a mission in the second period.
The Super Swede stopped shot after shot, fired up the team during a media timeout, and even lost his helmet (METAL moment of the game) in a scrum after making another key save.
Thanks to the superb effort by Portillo, the teams entered the third period dead locked at one.
In the third, Michigan began the period the same way it began the second: PHYSICAL. However, Denver was prepared to counter and did so by controlling the neutral zone.
Following a forced Brendan Brisson neutral zone turnover, Denver’s Mike Benning fired a shot from the blue line that was deflected by Cameron Wright, bounced off the post and into the net. 2-1, Pioneers with 14:24 to play.
Michigan wasted no time answering. Mark Estapa sacrificed his body on a shot block attempt to open up a rush led by Michael Pastujov. Pasta tried to find Thomas Bordeleau, but an active stick from a Denver defenseman sent the puck slowly bouncing.
But a heads up play by Bordy —stopping at the goal post — allowed the puck to reach him anyway and he beat Denver goalie Magnus Chrona to tie the game.
The goal seemingly fired up Denver, which attacked the rest of the period and was generously award two more power play opportunities for its efforts; the Wolverines’ power play never saw the ice in regulation.
Despite the penalty discrepancy, Michigan killed them all and Portillo continued to keep the Wolverines in the game. Finally, it was time for the most stressful two words in sports: overtime hockey.
Michigan dominated the overtime period despite two questionable non-calls on the Pioneers. Luke Hughes had a one-on-one opportunity, but the puck rolled up on his stick and he was unable to get all of the shot.
Owen Power connected with Bordy on a stretch pass who sent a floating touch pass ahead to Brendan Brisson, who tipped the puck. Chrona was able to adjust and make the save.
It had become routine in overtime that Denver would attack briefly, Michigan would regain control and then sustain an attack for several minutes. However, one miscue in their own zone cost the Wolverines their season.
Two Michigan players were skating towards a loose puck and a break seemed imminent. But each player thought the other was going to take it and both skated past. Denver regained possession and found the nation’s leading scorer Bobby Brink in the corner.
The Wolverines rushed to reset, but nobody checked a trailing Carter Savoie who leaked into the slot. Portillo delivered with an amazing first save, but the rebound fell right back to Savoie who scored the game-winner.
A magical season ended in one of the most brutal ways a sporting event can end.
Denver will face the winner of Minnesota/Minnesota State on Saturday night for the National Championship. I’ll go mow my lawn (shout out John Bacon).