Cincinnati — Michigan’s return trip to the NCAA Tournament on Friday was not for the faint of heart. For stretches, Notre Dame outmuscled it, suffocating the Wolverines’ prolific, nation-leading offense.
And for the majority of the game, it looked like Notre Dame would escape U.S. Bank Arena with a victory, ending UM’s season. But whatever coach Red Berenson told his team in the locker room during the second intermission rang true, as Michigan scored a third-period goal to send the game to overtime.
During the intermission prior to the extra frame, Berenson couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. He talked to assistant coach Brian Wiseman about how Michigan was knotted at two at the end of regulation in the 1996 national championship game that was, coincidentally, at U.S. Bank Arena. Eventually, Brendan Morrison scored the winning goal to win the title over Colorado College.
And just like 20 years ago, Michigan (25-7-5) took the momentum from the final frame into overtime to capture a 3-2 win over Notre Dame on Friday, advancing to a regional final against North Dakota (31-6-4) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Just when it looked like Notre Dame had found the answer to Michigan’s feared CCM line — Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte — the trio pounced on the smallest of opportunities.
Connor skated the puck into the zone before sending the puck to Compher, who was at the bottom of the left circle. Without hesitation, Compher slid a no-look, backhanded pass to Motte, who banged home an easy put-in.
“JT kind of threw one to the back door and I’m not sure how it snuck through,” Motte said. “But it ended up on my tape and I hit the (net). He has a feeling where Kyle or I is going to be, so I wouldn’t call it a blind pass.”
Added Compher: “I knew he was on the rush with us and that he was on my right side, but I couldn’t tell you that one was going on his tape for sure.”
Michigan is sure lucky it did.
Earlier in the week, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson called the Wolverines an “offensive juggernaut” and pointed specifically to Michigan’s line of all Hobey Baker Award finalists. With the assist on the final goal, Connor upped his nation-leading point total to 70, becoming the first Wolverine to have that many since Morrison in 1996-97.
Stopping Connor and his line, Jackson said, would drastically increase Notre Dame’s chance at victory.
“One lapse against those guys and you’re going to pay for it,” said Irish forward Sam Herr.
Prior to that lapse, they had the answer throughout the entirety of regulation. But there’s more to Michigan’s top-ranked offense, and that was on display early.
Midway through the first period Justin Selman found twine as he, defenseman Michael Downing and forward Alex Kile completed a tic-tac-toe goal.
The lead was short-lived, though. With just less than five minutes left in the first period, forward Anders Bjork capitalized on a 2-on-1 opportunity, sniping one past Michigan netminder Steve Racine.
Notre Dame brought that momentum into the second period. Twenty-four seconds into the frame, Bjork raced the puck through the neutral zone and left it for Thomas DiPauli, who rifled the puck past the right shoulder of Racine (28 saves).
The Fighting Irish (19-11-7) maintained the edge for the remainder of the period, holding the Wolverines to just five shots in the period. The Irish jammed the neutral zone the entire period, allowing the Wolverines no room to run their fluid offense.
“We haven’t been in a desperate situation all season, really, until now,” Berenson said.
However, heading into the third period, Michigan knew the game was far from over, having outscored opponents, 74-24, in the final period this season.
That trend continued on Friday. Midway through the third, when it appeared Notre Dame was well on its way to closing the game, defenseman Zach Werenski blasted a one-timer past netminder Cal Peterson. The Notre Dame goalie never even saw the puck.
“That was huge,” Berenson said of the goal. “And from that point on, we started to play with more momentum.”
Added Motte: “I think we have confidence no matter what situation we are in. We just needed one bounce of one shift to get the momentum rolling there and we got that in the third and it snowballed for us.”
Part of Michigan’s inability to create offense was its inability to use its special teams. Notre Dame’s best friend on Friday was its ability to play clean hockey. And that is a key to beating Michigan, as the Wolverines entered the game with the nation’s best power play, converting 31.76 percent (47-of-148) of their man-advantage chances.
However, Notre Dame’s ability to play clean hockey still didn’t translate to a win. And while it dominated most of the game’s possession, it didn’t matter.
The only shot that mattered was from Motte’s stick. And he and his line are the primary reason Notre Dame’s season is over and Michigan will live to fight another day.
North Dakota 6, Northeastern 2: After falling behind 1-0 in the first three minutes, third-ranked North Dakota (31-6-4) scored five straight goals and beat Northeastern (22-14-5) to advance to the regional title game.
Brock Boeser scored his 26th goal of the season and assisted on two other goals.
The Hawks also got goals from Johnny Simonson, Tucker Poolman, Luke Johnson, Bryn Chyzyk and Drake Caggiula.
North Dakota goalie Cam Johnson made 24 saves, while Ryan Ruck stopped 30 shots for the Huskies.
Jason Rubinstein is a freelance writer; Associated Press contributed.
Michigan vs. North Dakota
What: NCAA hockey tournament Midwest Regional final
When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
Where: U.S. Bank Arena, Cincinnati
At stake: Winner advances to Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., and faces winner of West Regional -- St. Cloud State, Ferris State, Denver or Boston University.