Worcester, Mass. — The Boston University hockey team came into the season ranked second in the USCHO preseason poll. Michigan was projected to finish second to last in the Big Ten.
In a historic reversal of fortune culminating in Sunday night’s NCAA Tournament regional final, the second-seeded Wolverines defeated the fourth-seeded Terriers, 6-3, at the DCU Center. Sophomore forward Jake Slaker’s tally with 6:27 remaining in the third period proved to be the winner, as Michigan advances to its 25th Frozen Four appearance in program history and first since 2011.
Michigan moves on to play No. 1 Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Thursday, April 5, in St. Paul, Minn. (9:30 p.m., ESPN2).
The Wolverines faced the Fighting Irish four times during the regular season, splitting the contests, 2-2.
“Want to first and foremost congratulate our players … they found a way,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I can’t tell you we played the best game, I can’t tell you we were the better team tonight. We were fortunate, but we’ll take it.”
The Wolverines (23-13-4) maintained pressure in the Boston University zone from the opening puck drop and despite not recording a shot over the first five minutes, their first one would count.
Sophomore forward Nick Pastujov dropped a backhanded pass to defenseman Quinn Hughes at the top of the slot. The freshman corralled the puck and unloaded a screaming wrister that whistled past Terrier goaltender Jake Oettinger five-hole to put Michigan ahead, 1-0, at the 5:12 mark.
Boston University (22-14-4) engineered its own burst of shots in the first half of the opening period, but sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne fended five quality scoring chances to keep the lead intact.
That was until 12:26 when Terrier forward Jordan Greenway cruised into the left circle with a wrister that sailed over Lavigne’s right shoulder to knot the game at one.
Boston University’s momentum was halted when an interference penalty against forward Nikolas Olsson handed the Wolverines their first power play. An effective full-ice breakout and crisp puck movement quickly exploited the Terrier defense out of position.
A pass from junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi to junior forward Cooper Marody and then to senior forward Tony Calderone between the circles ended with a wrist shot past the outstretched stick of Oettinger for a 2-1 Michigan advantage.
Following a languid power play in the last three minutes of the first period, the Wolverines found themselves under the gun when Greenway stole the puck at the opposing blueline for a breakaway, only for Lavigne to turn away the shot and protect the one-goal lead through 20 minutes.
The first minute of the second period began with Michigan throwing two shots on net. Its third shot, just 1:57 into the frame, was the charm when freshman forward Josh Norris’ slapshot rebounded off the back wall to junior forward Brendan Warren, whose tap-in widened the margin to two.
Boston University tried to turn the tables with a constant buzz around the Wolverine net on a power play and odd-man rushes, but blocked shots and stick checks stifled every Terrier opportunity.
However, Boston University forward Patrick Curry snuck a backhanded wraparound past Lavigne to cut the deficit to one. The Terrier fury continued with nine shots to Michigan’s five, but a tested Lavigne and company would escape further damage and cling to a 3-2 lead.
Under four minutes into the third period, Cecconi mishandled the puck in front of the Wolverines’ goal and turned it over to Boston University forward Drew Mellanson. The senior deked the sprawling Lavigne to swiftly tie the game at three.
In true see-saw fashion, less than three minutes later, the Terriers committed a costly turnover near their own blueline as Slaker drifted into the slot with a wrister five-hole to regain a 4-3 advantage.
“It was at the end of the shift, so I was pretty tired,” Slaker said. “I was kind of looking for a change and I saw the puck squirt free, kind of in the slot. … I just tried to push it past them and shoot cross-body. … Coach reiterated, get pucks on net all year and good things happen.”
The Wolverines were out ahead for the fourth time in the game thanks to Slaker’s goal and wouldn’t let the lead slip from their hands again.
With 3:42 in regulation, junior defenseman Nicholas Boka added insurance with his first goal of the season. Boston University would pull Oettinger with 2:49 left, but an empty-netter from Nick Pastujov at 18:18 sealed the victory and a berth to the Frozen Four.
Pearson believes Michigan — a team that faced little expectations at the season’s start — is up for the challenge against one of college hockey’s best in Notre Dame.
“We’ve had four really close games, so I think it’s a toss-up,” Pearson said. “But we’re the underdog. They were expected to be there, they were the No. 1 seed, so it fits right into where we want. I like the matchup, I really like the matchup.
“We have 10 days to get better and when we get on that ice in St. Paul, they better be ready to go.”
Benjamin Katz is a freelance writer
At Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame
Faceoff: Thursday, April 5, 9:30 p.m.
Records: Michigan 22-14-3, Notre Dame 27-9-2
Minnesota-Duluth vs. Ohio State
Faceoff: Thursday, April 5, 6 p.m.
Records: Minnesota-Duluth 23-16-3, Ohio State 26-9-5
Faceoff: Saturday, April 7, 7:30 p.m.