This month marked the 20th year anniversary of Michigan’s last national hockey championship, when the Wolverines defeated Boston College 3-2 in overtime in Boston after coming into the Frozen Four as the underdogs with a large freshmen class.
The Wolverines found themselves in a similar position Thursday night, playing Big Ten champion Notre Dame in a national semifinal game at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
But the Wolverines had their dream of becoming national champs for the first time since that 1998 season come to a crashing halt when Jake Evans scored with 5.2 seconds left to give Notre Dame a 4-3 victory and a national title date with Minnesota-Duluth Saturday night.
It was like a sudden-death OT loss for Michigan, which finishes 22-15-3 and will now look to its future.
Michigan, the nation’s third-youngest team in 2017-18, responded well to first-year head coach Mel Pearson. The Wolverines rebounded from an 8-10-2 record in the first half of the season. Michigan was the highest scoring team in the nation since Jan. 1, scoring 83 goals in 24 games for an average of 3.5 goals.
Michigan made it back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2011.
“It's good to be back here,” Pearson said after the loss to Notre Dame. “Michigan will be back here again. And my only regret is I don't have more time with the seniors. The seniors have been outstanding for us this year. And I wish I had them back for another few years.”
One big question going forward will be if Pearson keep offensive-minded freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes, 18, who is expected to be a top 10 pick in June’s NHL Draft.
The Wolverines already will take a big hit by losing the majority, and possibly all, of its No. 1 line with Tony Calderone and Dexter Dancs being lost to graduation, along with the possibility of junior center Cooper Marody leaving early to join the Flyers’ organization.
Calderone scored his team-leading 25th goal to give the Wolverines a 1-0 lead in the opening period against Notre Dame, then Dancs scored 17 seconds into the second to open a 2-0 cushion before the Irish battled back to score three unanswered goals, before Michigan freshman Michael Pastujov scored with 5:22 left in the third to pull even.
Michigan is expected to return its line of junior Brendan Warren, freshman Josh Norris and sophomore Jake Slaker, along with the line of Pastujov, his older brother sophomore Nick Pastujov, and freshman Jack Becker.
Sophomore goalie Hayden Lavigne earned the No. 1 job in early January and played well during the second half of the season, including a solid but unspectacular job Thursday night.
No doubt, the Wolverines could contend for the Big Ten title and earn another long postseason run next season if Pearson can persuade Hughes and Marody to return – and possibly bring in Hughes’ younger brother, Jack, a center for the U.S. National Development program, as well.
While Quinn Hughes’ skill level is outstanding, he could use another season in college to develop physically and it’s possible he would enjoy playing with his younger brother.
Jack Hughes, who will turn 17 in May and could graduate early with online classes, is not yet committed. He is playing well for the U-18 National Team with 34 goals and 99 points in 52 games.
Michigan will lose a pair of defensemen in seniors Cutler Martin and Sam Piazza, but is expected to return sophomores Luke Martin and Griffin Luce, along with junior Joseph Cecconi, who was Hughes’ defense partner during the second half of the season.