St. Paul, Minn. — The Michigan hockey team’s Cinderella run is over.
With a dramatic goal from Notre Dame forward Jake Evans with 5.2 seconds remaining in regulation of their Frozen Four semifinal Thursday night, the second-seed Wolverines fell to the top-seed Fighting Irish, 4-3, abruptly ending their season.
A game that seemed a certainty to extend to overtime quickly ended when Notre Dame’s Cam Morrison led a final rush full speed down the left flank, centering the puck in front of the net where Evans outmuscled Michigan’s Quinn Hughes to push it five-hole past goaltender Hayden Lavigne.
In what left the Wolverines players stunned and in tears, the shocking tally advances Notre Dame to Saturday’s national championship game against Minnesota-Duluth (7:30 p.m., ESPN), which beat Ohio State in the earlier semifinal. The late regulation goal has Notre Dame one game from its first hockey title.
“I’m extremely proud of our team, especially our seniors,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I thought as the game wore on there, we were starting to play. We finally started to play. And unfortunately, it was just a bad bounce there at the end.
“Tough way to lose. It’s never easy to lose. I don’t know if there's any easy way to lose. But, good play by them. But from the bench it didn't look like it was going to amount to much. I thought we were going into overtime.”
Entering the game, Michigan (22-15-3) needed to stay out of the penalty box, given that it allowed all but one Notre Dame goal while short-handed during the regular season. Yet just 34 seconds after the opening puck drop, junior forward Cooper Marody was called for hooking and the Fighting Irish (28-9-2) — successful on 22.83 percent of their power plays — stood to strike first.
But quick sticks intercepted passes and blocked shots limited Notre Dame to one weak floater on net to keep the game scoreless.
Back at full strength, Michigan’s speed breaking out of its defensive zone led to six consecutive shots over the next minute. Odd-man rushes and open looks in the slot from Marody and senior forward Tony Calderone tested Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris early, but the netminder calmly turned them aside.
As the period rolled on, the offensive pressure mounted and the Wolverines finally found an answer to Morris.
At the 8:19 mark, Calderone waltzed into the left circle and rifled a wrist shot past the goaltender’s right blocker for an early 1-0 Michigan lead. Nine timely saves by sophomore Hayden Lavigne — highlighted by a stop on a three-on-one Notre Dame counterattack — and a 15-2 faceoff advantage left Michigan unscathed and its one-goal lead intact headed into intermission.
Lavigne would receive more assistance just 17 seconds into the second period. Senior forward Dexter Dancs streaked down the left flank and unloaded a puck on net that deflected off Fighting Irish defenseman Dennis Gilbert and past Morris to double the lead.
The momentum didn’t last long as Notre Dame started to awaken. In patented Fighting Irish fashion, their archetypal physical game took root. Grinding along the walls, winning draws and putting traffic in front led to a holding penalty on junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi. The Fighting Irish wouldn’t be denied again, and nine seconds into the man advantage, forward Andrew Oglevie beat Lavigne glove side to cut Michigan’s lead in half.
Minutes later, roughing penalties were handed to both teams. With eight seconds left in four-on-four play, Evans found open space between the circles and, with Lavigne’s sight obstructed, buried a one-timer, stick-side under the crossbar.
For the next 14 minutes, the open-ice skating and heavy checks were fast and furious. Despite the Fighting Irish winning the shot battle, 15-7, both goaltenders were locked in and neither team capitalized on scoring chances and the second stanza closed at two goals each.
Notre Dame would ride its momentum into the final frame when, at the 18:25 mark, a centering pass hit forward Cal Burke in stride, and his shot trickled past Lavigne’s right blocker pad and into the net. The Fighting Irish posted their first lead and Michigan’s first deficit of the NCAA Tournament.
With 8:15 to go, a hooking penalty led to another Wolverines power-play opportunity, but an aggressive Fighting Irish penalty kill stifled any chance of tying the score.
With time whittling down, Michigan needed to respond. And it did.
The line of Jake Becker and brothers Nick and Michael Pastujov applied 45 seconds of pressure in the Notre Dame end, when a bouncing puck found its way to the stick of Michael Pastujov. The freshman hacked it past Morris for a 3-3 deadlock.
With mere seconds to go, it looked as if 60 minutes wouldn’t be enough to decide who would advance to the national championship game.
But with 5.2 seconds left, Evans stuffed the puck past Lavigne to halt Michigan’s unexpected tournament run right in its tracks.
Despite the tears and visible emotion from the players, they said this will be a run they will always remember.
“Honestly, I think it might have been my favorite year of hockey in my life,” Calderone said. “I think being announced captain, just being a senior and getting to see some of these younger guys was truly special. Like Dexter said, we had so much fun this year on and off the ice, never a dull day coming to the rink.
“I want to thank Coach Pearson for that and the guys in that room, I think, we're lifelong friends and we'll have each other forever.”
Benjamin Katz is a freelance writer.