ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Eight freshmen. Three seniors. One loud, happy home crowd.
When Jed Ortmeyer drove home Eric Nystrom’s cross-crease pass at 18:39, the junior forward did more than make the best of a feed few rookies would have the presence of mind to make; he illustrated the reason for Michigan’s success this season.
Nystrom, a freshman, notched two goals on the night for the Wolverines. His classmate Eric Werner netted the game-tying goal early in the third. Ortmeyer, a junior, also combined with fellow junior John Shouneyia to assist on Nystrom’s first goal of the night, as well as a tally by sophomore Mike Komisarek.
Michigan beat top seed Denver, 5-3, to advance to the Frozen Four because of a balanced team and a whole lot of chemistry.
“I think the team sticks together,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “They have all the intangibles a winning team needs, except a lot of experience. This team is a team. I can’t tell you we’re the best team, but we’re a good team.
“I like the kids on our team. I like the chemistry on our team. I like the young players; they’ve got a good attitude. I like the leadership on the team, and we’ve got enough talent.”
Enough talent to come back against a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation for much of the season. After a scoreless first period, the teams scored a combined five goals in the second. Denver led 3-2 going into the third.
Nystrom gave Michigan a 1-0 lead when he found Denver goaltender Wade Dubielewicz’s five-hole after taking a centering pass from Shouneyia 56 seconds into the middle period.
Chris Paradise one-timed it from the point on the Denver power play to make it 1-1 at 3:05.
Komisarek ripped one from the top of the slot on Michigan’s power play to make the score 2-1 at 5:43.
On the goal that tied it for the second time, Jesse Cook fought for possession of the puck with Michigan’s Dwight Helminen near the hash marks, and passed to Kevin Ulanski. Ulanski quickly gave the puck to Kevin Doell, going hard to the net. Drawn out of position to defend against Ulanski, Michigan goaltender Josh Blackburn left an empty net for Doell, and the game was tied 2-2 at 9:16.
The Pioneers had the last word in the period when they went ahead 3-2 on Luke Fulghum’s goal at 12:25. After Aaron MacKenzie passed up to Max Bull in the Denver zone, Bull flew down the left wing with Fulghum right. Bull fed Fulghum just as the Pioneer was crashing the net, and Fulghum forced the puck up over Blackburn’s left shoulder.
Even so, the Wolverines were unfazed.
“We came out of that [second] intermission and our team was really confident,” said Berenson. “We knew we were going to win.”
In the third, the Wolverines scored three goals to take the game.
Werner was the recipient of a beautiful feed from Mike Cammalleri at 4:47 in the third to knot the game for Michigan. Cammalleri took the puck from the boards near the right circle and jettisoned it out to Werner, who came in from the blue line to deflect it clean past Dubielewicz.
For most of the third, Denver limited Michigan to long-range attempts, while the Pioneers had good chances close in on Blackburn, who stopped David Neale, Kevin Doell, and Connor James, all point-blank shots. Neale also hit the post.
In the end — and very nearly at the end of the game — a Denver turnover in the Michigan end led to the game winner. Cammalleri knocked the puck away from a DU player and Ortmeyer picked it up and ran with it two-on-one with Nystrom.
At the top of the Denver slot, Ortmeyer passed from right to left to Nystrom. With Dubielewicz drawn left to defend against the Michigan rookie, Nystrom passed back to Ortmeyer, who raised the roof on Yost Arena with 1:21 left in regulation.
It was homework, according to Nystrom, that made that play possible.
“We watched video today, and Coach [Billy] Powers said that the goalie overcommits a lot,” said Nystrom. “He slid all the way across. I just found the seam, hit Orts, and he had the open net [and] just tapped it in.”
Nystrom capped the game with the empty-netter at 19:33 to send the Wolverines to their second consecutive Frozen Four.
“I think we played pretty well,” said Paradise. “We had a couple of chances in the third period to win. We hit a post early; that could have put us up by two. Then we had a mad scramble in front of their net with basically an open net, and we just couldn’t find the puck.
“I think basically both teams played well, and I think we just ended up making a couple more mistakes [than Michigan], and they were able to capitalize on them.”
“I thought Red’s team was outstanding tonight,” said Denver head coach George Gwozdecky. “I thought they did a tremendous job of taking away some of our offensive movements, breaking up our attacks.
“It’s always tough at the end of the season when you’re not the last one standing. I think it’s even tougher for this team this year because of the high expectations we all had for our year.
“It was a great year for this team … but this is a difficult thing to swallow. But my hat’s off to Michigan. They were the better team tonight.”
Berenson suggested that his young squad is peaking at the right time.
“Last year our team … seemed to be a team that underachieved, but we did get to the Frozen Four and our team started to come together,” said Berenson. “This year’s team has come together a month ago, and is playing hard every night trying to move on. The next challenge, obviously, will be the biggest challenge of the year. Right now, we’re pretty excited about winning these games.”
Blackburn made 18 saves in the win as Michigan nearly doubled up Denver in shots, 38-21. Dubielewicz stopped 33 for the Pioneers.
“It’s kind of disheartening,” said Dubielewicz, “especially for the senior class. We’re not sending them off the way we wanted. We had three goals [for the season], and one of them was the national championship.”