ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The team that scored by committee all season did it again Sunday. Finding offense from unlikely sources, the Michigan Wolverines upended the Colorado College Tigers, 5-3, to secure the final spot for this year’s Frozen Four in Buffalo.
CC’s lethal power play and extraordinary forwards gave the Tigers the edge heading into this quarterfinal game, but Michigan had an advantage both in venue and coaching, feeding off the legendary Yost faithful and adjusting to CC’s dangerous offense to pull ahead for good in the third period.
“We knew it would be a tough game, a tough opponent, and I think our team knew that they would have to overachieve tonight,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “We knew how good their power play was; I think we all saw that. We knew how good their offensive players were and how good a team they were, so we were playing as an underdog, but we had our crowd with us and we got the breaks that we needed.
“It was a great game for college hockey, and certainly a great game for Michigan.”
Jason Ryznar netted the game-winning goal at 4:25 in the third. Mark Mink scored shorthanded and added an empty-netter and an assist, while Eric Nystrom had a goal and a helper. Milan Gajic rounded out the scoring for the Wolverines, and Al Montoya — the Regional’s Most Valuable Player — stopped 21 of 24 CC shots on goal.
“That’s the reason we’re sitting here tonight, because of the depth of our team,” said Berenson. “I look back at last year’s games against St. Cloud and against Denver, and I saw names like Gajic and [Dwight] Helminen and maybe not the front-line names.
“I think our team understands that this is the time to step up if you get a chance, and you’re important to the team. In Ryz’s case, he’s been playing the best hockey of his career in recent weeks, so I’m not surprised that he was a dominant player down low.
“And Gajic, that’s what Milan Gajic does best: he’s an opportunist, and when he got his chance he made it count.”
Brett Sterling had two goals for the Tigers, and Peter Sejna scored a goal. CC’s power play was responsible for the Tigers’ first two goals — both in the first period.
The game was tied at 2-2 after one, and 3-3 after two, and it was clear that this one would go right down to the final buzzer.
“It was a very difficult game for the entire 60 minutes,” said Scott Owens, CC head coach. “We got behind early and had to battle, battle, battle, and the effort was there. It was just kind of an unfortunate deal for us. We never could get over the hump.”
Nystrom gave Michigan the very early lead at 2:22 of the first, popping the puck over CC netminder Curtis McElhinney’s glove after McElhinney stopped Helminen’s initial shot.
CC made quick work of two first-period power plays to go ahead 2-1. Sterling’s first goal came from Sejna and Noah Clarke at 8:10, a perfect close-the-box effort with Sterling shooting from left of the crease to beat Montoya long.
Sejna scored one of his own at 10:42, taking a cross-crease pass from Clarke in the right circle. Left of net, Sejna went high, far-side.
Gajic evened it up with less than three minutes to go in the period, barely getting his stick on David Moss’ pass left of the Tiger net. Moss had drawn McElhinney right and passed to Gajic, whose shot fluttered slowly into the empty CC net, and the first period ended tied at two each.
One of the key momentum shifts in the game came early in the second, with Jeff Tambellini in the penalty box for a crosscheck that was called with 33 seconds left in the first. That’s when Mink took advantage of Andrew Canzanello’s turnover right in front of the CC net, tucking the puck in close to the ice near the left pipe at 1:23.
CC never registered a shot on that power play. In fact, for the remainder of the game, the Wolverines shut down the Tigers when CC had the man advantage, rarely allowing a shot on goal.
“Especially at that juncture in the game and given how successful we’d been on the power play,” said Owens, “any time you do that in a game of this magnitude — you know, give up a goal in the last minute of a period or give up a shorthanded goal — then that’s a backbreaker.”
“I can’t remember when Mark Mink scored a goal, it’s been so long,” said Berenson, “but he has been a heart-and-soul player. If you ask any of the players, they see Mink working and checking and hitting and grinding and paying the price and killing penalties with not a lot of credit, maybe, and tonight he got some credit when it counted most.
“The timing of the goal was huge, and obviously it was a misplay by their goalie and their defenseman. It’s something that shouldn’t happen, but it’s not unusual that big games are decided by weird plays or strange plays and that was a big goal at that point. That definitely gave us life. They eventually got that goal back, but it was a big goal.”
Sterling was responsible for getting that back for CC, at 11:57 in the second. This time, it was Andy Burnes who turned over the puck in the neutral zone. Tyler Liebel picked it up and passed to Sterling, who skated in alone and deftly put it by Montoya, far side.
“When Brett Sterling buried that, I thought we were off to the races,” said Owens, “but then we were in the box again, and we’re fortunate that we killed that off, and then in the third period it could go either way.
“It was going to be that kind of a game. Whoever got a lucky bounce, whoever made a big-time play was going to win the game, and that’s ultimately what happened.”
With the score tied 3-3 early in the third, the game-winning goal had more to do with hockey sense than luck. Ryznar stole the puck behind the CC net, skated around and out front to the right of the cage, and placed the puck high over McElhinney’s left shoulder at 4:25.
CC had its chances late in the third, but Mink beat Canzanello to get to the empty net at 19:25 to put the game away.
“I think it was one of our best efforts,” said Owens. “I really liked our upperclassmen and our seniors and the guys that won’t be back next year. I thought those guys in particular just competed and battled.”
Colorado College (30-7-5) finished the night with 10 penalties for 20 minutes, and the Tigers were 2-for-6 on the power play. Michigan (30-9-3) earned eight penalties for 16 minutes, and went 1-for-7 on the power play.
The Wolverines advance to the Frozen Four through their home rink for the second consecutive year. They’ll face Minnesota at 6 p.m. on April 10 in HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y.