ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In the span of just a few minutes, Michigan went from a team on the brink of elimination to the team that everyone expected it to be — crisp, energetic and overpowering.
The Wolverines trailed Nebraska-Omaha 2-1 heading into the third period Sunday, but they took total control of the game, scoring three goals in 2:43 and reminding the Mavericks why the Wolverines are the No. 1 seed. Michigan (25-12-2) eliminated No. 12 seed Nebraska-Omaha from the CCHA playoffs with a 5-2 victory at Yost Arena.
Dwight Helminen, Eric Werner and Jeff Tambellini scored for Michigan during that crucial stretch early in the third. Helminen and Tambellini finished with two each for the Wolverines. Alex Nikiforuk and Scott Parse tallied Nebraska-Omaha’s goals.
Before the third period, the game seemed to be shaping up much like Saturday, a 3-1 Nebraska-Omaha victory. But Michigan didn’t panic.
“We had a mentality in the dressing room during the second intermission — it was a subtle confidence,” Tambellini said. “We knew that we could come out in the third and take it to them. We had the adrenaline going right from the minute the puck dropped, and when you crash the net like that, you have that emotion behind you.”
The Wolverines seemed to miss their chance to grab the momentum when they failed to score on a power play four minutes into the third period. Then, a Michigan shot hit the post. But Helminen pounced on the rebound and poked it past Chris Holt to tie the game at 6:55.
Fifty-nine seconds later, the Wolverines pulled ahead, 3-2, on another rebound goal. This time, Andrew Ebbett’s shot hit Holt and rolled into the slot, where the puck sat waiting for Werner. The defenseman hustled in and put it in the net.
Tambellini gave Michigan a two-goal lead at 9:38, when he ripped a shot from the right point while the Wolverines were on the power play.
“They finally woke up, and they came full force,” Holt said of the Wolverines’ barrage. “In the second period, some of them looked tired, and I don’t know what they drank in the intermission, but they were flying in the third.”
Michigan has uncharacteristically struggled down the stretch, going 0-3-1 in its last four regular-season games and having more trouble than expected with Nebraska-Omaha. Coach Red Berenson said the team was well aware that it hadn’t been playing well and was putting its NCAA tournament bid in danger.
“Our team knew that this could be our last game, because everything else is out of your control.” Berenson said. “We didn’t make a big deal of that, but I think the team understood it might be (their) last game. You don’t want it to end that way.”
Berenson had a serious meeting with his team before Sunday’s game.
“He confronted us and said that we all had to step up, and he was right,” Tambellini said. “We went out and played well. Last night was an embarrassment that’s never happened to Michigan. We all had to go and look in the mirror, not point any fingers and own up to our own game. We stepped in there and played a solid 60 minutes tonight and found a way to win. It wasn’t pretty, but it got done.”
While the weekend may have been a bit of a wake-up call for the Wolverines, the Mavericks (8-26-5) saw it as something they can build on.
“We really realized this weekend what kind of team we can be,” Holt said. “If we can hang with Michigan, we can hang with anybody. With maturity, we’re going to really start to flourish and start to come into our own and, hopefully, start hanging our own banners up in the rafters.”
The game started similar to Saturday night’s game, with Nebraska-Omaha tying it at 1-1 late in the first period and then surging ahead in the second. Tambellini took a diagonal pass from Matt Hunwick and blew a rapid-fire one-timer by Holt at 12:52 of the first period.
Several minutes later, junior Michael Woodford had a shorthanded chance for the Wolverines, when he received a pass all alone out front. Woodford only caught a piece of the puck on his shot, and the action headed to the other end, where Nikiforuk beat Al Montoya for a power play goal at 16:12.
Parse put the Mavericks up 2-1 near the end of the second.
Berenson said the Wolverines were tight during the first two periods, and during second intermission, he told them to relax. They looked loose in the third, rallying with the three-goal outburst and then killing off a five-on-three and hanging on against a last-ditch effort from Nebraska-Omaha.
Helminen added an empty-netter with 1:29 left. Montoya made 21 saves on the night. His counterpart, Holt, made 30.
The Wolverines now move on to the CCHA Super Six next weekend at Joe Louis Arena. As the No. 1 seed, they get a first-round bye and will play Friday afternoon in the semifinals.