DETROIT — With a 4-2 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Michigan Wolverines captured their seventh CCHA postseason championship and the league’s automatic NCAA tournament bid.
The Wolverines (30-7-3) welcome the Mason Cup back to Ann Arbor for the third time in the last four seasons, the only hiatus being last year’s OSU championship at the expense of this same Michigan team.
“Beating the team that took a ring away from us last year is a great feeling,” said Michigan forward Jeff Tambellini, the tournament MVP. “Any time you can beat Ohio State — with that rivalry they have with Michigan — it’s a great feeling.”
“It was a hard-fought game,” said Wolverine head coach Red Berenson. “Ohio State’s had a great year and they lived up to their billing tonight. It was a game that could have gone either way. There were a couple of strange goals for both sides. [Tambellini's] goal was from a bad angle, but it turned out to be the winning goal.”
The teams exchanged more than just two fluky goals — Tambellini’s game-winner at 5:27 in the third, which went in off of OSU’s Jason DeSantis, and Buckeye JB Bittner’s goal at 6:57 in the second, banked off of Wolverine Eric Werner’s skate — but also swapped bench minors for too many men, and a host of penalties, including a near-bench-clearing confrontation when the whistle blew to end the second stanza, resulting in a total of 30 minutes of infractions.
And the game was close, in spite of Michigan’s domination for the first 10 minutes of play. OSU’s Dave Caruso made 34 saves, Michigan’s Al Montoya 27, and with Caruso off in the final minute and the Wolverines ahead 3-2, the Buckeyes pressured enough to make it interesting for the 16,891 fans, most of whom were adorned in maize or blue.
“I thought our kids came in with a heck of an effort,” said OSU head coach John Markell. “There’s obviously disappointment in the dressing room, but I think they displayed the character that they’ve displayed throughout the season, but we move on.”
Milan Gajic paced the Wolverines with two goals, Tambellini had one, and Jason Ryznar had the empty-netter at 19:59. Michigan was 2-for-10 on the power play while holding Ohio State scoreless in seven attempts.
Tom Fritsche and Bittner scored for the Buckeyes.
The Wolverines had their collective way with the Buckeyes for the first 10 minutes of the contest, limiting OSU to one shot on net while capitalizing on their first power play at 2:54, Gajic’s first goal of the game. It was standard man-advantage fare, with Brandon Rogers passing from the right circle to Matt Hunwick at the top of the slot, and Hunwick one-touching it to Gajic at the left point. The Michigan senior let it rip and just dinged the top, near corner to give the Wolverines a 1-0 lead that they would carry into the second.
Michigan was so dominant in that first 10 minutes that the usually effective Ohio State power play could register no shots on its first attempt of the night, and the Buckeyes had difficulty clearing their own zone at all at even strength, icing the puck three times in the span.
“They came out flying and they came out hard, and you know the reason why probably for that? They’ve been thinking about it for a whole year exactly what happened in this game last year,” said OSU assistant captain Rod Pelley.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t remember any actual turning point except for us getting pucks deep and getting on their D.”
After settling down, the Buckeyes picked up their pace with Tim Cook in the penalty box for hooking at 13:17 in the first, shooting again and again and forcing Montoya to make a major-league save on Dominic Maiani’s pickup of Pelley’s shot.
On that same power play, Buckeye Kenny Bernard put the puck in the net, but the goal was disallowed because referee Steve Piotrowski had blown the whistle. Montoya made an initial save on the shot from the point but did not hold onto the puck, which dropped and lay motionless in the crease for Bernard to tap home.
“The puck was held for a millisecond, and the whistle was gone,” said Markell. “He [Piotrowski] lost sight of the puck. That was a legitimate goal. Any time you can score a goal in a game with this kind of magnitude — I think we had other mistakes, but that kind of goal being called back is positioning by the referee. We have to live with it.”
That series on Cook’s penalty seemed to awaken Ohio State, who took the second period with two goals to Michigan’s one — all three scored within the span of 1:25 on the game clock.
The Buckeyes tied it, 1-1, at 5:32 on a two-on-one breakaway with Maiani making the play that led to Fritsche’s goal. Maiani took the puck up the middle into the zone and dinged the puck off Michigan defender Jason Dest’s skate on a get-around move. The puck bounced right back to the Maiani, who cleared Dest to make a shot, which Montoya saved. The crashing Fritsche found the rebound.
The Buckeyes found themselves on the penalty kill 30 seconds later with Nate Guenin in the box for charging. Gajic made quick work of that Wolverine power play to reclaim the lead for Michigan, putting in an awkward rebound of Brandon Kaleniecki’s initial offering from close in at 6:46 to make it 2-1.
But just 11 seconds later, Bittner, in an attempt to make anything happen, threw the puck out from behind the Wolverine net to the crease, where it hit Werner’s left skate and bounced back into the Michigan net, over Montoya’s outstretched right leg to make it a 2-2 game.
On Tambellini’s game-winning goal, the junior took it down the left wing and whiffed on his initial shot, sending it wide of the cage. DeSantis, attempting to clear around the boards behind the net, sent it straight back to Tambellini, who fired through the slot to Brandon Kaleniecki — but the puck hit DeSantis, camped with Kaleniecki at the right post, squarely in the chest, and caromed back past Caruso for Michigan’s 3-1 lead.
“It’s a typical Tambellini-kind of goal,” said Tambellini. “I’ve scored half my goals in my career like that. I just shoot the puck, throw it to the net, and usually good things happen. We got a good bounce tonight.”
At 19:59, Ryznar wrapped the puck around the Buckeye net from behind on the left side, with Fritsche in the goal trying to prevent the empty-netter.
Neither team seemed especially happy with the overall lack of even-strength play in the contest. “There were a lot of power plays,” said Gajic. “I probably only played five or six five-on-five shifts for the entire game. You’ve got to go with what you’re given.”
Bittner said that Buckeye penalties contributed to their undoing tonight, “especially in the first period where we were trying to establish our game and we wound up killing penalties more than we wanted to. For us to play our game, we’ve got to stay out of the box more instead of killing penalties.”
The love between the rivals — Michigan’s biggest rivalry, said Tambellini after Michigan’s semifinal win Friday — was evident from the start of the game, but threatened to get out of hand at the end of the second.
Toward the close of the period, just moments after he exited the penalty box, Buckeye Andrew Schembri appeared to have taken a two-handed slash from a Wolverine, and Matt Waddell went into defend him. The officials separated that trio, but as the buzzer sounded, half the bench from both teams spilled out onto the ice — and there was no need to reenter the ice, since both teams exit from their respective benches — in what could easily have become a brawl, were it not for the quick actions of assistant referees Kevin Langseth and John Philo to come between the squads at the red line.
For that altercation, Tambellini and Desantis were each given double minors for hitting after the whistle, Wolverine Chad Kolarik and Waddell each received two minutes for hitting after the whistle and two minutes for slashing, and Montoya and Buckeye Bryce Anderson were each assessed two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct, with Anderson picking up the additional 10-minute misconduct.
“I thought we won the game on penalty killing and along the boards,” said Berenson.
The Wolverines were already locked into the NCAA tournament before they earned Saturday’s autobid.
“It was a great tournament to win and a great stepping stone into the NCAA tournament,” said Berenson, who added that the CCHA title itself is “important … for the Michigan hockey program” and that his players “feel good about it.”
The Buckeyes (27-10-4), on the NCAA tourney bubble for much of the season, will likely be the second team from the CCHA to earn an invitation.
“We’ll see where we’re seeded there tomorrow,” said Markell. “We’re obviously excited about it. We thought we earned the opportunity to participate, and this [game] was on our mind, but we’ll think about it tomorrow.
“It’s an opportunity to win a national championship. It’s an opportunity to get back into our own dressing room.”