The first and easiest words to come to mind after Thursday second semifinal at the Frozen Four were “déjà vu.” Two years, two losses for Michigan in the penultimate game. Two 3-2 losses, two 3-2 losses to the University of Minnesota.
Once against Michigan was denied a shot at extending its NCAA record with a 10th national championship, all thanks to those Gophers.
As much as the opponent and the score seem similar, though, for the Wolverines Thursday’s loss was very different. Thursday was a game that Michigan controlled, at least in the early going.
The Wolverines executed their game plan to perfection — be explosive early and grab a lead against Minnesota. The only associated problem was that the game didn’t end in the first period. After dominating Minnesota for 20 minutes, and eventually jumping out to a 2-0 lead at 14:38 of the second, Michigan didn’t go for the jugular.
Missed chances were the story of the night — mostly a failure to bury shots in the opening 20 minutes that could have seen a 3-0 Michigan lead heading into the second. That’s where frustration entered for head coach Red Berenson.
“The fact is that we needed to score more than one goal in the first period,” said Berenson. “When we’re playing well, and we have them on their heels, we need to make those chances count.
“We knew they were going to have their way at some point. It wasn’t going to be a one-sided game. So when we had them on their heels we needed to bury them.”
Many Michigan fans thought that the Wolverines had buried the Gophers late in the third period. With the score tied at two and Michigan pressing, a second rebound rolled past Minnesota goaltender Travis Weber.
But as thought a curse had been laid on the Michigan program, referee Scott Hansen blew his whistle, indicating that he lost sight of the puck, before the puck crossed the goal line. Video replay upheld Hansen’s decision.
No matter how many missed opportunities there were for Michigan early, the non-goal might have been the most frustrating.
“We could see the puck from our angle and we could see it going over the line,” said Berenson, who captured national titles in 1996 and 1998. “I didn’t have the luxury of seeing the replay. Did the whistle blow before the puck went over the line? And was it a quick whistle?”
Those are the questions that frustrated Berenson and, more importantly, ended a spectacular playoff run for the Wolverines. But at the same time, disagreeing with calls isn’t where the truest disappointment for the veteran coach lies.
What eats at him now is the fact that another season — the third straight — ends here, in the national semifinal.
“I can’t tell you what it is,” said Berenson when asked to explain his team’s recent trouble in the Frozen Four. “I can tell you one thing: our team was focused when we came here.
“We knew we were the underdog and we definitely expected to get to the next game, but never looked past the first game.”
Berenson was straightforward in explaining his thoughts on moving past the semifinals. It’s not an easy road, but his hunger translates to each player. The only hangup is that the hunger hasn’t lately turned into wins.
“I’ve explained to our team how elusive [winning a championship] is,” Berenson said. “This is the ninth time we’ve been to the Frozen Four since I’ve been here, and only twice have we gotten into the championship game.
“I know a lot of programs would be happy to be in the tournament, let alone be in the Frozen Four nine times. But we try to put our players in a position not only to get into the tournament but to get [to the Frozen Four] and win.”
In the end, effort, execution and every related item on Thursday didn’t translate to the “W.” And that is likely the root of Berenson’s biggest frustration after Thursday’s loss.
“There are good teams here and there’s going to be a good team winning it,” said Berenson. “We’re just not going to be the team.”