BOSTON — It didn’t turn into the shootout many expected. It couldn’t be settled in three periods.
But Michigan hockey’s chance to play for another national championship ended in the place the Wolverines last won one, 24 years ago.
Carter Savoie put back a rebound of his own shot that was initially saved by UM goalie Erik Portillo with 5:07 remaining in overtime to give Denver a 3-2 victory Thursday night in the Frozen Four at TD Garden.
“I just told them that one game is not gonna define who they are as hockey players or people,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “There were a lot of expectations on this group, and they exceeded those expectations and then dealt with all that pressure so well.”
The No. 1 overall seeded Wolverines (31-10-1) were looking to extend their record with a 10th NCAA title — they haven’t won a title since winning it all in Boston in 1998. Instead, they’ll be watching Saturday night as the Pioneers (30-9-1) faced the winner of Thursday night’s other semifinal between Minnesota State and Minnesota for the title. Faceoff is 8 p.m. at TD Center (ESPN).
It was a rough ending for a Michigan team that made it to No. 1 in the USCHO poll early in the season and spent almost all season among the top 5. The Wolverines’ roster had seven NHL first-round draft picks, none of whom scored a goal Thursday.
“It’s my 40th year in Division I hockey. I couldn’t be more proud of the young men that I was able to coach this year,” Pearson said. “It’s the most fun I’ve had, and I owe it all to them. … Just because you get drafted, you’re a high draft pick, no one sprinkles magic dust on you and you become this great player. You have to earn that. Those guys continued the work and they were driven. Just a fantastic group of young men to be around.”
HISTORY LESSON:Michigan motivated by lessons from Wolverines’ late-90s Frozen Four trips
THE FROZEN FOE:Michigan returns to Frozen Four with a familiar foe waiting: Denver
THE REGIONAL FINAL:Michigan headed to Frozen Four for 1st time since 2018 with 7-4 win vs. Quinnipiac
UM spent much of the game on defense as Denver controlled the tempo through three periods. But the Wolverines came out at the outset of overtime generating a few high-percentage scoring chances Pioneers goalie Magnus Chrona continued to thwart, including kicking away a breakaway chance at the pipe to his right near the middle of the 20-minute overtime and a 2 -on-1 save on Michigan’s Luke Hughes with a little more than six minutes left.
Just before the final goal, the Wolverines appeared to have a breakaway. However, Michigan players overskated the puck in the Denver zone; it eventually found its way to Savoie in the crease for the unfettered rebound off his initial attempt.
Denver coach David Carle said the Wolverines’ mishap — “It creates some room for sure,” he added — helped the Pioneers set up the game-winner off a pass from the corner from Hobey Baker Award finalist Bobby Brink, the nation’s leading scorer ( 1.44 points a game) who UM had held scoreless until that point.
“It was a really good hockey game,” Carle said. “I thought both teams checked really well. … I thought (the Wolverines) adjusted well throughout the game, made it harder on us. But I give our players a ton of credit for sticking with it and winning another one-goal hockey game.”
Portillo finished with 30 saves, while Chrona stopped 19 for Denver.
For all the buildup of two of the nation’s top-scoring teams meeting in the national semifinal, the Pioneers and Wolverines eschewed the offense for three hard-hitting, defensive periods of old-fashioned hockey. Denver came out as the aggressor in the first period, playing both physically and skillfully from the start. The Pioneers generated a few quality scoring chances in close and between the circles in the first 10 minutes that either Portillo stopped, his defenders managed to pinch and prevent a tip-in opportunity or Denver players missed wide of the net.
That changed 11:22 into the period, when the Pioneers opened the scoring. A puck squirted from a scrum across the ice to Denver defenseman Justin Lee for a low, sizzling slapshot through a clearing from the left point. Portillo kicked the shot away with his pads, and opposing center Cole Guttman zoomed in for the rebound but whiffed as U-M’s Matty Beniers closed on him. The puck kept sliding through the crease untouched to a second charging Pioneer, and Brett Stapley buried his 17th goal of the season as Portillo and Beniers collided while trying to move back to their right.
Denver had a 6-0 shots lead after Stapley’s goal, with the Wolverines’ best scoring chance up to that point coming when forward Mackie Samoskevich skated through the crease. But Lee disrupted and dislodged the puck. The Pioneers delivered strong checks throughout the period, and UM struggled to find any offensive flow while also going offside to halt a few odd-man advantages.
“I think with any hockey game, we get ups and downs in flows,” senior left wing Garrett Van WyheWhye said. “Just staying even-keel was probably the biggest thing for us. When it comes down to it, I think we kind of got a late start. Mel harped on us all week that, ‘It’s all about the start, all about the start , all about the start.’ So in that aspect, I think we kind of have to take accountability.”
The Wolverines had only four shots by the end of the first and went into the locker room down a goal, but they emerged in the second period amplifying their intensity and turning that into better scoring chances. That included two shots from the blueline stopped by Chrona and another he caught as Michigan’s Johnny Beecher sent a backhand right into the Denver goalie’s midsection.
That attacking mentality paid off 4:03 into the second as the Wolverines tied the game, 1-1. Right wing Nolan Moyle skated up the left side but lost the puck in front of Chrona. But Moyle kept working behind the net along the backboard and tipped it out in front to center Jimmy Lambert, who went top shelf past Chrona for his sixth goal of the season. His score on his team’s fourth shot early in the second doubled U-M’s shot output from the first period.
But Denver recovered, and both teams exchanged possessions the rest of the period, dealing out hard checks along the way. Portillo kept the Pioneers’ nine shots in the period out of the net, while Denver’s defense clamped down and allowed just one more UM shot the rest of the way — and none in the final 8:45 — to head into the third period knotted at 1-1.
“He’s an unbelievable goalie, and an unbelievable guy to have around on the team,” senior captain and defenseman Nick Blankenburg said of Portillo. “He’s a great competitor. He’ll do anything to win.”
Michigan entered the Frozen Four with the nation’s third best offense at 4.02 goals per game, while Denver ranked first among 60 Division I teams at 4.28. The Wolverines ranked ninth in scoring defense at 2.22 goals allowed, with the Pioneers 13th at 2.31.
“Our angling, our puck pressure were really good,” Carle said. “And when people did get beat, there was another layer there to help a lot of times. And our sticks were great. And when that person got beat, Magnus was there to make a save. So it’s not easy to contain (Michigan) .”
The Pioneers continued to attack early in the third, with Portillo pouncing on one loose puck in the crease surrounded by bodies after making the initial save. But Denver took a 2-1 lead shortly after that when right wing Cameron Wright snuck into the crease and deflected a wrist shot from defenseman Mike Benning over Portillo’s right shoulder. Wright’s tip somehow avoided his teammate Carter Mazur, a Jackson native, who managed to hop out of the way while screening Portillo’s vision 5:36 into the period.
But Michigan wasn’t finished. Left wing Mark Estapa dove in front of and blocked a Denver shot, senior right wing Michael Pastujov chased down the puck and zipped up the right wing. Pastujov spotted Thomas Bordeleau cutting up the left side and slipped a pass through to the sophomore center, who shuffled his skates and stick in traffic and flicked a shot into the top right corner to make it 2-2 with 10:51 remaining in the third .
The Pioneers managed a few more quality chances toward the end of regulation, but Portillo stopped them all to send the game to overtime. Denver nearly doubled up the Wolverines in shots through three periods, 26-14, and spent most of the game in UM’s defensive zone. But the Wolverines managed to generate enough of their own luck at both ends to preserve their chance to advance — even if it eventually ended in a return trip home to process another missed opportunity at another national title.
“It’s hard to put into words thinking of not putting on that jersey again,” Blankenburg said. “But very thankful for my time here, and I’ll remember it forever.”