Boston, MA- The Denver Pioneers and Michigan Wolverines have a combined 17 National Championships. Yet before Thursday night, they had only crossed paths three times in the tournament and Michigan won every time. The Wolverines eliminated Denver in the 1999 and 2002 NCAA Tournaments en route to the ‘02 Frozen Four. Most notably, Michigan defeated Denver 5-3 for the 1964 National Championship in Denver’s home arena with goalie Bob Gray stopping 31 shots for the Tournament’s MVP.
The storied programs met at a sold-out TD Garden for their first tournament matchup in twenty years and authored another memorable chapter in college hockey’s history with Denver finally beating Michigan when it matters most.
The most surprising piece of the first period was Michigan’s complete lack of offense. The Wolverines failed to record a shot on goal until the 16:04 mark of the frame and only recorded four shots on goal for the entire opener. By that point, Denver claimed the lead. Brett Stapely cleaned up a rebound off a Justin Lee shot to stake the Pioneers to a 1-0 lead into the intermission.
Michigan only recorded five shots in the second period, but got one through Magnus Chrona for the equalizer. And with all the drafted talent, it was the un-drafted seniors who put Michigan on the board. Nolan Moyle and Garrett Van Wyhe combined for a smooth passing psequence to set up Saskatoon native Jimmy Lambert for his sixth goal of the season and his third point in three NCAA Tournament games.
Each team notched one score in the third period. Denver went first with a left point shot by Mike Benning that Cameron Wright tipped 5:36 into the frame for his 22nd goal of the season. Michigan responded with a nifty skill play by Thomas Bordeleau to tip a bouncing puck into the net 9:09 into the frame to tie the game back up at 2-2.
Denver outshot Michigan 10-5 in the third, aided by two of Michigan’s three penalties. Brendan Brisson took a boarding minor and Mackie Samoskevich took a holding minor to give Denver power play chances. Neither worked. Buffalo Sabres draft pick Erik Portillo kept the Pioneers at bay and sent the game to overtime.
The extra session was playoff hockey at its best. The game sat on a knife’s edge waiting for either joy or pain. Each team got seven shots and each goalie held their ground. Ultimately, with 14:53 gone in the overtime, Denver found their opening. Michigan fumbled the puck at their own blue line and failed to exit their zone. Mike Benning got on the puck and got it to Bobby Brink. The nation’s leading scorer found Carter Savoie open going to the net. The sophomore Edmonton Oilers draft pick shot the puck off Erik Portillo, and directed the rebound into the open net for a 3-2 Denver win and a trip to the Frozen Four.
This was the third straight Frozen Four to have a semi-final game go into overtime.
Michigan ends their season 31-10-1. They won their second Big Ten Tournament Championship and reached their record 26th Frozen Four.
“This is my 40th year in Division I hockey,” said Michigan Head Coach Mel Pearson. “I couldn’t be more proud of the young men that I was able to coach this year.It’s the most fun I’ve had. And I owe it all to them.”
Buffalo Sabres goaltender Erik Portillo stopped 30 of 33 shots to keep Michigan in the game.
Michigan got six goals across the three NCAA Tournament games from the fourth line of un-drafted seniors Garrett Van Wyhe, Jimmy Lambert, and Nolan Moyle.
“You need seniors,” observed Pearson.“You need seniors to lead your team.And not only did they score those goals, but they were great leaders. And just handling all the expectations and the young people.”
Michigan will have a different core of players for the 2022-23 season. Owen Power, Kent Johnson, Brendan Brisson, Luke Hughes, Matty Beniers, and Jacob Truscott are all expected signees with their respected NHL franchises who drafted them. And multiple seniors who have extra years of eligibility are also likely to leave. Captain Nick Blankenburg turned down an NHL contract offer to play another season in Ann Arbor, for example.
“I think any time, being a Michigan kid and getting a chance to wear the letter at Michigan, I think it’s something special,” said Blankenburg after the game. “And God has blessed me in so many different ways over my hockey career.And I’m just so thankful and so blessed to be able to wear the letter at the University of Michigan and to be able to be part of the leadership group at this team and to be able to graduate from U of M.”
In addition, Mel Pearson’s contract expires at the end of the month. He and Michigan Athletic Director Ward Manuel both declined to comment on that situation.
Denver improves to 30-9-1. Magnus Chrona stopped 19 of 21 shots faced for the game, including all 7 faced in overtime.
“It was a really good hockey game,” observed Denver Head Coach David Carle. “I thought both teams checked really well.There wasn’t a lot
of ice, it didn’t seem.And it was an entertaining game. We’re obviously excited to be on the positive end. Give Michigan credit.I thought they adjusted well throughout the game.Made it harder on us”
Bobby Brink extends his nation leading point total to 57 in 40 games played this season a day before he has a chance to win the Hobey Baker Award.
On the success against Michigan’s vaunted offense, Senior Alternate Captain Ryan Barrow commented that “Yeah, obviously they’re incredibly skilled.And kind of all week in practice we worked on angling, taking away time and space, and it led to us finishing some clean hits on them.”
For the 12th time in program history, the Denver Pioneers will play in the National Championship game. They’ll go for a ninth National Championship, which would tie Michigan for the most in the sport.
“When we talk about what we want to do at Denver, it’s about winning championships and getting opportunities to hang banners,” said Carle. “And to have this opportunity is very special.To do it against Michigan, who is at 9 and we’re at 8, is even sweeter.And hopefully we can tie them and close the gap and reach our goal to getting to 10 first.”
For the sixth year in a row, an NCHC team will appear in the National Championship Game.
The Pioneers will face the Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks on Saturday night at TD Garden. Puck drops at 8 PM ET, 7 PM CT, 6 PM MT.