DETROIT -- The gloves and sticks went flying as the bench emptied. Helmets came off and the “CCHA Tournament Champions” hats went on. Fans applauded and players hugged. The Mason Cup was brought onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena.
But the Michigan hockey team just stood and watched.
Western Michigan, with its 3-2 win over the Wolverines and trophy in hand, seemed to float off the ice, when the players finally did leave. But by that time, Michigan was nowhere to be found.
It had been the championship finish everyone wanted -- a final period with a team, down three goals, rallying to put it within one. There were 15 shots on goal, 24 minutes of penalties and plenty of big hits that went uncalled.
But the problem for Michigan was it was only the finish. The Wolverines looked sluggish the first two periods as the Broncos took a 3-0 lead.
“I thought we came out all right, all things considered,” senior forward Luke Glendening said. “Maybe we didn’t have the jump we usually have, but I thought we hung in there.”
But the first successful offensive spurt didn’t happen until midway through the third period when sophomore Kevin Clare, on a Michigan power play, skated through two Broncos defenders and put the puck past goalie Frank Slubowski, the tournament’s MVP.
Six minutes later, junior Lee Moffie snuck to the far side of the net and touched a perfect cross from Luke Moffatt into the back of the net. By that point the Wolverines had woken up and the momentum shift on the ice was obvious.
“I think we all believed it before,” Glendening said. “Just to be that close with five minutes left, we thought we had a legitimate chance to come back. We had that shot, but things just didn’t go our way.”
After that Michigan had its chances and emptied the net, putting six players on the ice. But the Broncos continued to clear the puck and the Wolverines got only a handful of quality opportunities, with Slubowski coming up big every time.
It was the second consecutive slow start for the Wolverines, who allowed Bowling Green to mount a 2-0 lead in the semifinals on Friday evening. But Michigan coach Red Berenson that he doesn’t feel nervous about it becoming a trend.
He said he doesn’t see the loss as a wake-up call for the NCAA tournament so much as a subtle reminder of the little things his team needs to do well -- faceoffs, penalties, line changes, touches. Berenson believed those were the difference between hoisting the trophy and returning to Ann Arbor without one.
“Let’s face it, we’re not that good, we’re not better than anyone else, but I don’t think we’re worse than anyone else. We’re right there,” Berenson said. “I know winning puts a lot of emphasis on, ‘That team must be better,’ or losing makes everyone feel, ‘That team must be worse.’ It’s not a big difference.”
The Wolverines will wait to find out their fate during the NCAA Hockey Tournament Selection Show at noon on ESPNU.
“It’s never fun to lose,” Glendening said. “But that feeling of defeat, we don’t want to have that again. This is the third time for me, losing in a championship game. I don’t want to be in that situation again.”