[West Regional vs NoDak, 1998/Kalmbach via Bentley Historical Library]
The story is almost too perfect. You expect the details of a hockey story to flow from odd angles, to be all jagged edges and shoulders and elbows and yet this story is writerly and neat and almost formulaic. It follows the kind of structure script writers teach in their intro film classes: the protagonist runs through the gauntlet and passes a test that changes them, then uses their newly girded spirit to pass the ultimate test and reap a reward barely fathomable at the start of the journey. From humble beginnings, etc.
The necessity of icing an unusually high number of freshmen dampened expectations at the start of Michigan’s 1997-98 season, but there were enough upperclassmen remaining—Marty Turco, Bill Muckalt, Matt Herr, and Bobby Hayes, to name a few—to keep them from falling off precipitously. Yes, skating four freshmen defensemen was different, but close games can be won with a Hobey Baker finalist, Muckalt, leading the offense and one of the best goaltenders in the country, Turco, as the last line of defense.
And close games—one-goal games, to be precise—soon became Michigan’s calling card. Entering the NCAA Tournament, sixteen of their 42 contests had been one-goal games, including two of the games that got them to the GLI final and two of the games that got them to the CCHA Tournament final. The GLI and CCHA finals against Michigan State and Ohio State, respectively, left their mark. Both were losses and both snapped long streaks for the Wolverines, who had won two straight CCHA tournaments and nine straight Great Lakes Invitationals.
Those losses, however, ended up helping Michigan in their NCAA Tournament seeding. Not only were they placed at the West Regional, which happened to be held at Yost this season, but they were seeded third. This put them on the opposite side of the bracket from Michigan State, the one-seed and no. 1 overall team in the nation, and Ohio State, the no. 6 team in the country yet somehow the four-seed. Two teams they’d had a problem with all year, their two in-conference archrivals, were on a collision course.
That didn’t mean that Michigan’s road to the Frozen Four would be easy, though. North Dakota, the defending national champion and no. 2 team in the USCHO poll, was waiting in the wings. Michigan would have to fight the temptation to look ahead to that game and first dispatch six-seed Princeton, which made the Tournament by winning the ECAC and was listed last in USCHO poll’s “others receiving votes” section.
Mel Pearson, assistant coach: Weird game. It just seemed like we were either looking ahead or...there was something going on in that game and we just didn’t have it and there was nothing going right for us. I think part of that was Princeton but I don’t think we respected them enough as a team. They worked hard and they didn’t give us anything and I think we just thought we were going to come in and throw down our sticks and they were going to fade away and we’d blow them out and go into the regional final but it didn’t work out that way.
Innocent play from the sidewall down near the zamboni. I can’t even remember who threw it at the net but somehow it hit a couple guys in front and went right between the goalie’s legs. We didn’t even have a player in front of the net. I think it went off of one of their players and went in the net. Once that goal went in it just seemed like, Okay, here we go. The crowd got into it a little bit. Princeton had played an absolute great road game. They didn’t let the crowd into it for the most part but once that goal went in we started to play better.
The thing I remember is it was just a weird goal, literally. One of our guys backhanded it towards the net, it hits one of their guys, a defenseman, goes off a skate between the goalie’s net and it’s in. It’s like, there’s nobody there. It’s one of the weirdest goals I’ve ever seen. Did we have anybody in front? I don’t think there was. It’s strange. It’s just like an act of the hockey gods.
[After THE JUMP: The hockey gods have a field day]