Commentary

Michigan earns trip to Denver with impressive wins in East Regional

Originally Published: March 29, 2008
By David Albright | ESPN.com

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Two hours before the puck dropped, David Leggio emerged from the tunnel next to his team's bench with two sticks and a roll of tape.

He found a seat on the boards, pulled the hood of his Clarkson Hockey sweatshirt tight around his head and started the process of untaping and retaping the green and white Bauer Supreme 7500 stick he would use in the East Regional final.

He was a goaltender alone with his thoughts, mentally preparing to face a Michigan team that had scored more goals than any other team in college hockey this season entering Saturday's play.

It was the only peace Leggio would find.

The top-ranked Wolverines peppered him with 32 shots -- including 18 in the third period -- en route to a 2-0 win over the Golden Knights in front of 4,301 at the Times Union Center.

With the victory, Michigan (33-5-4) advanced to its NCAA-best 23rd Frozen Four appearance -- and first since 2003 -- on April 10 in Denver.

The game winner was scored at 14:23 of the first period on a pretty power-play goal by someone not named Kevin Porter. The Hobey Baker favorite got an assist on the play, but it was freshman winger Aaron Palushaj who wheeled around a Clarkson defenseman and drew Leggio out of the net to his left. Then Palushaj went all the way around the back of the net for a wrap-around goal and the 1-0 lead.

Michigan improved to 29-0-3 when scoring first, for those of you keeping score at home.

The Wolverines added some insurance in the opening minute of the third, when Porter cut in front of Leggio from left to right and slid a backhander through the five-hole.

Those were Leggio's only mistakes of the night, but they weren't the reason Clarkson (22-13-4) didn't advance to its first Frozen Four since 1991.

No, a stingy Michigan defense and some timely goaltending by Leggio's counterpart, Billy Sauer, in the game's closing moments -- as the Wolverines had to kill off two late penalties and were outmanned 6-on-3 and 6-on-4 after Clarkson pulled Leggio -- were to blame for the Knights' ouster from the tournament.

"I was just actually glad I got some work," Sauer said. "I didn't get a lot the whole game, so it was a lot of fun. I was just trying to keep myself in front the puck and keep them off the board. If they had gotten one, momentum would've switched quite a bit."

Sauer finished with 27 saves to record his fourth shutout of the season and the fifth of his career.

[+] EnlargeAaron Palushaj
AP Photo/Mike GrollAaron Palushaj's first-period power play goal was all the support goalie Billy Sauer would need.

"Billy Sauer at the end held the game in check, he stood on his head," said coach Red Berenson, who is taking his 10th Michigan team to a Frozen Four. "I don't know how he made some of those saves, but he made them and that's what makes a winning combination. You get the first goal, you kill penalties and your best players are your best players."

Not surprisingly, the East Regional all-tournament team had quite a maize and blue tint to it, as Porter, Sauer, Chad Kolarik and Mark Mitera were honored. Porter was also named the regional's most outstanding player.

Clarkson winger Shea Guthrie, who scored the deciding goal in Friday's win over St. Cloud State, and defenseman Grant Clitsome were also named to the all-regional team.

All the postgame talk centered on the complete package Michigan brings to the ice. The Wolverines' first line of Porter, Kolarik and Max Pacioretty have scored a mind-numbing 154 points (76 goals, 78 assists) this season -- including six goals and nine assists in the two-game regional set.

But it's more than the first unit up front and Sauer in net. It's everybody in between, too, that handed Clarkson its first shutout loss of the season.

"They do a great job of outmanning you," Clarkson coach George Roll said. "They use their speed and have two, three, four guys down low and don't give you a lot of time to establish a forecheck."

Clarkson captain Nick Dodge added: "They're the best defense we faced this year. They have size and they also have speed and quickness -- it's a good combo for them. They definitely kept us out of the middle and did a good job of coming back and keeping the center of the ice clogged up."

So now Michigan takes its top ranking and the target on its back to face familiar CCHA foe Notre Dame, which defeated Michigan State 3-1 in the West Regional final.

"Our goal all year was to be the No. 1 team in the nation, and so far we've done a good job protecting it," Kolarik said. "But it doesn't matter, the rankings and the seeds. You can throw them all away when you get to Denver."

You have to go back 10 years to find the last national semifinal win for the Wolverines, who lost their first Frozen Four game in each of their last three trips (2001, '02 and 03). It's also been a decade since Michigan won the last of its record nine national titles.

"When you have two good games on the weekend this time of year, it's huge," Berenson said. "We had two good games last weekend, and then we bounced back with an important first game [Friday] night. And then this game was huge."

Michigan will ride its three-weekend, six-game winning streak into the final two-game tournament of the college hockey season.

All of which means that David Leggio's problem has now become the property of Notre Dame goaltender Jordan Pearce.

David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.