ST. PAUL, Minn. — You can tell yourself that the team exceeded all expectations, and it did. A year ago, Michigan went 13-19-3, a stunning fall from prominence for a once-proud powerhouse. Getting to the Frozen Four didn’t just exceed expectations, it obliterated them.
You can tell yourself that the team was playing with house money, and it was. Between the lowered expectations going into the season and a first half that left the team with a losing record in January, any postseason success at all amounted to a bounty.
You can tell yourself that the team could only cover up so long for an astonishingly bad penalty kill, and it had. The Michigan penalty kill ranked 57th out of 60 Division I schools, surely a Frozen Four record for futility.
Given the age-old chestnut that playoff hockey starts with goaltending and special teams, advancing to the Frozen Four with that kind of PK record (and only a middle-of-the-pack power play) constituted an upset of near epic proportions.
When Notre Dame got its foothold on Thursday to climb out of a 2-0 deficit with a power-play goal, it should have surprised no one.
You can tell yourself the team showed great heart after surrendering the 2-0 lead, fighting back to tie it 3-3, scoring the tying goal well into the third period against a Notre Dame team whose defense had earned the Irish a No. 1 or 2 national ranking for much of the season.
You can tell yourself that Michigan hockey is now back on the national stage after only a brief interruption. And you’d be right.
But nothing you can tell yourself takes away the sting of doing all that only to lose your shot at the national championship game with 5.2 seconds remaining. On an innocuous-looking play.
“From the bench, it didn’t look like it was going to amount to much,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I thought we were going into overtime.
“It was a basic 2-on-2. They drove wide and just threw it across the crease and were able to get a stick on it.
“A tough way to lose.”
A brutal way to lose.
There are, of course, no pleasant ways to lose. It’s never easy. But this was truly brutal.
The red-rimmed eyes and emotion-filled voice of senior Dexter Dancs after the loss said it all.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “We didn’t have a strong year last year. A lot of people didn’t believe in us. But this team — everyone was so close and we had so much fun.
“We didn’t have the most talent. It wasn’t the most talented team I’ve had here in four years, but it was the best team, and we just loved being around each other.
“To see it end like this is obviously tough.”
You can tell yourself that all good things must come to an end. Then you continue with all the other platitudes designed to heal the wounds.
But in the end, there are no words that really heal wounds like this, and you finally tell yourself to just shut up.