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When Engineer Chase Polacek gave Rensselaer a 2-0 lead at the end of one by scoring on two of RPI’s three first-period shots, the conclusion of this game seemed to be inevitable. While a 4-3 victory was Rensselaer’s final destination, their journey was anything but routine.
The Wolverines outshot the Engineers 46-13, came to within one twice, tied it with seven minutes left in regulation and held all of the power-play advantage in the third. After this one, RPI coach Seth Appert sounded like the guy whose team came from behind, rather than the coach whose team had never trailed.
“I think there were some games leading up to Christmas where we’ve outplayed our opponents and found ways to lose,” said Appert. “Tonight, we got outplayed in terms of the territorial advantage and found a way to win, and that’s an important part of the learning process of becoming a winning program.”
Rensselaer goaltender Allen York had 43 saves in his seventh win of the season and was especially impressive in the third period, when UM had five power plays — including two full minutes of five-on three advantage — and through which the Wolverines outshot the Engineers 21-4.
“It’s not the recipe for success, to give a team like Michigan five power plays in the third period, including a full five-on-three, but I think any time you come out on the road … you tend to get calls against you,” said Appert. “I’m not saying that there’s favoritism, but when there’s twelve-, thirteen- thousand fans and you’re playing a team of their stature, that’s just the way it goes. You need to learn how to win in spite of those situations. We let them back in the game a little bit with some of those penalties.
“It wasn’t our best effort tonight. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with how we played, but we found a way to win with a very good game in goal and a lot of blocked shots and a gutty effort on penalty kill.”
Polacek scored at 2:01 and 19:54 in the first. His first goal was a back-door tip-in of Paul Kerins’s initial shot from the top of the slot, and the second came from the left point through a screen. The shots were the first and third of the game that Michigan goaltender Bryan Hogan faced. Michigan has the second-best penalty kill in the nation.
“That’s maybe the strength of our team has been our penalty killing and the first two power plays they score on,” said UM head coach Red Berenson. “I can’t tell you they were pretty plays or pretty goals, but the puck went in. It’s frustrating, disappointing.”
The Wolverines found the net for first time on David Wohlberg’s goal at 13:26 in the second on a nice feed from A.J. Treais, but RPI led by two again just over three minutes later when Kerins scored at 16:43. Kerins skated the puck into the Wolverines’ zone and threw it innocently at the UM net from near the blue line; Hogan fumbled the catch and the puck went up and over his glove to make it 3-1 at the end of two.
The third period began with Shawn Hunwick in the Wolverines’ net. Hunwick hadn’t played since March 14, 2008, a game in which he’d seen just three minutes of action.
“You’re trying to spark your team a little bit,” said Berenson of the change in net. “You just can’t keep going if your goalie’s having a bad night or if he’s just not in sync.”
The change did the Wolverines good, as they tied the game by the 12:04 mark. At 2:57, Carl Hagelin scored with the two-man advantage, picking up his own rebound and putting it over a prone York, who appeared shaken up but continued playing.
Then at 12:04, freshman Kevin Lynch scored his first career goal to tie it 3-3, scooping in Hagelin’s pass.
Any resulting momentum, however, was short-lived. Appert called time and told his team exactly what it needed to hear.
“This team has had a great ability to be very resilient,” said Appert. “We’ve put ourselves in situations we probably shouldn’t be in and that’s our immaturity still, but we are resilient.
“All I said at the timeout — it wasn’t anything dramatic — I just said, ‘If I’d have said at the beginning of the game that we’d be playing in front of ten- or twelve-thousand fans against Michigan and it was tied with seven minutes to go, we’d probably be pretty excited, so let’s have fun with this, let’s enjoy it, and let’s embrace the opportunity.'”
At 12:50, Engineer Marty O’Grady sniped a shot from the bottom of the right circle, beating Hunwick high between the UM goalie’s shoulder and the right upright to give RPI the 4-3 lead and eventual win.
“We give up four goals and that’s too many to win a game, two on their power play and two bad goals,” said Berenson. “Hoagy should have stopped the third goal and Hunny should have stopped the fourth goal. It’s one of those things. You can’t look back.”
Hogan made six saves on the night, Hunwick three. The Engineers finished two-for-four on the power play; UM went one-for-eight.
RPI (10-9-1, 3-4-0 ECAC) advances to the title game at 7:35 Tuesday night against Michigan State, who beat Michigan Tech 10-1 in tonight’s opening contest.
“I think they’re going to be tired from all their shooting,” said Appert. “That’s the plan at least.”
The Wolverines (9-10-0, 5-7-0 CCHA) will play the Huskies in the consolation game at 4:05 p.m.
“We came here to get in the championship game number one, and then try to get their name on that banner again,” said Berenson. “That’s why everybody comes here, but us in particular, we’ve got something to prove, and we didn’t quite prove it tonight.”