College Sports

If you’re not getting into the men’s Frozen Four at TD Garden, well, what are you waiting for?

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Michigan goalie Erik Portillo lost his mask and helmet after a collision in the second period.


The men’s Frozen Four has long been one of the under-the-radar great takes in sports. If you know, you know. And if you don’t, well, what have you been waiting for?

Among the appealing attributes of college hockey’s Division 1 championship, which commenced at TD Garden with its semifinal matchups Thursday night:

If you begin watching a game without a rooting interest, chances are you’ll find one along the way.

Consider the first semifinal Thursday night, the University of Denver’s 3-2 overtime win over Michigan in a battle of No. 1 seeds. With no New England teams reaching the men’s Frozen Four, the Wolverines, who entered with a 31-9-1 record, might have seemed the local favorite.

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Talented first-line center Matty Beniers is a Hingham native who took the detour to Ann Arbor only after the Ivy League canceled its 2020-21 season during the COVID-19 pandemic, halting his plans to play at Harvard.

And the Wolverines’ third-line center, Johnny Beecher, was the Bruins’ first-round draft pick in 2019 who has shown resilience by batting through injury during his Michigan career. Beecher was impressive, nearly flipping in a backhanded goal a little over two minutes into the second period, flashing speed, and winning 10 of 14 faceoffs.

Yet by the time Denver’s Carter Savoie flipped a rebound of his own shot into the net for the winning goal at 14 minutes, 53 seconds of overtime, it would have been understandable if the Pioneers (30-9-1) had won over any undecideds in a Garden crowd dotted with Boston University, Boston College and even the occasional Team USA sweaters among the Michigans and Denvers.

Michigan featured a star-studded roster that included seven first-round picks and four of the top five picks in the 2021 NHL Draft — defenseman Owen Power (first, Sabres), Beniers (second, Kraken), defenseman Luke Hughes (fourth, Devils), and left wing Kent Johnson (fifth, Blue Jackets). But the Pioneers held the Wolverine’s finest in check by playing a remarkably disciplined game — a well-timed and not exactly common occurrence, according to coach David Carle. Denver did not commit a single penalty in nearly 75 minutes of action.

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When asked if the Pioneers felt like underdogs, Carle said, “I can’t tell you we felt that.” But Denver was at a disadvantage in acclaim if not achievement, and so as the game unfolded it was easy to appreciate the Pioneers’ poise and patience in mostly stymying the Wolverines, particularly early in the game. (Denver outshot Michigan, 33-21.)

“Discipline has actually been an issue of ours throughout the season at times,’’ said Carle. “And it was the best it’s been all year in the biggest moment. Our angling, our moving our feet, keeping our sticks on the ice, not stepping in straight lines and finishing checks was exceptional. And I thought outside of maybe one questionable non-call, we didn’t give the refs any opportunities to make a call on us.”

Carle acknowledged that Denver was able to play its game in part because they were staked to an early lead. Brett Stapley scored on rebound of a Justin Lee shot at 11:22 of the first period, and while it may be the last goal Boston fans want to see Stapley score at the Garden — he’s a Canadiens draft pick — it did serve notice that the Wolverines’ parade of high draft picks wasn’t going to cruise into Saturday night’s final.

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When Michigan did get on the board, it was not one of the young guns that found the net. Instead, it was fourth-liner Jimmy Lambert — a 25-year-old with no NHL affiliation who cites Tom Brady as his favorite Michigan athlete — who got the job done, tying the score at 4:03 of the second period. The teams traded goals in the third period, with Cameron Wright putting Denver up at 5:36 before Michigan’s Thomas Bordeleau tied it again at 9:09 after linemate Mark Estapa sparked the play by laying out to block a shot, setting the stage for a taut overtime and Savoie’s eventual heroics, his sixth game-winning goal this season.

Whether you watched the game with a rooting interest or found one along the way, there was no disputing when it was over that the game was a gem, the kind the Frozen Four delivers year after year after year. Even in the moments after a season-ending loss, Michigan coach Mel Pearson took a moment to acknowledge his appreciation for what it means to reach the Frozen Four.

“This is my 13th time at the Frozen Four as a coach, 14th overall,’’ he said. “I played as a player. I’ve been to three championship games in those 14 years. It’s so hard to get here. There were some really good teams that never had the opportunity to get here.

“You have to be good. And you need a little bit of luck. We just didn’t seem to have any lady luck on our side tonight.

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“We were in the game. One shot could go either way. But that’s how it so often goes. It’s part of what makes this so great, right?”

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