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Deja Blue in Cincinnati

It didn't sink in until I saw the picture, but the parallels are eerie.

The last time Michigan skated at the US Bank Arena was 1996, when it was called Riverfront Coliseum and the rink was leaking cooling fluid thanks to an errant drill. The Wolverines defeated Colorado College 3-2 in overtime to win the 1996 national title. The similarities go far beyond the final score though.

The two games followed the exact same pattern. Michigan struck first to take a 1-0 lead, but was largely outplayed for the middle stretch of the game and found themselves trailing 2-1 heading into the third period. In 1996, defenseman Steven Halko wound up for a slap shot from the point, only to find a shot blocker in his way. He held the puck, skated around the defender and found teammate Mike Legg at the side of the goal to tie the game. Last night, defenseman Zach Werenski worked a give-and-go with teammate Boo Nieves to elude a defender and find an open lane to blast his slap shot through and tie the game, and send it to overtime.

They ended the same way too. In 1996, a broken play in the slot gave Michigan the puck at the left side of the crease. Bill Muckalt puts a shot on net and rebound comes out the other side to a wide open Brendan Morrison with the whole net to shoot at:

michigan 1996 goal

Last night, Kyle Connor has a play broken up in the high slot, but JT Compher picks up the puck at the left side of the crease. This time, the defender covers the shot, but Compher makes a beautiful blind pass to the other side of the net, where Motte is streaking down the same ice Morrison did, with the same wide open net in front of him.

In 1996, two-and-a-half year old Mario Lucia was probably somewhere in the arena watching his father Don on the bench coaching that Colorado College team. Last night, Mario was on the bench playing for Notre Dame.

The stakes were certainly lower. Morrison's goal gave Michigan the national title. This year's Michigan team has a very tough game against North Dakota later today to even advance to the Frozen Four.  But in both games, the implications of the win went far beyond the actual result for Michigan, and specifically, head coach Red Berenson.

On the TV broadcast of the 1996 game, when Morrison scores, ESPN play-by-play announcer, the late, great Tom Mees, lets the moment sink in for about 30 seconds as the camera shows reaction shots of an ecstatic Michigan and heartbroken Colorado College. Finally, the camera pans back to Berenson, shaking the hands of a Colorado College assistant. Mees first words after the goal: "Red Berenson....the gorilla is off his back"

Michigan had been to the Frozen Four three of the previous four years. The one team that missed was beaten in overtime of the NCAA quarterfinals by Lake Superior State, coached by now Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson.(That OT loss prompted Jackson's famous quote at the 1994 Frozen Four that "The best team isn't here"). Fair or not, questions were asked if Michigan would ever get over the hump and win an NCAA title under Berenson. There was no doubt he was an excellent coach, but he needed that national title on his resume to become a legend. Morrison's goal settled that once and for all.

If Berenson had a gorilla on his back in 1996, he may have had King Kong on there last night. The Wolverines had missed the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years, the first times they had missed the tournament since Berenson's first years taking the over the Michigan program in the early Byzantine Empire. With each missed tournament, whispers grew increasingly louder that maybe Berenson's best days were behind him and he should step aside to let someone else lead the program.

By the end of the season, there were strong rumors that this would be Berenson's last. The Wolverines qualified for the NCAA Tournament, but coming out of the single-bid Big Ten conference, and playing a total of only two games against teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament all season, a loss last night would have made it very easy to write off this Michigan team as no different than the previous three years, just with a far worse schedule. But for the second time, one of Berenson's star junior forwards came streaking down the slot to pick up a loose puck all alone in the slot and and put those questions to rest. Once again, Michigan belongs with the elite teams in the world of college hockey.

The popular theory for years has been that Red Berenson is hanging on for the right season to go out on top. We don't know if this will be his last season. Even if it isn't, we know that opportunities beyond this, especially with Michigan likely rebuilding next year, will be few. If this is the last time we see a Berenson-coached Michigan team on the big stage, what a way to go out.  The perfect reminder of what his team did 20 years ago, and what they are still capable of today.