Connolly jacks up Bulldog title hopes

John Gilbert

Jack Connolly led UMD to a split with North Dakota, scoring two goals and three assists in the 5-4 victory Saturday. --John Gilbert
Jack Connolly led UMD to a split with North Dakota, scoring two goals and three assists in the 5-4 victory Saturday. --John Gilbert
 
Jack Connolly seemed taken aback when it was suggested he might have been off his game in UMD’s 3-1 loss to North Dakota last Friday night. The AMSOIL Arena game was special, with the hanging of banners to pay tribute to UMD’s four previous Hobey Baker winners, and all four -- Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson, Chris Marinucci, and Junior Lessard -- were present for between-periods introductions at center ice.

Jack Connolly is prominently mentioned as being the likeliest WCHA standout to have a shot at the Hobey Baker Award this season, which made the timing of the festivities more pronounced, because  
officials from the Hobey Baker executive committee were on hand, and the game was broadcast nationally by CBS sports. UMD’s defending NCAA champs, and long-term No. 1 team this season, plus Connolly, a two-time All-American, this year’s top WCHA scorer, had the advantage of many in the sellout crowd who held up signs proclaiming Connolly’s greatness, and somebody concocted the idea to make up maroon facemasks that resembled the short-cropped black whiskers that have adorned Connolly’s face all season.

Despite all the scene-setting, UMD was flat, misfiring, unable to generate any sustained offense, and Connolly was emblematic of his team, even though he assisted on J.T. Brown’s power-play goal, only 1:06 remained, so it didn’t inspire much other than a closing rush. It was suggested to Connolly that with all that was riding on the game, maybe he was putting too much pressure on himself, simply trying too hard.

“I thought I played a pretty good game,” Connolly said. “As a team, we played fine, and matched their physical play, but we weren’t able to score, and they got a few bounces.”
On Saturday, one night later, the CBS television crew was gone, the Hobey Baker committee guys had headed back to the Twin Cities, and in the much more subdued setting, it was time for the second game of the season. What a difference 24 hours can make. Connolly assisted when J.T. Brown opened the scoring on a power play, but North Dakota retaliated with two goals, and the Fighting Sioux held the 2-1 lead until the final four minutes of the period.

Then, in the stretch of 3:20, Travis Oleksuk scored on the power play, with Connolly assisting, and 24 seconds later Connolly made an amazing play to set up Mike Seidel for another goal. Connolly looked like Pavel Datsyuk on the forecheck, sneaking up on a Sioux skater, who pivoted away from him to protect the puck, only to have Connolly sweep around him, the long way, and swipe the puck. As he turned toward the slot, Connolly was knocked off balance, and as the puck squirted away from him, Connolly let himself belly-flop to the ice, reaching his stick out full length to poke the puck to the slot, where Seidel was arriving to one-time a shot into the net for a 3-2 UMD lead.
UMD’s previous Hobey Baker Award winners lined up for Friday’s recognition ceremony at AMSOIL Arena -- from left, Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson, Junior Lessard, Chris Marinucci.--John Gilbert
UMD’s previous Hobey Baker Award winners lined up for Friday’s recognition ceremony at AMSOIL Arena -- from left, Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson, Junior Lessard, Chris Marinucci.--John Gilbert


It was a shame the cameras and the Hobey guys had left, because that play would have conclusively shown why Connolly leads the league in points and is the first name mentioned for the Hobey.


He wasn’t done, however. Connolly drilled a perfect cross-crease pass from Caleb Herbert in the final minute of the second period on a 2-skater power play. If it seemed fitting Connolly was rewarded for his three-assist period by getting a goal himself, he opened the second period by knocking in Seidel’s rebound at 1:46. That made it 5-2 UMD, and Connolly had two goals and three assists.

The 6,790 standing-room fans at AMSOIL roared their approval, but the Bulldogs couldn’t coast home. Carter Rowney, who scored two goals in the 3-1 Friday North Dakota victory, scored two goals in a 47-second shift, and the game ended with UMD goaltender Kenny Reiter hanging on for a 5-4 victory.

Afterward, Connolly was stopped again. Now that his 5-point game, his biggest output of the season, was in the books, might he have a better perspective on the difference of the vintage Connolly performance and the sputtering, misfiring performance from the first game? Jack just smiled, and acknowledged the Saturday game felt more fulfilling.

For his four years at UMD, Connolly has scored 63-122--185 in 155 games. In the “what have you done for me lately” world of contemporary sports, the 5-foot-8, 170-pounder from the Marshall Hilltoppers, has 15-21--36 to lead WCHA scorers in conference games, and 17-31--48 for all games this season. But more than just statistics were at stake.

Connolly has failed to register a point in only three games this season -- a 5-3 loss to Notre Dame in the second game of the season, and both nights in the Michigan Tech series, a 4-4 tie and a 5-0 loss. So when Connolly doesn’t get a point, the Bulldogs are 0-2-1. Otherwise, he has scored at least one point in the other 27 UMD games, including all 17 games of UMD’s school record 14-0-3 unbeaten streak. Connolly encased that team record with a personal-best 22-game streak with at least one point, which equalled Mark Pavelich’s program record. He also surpassed Jeff Scissons’ record of having played in 153 consecutive games because the North Dakota games were Connolly’s 154th and 155th in a row. So he can be excused for playing so well and so consistently for so long that it becomes difficult to tell when he’s just a bit off his game. Besides, wait 24 hours, and the real Jack Connolly stands up again.

WILD WCHA RACE

By splitting, UMD climbed from a 3-point deficit to a one-point margin against league-leading Minnesota. The Gophers lost twice at Denver last weekend, which leaves Minnesota atop the standings at 15-7 for 30 points, followed by UMD 13-6-3 for 29, and Denver with a 12-6-4 mark and 28. Colorado College, which went into last weekend two points behind UMD, was beaten twice by Bemidji State, leaving CC, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, and Michigan Tech embroiled in a four-team battle for the final three home-ice playoff spots in the 12-team league.

 Minnesota is at home this weekend, where Bemidji State invades, and the Beavers are fresh from winning and tying against Nebraska-Omaha and sweeping CC. UMD plays at Minnesota State-Mankato this weekend, and that is no cinch -- the Mavericks are playing well, and the Bulldogs are only 2-4-1 since their 17-game unbeaten string was broken. This is precisely the point where, a year ago, UMD struggled to drop from a shot at the WCHA title to fourth place. After Mankato, UMD comes home to AMSOIL Arena to face Colorado College before closing the regular season at St. Cloud.
STRETCH-DRIVE
STRETCHES:

•    UMD’s women’s hockey team closes its regular season at AMSOIL Arena this weekend, against MSU-Mankato, and the Bulldogs not only need to win to assure their fourth-place finish and home-ice for next week’s league playoffs against Ohio State, they need to establish consistent play for three periods of both games. UMD ran off an impressive 7-1 stretch to climb into the upper half of the Women’s WCHA, then went 0-3, then 3-0, and now 1-2. Ohio State, which split with UMD two weeks ago, before UMD split at Bemidji State, could pass the Bulldogs and snare home ice, but the Buckeyes have to close at Wisconsin this weekend. UMD also finds a critical need to win out this weekend and into the WCHA playoffs, in order to earn one of eight NCAA tournament berths.
•    St. Scholastica (14-7-4) won a pair of key closing road games in the NCHA last weekend, so the Saints get to play host to a first-round league playoff series against Wisconsin-Stout at Mars-Lakeview Arena. In the Division III pairwise rankings, St. Scholastica is 12th. That doesn’t mean the Saints can’t move up, but they might have to win their league playoff to get an NCAA shot.
•    UMD has had some problems scoring this season, and the Bulldogs can ill-afford to lose any of it. Winger J.T. Brown is the team’s goal-scoring leader, and he went out of Saturday night’s game with an undisclosed injury. Speculation raged through the AMSOIL press box, first reported as a broken arm, then as a broken finger. Nobody is certain, and no information was being disclosed, but if it proves to be a cracked or broken finger, it would be painful to grip a stick, and also could require surgery. The question is, how soon can Brown come back and how effective can he shoot when he does?
•    The UMD men have enough to worry about with the WCHA race sizzling to a climax, but their recent struggles have dropped the Bulldogs in the national rankings. As the WCHA’s top-rated team, UMD is third to Ferris State and Boston University in the USA Ratings, and fourth behind Ferris, BU, and Boston College in the US College Hockey Online poll. BC has risen after beating BU 3-2 in the final of the traditional Beanpot Tournament in Boston. But the only ratings that matter at this stage of the season is the Pairwise system used by the NCAA selection committee. In that, Ferris State is No. 1, followed by BC, BU, and UMD, then Michigan, Mass-Lowell, and Denver. Minnesota is 14th. The top 16 make the NCAA tournament, but league playoff champions are mandatory, and could bump ranked teams. So to be safe, a team needs to strive to be among the top 13, and naturally, higher is better. The point is, UMD is secure, and Denver is solid. But the rest of the WCHA teams need strong finishes to have a chance at a berth. Denver, incidentally, is on the rise because goaltender Sam Brittain is finally back after recovering from off-season surgery. The Pioneers have had incredibly bad luck with goaltender injuries this season, needing four of them to get to January. Brittain, who now has played four games, was a key reason the Pioneers swept Minnesota, as Nick Shore tied the Saturday game with 1:26 left, and then won it with a goal at 0:17 of overtime. That plunged the Gophers to a 4-4 league slate since the New Year, which is not the recipe for clinging to first place.
•    High school playoffs are underway for girls, and just about ready to go in Class AA and A boys. Duluth East remains No. 1 in AA, and Hermantown is No. 1 in A as the only undefeated team in the state. East closes against Tartan at 3 p.m. Saturday at Heritage Center, as a tune-up for the college women or St. Scholastica men playing at night. If you’re looking ahead, the 7AA playoffs open with quarterfinals next Tuesday, and a huge semifinal doiubleheader a week from Saturday, at noon and 2 p.m., as the perfect prelude to UMD’s night game against CC. The 7AA championship game is Thursday, March 1.
 
UMD’s top goal-scorer, J.T. Brown, went hard to the net against North Dakota goalie Aaron Dell. Brown was injured Saturday and his status is unknown for this weekend. --John Gilbert
UMD’s top goal-scorer, J.T. Brown, went hard to the net against North Dakota goalie Aaron Dell. Brown was injured Saturday and his status is unknown for this weekend. --John Gilbert