Bulldogs and high schools thrive at playoff time

John Gilbert

Playoff hockey. There’s nothing like it. Whether it’s the state tournament in high school, or at the college level, where league, regional and national tournaments are the ultimate steps to prove superiority.

It’s been a spectacular year for hockey in the Duluth area, where superb hockey has been so widespread, it seems that some fans almost take it for granted. It started almost exactly a year ago. Last March, remember, Duluth East and Hermantown both reached the Class AA and A state tournaments, and on one excruciating day, Hermantown lost in the A title game, then East lost that overtime thriller to Eden Prairie in the AA final. Then a month later,  the UMD Bulldogs won the first Division I NCAA hockey championship in the school’s history.  Until Kyle Schmidt knocked in the game-winner against Michigan, the only NCAA championship banners belonging to UMD were earned by the women’s team, which won the first three NCAA tournaments, and added a fourth later.

The hockey world has turned, but Duluth remains the bright star shining in the middle of Minnesota’s universe. With section finals being conducted in Duluth this week, Duluth East ranked No. 1 among AA schools, Hermantown No. 1 among A schools, and Marshall, which doesn’t have to compete with Hermantown, was No. 1 seed in Section 7’s A bracket. All three were in the finals, one giant step away from Xcel Energy Center next week for the state tournament.

The UMD men, meanwhile, swept Colorado College last weekend in two tough games to go into this weekend’s final regular-season action at St. Cloud trailing Minnesota by two slim points for the WCHA title. The Gophers are at home against Wisconsin, which is having a rough year without a lot of talent, but which could rise up and play like the ferocious rival that emerges from the Badgers whenever they face the Gophers. While winning the league title is still there, the biggest news for UMD was a return to the No. 1 ranking in the national Pairwise calculations, which are used by the NCAA committee in selecting its national tournament teams and arranging regional pairings.

The UMD women’s team is not the best team in the country this season, and is not currently among the top eight teams, perhaps. But the Bulldogs have been playing up to their heritage in recent weeks, and last weekend’s sweep of Ohio State opened the WCHA playoffs in style.  This weekend, the women’s hockey spotlight swings around to shine on Duluth, because the WCHA Final Faceoff is at AMSOIL Arena Friday and Saturday. The NCAA national Frozen Four also will be at AMSOIL two weeks from now. It would take an amazing run for UMD to reach the eight-team NCAA field. All they have to do, presumably, is beat Wisconsin and Minnesota -- the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the land. 

Beating Ohio State puts the Bulldogs into position to have a chance. True, they must play their best hockey of the season in the league’s Final Faceoff, but maybe that’s how it should be. UMD will take on No. 1 ranked and regular-season champion Wisconsin Friday afternoon in the first game, while runner-up Minnesota faces North Dakota in the Friday night second semifinal. In women’s hockey, more than in men’s, big games tend to go according to form. The form chart says Saturday night’s final will be between Wisconsin and Minnesota -- and if it is, Duluth hockey fans are in for a treat, because those two teams play each other with the same intensity their men’s counterparts have made an enormous tradition.

All four league semifinalists have some elite players, who must be counted on by their teams to come through under pressure. Both Minnesota -- with four Patty Kazmaier Award finalists -- and Wisconsin have the most high-end players in the country. Against UMD, Minnesota’s top threat is Amanda Kessel, while Hilary Knight has been unstoppable for Wisconsin against the Bulldogs. North Dakota, of course, has the Lamoureux Twins, who were dominant freshmen at Minnesota before transferring home to play for the Fighting Sioux. UMD’s catalyst is Haley Irwin, who is playing healthy and with force for her final performances in Duluth. When Irwin is in full health and fired-up, she is as good as any women’s hockey player in the country, capable of taking over any game against any opponent.

Wisconsin came to AMSOIL at the start of the season, and swept UMD. But they were highly competitive and entertaining games. In the first game, Wisconsin won 4-3. UMD’s top line got all three, although they weren’t on the same line then.Jenna McParland scored twice in the first period, with Irwin setting up both goals.  Knight rose up to score late in the second period for a 3-2 lead, but Audrey Cournoyer scored in the third period to lift UMD to a  3-3 tie. A great game ended with UMD on the power play with two minutes remaining, only to have Knight get loose to score on a short-handed breakaway with 1:14 left, for the 4-3 victory.

The next day, UMD outshot Wisconsin 49-31 but lost 6-3. The game was scoreless for 17 minutes, then Hilary Knight scored on a power play at 17:05, igniting a 3-goal surge in the span of 1:34. The Bulldogs battled back, outshooting the Badgers 23-7 in the second period, but at 18:16 of that period, you got the idea it wasn’t UMD’s day. A delayed interference penalty was being called on Wisconsin’s Saige Pacholok, so UMD quickly pulled Jennifer Harss from the goal for a sixth attacker.  A power-play goal could change the game, and Vanessa Thibault had possession deep in the right corner. She zipped a hard pass back to the point, where, incredibly, the puck popped over a UMD stick at the right point, and as the Bulldogs chased desperately, the puck slid all the way back and into their open goal. So at 18:16, Saige Pacholok, who touched the puck last for Wisconsin, was given credit for both an unassisted goal and an interference penalty.

Wisconsin has gone on from there to deserve the No. 1 ranking, but UMD has probably improved the most from the start of the season.To have a chance against the potent Badgers, Harss must be on her game, Jessica Wong must be at her best leading the defense, and Irwin must get her line up and flying and be the player she was when she led Canada to the last Olympic gold medal. It could be a spectacular game.

A DAY AT CLASS A

Last Thursday, it was tough to choose where to go. Hermantown had a Section 5A game against Moose Lake, Marshall had a 7A playoff against Silver Bay, and Denfeld was at Heritage playing Virginia. Because Moose Lake has the Cisar Brothers, who have scored enormous quantities this season, I headed for Hermantown. The mighty Hawks jumped ahead 4-0 and were outshooting Moose Lake 30-5.

Decision time. Hermantown’s 26th victory without a loss was assured, so I headed for the exit, missing Josh Cisar scoring his 63rd goal, which ended Hermantown’s streak of 258 shutout minutes, but couldn’t do much to prevent an 11-1 rout. There was time to get to Marshall. As I entered Mars-Lakeview Arena, Marshall scored its third goal to go up 3-0 on Silver Bay at the end of the first period. The Toppers were merciless in the second period, and the shot count rose to 47-6 by the second intermission.

It ended 7-0, and Marshall outshot Silver Bay 73-7, which outdid Hermantown’s 71-13. Silver Bay goaltender Alex Murray was positively brilliant, making 66 saves to break the high school record of 66 saves, which Karl Goehring established while beating Duluth East in a five-overtime state tournament game in 1996. That was the Dave Spehar East team and a five- overtime game; this was a three-period, regulation-except-for-running-time-in-the-third-period game. 

Cynics who love to needle Marshall’s private-schoolness, said that Murray’s performance was so spectacular, he was No. 1 on Marshall’s recruiting list for next year. Aren’t those cynics awful?

Meanwhile, zooming down Mesaba Avenue, there was just barely time to get to Heritage Center in time to see Denfeld ‘s Levi Talarico score the final three goals in a 5-1 victory over Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl. But at last, it was a game without a ridiculous score, or a ridiculous number of shots. It was, in fact, a good Class A hockey game.

The beat goes on, that Hermantown and Marshall should both move themselves up from Class A to AA. Only now it is something of urgency, to save “Northern Hockey” for the future. Duluth East was the only northern team left in the 7AA semifinals. The Hounds had a narrow escape to beat Elk River 4-2 on an empty-net goal, while Andover outlasted Forest Lake 7-6 in the second semifinal at AMSOIL last Saturday. That sends Andover into the 7AA final against East’s 26-1 Greyhounds Thursday night at AMSOIL. (If you get your Reader early enough, you could still make it there.) What if it was an Andover-Elk River final? Be silly to be held in Duluth, wouldn’t it? So it’s no longer a challenge, it’s a responsibility. If Marshall moved up to 7AA, instead of rolling up 73 shots in 51 minutes against a good Class A team, and if Hermantown took its undefeated power to 7AA and let those true Class A schools have fun on their own with a chance to go to a state tournament -- the reason the second class of tournaments was created -- then 7AA would have East, Cloquet, Grand Rapids, Hermantown and Marshall. And we could let Elk River and Andover go back down and play in the Twin Cities against teams they face all season -- where they belong, and where they’d prefer to be.

Incidentally, the problems with too many “wrong” teams playing in Class A cross over into the girls hockey, too. Remember, the purpose for having a separate class for smaller schools was to allow those schools that can’t compete with the larger schools a chance to experience the thrill of reaching a state tournament. Detroit Lakes, New Ulm, Chisago Lakes, Red Wing and Hutchinson are five perfect Class A teams, but they had to face Breck, Warroad, and South St. Paul at the Class A segment of the girls state tournament. In the first round, Warroad beat Detroit Lakes 13-1, and South St. Paul crushed New Ulm 12-1. Also, Breck whipped Chisago Lakes 7-3, and in the only game between two “true” Class A teams, Red Wing beat Hutchinson 6-5 in an overtime thriller.

In the consolation round, New Ulm beat Detroit Lakes 5-4, and Chisago Lakes beat Hutchinson 5-2. I’ll bet the girls from New Ulm and Detroit Lakes, as well as Chisago Lakes, will remember the thrill of their consolation game.  What a shame they had to wait until consolation to have a real competitive game, rather than facing a small school that could well be playing and beating many of the large schools. Breck, incidentally, beat South St. Paul in a triple overtime championship game that was a great one -- but both those teams should be playing “up.”

ALWAYS LOOK TO 7AA

No matter what the circumstances, you can never go wrong by making sure you get to the Section 7AA hockey playoffs, particularly the semifinals. The fact that Duluth East and Andover survived to reach this Thursday’s championship game is a significant reward.

East was in position to blow out Elk River in the first game. Elk River was without long-time coach Tony Sarsland, who has survived numerous controversies but can never be criticized for not having his team ready. The Elks are always in prime condition and well-disciplined. Ben Gustafson, who assisted Tony until a few years ago, came back as interim head coach while Tony fights to get reinstated.

The game opened with the Hounds at full speed. Trevor Olson, healthy and back on the top line, scored at 0:26, then defenseman Meirs Moore moved in fro the point to score with a perfect feed from Jake Randolph at 5:59. Elk River’s Mitchell Kierstad countered with a deflection goal for Elk River, but Ryan Lundgren made it 3-1 by moving up the left side, taking a pass from Alex Toscano, and drilling a shot high and in, just inside the far post. Late in the second period, still 3-1, Elk River ices the puck while killing a penalty. East goalie Dylan Parker fetches the puck deep in the right corner, turns around and lobs a soft diagonal pass across his own zone. Jared McLaughlin had to think Christmas came early, because he stepped in, intercepted the pass in the slot, and cruised to 15 feet of the open net before depositing the easiest goal he’ll ever score.

That made it 3-2, and East had to struggle to regain their poise. Coach Mike Randolph advised the team it was time to show some character, and the Hounds responded. Parker regained his touch, and even though the Elks outshot East 10-5, he held them off. In the final minute, Randolph escaped up the left boards and fired a rink-wide pass to Olson, steaming up the right boards. Elk River’s superb goaltender Andres Franke was on the bench for a sixth attacker, so Olson, a deadly shooter, had an easy target. As he closed in, however, an Elk defenseman slid across in front of him, so Olson instead made a neat pass to the slot. There was Moore, rushing up from defense, for the easy empty-netter.

“I’ve never scored an empty-net goal in high school, and I always wanted to,” said Moore, a junior, who was more genuinely excited about the clincher than his first of the game. “Me and Jake won the battle to get the puck out of our zone, Jake got it to Trevor, and I hopped up into the rush.Trevor is such a team guy; he throws that perfect ‘sauc,’ [meaning “saucer” pass] and all I had to do was put it in.”

Still, Elk River’s solid performance took away a lot of the things East most likes to do with its sharp-passing game. The automatic passing lanes that have been open all season weren’t open against the alert and disciplined Elks. “As coaches, we’re working with the seniors,” said Gustafson. “Nobody is taking any credit, and nobody is giving any blame. We all worked together.”

In the second game, Andover led 1-0, Forest Lake led 2-1, then Andover went up 4-2 with six minutes left in the second period, only to have Kyle VonTassel, Brett Gravelle and Jack Smith score power-play goals after a succession of ill-timed Andover penalties. In the third period, Andover tied it, then Tyler Tomberlin put Andover ahead 6-5 at 10:37, but Brandon Rogers came back to score at 15:29 for Forest Lake, gaining an improbable 6-6 tie. In overtime, Davis Tollette moved up to the crease and smacked in a rebound at 5:22, and Andover had its 7-6 victory.

Tollette is a perfect example of perseverence in his senior year. He hurt his ACL in football back in October, and couldn’t play until the end of January. A tall, rangy forward, Tollette was excited to play at AMSOIL Arena. “It’s the nicest ice I’ve ever skated on,” Tollette said. His name and his rangy size were both familiar to me. I coached in the Roseville Summer League for a lot of years, and brothers Jeff and Jon Tollette were both excellent players on other teams. They joined their dad to help run Bunker Hills Golf Club in Coon Rapids, one of the best golf courses in the Twin Cities. “Jeff is my dad,” said Davis Tollette, “Jon is my uncle.”  Small world. Jon is now executive director at Bunker Hills.

Andover’s fourth goal, by the way, was scored when Tyler Vold flung  shot from center point that found its way in. Vold, a ninth-grader who plays more like a senior, is the grandson of Jim and Laurie Knapp; he’s the former UMD assistant hockey coach, she is the principal at East.

BULLDOGS ELUDE CC

UMD’s race for the WCHA title has taken some crazy turns, but last weekend, the Bulldogs dodged a major obstacle by beating Colorado College 4-3 and 5-2. While seeming to get their game together, the Bulldogs couldn’t gain on Minnesota, which swept at Nebraska-Omaha -- the most impressive Gopher weekend since Christmas.

The first CC game showed a swift but scoreless first period. Senior captain Jack Connolly scored midway through the second period, then freshmen Caleb Herbert and Justin Crandall followed for a 3-0 UMD lead on a 3-goal burst in less than five minutes. But Alexander Kryshelnyski scored in the last minute of the second period, and Michael Boivin and Rylan Schwartz scored barely a minute apart in the third period, and UMD’s 3-0 lead had dissolved into a 3-3 tie. At 3:00 of overtime, Travis Oleksuk pulled a right-corner faceoff back, and J.T. Brown blasted a one-timer from the slot past goaltender Josh Thorimbert, and UMD won 4-3.

The next night, UMD was more assertive against the speedy Tigers, and a record home crowd of 6,808 turned out to see everybody get involved in the scoring. Mike Seidel scored twice, putting UMD up 1-0 in the first, and 2-1 in the second; Brown got another, making it 3-1 after two, and so did Herbert, making it 4-1 before Oleksuk made it 5-1 in the closing minutes. A late CC goal made it 5-2.  Connolly, still a favorite for Hobey Baker, had three assists. His first was a work of art, but subtle, as he rushed up the right side, letting Keegan Flaherty drive the defense toward the net before hitting Seidel, who fired from the right faceoff circle and caught the far edge. With 1:06 to go, on the power play, Oleksuk rushed up the middle and fed Connolly on a 2-on-2. Connolly flipped a soft lob pass ahead, across the slot, and, sure enough, Oleksuk broke hard and deflected it in.

Coach Scott Sandelin has to worry about who will make those neat, subtle plays next season, after Connolly’s gone, but for now, we can all enjoy watching his artistry. UMD paid tribute to seniors Connolly, Oleksuk, forward David Grun, defensemen Brady Lamb and Scott Kishel, and goaltender Kenny Reiter. Lamb said, “This was closer to the way we played when we were on our streak. We’d been giving away points, but tonight all of our lines and our defense as well got in the scoring...and even Kenny.” Sure enough, Reiter assisted on Seidel’s first goal and on Brown’s goal. Cody Danberg, who missed last year with an injury, and also was injured for his red-shirt return year, also was introduced with the seniors. While it was the last regular-season series for the seniors, the Bulldogs will, of course, be back in AMSOIL next weekend for league playoffs.