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There is an eerie similarity to the UMD men’s hockey team’s entry into the NCAA hockey tournament this weekend.
For those who don’t remember, last year’s Bulldogs stumbled at the end of the regular season, going 2-4-2 to finish league play, then barely escaping St. Cloud State in an overtime second game to reach the WCHA Final Five where the Bulldogs were one-and-done after a tough loss to Bemidji State. At that point, having botched the chance to win the WCHA regular season, and the playoffs, things looked bleak when UMD made the NCAA tournament but was sent out East to play in the Northeast Regional.
Hockey magic then intervened, and UMD was the recipient, big time. Kenny Reiter became impenetrable in goal, everything clicked, and UMD beat Union, then beat the region’s No. 1 seed in Yale, to reach the Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center. The magic continued, as the Bulldogs beat Notre Dame, and then Michigan in an overtime thriller, to claim their first-ever NCAA men’s hockey championship.
Fast forward to this season. UMD rose to the No. 1 rank in the country, and into a tie for first place with Minnesota, but won only a sweep against Colorado College among their five final regular-season games. A tie at 11th-place MSU-Mankato and a loss and a tie in the final series at St. Cloud State cost the Bulldogs five points, which were extremely costly when they finished three points behind the Gophers. The Bulldogs righted the ship by beating MSU-Mankato twice in WCHA playoffs to reach the Final Five, where they rallied from a 3-0 deficit but fell 4-3 in a remarkable double-overtime epic to Denver.
UMD remained safely in the 16-team NCAA field, but by losing, the Bulldogs again were sent East, this time to the East Regional at Worcester, Mass., where they will play Maine. A victory would sent them up against the winner between Boston College -- the No. 1 overall seed -- and Air Force Academy. It’s not impossible for UMD to win those two games, and return to the Frozen Four, which this year is in Tampa. But beating Maine and BC, if it comes to that, is a much taller order than beating Union and Yale -- two very good Eastern teams but both are devoid of the NCAA tournament heritage that runs deep through the Maine and Boston College programs.
It’s asking a lot to get the same kind of hot hockey hand and a repeat dose of tournament luck two years in a row. Last year, the clearcut favorites at NCAA Regional time were North Dakota, Denver, Boston College, Miami of Ohio, and Nebraska-Omaha. Upsets took out all but North Dakota in regional play, and the Fighting Sioux went down 2-0 to an unlikely shutout by Michigan in the Frozen Four semifinals.
This year, if you want to plan ahead for three days of high entertainment on television, here:s the schedule:
FRIDAY -- East Region at Websterbrook Arena at Harbor Yard, Bridgeport, Conn., semifinals: 1. Union (24-7-7) vs. 4. Michigan State (19-5-4), 2 p.m. Central time; 2. Miami (24-12-2) vs. 3. Massachusetts-Lowell (23-12-1), 5:30 p.m.
Midwest Region at Resch Center, Green Bay, Wis., semifinals: 2. Ferris State (23-11-5) vs. 3. Denver (25-13-4), 4:30 p.m.; 1. Michigan (24-12-4) vs. 4. Cornell (18-8-7), 8 p.m.
SATURDAY -- West Region at Xcel Energy Center, Saint Paul, MN., semifinals: 1. North Dakota (25-12-3) vs. 4. Western Michigan (21-13-6), 12:30 p.m.; 2. Minnesota (26-13-1) vs. 3. Boston University (23-14-1), 4 p.m.
Northeast Region at DCU Center, Worcester, Mass., semifinals: 1. Boston College (29-10-1) vs. 4. Air Force (21-10-7), 3 p.m.; 2. UMD (24-9-6) vs. 3. Maine (23-13-3), 6:30 p.m.
East final, 5:30 p.m.; Midwest final, 8 p.m.
SUNDAY -- West final, 4:30 p.m.; Northeast final, 7 p.m.
Let’s rack ’em up and pick ’em all: East -- Michigan State over Union, and Miami over Mass-Lowe;;; Midwest -- Denver over Ferris State, and Michigan over Cornell; West -- North Dakota over Western Michigan, and BU over Minnesota; Northeast -- Boston College over Air Force, and UMD over Maine.
Region finals: East -- Miami over Michigan State; Midwest -- Denver over Michigan; West -- North Dakota over BU; Northeast -- UMD over BC.
That would give us a Frozen Four of Miami vs. Denver, and North Dakota vs. UMD. Let’s wait and see how close those are before picking the Frozen Four.
STATE TOURNAMENT HEAT
Remember when either or both the state hockey and basketball tournaments would be accompanied by blizzards? This year, it’s record heat waves. We must congratulate all the Northern Minnesota boys basketball tournament entries. Duluth East has a strong representative in the Class AAAA tournament, and we can be particularly happy that Lakeview Christian Academy made it to their first-ever tournament in Class A.
East, of course, made the tournament last year, too, but Lakeview Academy (25-5) is small enough that nobody around the state even knows it exists. They will know, after getting a look at Anders Broman, the high-scoring phenom who has spent the season shattering scoring records. The junior guard is already the second highest-scorer in state history, and he scored 45 points -- his season average -- in the 80-68 title game in Section 7A against North Woods at Hibbing last Friday.
GOPHER WOMEN PREVAIL
Minnesota beat Wisconsin 4-2 in a showdown of the nation’s, and the WCHA’s, best two women’s hockey teams at AMSOIL Arena last Sunday afternoon. Wisconsin was ranked No. 1 and Minnesota No. 2 going into the game, but Minnesota had a bit more depth, and goaltender Noora Raty was absolutely on top of her game, while Wisconsin netminder Alex Rigsby was very good, but not as sharp. The game could go back a couple of weeks to when UMD played its best game of the season to beat Wisconsin 3-1 on an open-net goal, but then played well again in the WCHA Final Faceoff championship game but couldn’t beat Raty and lost 2-0, also on and open-net goal.
It was unfortunate for UMD not to make the NCAA field, but the Bulldogs will be back. As it was, they got a little bit of luck when Minnesota won the national title, because UMD, Wisconsin and Minnesota have won all 12 NCAA championships held so far. UMD has five, Wisconsin four and Minnesota now has three, but if Wisconsin had won, the Badgers would have tied UMD for the most at five. This way, UMD can come back next year and defend its well-earned turf.
FINAL FIVE -- ONE MORE TO GO
Sad as it seems, hockey fans will only have the supreme treat of the WCHA Final Five one more time, and then -- poof! -- it all blows up.
The just-completed WCHA Final Five proved again how difficult it is to win, and that it might be, as the coaches suggest, the best tournament in the country. Yes, that includes the NCAA Frozen Four. But after one more Final Five at Xcel Center, the WCHA teams scatter, with Minnesota and Wisconsin heading for the new Big Ten Conference, while UMD, North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver and Colorado College go into the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and only Bemidji State, MSU-Mankato, and Michigan Tech from the current WCHA will remain in the WCHA. Nobody knows where any of the three leagues will play their playoff tournaments.
All we can do is savor the one just passed and the one coming next year for being the extravaganzas they are. Interesting, but repeatedly radio and television announcers in the Twin Cites and numerous fans and newspaper types kept saying when Minnesota played North Dakota, it might be the last time the two teams play because of the split. Apparently, they were overlooking the fact that they will still play each other next season in the final year of the existing WCHA. And, they could even meet again this weekend, at Xcel Center, if they win their first regional games.
There were a lot of inside points of interest about the Final Five. In the first game, Denver beat Michigan Tech 3-2 in overtime, ending a year of emergence by Michigan Tech under coach Mel Pearson, and a stirring run through playoffs that saw the Huskies go to Colorado College and sweep two games. Josh Robinson was one of the best goaltenders in the country in that series, and while making 41 saves against Denver. Jason Zucker, a Wild draft pick and Denver’s leading scorer, had not played well, and coach George Gwozdecky confronted him about it. Zucker was off to the left of the net, perfectly placed when an overtime pass got to him, and he scored the game-winner at 2:18 of OT.
In the second game, North Dakota beat St. Cloud State 4-1, rising from a 1-1 first period as the Fighting Sioux first line scored all four goals -- two by Brock Nelson, and one each by Corban Knight and Danny Kristo. That line, said coach Dave Hakstol, showed sparks midway through the season at Alaska-Anchorage, and Hakstol’s nurturing brought them to a full blaze by the stretch drive.
Denver had to regroup to face rested UMD, but the rest left UMD out of the first half of the game, when the Bulldogs fell behind 3-0. Mike Seidel had his best game of the year for the Bulldogs, scoring twice in the second half of the second period, before Jack Connolly scored the tying goal in the third. The teams then played and traded rushes and scoring chances, and both played to exhaustion. Because of an injury, Gwozdecky had to go with only five defensemen, and he dressed Zac Larraza, a freshman who hadn’t dressed the day before, and who hadn’t scored a single goal all season, as Denver’s 13th forward. He got a few shifts, but in the second 20-minute overtime, as the pace slowed from weariness, Gwozdecky sent him out with the fourth line, and a Kenny Reiter save bounced up and hit Larraza in the chest. Looking like a seasoned veteran scorer, Larraza, who is from Scottsdale, Ariz., let the puck fall, pulled it to the right of the goal, and shoveled a backhander in behind Reiter for the winning goal. The 4-3 game lasted 88 minutes and 14 seconds -- the longest game ever in the Final Five. UMD outshot the Pioneers 70-49, meaning Denver goalie Sam Brittan, who missed the first half of the season recovering from off-season surgery, made a league record 67 saves.
North Dakota struck a blow for team unity and comebacks even more dramatically in the second semifdinal. Minnesota hit the ice flying, and took a 3-0 lead on goals by Kyle Rau, Jake Hansen and Zach Budish -- all coming in the first 30 minutes and 1 second of the game. Five minutes later, Hakstol called a time out for North Dakota, and from that moment on, the Fighting Sioux owned the game. After being outshot 12-2 in the first period, North Dakota outshot Minnesota 17-2 in the third period, when, having gotten one goal late in the second period, the Fighting Sioux volleyed five unanswered goals past Kent Patterson in the third ford a 6-3 shocker.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia put it well: “We punched, they punched back, and we wilted.”
The prime topic afterward was that Lucia also said he didn’t know if taking a time out himself would have helped the Gophers. So everybody, including various Twin Cities sports talk shows that spend their time second-guessing rather than reporting, raved about the genius of Dave Hakstol for taking the magical time out that turned the game around. I asked Hakstol about it, and he said: “I didn’t say anything. We had tired bodies out there, and we iced the puck, so we couldn’t cbange, and I didn’t want to give up the fourth goal just because we were tired.”
The recent rule change on icing is that if a team fires the puck down the ice, it can’t make a personnel change, as a penalty, while the other team can. Down 3-0, it was a smart call, because Hakstol could rest his tired players, who could then return rejuvenated. It worked. Even though the majority thought that Hakstol had made some incredibly inspiring speech to get his guys untracked.
Strangely, the championship game, for the Broadmoor Cup, was wholly anticlimactic. Denver was simply too exhausted. The Pioneers had gone three games to beat Wisconsin, with one game in overtime, then came to Saint Paul after two days rest and played three more games, the first two in overtime, including the record game against UMD. That was six games in nine days, and the overtime equivalent of a seventh game. North Dakota whipped the Pioneers 4-0, as Aaron Dell got the shutout with only one really serious threat to stop.
Will it all carry over to the NCAA tournament? We’ll see. The high-flying Fighting Sioux -- playing in new uniforms because the NCAA has threatened to forfeit any games in which they use the Sioux logo or Fighting Sioux name -- is at the top of its game. Denver, with some rest and recovery time, is going to be a serious threat. Minnesota has boundless talent, but seems to be lacking the critical game-breaking scorer, and goaltender Kent Patterson was not at his sharpest. And UMD...Can Jack Connolly keep inspiring the offense? Can Kenny Reiter recreate himself from a year ago? Does UMD still get the magic of a year ago, or will it go to some other worthy team this time around?