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While we wait a week, it’s OK to spend some of it watching the NCAA basketball tournament play its Final Four this weekend, and then we can refocus next week on Tampa, Fla., and the men’s NCAA hockey Frozen Four.
No, the UMD Bulldogs aren’t going to be there, but there is a unique situation at the tournament. There are four major conferences in men’s hockey -- the WCHA, CCHA, Hockey East, and ECAC. Minnesota was the regular season champion in the WCHA, Boston College won Hockey East, Ferris State -- yes, Ferris State -- won the CCHA, and Union -- yes, Union -- won the ECAC. And those are the four teams that will convene in Tampa at the Frozen Four.
Every coach will tell you that because of the length of the season, it is much more difficult to win the regular season title in their league than to get hot at the finish and win the NCAA tournament. This year, they have the chance to prove it. No. 1 ranked Boston College won both the league and playoff titles, and junior Parker Milner recorded his second and third shutouts in the Northeast regional, and the Eagles soar into the Frozen Four on the wings of a 17-game winning streak. Union won the ECAC title with a 14-4-4 record, in a league where 23 games ended in ties, and won the ECAC tournament, before beating Michigan State 3-1 and Mass-Lowell 4-2 in the regional, and now takes a seven-game winning streak to Tampa.
Otherwise, Minnesota rose from a preseason pick of sixth to win the WCHA by three points, then was unceremoniously bounced out of the WCHA Final Five by taking a 3-0 lead and then getting bombed for six straight goals in a 6-3 North Dakota victory. In the CCHA, Ferris State wound up narrowly beating Michigan, Michigan State, Miami, and Western Michigan for the regular-season title. But Ferris was sideswiped, losing two of three to last-place Bowling Green in the CCHA tournament’s first round.
If you want a true darkhorse, there are two. Union and Ferris State both have proper credentials for their semifinal match. Union has never been to the Frozen Four, but look at Ferris State. The Broncos were picked seventh of 11 teams by the media, and ninth by the coaches in preseason picks, then they won the CCHA, without any All-American. They also don’t have a single NHL draft pick. By comparison, Minnesota played 19 players in the West Regional, and 15 of them have been drafted by the NHL.
Two bad the two darkhorses play in one game, while NCAA heavyweights Boston College and Minnesota collide in the other semifinal.
Pick your favorite in the men’s basketball Final Four. Kentucky is probably favored on paper, and Kansas is playing at a peak. Ohio State carries the colors of the Big Ten, but my pick is Louisville.
However exciting their semifinals and final might be, they will be hard-pressed to match the drama of two of the Minnesota state basketball tournament final games. In Class AAAA, Osseo and Lakeville North went down to the final buzzer, and it looked as though Osseo might have blown it, but an unlikely baseline jump shot lifted Osseo to a 49-47 victory.
The Class AAA final topped that one, however. Washburn had a chance to beat Minneapolis DeLaSalle but missed on two free throws in the closing seconds, forcing overtime. Trailing by one in the final seconds of overtime, Washburn’s Joseph Doby drove the length of the court and got all the way through to connect on a desperation layup with less than 10 seconds remaining, putting the Millers up 56-55. Minneapolis DeLaSalle hurried back down the court and Tyler Moore started to drive, then passed the ball out to Ross Barker, wide to the right. He sent a high, arcing shot from just inside the 3-point line and it went in at the buzzer, giving DeLaSalle a 57-56 victory.
Umd’s Reign As
For one long and glorious year, UMD reigned as the men’s national champion in hockey. The Bulldogs gave a serious run at repeating, but the effort ended at Worcester, Mass., in the Northeast Region final.
It takes a lot of skill, and a dose of luck, to win the NCAA hockey title, and perhaps only now do the Bulldogs realize how long and painstaking the following season becomes. Not that there were any assumptions, nor lofty expectations, although the Bulldogs provided a season-full of indications they might just be in position to repeat.
No explanation is required, either. The Bulldogs fell behind a strong Maine outfit 2-0 in the semifinals, then Jack Connolly drilled his 20th goal, and UMD rallied to claim a 5-2 victory. Boston College, the No. 1 team in the country, and the region, beat Air Force Academy 2-0, in a game that stood 1-0 until the Eagles got a power play to score their second goal with just over a minute left.
That sent UMD against Boston College, and it appeared to be the best match-up of the regionals. But after a scoreless first period, BC showed its stuff. To their credit, the Bulldogs played hard and gave it everything they had, but it was painful to see them held off so impressively by a Boston College team that was on a mission, and shut them out 4-0. Jack Connolly, who scored his 20th goal against Maine, wound up 20-40--60, and finishes his senior season two points behind Maine’s Spencer Abbott (21-41--62) as the nation’s top scorer.
I watched the televised version of the Northeast Regional from the press box at Xcel Energy Center, where two WCHA teams -- season champion Minnesota, and playoff champion North Dakota -- were battling for the West Region title.
The WCHA had four teams among the 16 selected teams in the NCAA tournament, and Denver had already been beaten by Ferris State at the Midwest Region in Green Bay. That game was on a first day of shockers. I predicted all four games in the Midwest and East regions -- and I picked them all wrong. In retrospect, it appears the entire field was much more balanced than perhaps any time in NCAA history, where any team could take out any other.
In the East, I thought Michigan State would knock off Union, while Miami of Ohio would make it an all-CCHA final by beating Massachusetts-Lowell. Wrong, and wrong. Union beat Michigan State 3-1, and Mass-Lowell blew a 3-0 lead against Miami, only to come back to swipe a shaky 4-3 victory in overtime to win the region.
In the Midwest, tradition pointed me to pick Denver and Michigan playing in the final, but tradition meant nothing, as Ferris State ended Denver’s season 2-1, and Cornell stunned Michigan. Three days after Denver’s elimination, sophomore sniper Jason Zucker was signed to a pro contract by the Minnesota Wild. With Denver and Michigan both done, Ferris State nailed Cornell 2-1 to win the region.
The Northeast and West regions started Saturday, which is when the Bulldogs flexed their offensive weaponry and Kenny Reiter had a chance to get settled after that early 2-0 deficit, and held the Black Bears scoreless thereafter. But Boston College simply had too much for the Bulldogs to handle in the final, and BC advances to the Frozen Four.
At Xcel Center, the WCHA was alive and well. North Dakota got ahead 2-0, and held on for an empty-net goal to beat Western Michigan 3-1. There was a large controversy in that one. After cutting it to 2-1 midway through the third period, Western’s Ian Slater went hard to the net, and Brock Nelson, North Dakota’s top scorer, was backchecking like a fiend and took down Slater as another Bronco shot. The rebounding puck came out to meet the sliding Slater in the crease, and ricocheted off his body and into the net -- which was dislodged at precisely that moment by Nelson, following through.
After lengthy review, the officials ruled no goal. Speculation was that the net was ruled to have been dislodged a millisecond before the puck crossed the line, but that wasn’t the call. The call was that when the puck hit Slater, he turned into it, and the officials ruled that he directed the puck in with his contortion. You have to love Andy Murray, the former NHL coach who resides in Minnesota, sent his sons to play at North Dakota and Wisconsin, and his daughter to play at UMD, and who has led the Broncos to prominence in his first year at Big Rapids, Mich.
“I haven’t seen the replay yet,” said Murray, whose team forced its way into the NCAA tournament as the fifth CCHA entry by winning the CCHA playoff. “The ref wanted to give me an explanation, but I waved him away. What are you going to do? And college refs talk to coaches way too much. Besides, I thought we played better after the disallowed goal.”
Nelson’s empty-net goal settled it at 3-1, and North Dakota won it its first game since discarding its Fighting Sioux jerseys with the very classy rendition of a Sioux warrior’s head on the crest. The NCAA had ruled that any use of the Fighting Sioux nickname or logo would result in a forfeit of any NCAA game they won. So they wore new jerseys with North Dakota printed on the front.
Minnesota cleared a serious hurdle by beating Boston University 7-3, but the score was misleading after two empty-net goals padded a tight 5-3 game. The biggest goal for the Gophers was scored by senior Nico Sacchetti. Having never played a regular role on the top three lines, Sacchetti didn’t even dress for 19 of Minnesota first 26 games this season. Centering the fourth line, he got precious few shifts, but in the third period, after BU had trimmed Minnesota’s lead to 4-3, visions of blown leads might have been drifting through some fans -- and players -- consciousness. Sacchetti didn’t hesitate, charging up the right boards and veering to the net for a neat goal that halted BU’s momentum and set the stage for the two empty-netters.
The final was strangely anticlimactic, as Minnesota got the jump on North Dakota with a goal in the first period, and another at 0:20 of the second, on a power play. Danny Kristo got one right back, at 1:43 of the second, for North Dakota, and it was 2-1. At that point, a just-created third Gopher line took over. Taylor Matson, who had just been moved out of center to right wing, scored on Nate Schmidt’s rebound, then Travis Boyd, a freshman installed at center on the third line, got his stick on a Nate Condon shot and deflected it in for his first college goal. Boyd also chipped a pass to center ice in the third period and Nate Condon, the left wing on the line, raced after it and scored on the breakaway with four minutes remaining, making it 5-1.
There wasn’t enough time left for a rally, but the team previously known as Fighting Sioux did it anyway. Mario Lamoureux blasted a shot in at 16:07, just 14 seconds after Condon’s goal, and the Sioux fought to the finish. Coach Dave Hakstol pulled his goaltender with just under three minutes remaining, but UND couldn’t connect again.
“We didn’t pull the goaltender to make it close,” said Hakstol. “There was a faceoff with 14 seconds left, where I thought there was not a real good chance for us to come back. But our mentality didn’t changed, down to the final faceoff.”
Minnesota coach Don Lucia, ridiculed on Twin Cities talk radio shows all week for failing to take a timeout when North Dakota scored its six consecutive goals in the Final Five title game, did pull his goalie this time, and smiled when asked if that proved he was a great coach. But Lucia’s emotions showed during the post-game press conference.
“This is really enjoyable,” said Lucia. “I’ve experienced it before, and it’s always enjoyable. But to see the joy on those faces in our locker room -- that’s what makes it special.”