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The NHL season has ended, and the REAL season is just beginning. It’s a Canadian Fact that all NHL fans are vitally interested in the regular season, but when the last puck is dropped, all Canadians and nearly all U.S. hockey fans consider the Stanley Cup Playoff champions as the best team in the NHL.
The Minnesota Wild will not be in the playoffs this year, for the fourth straight time. They have accumulated almost daily scorn from the basketball-baseball-football mouthpieces who fill all the talk-radio slots in the Twin Cities -- some of whom spill over onto Duluth airwaves. They berated the Wild for falling from the top spot in the league in mid-December, and then they ridiculed the Wild for not playing to lose through the last two weeks to get a better draft pick. Instead, the Wild played very well and actually won three straight and went 5-5 in their last 10.
“Now you know why I don’t listen to them,” said first-year coach Mike Yeo, who pushed his players to the end, and said he learned a lot about them through their successful finishing stretch. “The biggest thing you learn about the individuals in a group is how they respond to adversity. We kept pushing, because it was important to establish a culture, where our players learn that it’s never OK to bring anything but their best.”
General Manager Chuck Fletcher and Yeo conducted a season-ending meeting with interested media on Monday. Naturally, the worst critics didn’t appear. Fletcher stuffed conversation that a big-scoring free agent could solve everything in a hurry. He said: “I think we’re not that far away, and that we can win with what we’ve got, with just a few breaks. One or two new players can make a difference. But we have a very good coaching staff, very good veteran leadership, and very good goaltending. We’ll try to improve our depth, and we see a lot of progress from both Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse in recovering from concussion symptoms. They are both young men, and we believe they will be able to get healthy and return.”
The key loss for the Wild was when Mikko Koivu went out with an injury that cost him 27 games. Unlike baseball, or football, or in most cases basketball, which lose an individual’s talent when he is injured, in hockey, losing a player of Koivu’s value is devastating. Koivu is captain and centers the first line, so when he went out, the Wild’s fragile scoring became too scarce to win. Dany Heatley, a scorer who needed Koivu’s set-up ability, scored 24-29--53 to lead the team, but Koivu’s absence probably cost him another dozen goals. Yeo stressed the importance of Koivu, but also praised Heatley, who often has been criticized for not being a two-way player.
“I would say Dany Heatley was our most valuable player,” said Yeo. “His goal production was not where he’d want it to be, but when we lost guys who might get him the puck, he never complained. You see a lot of top scorers who try to take shortcuts, but Dany never did. Heater is a hockey player, who showed up and competed offensively and defensively every day.
“We had a lot of other guys, like Matt Cullen, who battled day in and day out, too. But a key thing this season is that when we had everybody, we played with the top teams in the league. Losing Mikko Koivu, and all that he brings lto this team, was too much for us to overcome. But when Mikko came back at the end of the season, we were able to return to that level again, which gives us a great feeling for next season.”
Fletcher has done his job, and will keep doing it. Yeo, who was a first-year coach at Houston with the Wild’s top farm club last season, just finished what was only his second season as head coach -- first in the NHL. He did an outstanding job, and he learned a lot, which means he will do a significantly better job next season. But what Yeo did with the Wild to urge them to their strong finish proved that there is one thing he already has achieved -- to coach his team to his utmost ability to uphold the integrity of the game.
Injuries, by the way, have afflicted many NHL teams. That’s why this might be the most balanced Stanley Cup Playoffs in history. In the West, for example, nobody can dispute the fantastic job Vancouver and St. Louis have done to earn the 1-2 seeds. But Chicago has had to survive with Jonathan Toews out, recovering from concussion syndrome, and Detroit had to come through a tough stretch when Pavel Datsyuk was hurt. Datsyuk is back, and Toews is coming back, which is why I predict Detroit will surprise favored Nashville, and Chicago will ambush favored Phoenix in the first round. In the East, of course Sidney Crosby was out more than half the year with concussion problems, but he’s going now -- except the Penguins, to me, are only even money against Philadelphia in the first round.
“I’m anxious to watch the games,” said Yeo. “And I want our players to watch as much as they can. They need to see the pace and the intensity that builds as the playoffs go on. That’s where we need to be.”
CONNOLLY PERFECT HOBEY
There were a lot of very good candidates for this year’s Hobey Baker Memorial Award, but they couldn’t have picked a better winner than UMD’s Jack Connolly. Everyone who was in Tampa for the ceremony came away filled with admiration for what a classy young man Connolly is. Of course, in Duluth, we all knew that. He was almost too good to be true.
I have two specific memories that will remain indelibly inscribed whenever I think about Connolly’s fantastic four years, and they go beyond the fact that he never missed a game, playing 166 straight over his four years, and that he helped lift the Bulldogs to elite status nationally, including UMD’s first NCAA title last season, and another shot at it this year, all the while insisting credit should go to his teammates. That brings us back to my two memories.
The first came early in the season. UMD was just getting going on a school record 17-game unbeaten streak, which was enveloped in Connolly’s school record 22-game point-scoring streak. At Denver, the Bulldogs trailed 2-0 when coach Scott Sandelin decided to juggle lines. Connolly had been centering Travis Oleksuk and J.T. Brown on what was, by far, UMD’s top line, but Sandelin shifted Oleksuk to center a second line, and UMD came roaring back to win the game. Next, Sandelin moved Brown to Oleksuk’s wing, which seemed odd treatment for Connolly, who was on his way to becoming an All-America for the third straight year.
“I was playing with T.O. and Brownie, and it was really fun playing with those guys,” said Connolly, after UMD came home to sweep Alaska-Anchorage, winning the finale 3-1 on Connolly’s glance-in goal off the goaltender. “Then I was with J.T. and Caleb Herbert. Now I’m with Joe Basaraba and Mike Seidel.” I hesitated, because I thought Connolly might be frustrated to be placed between unproven scorers instead of two top guns, but he wasn’t. “I like playing with these guys,” said Connolly. “We’ve got so many great guys on this team, I can play with whoever they put me with and enjoy it.”
Pretty special, that guy. If you put every other team’s top scorer on a couch and extracted their true feeling about being pulled away from the two top-scoring wingers, you would hear some pretty hearty grumbling, off the record or not.
The other recollection of Connolly for me came after Nebraska-Omaha ended UMD’s record unbeaten streak, then the Bulldogs came home and Michigan Tech not only ended Connolly’s scoring streak, but blanked the Bulldogs the second night. Then, North Dakota came to AMSOIL Arena, and beat UMD 3-1. Connolly passed to Brown for a power-play goal. Afterward, I suggested Jack’s play indicated he might be out of gas -- drained from the long grind. “I thought I played pretty well,” Connolly shot back. “We almost scored some more goals...”
I dropped my line of questioning. The next night, Connolly assisted on Brown’s opening goal, but North Dakota came back to score twice and gain the lead. Oleksuk scored on a power play, with Connolly assisting, to tie it 2-2. Seidel scored a neat goal after a feed from Connolly, then Connolly scored to end the wild first period, and Connolly scored again to open the second, and after UMD held on to a 5-4 victory, I caught up with Connolly downstairs. “I was a little worried when you said you’d played pretty well in the first game,” I said, “and now that you won 5-4 and you got two goals and three assists in this game -- NOW how do you think you played last night?” Connolly smiled. “I see what you mean,” he said.
That was Jack Connolly. He said he played well the night before as a way to make a positive statement about a 3-1 loss, that he and the team had played well but fell short. However, he also turned up the pressure on himself for the next night, when he came through with a 5-point game against a red-hot rival for a 5-4 victory. That’s what you do when you don’t care which teammates you play with, and you’re the best college hockey player in the nation.
Boston College, which whipped Minnesota 6-1 while Ferris State was beating Union 3-1, setting up BC’s title game victory over a very strong Ferris State outfit, completed the season with a 19-game winning streak. Everyone is remarking about how superior the Eagles were, but at midseason they were struggling. And for the season, UMD was ranked No. 1 more weeks than all four Frozen Four teams.
The NCAA tournament also proved an interesting view of the four major conferences. Remember, the WCHA next season will play its final term in the current arrangement, then the Big Ten goes one way, the National Conference goes another, and wnat is left of the WCHA and CCHA will remain as the WCHA. With that in mind, Ferris State struck a huge blow for the “remainders” after the other leagues pull out of the WCHA.
But take a look at how all four conferences did in the NCAA tournament. Hockey East had the best record, at 5-3, because Boston College went 4-0, primarily. The WCHA went 4-4, with Minnesota winning two games and UMD and North Dakota one apiece, while all four entries -- Minnesota, UMD, North Dakota and Denver -- each lost once. The CCHA somehow got five teams into the 16-team field, and they had a composite 3-5 record, with Ferris State winning all three. Yes, Michigan, Western Michigan, Michigan State, and Miami of Ohio all went one and done, going home with 0-1 records. If the NCAA’s computer evaluation meant the CCHA was superior, well, so much for the computer ratings.
But wait! The ECAC, the poor, downtrodden Eastern College Athletic Conference, with its lack of scholarships and focus on education, and always squelched by getting fewer entries than all the other major conferences, was allowed only two entries this time, Union and Cornell. Union beat Michigan State and Mass-Lowell to claim the East Region, and lost only to Ferris State in the semifinals, while Cornell upset Michigan before falling to Ferris State. That means they went a combined 3-2 -- better than either the WCHA or CCHA.
UMD BASEBALL ‘WAYNES’
Maybe the UMD baseball team can get untracked, but Easter Weekend’s chilly, rainy weather didn’t help the home-opening games at Bulldog Park. Nor did the appearance, in the visiting dugout, of Wayne State. The lads from Nebraska made the long busride a success by sweeping four games from UMD, winning 1-0 and 11-6 on Friday, then adding a 4-3, 4-2 sweep on Saturday afternoon.
Mike Bisenius, a giant right-fielder, seemed to be a one-man wrecking crew, and was built for it. In the second game, right after the Bulldogs had battled back to make it close, Bisenius hit a monster home run over the center-field fence to secure the 4-2 victory. But here’s the weird thing: UMD has had a fair amount of Northern Sun baseball success, but Wayne State is more than just a thorn in UMD coach Bob Rients’s side. Rients, who graduated from UMD in 2000, is in his seventh season, and his UMD teams stand 1-12 against Wayne State after last weekend. Going back before Rients took over to the present, Wayne State has a 23-8 headlock on the Bulldogs.