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While every NHL market suffered by the lengthy lockout, the anticipation of the 2012-13 season -- henceforth known as the “2013 season” -- was most significant for the Minnesota Wild, because of the free-agent signings of Zach Parise, to ignite the offense, and Ryan Suter, to solidify the defense, and the two of them, to rekindle hockey fever among Wild fans.
The National Hockey League is beginning play this weekend -- finally. The Wild, who will open a very condensed season this weekend against the Colorado Rockies at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, will have no trouble recapturing fan interest, but it seems almost as though the return will have to fight for supremacy against college and high school hockey, which has taken a strong foothold in the last few weeks.
Last weekend, for example, Duluth area hockey fans had a feast of great hockey, as both the UMD men and women returned to AMSOIL Arena for the first time in weeks, and swept WCHA opponents to reach .500 and climb just past it, up into the top half of their respective standings.
Hard to say which was the bigger surprise. The Bulldogs men started off sputtering offensively and in goal, but have come on during the holidays. Last Friday, UMD beat Michigan Tech 1-0 in a sometimes ragged but rugged contest that earned freshman Matt McNeely his first collegiate shutout victory, thanks to a goal by Joe Basaraba late in the first period. Basaraba came off the bench, racing down the middle and yelling for a pass from Max Tardy, who delivered a perfect feed to the slot.
McNeely said he hadn’t had a shutout for a couple of years, maybe since his junior year in high school, “but it doesn’t matter if I get a shutout or not, as long as we win.” Well, Matt, when you win 1-0, it means you don’t win if you don’t get a shutout, and his tonic was just what the doctor ordered for the Bulldogs.
When the Bulldogs came back for a much more entertaining 5-4 victory from a much more challenging Tech outfit, McNeely was far more threatened and came through with just enough stops. Freshman Tony Cameranesi scored two goals to lead the way, winding up after forceful rushes to score at the right post on both tries against Tech goaltender Pheonix Copley.
“I was getting frustrated, because the chances kept coming, but we were getting nothing to show for it,” said Cameranesi, speaking for linemates Mike Seidel and Austin Farley. “But the only time you really have to worry is if you’re not getting chances.”
The sweep lifts UMD to 7-6-3 in the WCHA, which may seem modest after the last few seasons, but puts the Bulldogs in sixth place, which is the final home-ice playoff spot. Above them, Denver (8-44), Nebraska-Omaha (9-5-2), Minnesota and North Dakota (both 8-3-3), and St. Cloud State (9-5) are suddenly within much closer reach. But UMD heads off to Colorado College this weekend, where the Tigers are struggling at 6-9-1 and hope to get healthy against UMD.
The UMD women, on the other hand, have been struggling at least as hard, but took a six-week break before starting up again at AMSOIL. The Bulldogs needed to tighten up defensively and find some offense. Coach Shannon Miller found an unusual formula, by moving star defenseman Jessica Wong up to center with Jamie Kenyon on the left and Jenna McParland on the right for an all-new first line for Saturday afternoon’s game against St. Cloud State.
The chemistry between Wong and Kenyon was immediate, and McParland is one of UMD’s top forwards, so the line delivered the necessary offensive kick. Wong set up Kenyon for a neat goal to get UMD off to an early 1-0 lead, and after Pernilla Winberg boosted the lead to 2-0 in the second, Alex Nelson got one for the Huskies, and the drama lasted until the closing seconds, when, facing six St. Cloud attackers, Wong got a chance at the empty net but instead passed to Kenyon, and the junior from Sparta, Wis., put away her second goal of the game and sixth of the season for a 3-1 victory.
Miller, enduring the most injury-filled season in her memory as a coach, realized she had something going with the Wong-Kenyon combination, but after Kenyon’s first goal, she left the bench for the dressing room. She was sick enough to make several short breaks, but came back in time to get her second goal and wind up with a game-high eight shots on goal.
Sunday afternoon, UMD’s women completed a perfect weekend for the hockey teams, romping to an 8-2 victory that saw five goals by the top line -- Kenyon got two more, Wong got a pair, and McParland added one as UMD outshot the Huskies 41-21 and gained a sweep that was no less significant than the men’s. The two victories pushed UMD to 8-7-1, good for fourth place ahead of North Dakota (8-8), and behind only Minnesota (16-0), Wisconsin (10-6-2), and Ohio State (9-6-1). The UMD women stay home, playing Bemidji State this weekend at AMSOIL with a chance to move up highe r.
HIGH SCHOOL SHOW
Last week provided a difficult conflict for a sports follower. We had an interesting hockey game with Section 7AA overtones when Grand Rapids came to Heritage Center to face Duluth East. Meanwhile, a year ago, Lakeview Christian Academy with supesr-scorer Anders Broman had overflowed its gym to play Duluth East in its biggest test of the season, so this year, Lakeview rescheduled the game for Romano Gym on the UMD campus.
We hit the gym, and watched the first half. East is tough, with an aggressive defense disrupting -- and frequently knocking down -- Broman, who continued to show off his feather-light touch from medium and long range. Broman made all 13 free throws he was awarded, but he was “held” to 29 points and East pulled away in the second half for an easy victory. What impressed me was that Broman also drove hard, against bigger foes, to toss several off-balance, twisting shots that found their way up and in.
At halftime, we raced for Heritage Center, and just in time, too. We missed one period, but it was still scoreless -- the true mark of what kind of a day you’re having. East got the first two shots of the second period, meaning the Greyhounds had an 18-1 edge, but then Avery Peterson scored a stunning goal for a 1-0 Grand Rapids lead. East came back for a goal by Ryan Lundgren 30 seconds later, but didn’t claim its 2-1 victory until Meirs Moore moved in from left point to drill a screened shot past Hunter Shepard and into the upper right corner. The Greyhounds held a 33-9 shot advantage for the game.
The action continued Tuesday night, when Duluth Denfeld rose to 12-4 for the season by beating Hibbing 5-1 at Heritage behind two goals each from Levi Talarico and Trey Opack. Alex Thompson broke open a 2-1 game with a goal and set up Opack to make it 4-1 after one wild period. Denfeld outshot Hibbing 33-18, making it a rare easy night for Zach Thompson -- Alex’s twin brother -- in goal. At the same time, Superior got its act together and upset Hermantown 4-2.
This weekend, if you’re looking for more good hockey, hit AMSOIL Arena on Saturday. At 12:30 p.m., Duluth East faces Superior, followed at 3 p.m. by a great match-up between Denfeld and Cloquet-Esko-Carlton. Cloquet, you’ll remember, beat Denfeld for the championship in the Heritage Classic holiday tournament. Since then, both teams have done well, with Denfeld beating Hermantown and Duluth East for two of its biggest triumphs in two decades. Knocking off Hibbing wasn’t a bad tune-up, either.
An added sidelight to the Cloquet-Denfeld game is that both teams have three highly-talented brothers going against each other. Cloquet coach Dave Esse has Beau Michaud, the junior, centering senior Weston Michaud and sophomore Dylan Michaud, and the line is a quick-passing treat to watch. Denfeld has twin seniors Zach Thompson in goal and Alex Thompson at wing, while sophomore Nick Thompson is a talented and rangy defenseman. If that isn’t tantalizing enough, Cloquet’s Michaud brothers are nephews of Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley.
After the high school doubleheader, there’s just enough time to walk over to Canal Park for some pizza or ribs and get back to AMSOIL in time for the UMD women’s second game against Bemidji State at 7 p.m. Not a bad way to spend Saturday afternoon.
And there’s some more NFL playoff games, although the Green Bay Packers, after unceremoniously whipping the Vikings in the first round, were unceremoniously booted out of the playoffs themselves last weekend at San Francisco. It wasn’t pretty. And the Seattle Seahawks, my pick to win the Super Bowl, rallied from a 27-7 deficit at Atlanta to take an improbable 28-27 lead behind the brilliant quarterback play of Russell Wilson, but they left too much time on the clock and Matt Ryan connected on two passes, setting up a last-second field goal by Ryan Longwell, the former Vikings kicker hired as an emergency fill-in. The Seahawks called timeout to freeze Longwell after his first boot for the Falcons. Talk about bad timing! Longwell’s kick sailed wide right from 49 yards, but instead of ceding the game to Seattle, the late-called time out was honored, so Longwell got another chance -- and made it, giving Atlanta a 30-28 triumph.
Oh yeah, the Wild are playing their season-opener too. What a weekend!