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All the NFL teams considered to be the best have fired and fallen back, and the two left standing -- the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers -- will meet in New Orleans Sunday in the Super Bowl. Pardon me if I don’t list the designated Roman Numeral, but it bores me. The Roman Numeral, not the game.
Without a New England, or a New York, or Green Bay, or other high-profile NFL favorite, in the game, perhaps we can look forward to reports that it will be the least-watched, or poorest-rated game in years. Baltimore and San Francisco? Do we care?
Well, the teams may be unheralded by front-running media types, but I think it might be one of the most intriguing match-ups in years. And I think it will be a fantastic game, keeping us all focused enough to watch hundreds of commercials that will stretch the game out to a five-hour extravaganza. Both teams have nasty, tough defenses that can foul up an opposing quarterback or offensive strategy, and both teams have impressive offenses, with Baltimore being more traditional and more of a grind-it-out style, and the 49ers taking on the aura of a new-wave NFL team with swift-striking team that includes its quarterback among that herd of Olympic-sprinter types.
I quit watching the 49ers when they fell behind 17-0 at Atlanta in the first quarter, but luckily I tuned in later, just in time to catch their dramatic comeback. Not only did the 49ers rally to take the lead, much like the Seattle Seahawks did, but their defense then stymied the Falcons every effort to comeback themselves, just like the Seahawks didn’t.
San Francisco’s speed and diversity makes them seem like the favorite, but look at what the Ravens accomplished: They were underdogs going to Denver, where Peyton Manning seemed destined to lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl, but they stopped him and beat the Broncos; they were also underdogs when they went to New England, but they thwarted Tom Brady and stuffed the Patriots as well. Those two achievements make the Ravens seem like the better team.
Both teams have their reasons to be sentimental favorites, although the Ravens have the clear edge in that category. Baltimore, home of great crab-cakes and avid fans, are one of those tough, blue-collar cities made most famous by the legendary Baltimore Colts of Johnny Unitas. That was one of those made-to-order teams that rolled comfortably off the tongue, right up until the franchise rolled uncomfortably off to Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Colts went on to great fame under Peyton Manning, but the name never fit comfortably. And what about poor old Baltimore, left with no NFL team until the Ravens were born. It’s enough to almost make you pull for the Ravens, just to offer some equilibrium in a sports world that long ago traded its soul for truckloads of money. Nothing reflects the ludicrous amounts of money more than the Super Bowl, where otherwise sane companies will pay several million dollars for a minute of advertising, so what could stabilize that more than a Baltimore championship?
I think it’s fascinating that Jim and Jack Harbaugh, a pair of brothers whose dad coached for 41 years, are coaching against each other in the Super Bowl, but having realized that fact shortly after their teams reached the big game, I don’t need to hear about it again, day after day. So I’ve pretty much avoided the wall-to-wall ESPN and media hoopla that overdoses us all for two weeks leading up to the game itself, and I will continue to do just that, right up until game time. Then I will enjoy every minute of the game, and all the amazingly clever commercials, although I can’t be sure I’ll appreciate the certain pyrotechnics of the halftime show.
I’m left with very good reasons to pull for both teams, which means I can enjoy the game to its fullest without really having an emotional stake in the winner or loser. But after analyzing everything, the objective side of my brain calls the game a toss-up, but the subjective side says 49ers 27, Ravens 24.
Minnesota is first and UMD second in the Women’s WCHA hockey race, and Minnesota in ranked No. 1 in the nation while UMD is, comparatively, nowhere. Those two teams have been the most long-standing traditional rivals for the title since the WCHA started play, dating long before Wisconsin moved up to make it a “Big Three.” But that’s as far as the comparison goes this year, because Minnesota is the runaway leader, headed for record numbers of victories, consecutive victories, goals, shutouts, top-scoring veterans, top-scoring freshmen, top-scoring defensemen, and eye-popping statistics everywhere you look. The Golden Gophers remain undefeated all season, No. 1 in the country, and in need of just one more victory to secure the WCHA championship in their quest to repeat as NCAA champions.
Minnesota-Duluth, on the other hand, seemed destined for its first second-division finish ever, this season. The Bulldogs opened by losing two games to Ohio State right there in Duluth. They struggled to score, struggled to defend, and were uncertain in goal. But steadily and almost subtly, the Bulldogs have been moving up, Since December, they’ve faced major challenge after major challenge, but it’s been a long, tough climb. The Gophers are 20-0 in WCHA games and 26-0 overall; UMD is 12-7-1 for second, and 13-8-3 overall.
A week ago, UMD was in fourth place in the WCHA, behind Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, and just an eyelash ahead of North Dakota. The Bulldogs went to Ohio State, and it was more than just a chance to measure how far the Bulldogs have come. It also offered a chance to avenge that season-opening sweep at the Buckeyes hands, and it held unexpected repercussions in the standings. When the weekend ended, UMD had swept Ohio State and vaulted from fourth to a second-place tie in points with Wisconsin, but UMD has two games in hand on the Badgers. Wisconsin had been home to take on Minnesota, and couldn’t prevent the Gophers from breaking the all-time NCAA record for consecutive victories, as Minnesota swept both games.
Without question, Minnesota has the most talent offensively, defensively and in goal, and they took the measure of UMD with an early-season sweep in Duluth. The Gophers have scored 99 goals and allowed 17 in their 20 league games; UMD has scored a second-best 59 goals and allowed 44. But UMD coach Shannon Miller, whose focus on defense-first has gotten her Bulldogs all pulling the same direction, and created some realistic goals. “Nobody is going to catch Minnesota,” Miller said a month ago. “But the rest of the league is in a race for second place, and we’re in that race.”
Those were strong words, back then, but suddenly, the Bulldogs have risen to second place. Not that it is secured, but Miller and the Bulldogs have a little of their swagger back. Not arrogance, not over-confidence, but a confident air has permeated the Bulldogs attitude.
“We’re in really a good position to take a game from Minnesota,” said Miller. “We’re eager to be the team to stop Minnesota’s winning streak.”
No false bravado there, just appreciation for the hurdles her team has cleared. But still there was that lack of offense. “We really were a team without a first line,” Miller said.
But she kept stressing defense-first, because that would keep the Bulldogs competitive in every game. With over a month off at Christmastime, UMD faced one more big measuring stick in their first games ever against Boston University. The Terriers came in ranked in the top eight -- where everybody wants to be, in order to capture one of the eight slots for the NCAA tournament. The two teams skated to a high-speed, high-intensity weekend, tying 2-2, and then playing one of the most entertaining 0-0 game anywhere.
When play resumed after New Year’s, UMD took on a different air. Star defenseman Jessica Wong had gone to Miller with the suggestion to move up to center, and this time Miller took her up on it. Wong slotted between Jamie Kenyon and Jenna McParland against St. Cloud State, and Wong set up Kenyon for two goals, including a very unselfish feed while rushing toward an empty net at the finish of a 3-1 victory. The next day, UMD won 8-2, with Wong and Kenyon each scoring twice and McParland once for a five-goal performance for that line, which scored seven of the team’s 11 goals for the weekend.
As that line continued to click, UMD got stronger play from a second line, and some timely chip-ins from a third unit. Fears that the defense might be left short with Wong moving up dissolved when it became apparent that even though Wong attacked vigorously, she often was the first Bulldog back to her own net defensively. It seemed UMD’s offense got jump-started by Wong’s play, and the team defense also improved.
A 3-0 victory over Bemidji State gave freshman goaltender Kayla Black her first career shutout, and UMD won 4-2 the next night as well. “Kayla is solid now, and knows what to expect,” said Miller. “And with Wong’s line out against the other team’s top line, she comes back so well it’s like we have a third defenseman out there.”
Still, that trip to Ohio State loomed last weekend. A wild opener in Columbus saw defenseman Brigette Lacquette take the game over, scoring three goals and assisting on two more in a five-point day that produced a 7-5 victory. Another victory Saturday, and the Bulldogs landed in second place.
“We’d been playing so well, and obviously when you give up five goals it means you didn’t play too well defensively or in goal,” said Miller. “But ironically, we needed to score seven goals to win it, and we did it. Brigette Lacquette was really outstanding from defense. She may be the most naturally talented player I’ve ever had. For a while, she didn’t seem to see her teammates, but now she does. She’s sharing the puck much better, and has an awareness for where all her teammates are. She’s seeing who’s open, and getting the puck to them.
“It was really an outstanding weekend for us. We’ve got some momentum, at just the right time.”
As the Bulldogs endured an all-day return trip, flying and busing all day Sunday and not reaching Duluth until 2 a.m. Monday, Miller found herself in an unusual position -- pulling for the Gophers to beat Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, for UMD’s benefit. The Gophers came through. They are not expected to be as helpful to the Bulldogs this weekend, but it will be like old times when the two collide at Ridder Arena.
If the Bulldogs need more incentive than the imposing task of facing the Gophers, the national rankings provided it this week. The top 10: 1. Minnesota, 2. Boston College, 3. Harvard, 4. Boston University, 5. Cornell, 6. Clarkson, 7. Mercyhurst, 8, Wisconsin, 9. North Dakota, and 10. UMD. The folks at U.S. College Hockey Online do those ratings, and they must have slept in last weekend, to be unaware that UMD is ahead of North Dakota in the WCHA standings and just passed Wisconsin, while having those two impressive ties against No. 4 BU. This weekend, there is a big disparity in the records of Minnesota and UMD. But in the last 10 games, Minnesota is 10-0 and UMD 8-0-2.
Duluth East continues to roll against the best hockey competition in the state. Last week, the Greyhounds lost ace senior defenseman Meirs Moore to a strange spearing call. Playing Forest Lake, the referees allowed the game to get a little ragged and rugged, and when one confrontation occurred, a Ranger skaed in hard, after the whistle, and jousted with Moore. The linesman moved in and exchanged nasty words with Moore, and after the exchange, the linesman grabbed Moore’s stick away from him and threw it to the ice. After they had exchanged words, and, apparently, some colorful language, the linesman declared that Moore had speared the Forest Lake player and consulted with his referee partners before they ejected Moore with a 5-minute major. Linesmen generally don’t call penalties unless they see something like too many men on the ice, or a flagrant penalty, which they can only call through the refs after play stops.
The penalty meant Moore had to sit out the next game. An East parent who videotapes every game showed the video that made it appear that Moore pushed at the Forest Lake player with his stick, but doesn’t show anything as nasty as a spear -- which is dangerous and should always be penalized fully. But in this case, some of the ‘Hounds thought the linesman lost his cool and over-reacted after the word exchange. Afterward, both referees said they didn’t see any spear, but the linesman insisted he did, and he also insisted to an East assistant coach that he didn’t exchange naughty words with Moore.
Anyway, Moore sat out last Saturday’s game against Maple Grove, which was ironic. Maple Grove’s players had just come back from a nasty incident off-ice, in which 13 players were suspended for having a party with some sexual innuendoes, and which might have inspired a video. The players sat out their two games, then returned to play another game, before coming to Duluth to face East -- although the Duluth News Tribune reported that it was a “depleted” Maple Grove team that East beat 3-0.
At the start of the season, East coach Mike Randolph knew his team was deep at defense, so he moved two defensemen up to play center on two of East’s forward lines. One of those players was senior Justin Smith -- who didn’t play hockey last year because he was involved with an elite baseball program in the Twin Cities. With Moore out for the Maple Grove game, Randolph moved Smith back to defense, and he played a phenomenal game against Maple Grove. Dylan Parker returned to the East goal with a 21-save shutout, while the big first line clicked for goals by Alex Toscano and Jack Forbort, while Ryan Lundgren settled for two assists, and Nick Altmnn scored the third goal on a tip of Alex Trapp’s point shot. Justin Smith, by the way, assisted on Toscano’s goal.
All of that led up to East’s Tuesday night clash with powerful Minnetonka, which had just knocked off Wayzata. The ‘Hounds knocked off Tonka, as Meirs Moore scored three times from the point to celebrate his return to the lineup. That shouldn’t hurt East’s No. 4 state rank.
While East is Duluth’s only Class AA public school, Denfeld -- which is Duluth’s only Class A public school -- continued its fantastic season by taking a trip to Warroad and upsetting the Warriors on sophomore Nick Thompson’s deciding goal. The banner year in hockey continues this weekend, with UMD returning to AMSOIL Arena to face the Denver Pioneers Friday and Saturday nights.