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Dramatic turnabouts are the story of college hockey in the Northland this season. And the two most dramatic turnabouts have affected Division III rivals St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.
If you measured St. Scholastica by the first half of the season, the Saints were a hustling, hard-working, but completely ineffective collection, having won only four of their first 15 games -- a 4-11 ledger. At about the same exact time, the University of Wisconsin-Superior appeared headed for a shot at the NCHA regular-season title, with the Yellowjackets losing only three of their first 14 games in a 10-3-1 run through the first of the year.
But about two weekends into 2013, it was almost as though the Hockey Gods had a change of plans, threw a switch, and things changed abruptly for both teams. After going 4-11, the Saints have gone 9-2-1, including a 6-1 current string that includes sweeping UWS last weekend in the NCHA playoff quarterfinals. UWS, meanwhile, after going 10-3-1, collapsed to a 1-11-1 second half, including those two wrenching losses to the Saints.
While the two teams were executing their flip and flop, they passed each other in the NCHA standings, with St. Scholastica going on the road in the last two weeks of the regular season to face St. Norbert, Stevens Point and Eau Claire -- the top three teams in the NCHA race. Coach Mark Wick had decided to go with junior Colin Rundell in goal along about then, and the Saints beat all three favored rivals in succession, and soundly -- winning a 5-2 upset at St. Norbert, winning 6-3 at Stevens Point, and then riding a 50-save shutout by Rundell to stun league champion Wisconsin-Eau Claire 3-0.
The impact of those three consecutive upsets was to lift the Saints to fourth place in the NCHA, while the Yellowjackets slide dropped them for fifth. The seven-team NCHA has a routine where first place gets a bye, while 7 goes to 2, 6 to 3, and 5 to 4, so UWS had to cross the bridge and drive up the hill to Mars-Lakeview Arena to face the Saints. The format is a two-game series, and if the teams split, the second game is followed by a mini-game that turns it into a best-of-three. That’s an interesting format, because if a team wins 8-1, it can then lost 2-1, lose the mini-game, and be eliminated.
Adding to the drama of the UWS-St. Scholastica match-up was the fact that they are very intense rivals, and they will be going their separate ways next season, when the NCHA breaks apart. So this is the last season they will compete as NCHA rivals. To that end, the Saints opened the season by beating UWS 5-1, but UWS turned around to win 6-4 the next night, and in late January, the Yellowjackets beat the Saints 4-3 -- one of the two Saints losses over their last dozen games.
The match-up also carried another incentive: Nobody was sure how or why the wheels came off the UWS machine, but the Yellowjackets could atone for that horrible slide by beating the Saints and advancing to the semifinal round. The Saints, however, knew they had lost two out of three to UWS during the season, including the final regular game between the two, so they’d have to be ready.
Game 1 had great intensity, and a little hostility over the top.Brandon Nowakowski, a hustling junior from Calgary, cored on a perfect give-and-go with Paul Marcoux one second after a power play expired to give the Saints a 1-0 lead at the first intermission. The 1-0 game raged back and forth, until midway through the second period.
Kyle Leahy, from Fort St. John, British Columbia, one of five UWS seniors, was seen jabbing a Saints player with his stick blade, but he got away with the undetected spear in the first period. He tried it again in the second period, and it was more of a detected spear, and he was ejected with a 5-minute major. Before the major elapsed, Marcoux and Tyler Miller scored for the Saints and it was 3-2.
The Yellowjackets stormed back in the third period, and Jeff Forsythe and Michael Rey scored two minutes apart in the final seven minutes, and the confident Saints crowd was suddenly hushed, and the Yellowjackets put on the pressure for the equalizer. The Saints, though, held their poise and rebuffed the attacks, even while being outshot 11-2 in the period, and Garet Chumley, from Cambridge, MN., scored a vital clinching goal with 43 seconds remaining for a 4-2 Saints victory.
“I told the players that if we don’t win tonight,” Wick said after the second game, “they would have all the momentum for a mini-game. So we had to play as though we had lost the first game.”
The Saints did that, trading rushes and chances throughout the first period, and deploying Brandon Nowakowski to score the first goal again. Nowakowski got clear to backhand a rebound past goaltender Dave Strandberg, catchiing the right edge for his 17th team-leading goal of the season at 14:14. The Yellowjackets turned up the pressure in the second period, but an 11-6 edge in shots meant little as Rundell stopped them all. And freshman Tyler Miller, from Fort Frances, notched his 10th goal off a slick pass from Brett Corcoran late in the middle period for a 2-0 Saints lead. Reys connected on a power-play blast from the left circle at 5:59 of the third period to puncture Rundell’s shutout bid and close the gap to 2-1, and UWS intensified its attack out of desperation, facing the end of its season.
But Wick kept rolling four lines, and the Saints bend-but-don;t-break defensive corps -- led by 6-foot-7 Matt Malenstyn and 6-foot-5 Brenden Kotyk -- rode off the final minutes. Rundell turned acrobatic to block some of those shots and handled things in either cool or frantic fashion, depending on the situation.
Rundell is a junior from Tees, Alberta, who tried his hand at Division I Alaska (Fairbanks) before finding his way to Duluth, where he joins a large contingent of Western Canada players who comprise the Saints roster. He was pretty much alternating with freshman Tyler Bruggeman from Mankato, who played junior hockey at Austin in the NAHL.
As the Saints were moving upward, Wick decided to go with the more experienced Rundell, and Rundell responded with a hot streak of his own, although his humble demeanor probably says as much about the even-handed attitude that has carried the Saints.
“I don’t know about it being my night, or being hot,” said Rundell. “I wa just playing a role. I didn’t play about five straight games after Christmas, because Bruggeman had the hot hand. I got going in a couple of games late, but the boys have been making plays ahead of me.”
Typical of a hot goaltender, Rundell made what looked like some lucky saves, too. “Sometimes what might look like a lucky save came about because of having made a lot of saves like that before,” Rundell said. “And sometimes when it gets to be a scramble, you have to go into battle mode.”
So the Yellowjackets are through, and St. Scholastica rides what has transformed from a disastrous season to a Cinderella finish. When they finished beating UWS, they knew only that they’d have to advance to No. 1 Eau Claire or No. 2 St. Norbert. Pick your poison. The thing in the Saints favor is that they’ve tasted that poison, and hustled to beat those teams in their closing rush. St. Norbert will not be thrilled to find the red-hot Saints coming to town.
MEN BIG, WOMEN BIGGER
Speaking of turnabouts, UMD’s men have plunged from upper half contender to trying to regain the winning touch, while the women’s team made a spirited bid to move into contention before being derailed by road trips to Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the women still have a chance to make some playoff noise.
UMD’s men’s hockey team always has been able to rely on facing the Minnesota Golden Gophers as the highlight of its season. This season, the teams only meet in one series, which is unfortunate, since it’s the final year of the WCHA as we know it, with Minnesota heading for the Big Ten Conference, and UMD off to join the National Collegiate Hockey Association. The series in question is this weekend, at Mariucci Arena.
For Minnesota, it’s a huge series, because the Gophers beat Wisconsin 3-2 last Friday, but lost 3-2 to the Badgers in the rematch, played before 40,000 or so fans at a rink set up in Soldier Field in Chicago. The Gophers were making up two games in hand they had on WCHA leader St. Cloud State, but the flip side of the luxury of games in hand is that you’d better win them. Sweeping the Badgers would have lifted the Gophers to within one point of St. Cloud State. The split leaves them three back, and with three weekends to go, sweeping the Bulldogs has become critical to Minnesota’s chances to win the WCHA.
For UMD, beating the Gophers is a great opportunity, but more important, the Bulldogs are in desperate need to generate any kind of positive momentum before league playoffs begin. The Bulldogs had a shot at doing exactly that last weekend, but they lost the first game at Bemidji State, then suffered a 1-1 tie against the Beavers. The tie broke a six-game losing streak for UMD, but the flip side of that is that the streak now is a seven-game winless skid.
Of more critical importance than even the Minnesota-UMD men’s series at Mariucci is the UMD women’s series against North Dakota at AMSOIL Arena, the final regular-season weekend for the women. The UMD women lost twice at unbeaten Minnesota, then lost twice again at Wisconsin -- the second game in overtime -- last weekend. That allows UMD to cling to fourth place in the WCHA, which is the final home-ice spot for the league playoffs.
With 40 points, and an inflated three points available per game, UMD cannot overtake third-place Wisconsin (49 points) or second-place North Dakota (51 points), but the Bulldogs need to win to stay fourth, with fifth-place Ohio State (37 points) within striking distance, and playing at home against MSU-Mankato. Ohio State swept the Bulldogs in Duluth to open the season, and UMD won a vital sweep at Ohio State two weeks ago, before falling to Minnesota and Wisconsin. So the Bulldogs need to beat North Dakota to assure themselves of fourth, otherwise they’d have to go on the road to Ohio State for playoff quarterfinals.
SATURDAY AT AMSOIL
Hockey Day in Duluth will add another chapter on Saturday. At high noon, Duluth East will face Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in the first semifinal of Section 7AA. Think the Greyhounds were not taking St. Michael-Albertville lightly, despite roaring into the quarterfinals on a 13-game winning streak? East won 15-0 on Tuesday, as Ryan Lundgren scored four goals, Nick Altmann three and Jack Forbort and Alex Toscano two apiece, and East outshot St. Michael-Albertville 50-14. Cloquet, carrying on internally even while coach Dave Esse is being assailed by an as-yet-unnamed parent, beat Forest Lake 6-2 to earn the right to face East for the third time this season.
At 2 p.m. at AMSOIL, second-seeded Grand Rapids, a 6-2 victor over St. Francis on Tuesday, takes on third seed Elk River, which beat Andover 4-1, in the second semifinal.
That doubleheader, traditionally a high point of any hockey season, will be completed and AMSOIL will be swept out and then the UMD women will take the ice to complete their regular season against North Dakota. Good thing the food at AMSOIL is a cut above normal concession food, because that becomes a staple of any hockey fan’s diet at this time of the year.
When the hockey scene clears, we can tune in to watch the Daytona 500, where Danica Patrick astounded the NASCAR world by capturing the pole position. Patrick, who did better than critics give her credit for in an Indy Car, has never qualified better than 23rd, which makes you wonder how good a car she was driving. She switches to become Tony Stewart’s teammate, and runs the fastest in practice, then captures the pole at well over 196 miles per hour.
Being in front might allow her some clean running, and she could be a viable threat to make more history in the race itself.