Focus swings to WCHA playoffs

John Gilbert

If all falls into place, hockey fans throughout the Northland will be able to turn their full attention to the WCHA playoffs, which start this weekend, and then move on to Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul for the final Final Five toournament in the WCHA we’ve all come to know and love.

Eventual state champion Edina gained a 1-1 tie with Duluth East when Miguel Fidler snapped a second-period shot past East goalie Dylan Parker.  -John Gilbert photo
Eventual state champion Edina gained a 1-1 tie with Duluth East when Miguel Fidler snapped a second-period shot past East goalie Dylan Parker. -John Gilbert photo
Hermantown coach Bruce Plante told referee J.B. Olson: “If you’re going to call that one...”  -John Gilbert photo
Hermantown coach Bruce Plante told referee J.B. Olson: “If you’re going to call that one...” -John Gilbert photo

   There are some captivating matches this weekend, and one of the best is UMD going into Madison to face a Wisconsin team that has its sights set on reaching the Final Five. Guaranteed, however, is that the Badgers will not be anxious to see the Bulldogs come to town. The Bulldogs were not in contention in the very contentious final battle for home-ice; they had dropped into a locked-in road position by losing twice at home to both Denver and Minnesota State-Mankato in back-to-back weekends in February, and they continued to struggle on the road at Bemidji State and Minnesota.

“...then you HAVE to call THAT one!” -John Gilbert photo
“...then you HAVE to call THAT one!” -John Gilbert photo

    The Bulldogs got things aimed the right direction by riding the momentum of an impressive 2-2 in the second game at Minnesota to sweep Alabama-Huntsville in a nonconference series. It was thought that the ‘Dogs were unfortunate to not have a league foe in their sights, but the victories worked, nonetheless. When Nebraska-Omaha came to AMSOIL Arena to conclude the regular season, the Bulldogs surprised them with a victory Friday, and then amazed the whole league with a 6-0 romp on Saturday. Forgotten man Aaron Crandall, who had stepped between the pipes to get a shutout against Huntsville, recorded the shutout against UNO, too.
    The finish is not completely unlike the scenario when the Bulldogs struggled through the last few weeks of the WCHA season and the league playoffs, but then got on a roll and won the NCAA championship. The difference is that the Bulldogs must make their move this weekend. They need to beat the Badgers in the best-of-three, then march on to Saint Paul and win the Final Five, in order to win the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. There is no other route for a team that finishes ninth in the 12-team WCHA. The Badgers finished fifth, and are a much better team than the team that beat UMD 2-0 at AMSOIL and came from a 2-0 deficit for a 2-2 tie the next night, back in October.

Hermantown’s Chris Benson, later awarded the Herb Brooks Award for Class A, tried for a rebound at the St. Thomas Academy  -John Gilbert photo
Hermantown’s Chris Benson, later awarded the Herb Brooks Award for Class A, tried for a rebound at the St. Thomas Academy -John Gilbert photo

   Among other great storylines in this weekends match-ups:
   St. Cloud State won its first-ever WCHA league title in its last-ever year in the WCHA. The Huskies are heading to the NHCH along with UMD, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Miami of Ohio, Western Michigan, Denver and Colorado College next season, while Minnesota and Wisconsin head for a new Big Ten league. The Huskies, led by superb playmaker Drew LeBlanc of Hermantown, will draw last-place Alaska-Anchorage this weekend.
   Minnesota swept at Bemidi State last weekend to climb into a tie for first with St. Cloud, which lost in overtime in its final game for a split at Wisconsin. But the Huskies get the tie-breaker, so the Gophers, as No. 2, draw -- Bemidji State. It would seem a mismatch after last weekend’s sweep, but just ask UMD, or Nebraska-Omaha, how easy it is to beat Bemidji State at playoff time. North Dakota finished third, and is home against Michigan Tech, another improving and dangerous foe.
    The losses to UMD dropped Nebraska-Omaha out of home-ice, but league scoring champion Ryan Walters leads UNO to MSU-Mankato, which has the league’s top goaltender in Stephon Williams, and is trying to reward first-year coach Mike Hastings with a trip to Saint Paul. The Mavericks against the Mavericks, with Mankato’s version staying in the soon-to-shatter WCHA. That leaves two tournament-hardended teams in Denver and Colorado College, and while the Pioneers are at home, and the favorite on paper, this is one of those neighborhood-rival battles where you can throw out the record books.
   It should be a wide-open Final Five, and wide-open scuffle to get there. What could be more appropriate for the final year of the WCHA as we know it?


    The three Duluth-area teams at the state tournament made an impressive showing. Duluth East had high hopes before falling 3-2 to Edina’s third-period rally. But the Greyhounds bounced back to win the third-place trophy, whipping Wayzata 7-3. In Class A, Hermantown beat Marshall 3-0, but Marshall came back to beat Marshall (the town) and Rochester Lourdes for the consolation title. So the three Duluth teams went a combined 6-2 for the tournament, but we’ll all best remember Hermantown’s bid.
   The Hawks played the two most dramatic games of the tournament -- first conquering Breck 4-3 on Zach Kramer’s goal after Nate Pionk’s strong rush at 7:26 of the second overtime period in the semifinals. Meanwhile, St. Thomas Academy was cruising past St. Cloud Apollo 12-0 and East Grand Forks 11-0. If that wasn’t sufficient evidence for why St. Thomas Academy should move up to AA, it was soon to follow.
   One of the most wrenching finishes in a high school tournament championship game was about to happen. The AA final, with Edina beating Hill-Murray in a 4-2 finale, was very impressive. But the A final left the rest of the tournament to rank as anticlimactic.
    Hermantown, with the full backing of a crowd that obviously is tired of Class A domination by private schools, played a magnificent game, falling beind 1-0 early, then rallying for three straight goals and a 3-1 lead, which became 4-2 after two periods. The Cadets threw their full and formidible force at the Hawks in the third period, and scored twice to tie it 3-3. The game was racing toward overtime. And then it happened.
    The officials had been letting things go, just about right. There were no cheapshots, nothing violent, and they had overlooked several borderline things. With two minutes to go in the third period, Scott Wasbotten grabbed a Cadet. It wasn’t bad, although it might have technically been an infraction, but nothing worse than what they had been letting go all game. This time, referee J.B. Olson raised his arm and called Wasbotten for holding. The clock showed 1:57 remaining, and the penalty ofd 2:00 would put St. Thomas’s dominant power play on the ice for the rest of regulation.
    The Cadets attacked, and the Hawks scrambled to cover, block, and clear all the chances. With 10 seconds remaining, the puck came free in the corner faceoff circle. Jake Zelesnikar, one of the top Hawks defensemen, saw his chance to clear the zone and get the game into overtime. As he went for the puck, Alex Johnson of the Cadets grabbed Zeleznikar. “There was a loose puck on the half-wall,” said Zeleznikar. “I went for it and their guy had me in a headlock when I tried to chip it out of the zone. I couldn’t move.”
   Neither could the puck. The Cadets gained possession, swung it behind the net, and it ended up on the stick of Tommy Novak, who curled to the slot, unmolested, and fired a 30-footer in off the crossbar. The clock showed, exactly, 6.1 seconds remaining -- officially 16:53 of the third period.
   The game was over, the Cadets won 5-4, for their third straight Class A title, and the Hawks came up empty for the fourth straight time in the state finals.
   Hermantown coach Bruce Plante strode directly across the rink and confronted J.B. Olson. His gestures said it all. He pointed at one end, then he pointed at the other. He spoke with emotion, and he gave Olson no chance to speak.
   In hockey tradition, which is sometimes questionable, a good referee will overlook a marginal penalty in the closing minutes of a high-stakes game which is being played intensely and evenly. If a ref makes a call, it shoiuld be a flagrant penalty, not a marginal one. In any case, if a penalty is called in that situation, both refs will look intently to find an infraction -- even a marginal one -- to even up the sides and let the players decide the game, not a power play.
   In this case, the ref who called the marginal penalty, ignored the flagrant infraction that would have evened things up, and the noncall allowed St. Thomas to win the game about four seconds later on a power play goal, with no break in the action. Especially a whistle.
   Plante was overcome with the emotion of the moment, and who could blame him? He has long said that the major Twin Cities private schools, who can fill their roster with high-skilled players from all over, have an unfair advantage over teams that develop their own players. This time, he brought some players to the press conference, introduced them, and then introduced himself as coach of the “Hermantown Hawks, 55113.”
    Most people missed the number. It is the number of the zip code in Hermantown, where all of his players are from, and it was a wonderful shot begging for comparison with the private school technique. Plante explained how much admiration he had for brothers Greg and Tommy Vannelli, who co-coach St. Thomas, and said he had no animosity toward them, but he disagrees with the tactic of a school to draw from all over -- even Missouri or Wisconnsin -- to get its players. And then play in Class A
    Word is that winning goal-scorer Tommy Novak is from Wisconsin. I don’t have the evidence to know if there was also a player from Missouri on the Cadet team. St. Thomas Academy will move up to Class AA next season, and it’s about time. The Vannellis have done a fantastic job there, raising the Cadets to elite status in a remarkably short time. They are following the path of Benilde-St. Margaret’s, which won a couple of Class A titles and then moved up to AA, where they won the 2012 title.
    “Winning the Class A title was very important to our school,” Pauly said. “But when you move up to AA, and then are fortunate enough to win that championship, you realize what a great accomplishment it it. I’m glad St. Thomas is moving up, and more private schools should do the same.”
   Maybe Blake, and Rochester Lourdes, and St. Cloud Cathedral, and Marshall. And for certain, Breck should move up, too. And, in a year or two, so should Hermantown. The Hawks program is on a par with Duluth East for developing young players, and it might go right past the east-end power structure.
   Besides, St. Thomas Academy shouldn’t get away that easy. Wouldn’t you love to see them play again?