Huskies, Wild carry late-winter hockey hopes

John Gilbert

UMD’s football team ran through a spring practice this past week, and track athletes circled the field, negotiating around some large, white obstacles. -John Gilbert photo
UMD’s football team ran through a spring practice this past week, and track athletes circled the field, negotiating around some large, white obstacles. -John Gilbert photo

 

The end of March and early April was a lot more exciting a couple of years ago when the UMD Bulldogs stunned the hockey world by getting hot at the perfect time to win the East Regional and then the NCAA tournament’s Frozen Four.
   In 2013, however, it seems we are stuck -- literally -- spinning our wheels -- again, literally -- in the winter that wouldn’t end. If you don’t believe it, you could have driven past Malosky Stadium at the UMD campus and watched the UMD football team’s spring practice, while also noticing the UMD men’s and women’s track teams running around the field’s surrounding track, disappearing from view here and there when they had to go past the enormous mountains of snow piled high from clearing the field. Those piles give a hint why the men’s and women’s baseball and softball teams have not yet played at home.
   We can fight off the late winter this weekend, after putting Louisville’s NCAA basketball championship victory over Michigan behind us, by focusing in on the NCAA Frozen Four, 2013 version. We are assured a new champion, because St. Cloud State, Massachusetts-Lowell, Yale (Yale!), and Quinnipiac (Quinnipiac!!) are convening in Pittsburgh. None of the four has ever won an NCAA hockey title, so we know we’ll have a first-time winner.
    The two winners of Thursday nightd’s semifinals meet Saturday night for the title. All four teams are worthy entries. Quinnipiac has been ranked No. 1 much of the season with a quick-striking team that has been trading off the top spot with Minnesota through the closing weeks of the regular season. Yale struggled through the end of the season, then got hot by eliminating Minnesota and North Dakota in the West Region, dealing a nasty blow to the WCHA’s hopes. Mass-Lowell has a strong team that powered through Hockey East to beat out perennial powers Boston College and Boston University, and then won its way into the Frozen Four.
    St. Cloud State was the only one of six WCHA entrants to survive regional play and make it to the Frozen Four, and the Huskies had to win two upsets to do it, taking down favored Notre Dame, and then equally-favored Miami of Ohio in the Midwest Regional.
    The Huskies are led by Hermantown’s own Drew LeBlanc, whose story is by now the stuff of legend, after coming back from a horrible compound fracture a year ago to get a redshirt chance to repeat his senior year. He leads the nation in assists, and would rather set up his freshman wingers than score himself. LeBlanc is one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, and he’s our favorite because of his character and leadership. But the Huskies have another LeBlanc-in-the-making in freshman Joey Benik.
   Benik is a young man who scored prodigious numbers of goals at St. Francis, a school which has never caused a ripple in high school circles, and hasn’t drawn many college recruiters, either. But St. Clous coach Bob Motzko didn’t miss him, in the process of making St. Cloud State a center for talented middle-Minnesota kids from obscure schools. Ben Hanowski, a senior scorer, is from Little Falls, just up the road a piece.
   Benik’s story is not unlike LeBlanc’s a year ago. As a freshman, Benik broke his ankle in practice before the season started, and the coaches pondered red-shirting him for the season. Ultimately, they chose to let him play, but he didn’t get up to speed until halfway through the season. Locked in contention for the title, the Huskies dispatched Benik to the fourth line, knowing full well he would be a scorer someday. He didn’t show that very much, with only two goals for the regular sason. But he scored one in the WCHA playoff first round, and when the Huskies headed for the NCAA regional, Motzko put Benik up on the third line, playing a hunch
   Benik shot to stardom with two goals in the victory over Notre Dame, then he doubled his ante with two more goals and an assist the next night against Miami of Ohio. Four goals in two regional upsets, after scoring only two for the regular season.
   Motzko’s other hunch was to put freshman Jonny Brodzinski on a line with LeBlanc, and Brodzinski filled opposing nets. While Brodzinski’s former teammate at Blaine, Nick Bjugstad, scored 21 goals at Minnesota, including 11 power-play goals, and just signed a pro contract with Florida, Jonny Brodzinski scored 22 goals for St. Cloud State, and only one of them was on the power play. Not many college hockey players in the country scored 20 goals at even strength.
   Motzko laughed about having such prolific scorers as LeBlanc, Hanowski and Nic Dowd, so he had no room for Brodzinski on the power play until he realized his statistics, and his mighty shot, warranted it. That all gives the Huskies a strong offense, with balance, and with a strong defense led by Nick Jensen -- possibly the best defenseman in the WCHA this season -- the Huskies went to their first Frozen Four with as good a chance as any to win it all.
    Ironic that St. Cloud is having its best season as a WCHA standard-bearer in its final year in the WCHA. Next season the Huskies, UMD, North Dakota, Miami of Ohio, Western Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College will comprise the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
    Minnesota will join Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio Stste and Penn State in a new Big Ten conference for hockey. A week ago, Minnesota appeared to be a cinch to be the top team in that group next season, but early signings took away Bjugstad, Eric Haula, Zach Budish, and top defenseman (((Nate)))) Schmidt, forcing a complete rebuilding job for coach Don Lucia.

WILD POISED FOR BIG FINISH

   Chuck Fletcher might be up for general manager of the year after the amazing quick-build job he’s done with the Minnesota Wild. After the hoopla surrounding the free agent signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild has come up with several other new additions to bolster their offense, defense, and balance, and not the least of them is Jason Pominville. The Detroit Red Wings were trying to make a deal with Buffalo for Pominville, who has scored over 30 goals a couple of times, and was the tireless-worker captain of the Sabres.
   Parise, an everlasting worker who plays alongside Mikko Koivu, another smart, always-working centerman, stated publicly that he had played with Pominville on U.S. teams, and considers him a true elite addition. Then he showed up, and wasted little time proving Parise correct, while filling out the Koivu-Parise line amazingly well.
    In Columbus Sunday night, broke toward the slot from the right side and made a slick, backhanded pass back to the left point, where Suter rifled in a screened shot for a 1-0 lead. Rookie Charlie Coyle, who was displaced by Pominville from the first line, fit in perfectly on the third unit and scored for a 2-0 lead, then Pominville and Parise struck again.   Parise raced up the ice 2-on-2, carrying the puck wide to the left, while Pominville broke hard to the right post. At the last second, Parise passed across the goal-mouth, but to get the puck through, he had to lift it a foot off the ice. The sailing puck eluded the goalie and the D, but not Pominville, who smacked it in out of the air for a 3-0 count. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom made it stand up with shutout goaltending, and the Wild now are home for three games.
    The NHL’s compressed season is a fascinating departure from the usual tedium that can be an issue in late-season hockey, because playing almost every other night makes for a racehorse conclusion to the abbreviated season. Teams have only eight or nine games left before playoffs begin, and the final eight teams in the two divisions are anybody’s guess. But I think the Wild will be in the thick of the playoffs.
     Remember the first month of the season, which started with such high hopes, even in lockout-condensed times? Media types who should have known better were suggesting coach Mike Yeo should be replaced. His calm, even-tempered, analytical approach is perfect for Fletcher, and, in fact, maybe Xcel Center will be home to the GM and coach of the year.

TWINS AMAZING START

    Our transition to springtime will be made easier if the Twins can keep on with their impressive start. I was among those guilty of bemoaning the trade of both Denard Span and Ben Revere for three pitchers who might as well have been named Larry, Moe and Curly, for all we knew of them. To get them, the Twins parted with a very solid centerfielder in Span, and potentially an even better one in Revere.
   But the pitching has kept the Twins close, and the offense has been what we should call opportunistic, and the Twins won the opening series from the powerful Detroit Tigers, and also took the series at Baltimore. Centerfielder Aaron Hicks might not be able to hit a lick as far as Major League average goes, but after starting out as though he might go 0-for-ever, he came up with two hits -- each of them winning a game for the Twins.
    We can put up with the late departure of winter by watching some highly entertaining hockey, but if the Twins are going to actually win some games, we might want those mountains of snow to melt away, after all.