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There is no realistic way for UMD to win the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular season championship, and that’s OK. St. Cloud State and Denver will undoubtedly settle that title this weekend in St. Cloud, which should be a fantastic series, and with a 45-40 edge in points, St. Cloud State could all but mathematically clinch it with a split.
UMD will have all they can handle to try to finish third in a mad race with North Dakota and Western Michigan, and even Nebraska-Omaha still in the hunt for third.
With inflation affecting hockey standings the same way they are inflating gasoline prices and Donald Trump’s ego, a victory is worth three points, and with two weekends — four games — remaining, UMD and North Dakota are both even .500 and owners of 30 points. UMD is 10-10, and UND 8-8-4, with two extra points for winning a pair of shootouts.
The Bulldogs play at Western Michigan this weekend, and Western is right on the heels of the Bulldogs and Fighting Hawks with 28 points. Obviously, they could vault over both UMD and UND with a sweep, while UMD could put the Broncos away with a sweep.
But take nothing for granted. When they played at AMSOIL early in the season, UMD whipped Western Michigan 3-0, but then failed to show the second night and the Broncos whipped UMD 5-0. The top four teams, as usual, get home ice for the first round of NCHC tournament play, and if the season ended right now, St. Cloud State, Denver, UMD and North Dakota would happily accept those opportunities. But that, too, may be on on Western’s dressing room wall — not that the Broncos need any more incentive.
Last weekend was one of the weirdest ones in recent memory for the Bulldogs. The good news is that goaltender Hunter Shepard shut out Miami of Ohio 4-0 last Friday and 3-0 on Saturday. The bad news is that the Bulldogs didn’t play very well. They were far from the form that had carried them up into contention, and didn’t show conclusively that they had shaken the misfiring they showed in the second game loss at Denver.
The Bulldogs had struggled with four losses in five games, but you have to realize they played league-leading St. Cloud State, then a midweek game at MSU-Mankato, and then that nasty sweep at Denver. More than anything, they needed to play again, right away, but they had to take the mandated weekend off, so they stewed in the 1-4 doldrums until Miami came to town.
The Redhawks figured to be really tough this season, but the wheels fell off about midseason, and Miami came sputtering into AMSOIL Arena with a 1-8 record that was about to slide to 1-10. They seemed to have no fire, no cohesion, and no chance to beat UMD. It’s a curiosity, because Miami has a good coach in Enrico Blasi, and mostly returnees from last year.
But the Bulldogs whipped them in that 4-0 opener when Mikey Anderson scored on a power play, and Billy Exell followed to make it 2-0 midway through the first period. Jade Miller scored in the second period, and Louie Roehl, a defenseman who has worked his way into the deep UMD lineup and played better and better, notched his first goal on a dash up the right side to the net, just in time to convert a 2-on-1 goal-mouth pass to make it 4-0.
UMD outshot Miami 35-16 in that first game, and while he got a shutout, it was difficult to remember more than a couple tough saves for Hunter Shepard.
Saturday was different. The Bulldogs lethargic attitude seemed to be heightened by knowing they coasted through the first game, and confidence was heightened when Jared Thomas, a hard-working but snakebit center, got sprung for a breakaway midway through the first period. Thomas flew in at goalie Ryan Larkin, made one deke and snapped a shot into the upper left corner. As the puck bounced down and Thomas circled to the right, the Bulldogs seemed off and running again.
But a UMD goal was disallowed later in the opening period, and then the Bulldogs took the second period off. They were outshot 14-1 in a period when they should have put the Redhawks away. There was no problem finding tough saves for Shepard. My favorite was when Miami’s Carson Meyer somehow wound up all alone in front of the net, and, of all things, the puck popped out to him. All alone, he gave Shepard his best move and shot, then shot again.
It didn’t matter, because Shepard was on a roll. So the third period came and it was still 1-0 when Nick Wolff tried to fire a shot from center point, but the puck hit a diving block-attempt and fluttered. Fortunately, it fluttered goalward, and wound up going all the way in past the screened Larkin with 6:13 remaining in a game where UMD looked secure, but was only one shot from being in a 1-1 tie.
With 3:41 left, Blasi pulled Larkin for an extra skater, desperate to avoid being shut out both games. But Joey Anderson scored into the open net and it wound up 3-0.
“It wasn’t easy,” said coach Scott Sandelin, who looked considerably perturbed on the bench during the second period no-show. “You’ve got to give Miami credit. Things aren’t going well for them, but they played hard. Shep was the difference -- especially in that second period. Having Shep back there stabilized our team, and they played harder in the third period.”
Shepard, who played very well during that struggling stretch against St. Cloud State, Mankato and Denver, shrugged it all off and said, “It seemed like they were pretty similar games.”
He didn’t even remember the weird play when Meyer got free with the puck, with no Bulldog positioned in the same time zone, but he didn’t find much to boast about. In his mind, both games were similar. UMD won 3-0, outshooting Miami 35-16, and UMD beat Miami 4-0, while being outshot 34-22.
I mentioned to Scott Sandelin that we don’t know what’s ailing Miami, but it’s possible UMD couldn’t have played the game they played Saturday night and beaten any other NCHC team. But my theory is that with the sweep over Miami to straighten them out, the Bulldogs will go to Western Michigan ready for a tough, grinding series. It may not be pretty, but at this point in the season, all UMD has to do is win a couple more while getting their game in top gear.
UMD Women Playoff
In the women’s WCHA, the regular season is over and UMD edged out Bemidji State for fourth place. That’s a seven-team league, with North Dakota pulling out, so first-place Wisconsin gets a bye into the Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena next week, while the rest of the league tangles.
MSU Mankato goes to Ohio State, St. Cloud State goes to Minnesota, and Bemidji State comes to AMSOIL Arena to take on UMD.
The UMD-Bemidji series, like the others, is a best-of-three, which means games Friday, Saturday, and, if necessary, Sunday. But here’s the strange twist: All three games are scheduled for 2 p.m. to avoid the traditional setting of the Section 7A and 7AA high school tournament semifinals, also at AMSOIL.
Bemidji State is 9-13-2 with one shootout victory, while UMD is 10-11-3, also with two added points. The Beavers lost 4-0 and 2-1 at second-place Ohio State last weekend, while UMD was gaining a tough sweep, 2-0 and 3-2, at Minnesota State-Mankato.
If UMD wins the series, they will have to climb over the .500 mark while earning the trip to Ridder Arena, where the Wisconsin Badgers will be awaiting them.
It’s a great time of year, especially with the Olympic hockey tournament to watch the past two weeks, and all the high school games, to say nothing of the Minnesota Wild. This weekend will be one for the scrapbooks.