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There is nothing like a good battle to the finish in a sports race, and in college hockey, the NCHC is coming down to a typically crazy ending, with Denver and UMD — two of the prime contenders in recent years — colliding this weekend at AMSOIL Arena in a series with championship overtones.
Of course, somebody has to beat St. Cloud State, or the Huskies will put the league title away before the finish. Amazingly, in his first year as head coach, Duluthian Brett Larson has guided the Huskies through the minefield of a schedule with only two defeats — one of which came in an early St. Cloud State at UMD series at AMSOIL.
Some have speculated that St. Cloud State and UMD have emerged as the best two teams in the nation, and if so, they are scheduled for an appropriate final series at the Herb Brooks Hockey Center in St. Cloud.
But there is a lot to achieve before such a climactic series, and a large chunk of that is this weekend when Denver comes to AMSOIL with the chance to move right into little contention while blunting UMD’s charge in the process in the two games, at 7 on Friday and 8 on Saturday.
The Pioneers are fourth, right now, just behind third-place Western Michigan and just ahead of still-dangerous North Dakota, a perennial stretch-drive outfit. In national ratings, St. Cloud State is No. 1, followed by 2. Massachusetts, 3. Ohio State, 4. UMD, 5. Quinnipiac, 6. Minnesota State-Mankato, 7. Denver, 8. Cornell, 9. Arizona State, and 10. Western Michigan. Four NCHC teams in the top 10.
But the Denver series is far from the only action at AMSOIL involving UND this weekend. The UMD women’s team is still hopeful of rising to WCHA contention, but was dealt a serious blow last Saturday, when St. Cloud State earned a split of its series with the Bulldogs, meaning they have split both weekends this season.
For UMD to climb to proper stature, the Bulldogs are running out of time and this weekend, time is of the essence. UMD faces Wisconsin (25-4), currently ranked No. 2 in the nation behind only Minnesota (25-4-1). Those two stand 1-2 in league play, with Ohio State third, and UMD fourth. Had UMD finished a sweep of St. Cloud State, the Bulldogs would have closed in on Ohio State with two games in hand. Instead, the Bulldogs are 5 points behind the Buckeyes and 5 ahead of Bemidji State.
UMD coach Maura Crowell was perturbed after what she said was a drop in intensity from Friday’s 4-2 victory to Saturday’s 3-2 loss against the Huskies.
There were some indications of a lack of domination in the first game, however, when, after taking a 2-0 lead in a closely contested first period, the Bulldogs raised it to 3-0 before St. Cloud got a power-play goal. It was 4-1 when Julia Tylka, a St. Cloud senior from Delafield, Wis., muscled her way past the last defender and sailed in to beat Maddie Rooney on a neat breakaway move to her backhand.
“Yes, I watched the Olympic Gold Medal game,” Tylka said, noting that the Canadian Olympic team couldn’t beat Rooney in shootout breakaways with the gold medal on the line. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do as I skated in. And I wasn’t sure I had scored until I saw the puck cross the line.”
UMD held on to win 4-2, but Saturday proved much more competitive. Naomi Rogge’s goal was offset by the second goal in as many nights by Jenniina Nylund, and Kelly Friesen put the Huskies in front for a 2-1 lead in the second period. UMD held a solid edge in shots in the last two periods, but didn’t seem interested in making scoring set-ups. When Jalynn Elmes was given a major for checking from behind, the power play carried over to the third period, and at 2:37 of the third period, Taylor Wempel scored on a screened shot from the blue line to make it 3-1 for a St. Cloud State team being outshot 41-25 at that point.
Anneke Linser got a shot through congestion to score at 11:23 of the final period, closing the gap to 3-2. But, showing the same kind of resolve coach Eric Rud used to display as defenseman and captain at Colorado College in Don Lucia’s last year there, the Huskies held firmly to that lead and gained a big conquest for their program. UMD was without top-scoring Gabbie Hughes, who had been injured in practice, but St. Cloud State was missing center Jana Haeg and Laura Kluge.
Crowell said she found her team’s tendency to ease off in the second game after victories against numerous opponents, she had no doubt the Bulldogs would be fired up for the challenge provided by Wisconsin.
The 3 p.m. games are the last regular season home games for UMD, which finishes at MSU-Mankato and then, playoffs.
Koivu injury huge challenge for Wild
When the Minnesota Wild lost defenseman Matt Dumba with an injury, I suggested that it would seriously hurt the power play, and the flexibility of the defensive corps, but the loss of center and captain Mikko Koivu will be impossible to replace.
Koivu has been the target of unknowing media types who don’t understand what goes into making a player invaluable. Koivu scores some, makes his wingers always look better, and is unwavering in his dedication to come back and defend in his own end. Other forwards don’t do that as effectively, even though coach Bruce Boudreau always says that he wants all his centers to play the way Koivu does.
With Koivu out for the season, having already had leg surgery for the wrenched knee and troublesome cartilage, the Wild’s only hope is that Mikhail Granlund, who has been having a quiet season at wing, has been shifted to center and is being urged to fly. Granlund has immense talent, and he undoubtedly will be more effective at center, where he should get more room to make his favorite plays. If he can do it, he could be the inspiration the rest of the Wild players need to rise up, score some, and still take a run at the playoffs.