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Midway through the third period of the unfolding classic that was the NCHC’s Frozen Faceoff championship game last Saturday night, form sheets were distributed to every media person in the Xcel Energy press box, to vote on the all-tournament team.
Without any idea how the game would end, we put down our selections. Hunter Shepard was the easy choice for me in goal, because not only was he in the midst of stopping 37 shots from No. 1 ranked St. Cloud State, but he also had stopped all 25 Denver shots in a tense 1-0 semifinal that became 3-0 after two empty-net goals by UMD. On defense, UMD’s Mikey Anderson was having his second straight exceptional game, so I wrote his name down along with St,. Cloud State standout Jimmy Schuldt. Now the forwards. St. Cloud’s Robby Jackson and Patrick Newell had both scored goals in the 5-2 semifinal victory over Colorado College, and both scored again against UMD, so I wrote down both of their names. I wanted to single out a UMD forward to fill out the 6-man team, so I scanned the lineup, and my notes, to see which Bulldog forward had risen above the rest to deserve such an accolade. Over and over I looked, checked statistics, checked the goal-scoring plays, and came away with the indisputable decision that the award for the best UMD forward in the tournament’s two games was — a 12-way tie!
There may be no better way to assess exactly how good the Bulldogs were in that tournament than the simple fact that all 12 forwards had played so well, and so effectively fulfilled their roles, that it was impossible to pick one of the 12 as standing out above the rest. And if UMD is going to go on and win the Midwest Regional this weekend in Allentown, Pa., by beating Bowling Green on Saturday and then the winner between Quinnipiac and Arizona State on Sunday, it will be because of the incredible balance — and the high caliber of play by everyone who participated.
The top three scorers among forwards are center Justin Richards (10 goals-18 assists — 28 points), right wing and captain Parker Mackay (12-13—27) and center Peter Krieger (8-15—23), with expected support from junior Riley Tufte (9-9–18) and unexpected support from freshmen Noah Cates (9-13–22) and Cole Koepke (7-10—17). The defensive corps has again contributed its usual no-panic poise in the defensive zone while also offering more than just support to the offense. Scott Perunovich (3-25—27), Mikey Anderson (5-19—24), Nick Wolff (5-13–18), and Dylan Samberg (6-11—17) lead the blue liners.
But the players usually in supporting roles jumped up to make decisive plays as the Bulldogs knocked off their two toughest NCHC rivals — Denver and St. Cloud State — to win the Frozen Faceoff. The always superb goaltending of Hunter Shepard set the standard in a 3-0 shutout over a Denver team that had split four regular-season games with UMD. Then it took most of the night Saturday to topple a St. Cloud State outfit that had beaten UMD three out of four games, in a 3-2 double-overtime finale.
In both games, key plays both subtle and spectacular led to UMD’s goals, after coach Scott Sandelin and the Dogs overcame absences at center as Jackson Cates missed both games with an illness, became ill and Jade Miller opened with a series of heavy hits against the Huskies, but was injured in the process. Sandelin hadsummoned freshman Jesse Jacques, who had sat out 13 of the final 16 UMD games, and only got couple shifts on the fourth line in the three games he did play, to replace Jackson Cates.
Against Denver, Jacques He made two exceptional plays, first herding Denver’s Kohen Olischefski into the right goal post as Shepard came up with one of his huge saves at the other end of the crease. Turns out, the puck never crossed the line, but Jacques, backchecking like a fiend, made what could have been a pivotal defensive play. Koepke blasted a 35-footer past Filip Larsson to break the 0-0 game. Midway through the final session, the puck was loose at the feet of goaltender Larsson as a Denver defenseman shoved Jacques onto the back of the cage, but Jacques saw the puck uncovered, and his Hermantown-honed puck-sense prompted him to spin to the outside to escape the check, elude the defender and swat a backhander into the net all in one motion, for a 2-0 lead. After a long review, the officials decided that Tufte had bumped Larsson in the crease, although several video replays failed to show such contact, so the goal was disallowed, and it was left to defenseman Louie Roehl and Koepke to both score into an empty net to expand the 1-0 game to its 3-0 final score.
Perunovich, who missed several games with a back injury, played both games but was obviously hampered trying to get back to his normal game. Still, he delivered several superb passes, with the biggest coming 4-on-4 in the first period, with St. Cloud State leading 1-0. Mackay, always dependable for smart plays, rushed up the right boards and dropped a perfect back pass off the boards. Perunovich got to it and delivered a no-look, one-time backhand pass to the slot, where Mikey Anderson was closing fast and blasted in the tying goal. Sandelin, mixing and matching linemates to overcome the shortage of centers, sent Perunovich out to play forward on several shifts.
Trailing again 2-1 in the third period, and facing a penalty kill, Sandelin sent out freshman Tanner Laderoute, right wing on the third line, out with senior Billy Exell, right wing on the fourth line. Circling, Laderoute read the play perfectly when the Huskies muffed a pass in their own end, and he pounced to pick off the loose puck and head for the net from the right circle. Instead, however, he spotted Exell coming up the slot, so he made a little deke to freeze goaltender David Hrenak, and fed Exell, who blasted a shorthanded slapshot into the net to tie the game 2-2 with 4:51 left. “We’ve got four good lines, and when we had to juggle, you step up and take what you can get,” said Exell.
The game raged back and forth through the first 20-minute overtime, and on into the second, as over 10,000 fans and a television audience watched the teams trade excellent scoring chances. Then, at 7:29 of the second overtime, Jacques threw himself in front of a long slapshot and got the puck to Laderoute, who took off up the right boards on a 2-on-1. Laderoute wasted no time feeding the puck across to Swaney, who carried up the slot and plinked a perfect backhander into the left edge of the goal for the game-winner.
“That was one helluva hockey game — two great hockey teams getting after it,” said former UMD assistant Brett Larson, NCHC coach of the year in his first year as St. Cloud coach. “We wanted to come out strong, but I know they don’t get rattled when they face periods of adversity. I’ve been part of tough losses before that have led to great wins.”
The Huskies outshot UMD 15-6 in the first period, but the Bulldogs, led by Jade Miller and Exell, threw some big bodychecks. “We didn’t have the puck in the first period, so we had to do something,” Sandelin deadpanned.
If the hockey gods want to give a huge reward to the State of Hockey, they will align the regionals so that UMD and St. Cloud State can play one more time — for the NCAA title.