Bulldogs Keep ‘Appointment’ by Reaching Frozen Four

John Gilbert

 

Junior goaltender Hunter Shepard, the MVP of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff by beating St. Cloud State in double overtime one week earlier, once again was the dominant force as UMD beat Bowling Green and Quinnipiac in two tense NCAA regional victories at Allentown, Pa. to advance to the Frozen Four next week. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Junior goaltender Hunter Shepard, the MVP of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff by beating St. Cloud State in double overtime one week earlier, once again was the dominant force as UMD beat Bowling Green and Quinnipiac in two tense NCAA regional victories at Allentown, Pa. to advance to the Frozen Four next week. Photo credit: John Gilbert

 

All season long, UMD captain Parker Mackay has been leading by example, a senior willing to make all the little plays — a drop pass here, a misdirection move to freeze a defender to enhance a teammate’s chance to score — to push and prod his eager Bulldogs to stay consistent and patient and good results will be forthcoming.

It was that way right up through the NCHC tournament final at Xcel Center, when the Bulldogs won a double-overtime title match against No. 1 ranked St. Cloud State. And that was the springboard that sent UMD sailing on to its third consecutive NCAA Frozen Four tournaments, next week on Thursday and Saturday in Buffalo, N.Y.

But last weekend, at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Allentown, Pa., there was no time for subtleties, so Mackay rose up and was credited for a goal with 3:01 remaining in regulation to tie Bowling Green 1-1, then he scored again in overtime for a 2-1 victory that sent the Bulldogs to Sunday’s region final, where they beat Quinnipiac 3-1 to advance to next week’s Frozen Four. Mackay intercepted a last-ditch Quinnipiac pass and skated in alone from the blue line for an empty net goal to seal it. It was Mackay’s 15th goal of the season, and his third in two NCAA games. 

It was typical of what makes this year’s UMD team even better than last year’s NCAA champions. Last year the Bulldogs won it by surprise; this year there is no guarantee they will win it again, but if they do, it won’t be a surprise. In the two regional games, every Bulldog contributed. And every class. Freshman winger Cole Koepke was as effective as anybody in the two games.

Against a Bowling Green team that played the Bulldogs to a standstill, dominating early, and weathering UMD’s determined attempts to get the equalizer. It was still 1-0 for the Falcons with 3:01 remaining, when Koepke wedged himself against the left boards to block an outlet attempt, then fired a shot at the net. The puck hit Mackay out in front, and landed at his feet. Mackay quickly shot the rebound, but Falcons goaltender Ryan Bednard blocked that one as he dropped to his knees. Alertly, Bednard reached his big goalie stick out and poked the puck straight out, out of danger, he thought. But it hit the skate of Bowling Green defenseman Chris Pohlkamp and ricocheted right back into the net. 

The tie brought considerable relief to the Bulldogs, and to their fans back home, many of whom had gathered at several establishments around town to pool their energy on the Bulldogs behalf. The overtime raged back and forth, with Hunter Shepard — as usual — coming up with remarkable saves in the UMD goal. After 11:45 had elapsed, Koepke, who plays well beyond what a freshman from Hermantown should be able to do in such big games, broke up the right side. Nobody was with him, so he barged for the net, with three defenders back. Koepke leaned in, carrying the puck with his right hand while he fended off the defense with his left arm, and he flipped a one-handed shot on goal. Bednard blocked it cleanly and the rebound bounced straight out, past the onrushing Justin Richards.

The third defender back had picked up Richards, but Mackay, the third member of the hot-scoring line, was cruising up the slot unmolested, and drilled the rebound for the 2-1 UMD victory.

The UMD Bulldogs have made it a familiar sight to follow their playoff games with a giant celebration up against the boards. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The UMD Bulldogs have made it a familiar sight to follow their playoff games with a giant celebration up against the boards. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Quinnipiac was next, and it was another tough challenge for the Bulldogs, as the two teams battled through a scoreless first period, and 15 scoreless minutes of the second. Then the Bulldogs got a power play, and executed a remarkable sequence of passes, climaxed when Peter Krieger, at the right circle, fed a hard pass across the slot to Scott Perunovich, at the top of the left circle. Perunovich had a good scoring chance, but instead of shooting, he zipped a pass right back across the slot to Krieger, who ripped a shot from there that shattered the 0-0 tie.

It stayed 1-0 through a dramatic Quinnipiac surge in the third period, Then it was UMD’s fourth line that came through, with Jade Miller feeding Kobe Roth for the goal with 5:02 left in regulation. Quinnipiac made a final bid, scoring on a power play to cut it to 2-1, with its goalie pulled and still 3:03 to play. But when they tried that again, the Bobcats were stung by Mackay, who swiped the puck and scored on a quite-dramatic breakaway at the empty net for the 3-1 final.

That completed a wild weekend of regional play. The surprises started early and kept on coming, as both No. 1 St. Cloud State and then Minnesota State-Mankato were upset. In Fargo, St,. Cloud State was playing an American International College that was technically rated No. 31, but got the Atlantic Coast Conference automatic slot as season and playoff winner. American International got a 1-0 lead, expanded it to 2-0 in the third period, then held off the Huskies to win 2-1. It was a shocking end to coach Brett Larson’s first year as St. Cloud coach, and the second year in a row the tournament’s No. 16 seed took out the No. 1 Huskies.

Denver salvaged some NCHC pride in Fargo, beating Ohio State 2-0, and then knocking off AIC 3-0. But in Providence, R.I., MSU-Mankato built an early 3-0 lead before the Friars got one back, and then another, then gained a 3-3 tie. Two of those goals were power-play markers, and then came a questionable 5-minute major called against Mankato’s Connor Mackey for contact to the head, when a Providence skater ducked low and was checked why Mackey. The officials reviewed it for several minutes, then called the major and game misconduct. The fourth-seeded Friars scored twice more during the major, and went on to win 6-3, with six consecutive goals, four of which were on power plays.

Nobody questioned the logistics, but Quinnipiac was moved to Allentown to prevent the Bobcats from having a home-ice advantage — something that only the top seeds seem to be able to attain. But Providence, the fourth seed, was allowed to stay at home and play, and not coincidentally the Friars appreciated the hometown support while upsetting Mankato, the region’s top seed. Providence came back Sunday and knocked off Cornell 4-0 in the region final to reach the Frozen Four.

At Manchester, R.I., the University of Massachusetts — UMass to Bostonians — pulled away to beat Harvard 4-0, then took out Notre Dame by the same 4-0 count. Notre Dame had beaten Clarkson 3-2 in overtime after pulling its goaltender with 2:39 left to tie the game 20 seconds later, and winning in overtime. But the Fighting Irish couldn’t generate any offense against UMass, which fills out an interesting NCHC vs. Hockey East Frozen Four.

Denver from the NCHC will face UMass from Hockey East in one semifinal next Thursday, and UMD will take on Providence of Hockey East in the other. The scenarios are many, including an all-NCHC final, an all-Hockey East final, or one of each in the final.

The game wasn’t the only thing St. Cloud State lost over the weekend. Star center Ryan Poehling, the youngest of three Lakeville brothers on the team, signed a contract to join the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL. That came a day after leading team scorer Pat Newell, a senior, signed with the New York Rangers.