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This weekend will open the curtain on hockey in the Northland, where we like to think that hockey can go wall-to-wall from fall through winter and well into spring. And it does. Fo the UMD men’s and women’s hockey teams, hopes are high, and optimism is limitless this fall, but for entirely different reasons.
The UMD men’s team is rippling with talent, and for those who might have thought we were a little premature in declaring the Bulldogs favorites to win the NCAA title in the coming season, a lot of agreement is showing up now, as the Bulldogs try for their third consecutive NCAA championship.
The USCHO — the U.S. College Hockey Online outfit — has rated UMD No. 1 in the nation this week, as they prepare to test the new edition Saturday night against the University of Alberta. The powerful NCHC has three teams among the top six, which is impressive also. The top 10 are: 1. UMD, 2. Denver, 3. Minnesota State-Mankato, 4. UMass, 5. Cornell, 6. St. Cloud State, 7. Providence, 8. Quinnipiac, 9. Notre Dame, and 10. Clarkson.
If I was to suggest a couple of modifications, Penn State might be the best in the Big Ten, and in my opinion Western Michigan is going to be loaded in the NCHC. UMD’s co-captains are goaltender Hunter Shepard and defenseman Nick Wolff, and both will play vital roles in their senior years, on their way to pro futures. And Scott Perunovich could be Hobey Baker now that he’s healthy to make the offense go from defense.
On the women’s side, the UMD Bulldogs are eager and optimistic as they take on Clarkson this weekend, with a 7 p.m. Friday game and a 3 p.m. Saturday rematch, joining the men in making AMSOIL Arena a festive spot for the weekend.
The women went into last Saturday’s exhibition opener against the Minnesota Whitecaps declaring something approaching certainty that they can compete for the top spot in the WCHA. Then, however, they went out and were played to a 2-2 deadlock by the Whitecaps — a close-to-pro outfit that won their first try at the pro league last season, but which opened with a 5-1 setback pinned on them by the University of Minnesota.
Among those things you can learn while looking up other things, I came upon my notes from the final game played by both the men and the women. The UMD men, of course, convincingly handled UMass in the NCAA championship game. In the semifinals, UMD beat Providence 4-1 with two empty-net goals, while Denver made a stirring third-period 2-goal rally to tie UMass 3-3, only to fall 4-3 in overtime in the other semifinal. Then UMD goaltender Hunter Shepard shut down UMass 3-0 in the final.
On the women’s side, UMD advanced to the WCHA semifinals, where the Bulldogs expressed big plans for taking down the powerful Gophers. I was covering the state high school hockey tournament over in St. Paul, but I took a break to dash over to Ridder Arena for the WCHA semis, figuring that in case the Bulldogs were indeed up to an upset, I wanted to be there. Gabby Hughes, the incomparable freshman, scored her 19th goal of the season to send UMD up 1-0. But from there, the Gophers crushed the Bulldogs. It wound up 4-1, with Minnesota outshooting UMD 44-9.
Never mind that Minnesota went on to lose to Wisconsin, the eventual NCAA champion, and that the Badgers are No. 1 to start this season, with the Gophers in hot pursuit as No. 2. What we’re interested in is UMD, and whether the Bulldogs are capable of moving back up to actual contention in the WCHA.
Co-captain Jalyn Elmes, a senior defenseman, is sure they can do it. She said, “It’s not like there is one team up above all the rest. Our league is so strong that any team can beat any other.I asked if she could remember the final game last season, and she couldn’t. I told her about the 4-1 score, and the 44-9 shots — including 17-1 including the opening Hughes goal. She was right about one thing: There is not one team up above all the rest in the WCHA. There are two. Minnesota and Wisconsin. And getting back to contend with them, week in and week out, will take more than over-the-top optimism.
WILD OPENS NHL
The media in the Twin Cities are pretty much avoiding any bandwagon approach in support of the Minnesota Wild, after they failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring. But I have a news-flash for them, and for peripheral observers like the Masked Fan right here in the Reader. If the Wild can avoid the sort of catastrophic injuries that leveled them last season, they will make the playoffs. And once in among the top 16, anything can happen.
Last season, the Wild were sailing along, and then Matt Dumba got hurt. Out for the season. Losing the best puck-rushing offensive defenseman on the club, if not the division, and maybe the league, hurt mightily. And then center Mikko Koivu went down with torn knee ligaments, requiring surgery. Out for the season. Koivu might be the best two-way, defensively responsible center in the NHL, and to lose him meant shuffling somebody else up to his line, and generally weakening the team all the way down. Without them, the Wild fell a few points short of a playoff berth.
Think about this. The St. Louis Blues came from last place in the entire league to making it into the playoffs, then went all the way and won the Stanley Cup. Now look at their lineup and take away their best two-way centerman, Vladislav Teresenko, and their top offensive defenseman — pick one. Without them, the Blues don’t even make the playoffs. Same holds for almost any of the 16 playoff entries — remove their top two-way center and their best point-producing defenseman, and they won’t make the playoffs.
So the Wild got Jared Spurgeon piling up ice time and he blossomed into the offensive defenseman I knew he could be, earning a huge contract. With him and Dumba plus Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, the Wild have four gifted defensemen. Big Carson Soucy, a 6-5 former UMD standout, has made the club and could be ready for a breakthrough season. Koivu is back at top speed, and the Wild have added an outstanding new winger in Mats Zuccarello, a gifted puck-handler and brilliant passer, who will make the forward depth come to life. Devan Dubnyk in goal, with Alex Stalock backing him up gives the Wild a solid team from top to bottom. It will be tough, and challenging, but the Wild opens on the road Thursday night in Nashville, then goes to Colorado — seven of their first 10 are on the road. If they get through those 10 decently, watch out.