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KNIFE RIVER…Another year is about to pass us by and right when I ask myself if hockey and its level of play can keep going upward, it does. I watch a lot of hockey over the course of a year and there are times when I say to myself, ok, the Stanley Cup will probably take a step back this year. There’s no way it can keep getting better and better each season. And then it does. I mean, that’s fine by me, but how can it keep amazing like it does? I don’t know, and I don’t care, just keep it coming. The hockey year kicked off with the end of the World Junior tournament and if you didn’t see the Gold Medal tilt between Team USA and Team CANADA, all I can say is that it was your loss. This tournament in general and game in particular was among one of the best, most exciting, nerve wracking and sweat inducing hockey events I have ever watched.
The USA went 4-0 in the preliminary round by beating Latvia, Slovakia, Russia and then Canada. In the playoff round the American’s beat Switzerland, beat Russia again, and that setup the epic winner-takes-all Final between the USA and our neighbors to the North. The Canadians jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the 1st, and the Yanks came back to knot the game at 2 by the end of the 2nd. The Canadians went up by two again not even 5 minutes in, but the Americans came roaring back with a score 39 seconds later and then to tie with just under 13 minutes left. The third ended in a tie. A 20-minute Overtime ensued that solved nothing. There was a penalty shot awarded to the Americans, and it was unsuccessful. Unlike the playoffs in the NHL, IIHF tourney games go to a shootout if no winner is determined from an OT period.
There was no shortage of drama in this SO. There was only one goal scored and it was by American Troy Terry, and a save by Tyler Parsons on Nicolas Roy sealed the deal and the American team erupted in mayhem. There was a strong Minnesota presence on this team with Coach Bob Motzko from SCSU, Ryan Lindgren-UM, Jack Ahcan-SCSU, local star Joey Anderson-UMD and Kieffer Bellows-Edina/BU. Bellows had two goals in the Gold Medal game. I let out a yell that was probably audible in outer space when Parsons made that final save. This game was my choice for the Game of the Year.
In March, the Minnesota State High School tourney was held, and in the Boys Class AA Grand Rapids won the title with a 6-3 win over Moorhead. The final score was not indicative of the strength of this victory. The Thunderhawks got out to a 4-0 lead, then the Spuds got two back very quickly and it was on. GR then made it 5-2 before the Spuds tallied again, and GR would eventually need an empty netter to secure the victory. In Class A, Hermantown brought home their second consecutive title with a 4-3 OT win over Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake in what would be Legendary Coach Bruce Plante’s final game before retiring. All three tourney games went to OT for the Hawks. For the Girls tourney, Edina won the Class AA and The Blake School won the Class A. The quality of play and growth throughout Minnesota and in USA Hockey for the girl’s game has been nothing short of phenomenal.
In the Women’s NCAA D1 Frozen Four Wisconsin faced off with Clarkson and in my book, I had the Badgers as a heavy favorite. Clarkson had other ideas for that day and took the National Title home with a 3-0 shutout of the Badgers. On the Men’s side in Chicago, the F4 featured Denver and Notre Dame on one side of the bracket and the UMD Bulldogs and Harvard on the other. Denver dispatched the Irish in their semi by a 6-1 tally and UMD eliminated Harvard in a 2-1 total nail biter of a game. The Bulldogs got the win on an Alex Iafallo score with 26 seconds left in the 3rd period to advance to the title tilt. Against DU the 1st period went scoreless with DU taking a 2-0 lead in the 2nd before Iafallo responded with a goal. The Pioneers upped their lead to 3-1 a bit over 5 minutes later. UMD got the lone goal of the 3rd but could not get the equalizer and Denver went on to capture the Championship.
In between the Men’s D1 NCAA Semis and Final, the IIHF Women’s World Championship was taking place a mere 260 miles from the United Center in Plymouth MI. This was my 2nd Place Game of the Year. In the title bout, Team USA was once again matched up with Team CANADA. As far as Women’s hockey goes, there are these two teams and then there’s everyone else. The USA opened the tourney with a 2-0 shutout of their fierce rival just 8 days earlier. There would be no shutout here, neither would the game be settled in regulation. Hillary Knight scored just past the midway point of the OT frame to give Team USA the win and the Gold Medal. The back and forth play of this contest, the ever-increasing skill level and competitiveness of the players involved made for one of the most intense games at any level over the past year. Duluthian Robb Stauber coaches this team.
THE STANLEY CUP FINAL featured the defending Champ Pittsburgh Penguins against the Nashville Predators. To no one’s surprise the Pens took G1 and G2 in the Steel City. The Preds came back to defend home ice in the Music City with wins in G3 and G4. With the series tied at two each, the Pens put an absolute spanking on the Preds in G5, winning 6-0. Then, with the Cup on the line in G6 there was a defensive hockey battle for the ages back in Nashville. With 1:35 left in the 3rd period, the Pens Patrick Hornqvist scored and Carl Hagelin got an empty net goal to seal the deal 2-0 thus making the Pens the first SC repeat victors in 20 years. Pens rookie and Minnesotan Jake Guentzel led all playoff scorers with 13 goals and was 4th in total scoring with 21 points. Game 6 was my 3rd choice for Game of the Year.
WILD UPDATE; THE ATHLETIC, 21st with a 39% chance at the playoffs, 2% chance of Cup win. THE SAGARIN; 17TH on 18-18 record, 6-8 vs top ten, 7-13 vs top 16. NHL STANDINGS by points percent; 19th, 18-18, .542% of points available, 6th in the CENTRAL, 10th in the WC, 2 spots from a playoff position… PEACE, OVER & OUT!