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One night, after a UMD game, I got the chance to catch wonder Parker Mackay for a brief conversation. I asked him about the background of his name, because my mother’s family were McKays, spelled differently, but a lot of immigrants to North America altered the spelling of their last names, and since my mom’s family had relatives in Canada, I wondered if there might be some long-lost connection with Parker Mackay’s hometown of Irma, Alberta.
Neither of us could be sure. But that conversation came to mind last week, when Mackay, this year’s UMD captain, was about to be introduced among the seniors playing their final game in AMSOIL Arena. Parker not only remembered the earlier conversation, he agreed with me that it seems as though it took place a few weeks ago. Actually, it took place when he was a freshman — four years ago — proving how alarmingly rapid time flies.
It’s sad to realize seniors Mackay, Peter Krieger and Billy Exell have played their final home games for UMD, ever, but thankfully there is still some unfinished business on their minds.
Mackay (pronounced “Mac-KIE”) has been a quiet leader, leading by example more than as a locker room rah-rah type. Sometimes that’s the most effective way to lead. He made one play in Saturday’s third UMD goal, by freshman Cole Koepke, which proved the success of the balance among UMD’s classes as well as lines. Carrying the puck on the right boards in Omaha’s zone, in a tight 2-1 game in the last minute of the second period, Mackay saw the check coming so he braced himself, dumping the puck to his left to sophomore center Justin Richards and took the hit.
The Omaha checker, who had been back on a 3-on-2, was so pleased with his bodycheck on Mackay that he held him against the boards, pinning him and preventing him from getting back into the play. No matter, because what remained was a 2-on-1, with Richards closing in from the right, then sending a perfect pass across the slot to where Koepke hammered his fifth goal into the Mavericks net. The suddenly safe 3-1 lead stood, and UMD won 4-1 to sweep the series and send them into this weekend’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff as the league’s second seed, where they will face Denver Friday night.
No. 1 St. Cloud State takes on upstart Colorado College — which upset Western Michigan in Monday’s delayed third game of their best-of-3 series — in the 4 p.m. first semifinal at Xcel Energy Center.
The Bulldogs are in prime position to fashion a defense of their year-old NCAA championship, but returning their game to top form was important last weekend. In Friday’s first game, my estimate was that UMD played to about 70 percent of capacity, while outmanned Omaha played at close to 90 percent. The Bulldogs got a goal from Riley Tufte in the second period of that one, and were ripe when Kevin Conley tied it at 19:04 of the third. At 13:48 of overtimes, Jade Miller tried a shot that deflected off a Maverick defender Nate Knoepke’s skate and glanced directly to Nick Swaney, who scored for a 2-1 victory.
On Saturday, Omaha played at 90 percent again, but the Bulldogs hiked their game from 70 percent to 95 percent, and with their superior manpower put the Mavericks away. But it was a battle. Omaha scored first, then freshman center Jackson Cates scored with a quick reaction to Mikey Anderson’s feed off the end boards two minutes later for a 1-1 tie. In the second period, Mikey Anderson shot wide right from the right point on a power play, and sophomore Kobe Roth did a little hop-step to avoid the missile and get his stick shaft on it for a deflection goal and the 2-1 lead.
Koepke, a freshman made it 3-1 on the aforementioned Mackay to Richards set up, and senior center Peter Krieger poked the puck free to Noah Cates and the two were off on a 2-on-1. Cates proved again that the Bulldog freshmen are playing more like veterans now, and fed across the slot for Krieger’s one-timer and the 4-1 victory.
“We started a little late in the first game, and spent the whole game getting back to our game,” said Mackay. “(In the second game), we started on time and got off to a fast start. Now we’ve got another chance to win the league championship.”
The Bulldogs and Denver have established an excellent rivalry, especially in the NCHC playoffs. Last year, Denver beat the Bulldogs in the league playoff semiifinal, but UMD went on to win the West Regional and return to Xcel Center to win the national title. It will be a tense, close, defensive-minded game, while St. Cloud State — which lost only two league games all season — faces the mercurial Colorado College Tigers in the first game. CC coach Mike Haviland noted that the Tigers had held a lead in all four games with St. Cloud this season but lost three of them and had an overtime loss in the other. Huskies coach Brett Larson knows full well how dangerous CC will be, because the Tigers only chance to advance to the NCAA would be to win the NCHC playoff championship for an automatic berth.
Elsewhere, the Big Ten also has an upstart going for it all with Penn State’s high scoring Nittany Lions playing at Notre Dame in a one-game championship. Penn State knocked out league champ Ohio State 5-1, although the Buckeyes are ranked high enough to make the 16-team NCAA field. Notre Dame eliminated Minnesota 2-1 in a weird overtime finish to their one-game semifinal at South Bend. A Notre Dame skater tried to wedge between two Gophers chasing the puck into the neutral zone. Minnesota’s Tyler Sheehy made a light attempt to impede his progress, and the Notre Dame player fell from the obviously incidental contact. Officials called Sheehy for hooking, although video showed it didn’t happen, and the Fighting Irish scored on the power play to advance.
Meanwhile, in the women’s NCAA hockey tournament, those of us who have watched the WCHA’s superiority over the years, might assume that No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 2 Minnesota might meet in the championship game, but it’s not that simple any more. In Hamden, Conn., Friday, the Gophers face Cornell, followed by Wisconsin taking on Clarkson — as in, defending NCAA champion Clarkson. A Gopher-Badger final would fit well out in the West, but a Clarkson-Cornell title match is not out of the question.