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Hermantown’s Ethan Lund was sent hurtling into the Denfeld goal, already presided over by goalie Jacob Snyder.
Was it the greatest hockey game ever played, at any level? In my opinion, it was. When the UMD Bulldogs battled the No. 1 ranked North Dakota Fighting Hawks at last weekend’s Fargo regional of the NCAA hockey tournament, it figured to be a game of elevated status. I was in contact with assorted friends, and my two sons, from all corners of the country, about the regional tournaments, and my projection was simple.
Actually, any of the 16 teams are good enough to be capable of winning the whole thing, which breaks down to the same projection for each of the four regionals. I added, however, that if UMD and UND advanced to meet in the Fargo final, it might be the game of the year, because North Dakota is a great team, deserving of the No. 1 rank in the country, and UMD is a team that seems to be waiting until its back is truly against the wall to play its best — but that perhaps the most significant thing to remember is that UMD simple does not lose at NCAA tournament time.
But no matter what the projections and opinions were, nobody could have anticipated the teams would play to an unlikely tie, and then play into the fifth 20-minute sudden-death overtime to establish the winner. That is what the Bulldogs did, virtually welcoming North Dakota to get into position for a couple of incredibly lucky bounces in the last couple of minutes of regulation to gain the 2-2 tie. When freshman Luke Mylymok scored a magnificent goal at 2:13 of the fifth overtime, UMD had extended coach Scott Sandelin’s remarkable record of reaching the Frozen Four every time it’s been played over the last five years.
The Bulldogs finished runner-up, losing to Denver in the championship game, before winning two in a row, in 2018 and 2019. Those UMD teams matured for the whole world to see, right before their eyes, and was climaxed by last year’s best team of them all, only to have the COVID-19 pandemic wipe out the tournament. That doesn’t eliminate UMD’s position as two-time defending champion, it just extended it. And now they could make it a delayed threepeat.
Scott Sandelin sometimes surprises me with his decisions. One of those is keeping his lines together through a dry-spell in scoring down the stretch, and another in how he implemented his goaltender alternation. I also was convinced that when things cooled off, it appeared to me that the third line, with Jesse Jacques centering seniors Kobe Roth and Koby Bender, had become the most effective Bulldog line, but they remained third in the rotation.
I was surprised when Sandelin started Ryan Fanti in goal just about the time I guessed he was going with freshman Zach Stejskal, and then, after Michigan had to withdraw because of positive pandemic readings, I was equally surprised when Sandelin started Stejskal against North Dakota. Both goalies have been outstanding, steady and flashy when the need arose. Stejskal was brilliant against North Dakota, as the teams raced up and down the ice in Fargo, and he wasn’t beaten until the two late goals erased a hard-earned 2-0 UMD lead in the final minutes. The first was a desperation flip off the back boards by Collin Adams with 1:41 left that hit Stejskal and ricocheted in. The second was with 57 seconds left, when a Fighting Hawks shot from the left circle hit a body and the ricochet glanced to the right, landing perfectly on the stick blade of Jordan Kawaguchi, who promptly tied the game.
Years ago, when I coached youth teams in the Twin Cities, I always followed what seemed like a rigid but wise rule Fred Shero used to implement on the Bobby Clarke Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers.
It said that if you choose to shoot the puck the length of the ice at an empty net, and it misses, for an icing that brings the faceoff back into your own end, you will be benched. The Flyers never lost because of such a move. Apparently, UMD has no such rule, and there are some who think it’s a good idea to shoot for the empty net any time and from any where. Leading 2-0, the Bulldogs tried for the empty net and missed, and after the faceoff back in the UMD zone, North Dakota scored its first goal. Clinging to a 2-1 lead in the final minute, I was surprised when the Bulldogs once again fired the puck for the empty net and missed, and after the ensuing faceoff, North Dakota got its second goal. In my mind, if the Bulldogs had not iced those two pucks, they would have left the building with a 2-0 victory in regulation.
“We don’t have a rule on it,” said Sandelin. “Sometimes you leave it up to common sense, and with a 2-goal lead, I could see it. But after we gave up a goal because of it, do you think maybe we wouldn’t do it on the second one?”
Then came the overtimes, and after three overtimes, Stejskal went down with severe cramps from dehydration, and went to the dressing room. In comes Fanti, and he made a great glove save right away and then all the rest as well. The ESPN announcers were saying what a risk it was to send in a cold goalie in that situation, and I thought, nope; Fanti wasn’t cold because he had played the last game. Another great move by Sandelin.
Marshall star Gianna Kneepkens watched as her shot dropped through the hoop for two of her 49 points.
In the fourth overtime, I noted with surprise that Sandelin hadn’t played his fourth line, which had been good, and occasionally outstanding. At that point, he started using the fourth line in spots, and I mentioned to my wife, Joan, how neat it would be if the fourth line came through for the winning goal.
The fifth overtime started, and on their first shift out, Mylymok took off from his own end, sped up the left boards on those fresh legs, and cut toward the slot against an intervening defenseman. Mylymok pulled the puck back and fired a wrist shot that went through the defenseman’s legs and through the legs of the goaltenders — the game-winner — and UMD was headed for Pittsburgh and the Frozen Four next week.
“I wanted to get the fourth line in, and I told them to stay engaged, and they were, on the bench,” Sandelin said. “After using them a few shifts in the fourth overtime, I said OK, we’re going with four lines on a regular rotation from here on.”
It was a banner weekend for Minnesota teams. Bemidji State stunned Wisconsin 6-3 in Bridgeport, and led 5-1 before Cole Caufield scored two late goals for the Badgers. The Beavers did themselves proud, even though they lost 4-0 to UMass the next day. At Albany, St. Cloud State was nothing short of brilliant, taking out Boston University 6-2 behind two goals by Easton Brodzinski and the perfect way to kill a third-period 5-minute major, when Jami Krannila got hauled down on a short-handed rush and scored on the ensuing penalty shot in what wound up as a 6-2 Huskies victory. Next day, the Huskies also did away with favored Boston College, rallying from a 1-0 first-period deficit to win 4-1, after Brodzinski went down on a nasty blindside hip check that broke his leg.
And in the West Regional in Loveland, Colo., Minnesota routed Omaha 7-2 and looked good doing it. MSU-Mankato looked ragged while falling behind a very impressive Quinnipiac outfit 3-1. Mankato got its rhythm in the third period, scored to cut the deficit to 3-2, then pulled superb goaltender Dryden McKay for an extra skater and Cade Borchardt tied it with 1:02 left. They went to overtime, and Ryan Sandelin spotted an uncovered rebound in the crease and pounced, knocking it in at 11:13 of OT for a 4-3 victory.
The Mavericks, who had never won an NCAA game, doubled their pleasure Sunday by completely taking over the rink and stifling Minnesota 4-0 as McKay — who was named after former Montreal legendary goaltender Ken Dryden — recorded his 10th shutout of the season, and 24th of his career.
In Pittsburgh, old rivals St. Cloud State, coached by former Bulldog Brett Larson, will face Mankato, coached by St. Cloud State alum Mike Hastings. Then the Bulldogs will try to work their tournament magic against a very impressive UMass outfit, with both semifinals on Thursday of next week.
With all that hockey, we also have a special feature at the Class A girls basketball tournament, where Marshall carries Duluth’s colors and the brilliance of Gianna Kneepkens, the best-scoring and playmaking guard to ever come through this area. When I walked into the Marshall gym for the section semifinal, Pequot Lakes led Marshall by 9. Less than three minutes later, Marshall led by 7, having scored 16 straight points, and Kneepkens had 14 of them. She ended up with 34 in the first half, and 49 for the game. She also led the Toppers to the 7AA title at Esko to make it to state.
When I watched the fantastic duel between Connecticut, led by former Hopkins star Paige Bueckers as the first freshman to make All-America, out-dueling her friend Caitlin Clark, a freshman guard at Iowa. UConn won, but Clark outplayed Buesgers, I thought. The point here is that Kneepkens is in their class, and can take over a game, which she undoubtedly will do at Utah, beginning next season.
The Proctor-Hermantown Mirage will play in the state Class A girls hockey tournament semifinals Thursday at 11 a.m. against powerful Warroad.
Coronavirus quarantine hits Hawks, who fall 7-3
In the end, it was just a bit too much to ask of the Hermantown hockey program. A team-wide dose of positive COVID-19 tests instantly turned the Hermantown Hawks boys hockey team from being constantly criticized for not moving up to AA, to tournament darling.
When all the varsity players were eliminated for being quarantined, the Hawks called together as many junior varsity players as they could find and hit the Xcel Energy Center ice to face Dodge County in Tuesday night’s quarterfinal game. The only legitimate Hawks regular was sophomore Zam Plante, and he put on an impressive show, setting up both Hermantown goals, and adding a dazzling piece of stick work from behind the net to score the third goal himself.
But Dodge County’s Brody Lamb scored a hat trick before the Hawks finally got a goal, and he wound up with six goals after adding an empty-net goal and yet one more after that, in the Wildcats 7-3 victory.
That concluded a wild and crazy day that began Monday night in Hermantown, and will never be forgotten by anyone on the varsity or JV. The varsity players, including several blue-chip college recruits, had to stay home and couldn’t even travel to join their younger stand-ins because of the quarantine. “But if we somehow happen to win the game, we can get them re-tested and maybe they can play in the semifinals,” Andrews said.
When the calls first went out to some of the Hermantown junior varsity players, they challenged them. Teammates, in some cases, were making the calls to rally the JV guys from being through for the season to preparing to catch the team bus to Xcel Energy Center Tuesday morning to play in the state tournament.
Finally, reality set in. The entire Hermantown varsity hockey team, which had whipped Denfeld 7-1 to win the Section 7 Class A tournament last week, was found to have tested positive for exposure to COVID-19 and had to be quarantined. After some bureaucratic wrangling, coach Patrick Andrews won his case and it was determined the Hawks jerseys would be filled by Hermantown junior varsity players and the Hawks would play, after all.
Some of the players returned from spring-break vacation trips, whole families cancelled ski vacations, and the players showed up for the trip to the big city.
“These guys have come through our program, and while they’re inexperienced, they know how to win,” said Andrews. “We challenged them too just go out and do their best.”
Andrews also gave Plante an open book to play as much as he could, and he had several shifts of over 2 minutes. Midway through the game, Andrews moved him back from center to play defense, where he didn’t have to skate as much, but could still dictate play.
Lamb is the son of Jeff Lamb, a former defenseman who played at Denver University. He has accepted a scholarship to Minnesota.
After spotting Dodge County a 4-0 lead, the Hawks turned the game around and actually outshot Dodge County 36-30. While the varsity players must have suffered doubly watching from home, Plante, the sophomore son of former Cloquet and UMD and NHL star Derek Plante -- and the grandson of long-time Hermantown coach Bruce Plante -- scored his 31st goal and increased his assist count to 30, while playing an incredible 34 minutes, 52 seconds of the 51-minute game.