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UMD freshman Ben Steeves fires a shot from the right circle against No. 1 ranked St. Cloud State.... Photo by John Gilbert.
After watching Western Michigan come into AMSOIL Arena and take both games of the UMD series last weekend, I came away convinced that Western Michigan is the best team in the NCHC right now.
True, Denver has been leading the league all season, and the Pioneers also came to Duluth and got away with a sweep.
But both Denver games were close battles with Denver winning rising from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 in overtime in the first game, and rising from a 2-1 deficit in the second game rallying to get a 3-3 tie and winning 4-3 in overtime.
Tough, excruciating losses for a young UMD team trying to find itself.
Western Michigan, on the other hand, does not have Denver’s tradition of winning titles, but the Broncos are big, fast, solid in every category and capable of weathering your best pressure and countering to win.
Western beat UMD 3-2 in overtime Friday and 4-1 with an empty-net finisher in the second game. The Broncos never trailed in either game, although the Bulldogs kept coming at them and pressed to the end in both games.
How close is fifth-place UMD to Western Michigan?
Close enough to reach, with any kind of break. The difference was best shown by the game-winning play in Game 1. The Bulldogs had tied the game on the 17th goal by freshman Ben Steeves in the first period, then fell behind 2-1 and battled the rest of the way until Zach Stejskal was pulled for a sixth skater in the final two minutes, with Quinn Olson invading the scramble at the Western goal and finding a rebound came right onto his stick blade at 19:00 for the 2-2 tie.
In the 3-on-3 overtime, both teams went with their top three players to start, and it was their second turn at 2 minutes.
That meant Western center Max Sasson with his winger, Jason Polin and his 25 goals, and defenseman Zak Galambos, who has 11 goals, against UMD’s Dominic James, Steeves, and mercurial defenseman Wyatt Kaiser.
In 3-on-3 play, winning means trying to spring a 2-on-1, or if the other team gets one, trying to counter-attack with the built-in 2-on-1 going the other way.
This time, the puck popped free and slid toward the Western end. Sasson, who is lighting-fast, raced after it with Kaiser in hot pursuit. As they crossed the Western blue line, Sasson gained possession of the puck but Kaiser was right on him, and tried a game-breaking move. He reached around him on the right and smacked he puck to the left, then did a little hop-step over Sasson to gain possession.
But in the act of what might have won the game for UMD, Kaiser’s skate nicked Sasson’s trailing leg and he sprawled, losing his stick and sliding helplessly. Sasson, in a flash, regained the puck, whirled and charged back at the UMD goal.
As his teammates crashed the net, Sasson circled behind on the right side, and came out on the left side to again pounce on the puck and flick it up and over Stejskal’s skate in in for the game-winner at 2:17 of sudden-death overtime.
“I thought I had it,” Sasson said in a post-game interview. “But I was going against their guy, who’s one of the fastest guys in the league. I passed it up to Polin and he made a great pass to the goal, and Zak probably should have put it in, but it came right to me and I was lucky enough to get it in.”
So UMD lost when what might have been the highlight video play of the year by Kaiser wound up in a sudden ending generated by Sasson.
In Game 2, the Bulldogs had a goal disallowed in the third period when trailing 2-0, although it didn’t appear that Kyle Bettens had time to interfere in his quest for a rebound that was simultaneously being converted at the right edge.
When Quinn Olson scored at 13:38 it would have tied the game 2-2. Instead, fluke Grainger scored for the Broncos nine seconds later and it was 3-1, awaiting an empty net conclusion.
The sweep may mean UMD boosters may have to throttle back on their expectations and look for a chance to go on the road and take a run at one of the league favorites in a best-of-three playoff series.
Right now, Denver (12-4) leads Western Michigan (11-6-1), with St. Cloud State (10-6-2) and Omaha (9-6-1) filling the rest of the top four slots. UMD (7-11) is fifth, followed by North Dakota (6-8-2), Colorado College (6-9-1) and Miami (2-13-3). UMD has a bye week, and next week goes to Denver, before coming home to face Miami, then finishing at St. Cloud State.
It seems uncharacteristic that the Bulldogs are below .500 – the criteria for being invited to the NCAA tournament – and they will have to play their best to reach the Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Energy Center, where they will have to win the tournament to gain the automatic berth in the NCAA event.
Odds right now favor Denver and Western Michigan to meet in the league final, and if that happens, I pick the Broncos.
Time is even shorter for the UMD women, who have only two weekends to go before the WCHA playoffs. The Bulldogs had to come from a 3-1 deficit to beat Minnesota State Mankato Friday, then battled to a scoreless tie Saturday, before getting the extra point in a shootout.
UMD comes home to face St. Cloud State this weekend, then finishes at Bemidji State, with little chance to move up from fourth (14-8-2) unless Wisconsin (17-6-1) continues to falter, with a sizzling battle for first between Minnesota (20-2-2) and Ohio State (20-3-1).
On the rapidly climaxing high school front, Proctor-Hermantown is No 1 seed in the girls Section 7 playoffs, which start this week, and Section 7 is the strongest it’s ever been in girls hockey this season. The boys have another week to go, and Duluth East appears to have a solid chance to be No. 1 seed over the sterling records of Andover and a younger Grand Rapids and will be a threat to ascend to the top of 7AA. Hermantown remains the overwhelming favorite in 7A, and has been strengthened by the return of Kaden Kuhanski, who has scored 10 goals in the couple of weeks since he returned from healing a broken wrist. Kuhanski with Dallas Vieau and River Freeman are contributing as much as the superb unit of Matt Kauppinen with his brother Josh Kauppinen and Wyatt Carlson for the Hawks.
Oh yeah, there’s a football game Sunday. I think Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City will beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-24 in the Super Bowl. Then we can scrutinize the rumors that the San Francisco 49ers will make the Vikings an offer they can’t refuse for Kirk Cousins – opening the door for the Vikings to give Aaron Rodgers a chance to pass to Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and T.J. Hockenson.
He’d think he was in heaven, and it would only be following the precedent set by Brett Favre as the path from Green Bay to retirement.