Tag Archives: frozen four

Doggedness

15 Apr

The University of Minnesota Duluth claimed its third national championship this past Saturday, its second in a row in a run of three straight national title game appearances. Unlike many Duluthians, I have no personal ties to UMD save living in the same city as its campus, and as I’m still eagerly awaiting the creation of a hockey program at my alma mater (I expect I’ll be waiting a while), their exploits provide reliable entertainment in the meantime. College hockey, in my book, will never match the intensity and the pageantry of the high school game, but I make a handful of Bulldog games each season, and when two-thirds of the national champion’s roster is comprised of Minnesotans, I’ll know a thing or two about the players on the ice.

Several of their key players were true Minnesota high school stars who I saw many times in their glory days. Hunter Shepard put together some of the most dominant goaltending performances I’ve ever seen when in high school at Grand Rapids. (Anyone looking to beat him really should hire Mike Randolph as a temporary consultant.) I first saw Scott Perunovich when he was a sophomore at Hibbing, where he immediately awed me by saucing passing on to the tape of his teammates’ sticks from 100 feet away. This didn’t stop the Hibbing mom in front of me from informing him he was a puck hog all game long, but his boundless talent was obvious. But there was also Nick Wolff, who lit up a couple of Musketeers in the championship game; I remember his Eagan coach, Mike Taylor, calling him a “human rain delay” when he wandered into a press conference a bit behind schedule. Dylan Samberg emulated Kyle Schmidt’s 2011 NCAA championship snow angel after he scored an overtime championship-winner of his own for Hermantown in 2017, and between his two titles as a Hawk and two at UMD, his past four seasons have ended in championships. Not a bad run.

This Frozen Four, the Bulldogs forsook the Schmidt-style drama and just overpowered opponents. Their games in the regional final in Allentown were more stressful than the final two in Buffalo; lulled into a trap, it appeared they might face the exits against scrappy Bowling Green in the first round. But after a convenient bounce knotted it up, the game never seemed in doubt. This group has a superb record in close games in recent playoff games, a testament to both a lack of panic and a steady system that relies on the team’s depth to grind opponents into submission. Once they’d staked themselves to an early lead in the national championship game, they settled into a sequence of steady offensive zone cycles that we Duluth East fans watch all season long, controlling the puck and probing for more. I’m biased, but I can’t name a more appealing style of hockey than that steady, physical brand of northern Minnesota control.

The title cements UMD’s place atop the college hockey ladder for the time being. Scott Sandelin has built a powerhouse on the hill overlooking Lake Superior, and he has done it through a steady process that draws attention only via the results on the ice. While his first two Frozen Fours had a handful of standout players who really elevated the team, that 2011 title put the Dogs on elite recruiting footing. Their depth now is such that no single Bulldog really stands out above the rest, and they can bring a relentless assault from four lines and six defensemen. They can afford to absorb good-but-not-great point totals from the likes of a Riley Tufte, who’s a reliable contributor but not the Casey Middelstadt-level first-rounder some expected him to be. And while they lose a few players to the pros early, as all college teams now do, there’s also some tradition of sticking around that players like Andy Welinski, Alex Iafallo, and Dom Toninato established in the years preceding these titles. Winning culture feeds on itself.

UMD also sits in one of the most attractive recruiting grounds in college hockey, and Sandelin has taken full advantage. While they’ll never claim every local star, they now keep many who previously might have looked elsewhere. (As one who left and came back myself, I will never begrudge the Dave Spehars and Ryder Donovans of the world for trying different paths.) The Bulldogs run a drama-free program, which is no small feat. Sandelin’s accolades are piling up now that he’s joined an elite group of coaches with three national titles, and opportunity may come knocking, though I could also see him being too content with what he’s built at UMD to consider moving on. He’s become an unassuming local legend, and I may even forgive him for choosing to live in Hermantown. (All joking aside, that relationship has been a beneficial match, both as a recruiting pipeline for the Bulldogs and as an attraction to that city in a swamp behind the mall.)

For now, even us Duluthians who aren’t born-and-bred Bulldogs (or, perhaps, bulldogs of a different litter) can thank this group for bringing glory to our city. They’ve done it the right way, they’ve done it with style, and while NCAA playoff hockey can be the ficklest of the major college sports, on paper, there’s no reason to think the success will slow down anytime soon. Right now, Duluth can stake a claim to the hockey capital of America, and don’t think we won’t revel in that crown for as long as we can.

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Blaising New Paths: NCAA Hockey Regional Roundup

29 Mar

While the rest of the nation watches a sport involving endless fouls and approximately twenty-six timeouts per team in the final two minutes, sixteen universities are playing their way down to their own national championship. It’s the most fickle of tournaments, the NCAA Frozen Four, where top teams go down with regularity, the games played in obscure arenas in all corners of the nation. Four Minnesota schools made the final sixteen this year, but none survived the opening weekend, and the Frozen Four comes down to two longtime favorites, North Dakota and Boston University, and two upstarts, Providence and Nebraska-Omaha.

The most intriguing opening-round matchup took place in Manchester, New Hampshire, where a pair of old rivals, now in separate conferences, went at it for a fifth time this season. There was no drama this time around: Minnesota-Duluth blitzed Minnesota with three first period goals and cruised to a 4-1 win. After a decent open from the Gophers, the Bulldogs poured it on in the second half of the opening frame, unleashing an endless wave of cycles and aggressive pinches, barely letting the opposition out of the zone. They attacked the Gophers where they were weakest, in the corners and along the boards, and cruised once they had the early lead.

It’s hard to spin this Gopher season as anything but a disappointment, and they gave us hockey fans a quality soap opera. A team that returned nearly everyone from last season’s runners-up looked decidedly pedestrian after a 7-1 start, making the tournament largely by virtue of an astonishingly bad Big Ten. There were occasional flashes of their potential, but these Gophers were sloppy on defense and got lackadaisical effort from many of their forwards, leaving goalie Adam Wilcox overexposed. They were routinely outworked and overpowered by teams showing any sense of discipline or sustained pressure, and whatever might have fed into it—players with one foot in the pros, players thinking it would be easy after last season, a here-we-go-again mentality, or those whispers about locker room disputes behind closed doors—there was no fix for a glaring problem.

Naturally, scrutiny will fall on Don Lucia, though his defenders also point out his many successes in recent years; there’s only so much a coach can do to make his players care. His in-game adjustments do indeed usually leave something to be desired, though there it’s also better not to over-coach when one has the more talented team on the ice, as Lucia almost always does. He is not the root of the U of M’s problems, though his stoic demeanor may not be the solution, either. Coaches don’t stay on the job for long tenures without making some adjustments, whether on the ice or off, and this coming year will be a telling one for Lucia’s future. On the ice there were plenty of scapegoats, from reckless Mike Reilly rushes to Taylor Cammarata shying away from contact, but no matter who stays or goes, the Gophers will have the pieces to make another run, and they need to reconnect with that inner fire.

UMD had little time to bask in the big win, as Boston University and their magic man, Jack Eichel, awaited in the regional final. The Bulldogs shut down Eichel, but linemate Evan Rodrigues stole the show with a pair of goals, the second a game-winning power play snipe on which he showed superb patience. That power play came on a fairly soft call, and the Bulldogs were unlucky on a possible game-tying goal in the final minute, when the referees signaled no goal and there was not enough video evidence to overturn it, despite the strong likelihood that the puck was underneath Matt O’Connor’s pads in the net. One can hardly blame the Bulldogs for feeling robbed, but they had their chances, gave up a soft early goal, and were fortunate to sneak in their second tally. It was a strong season for a top ten team, but they weren’t quite on an elite level just yet. If everyone returns they should be a force once again next season, though the Gophers are a clear reminder that these opportunities can be fleeting.

Minnesota State-Mankato came in the surprise top seed in the tournament, though it was a tenuous title. Sure enough, the Mavericks folded under the bright lights of Compton Arena in South Bend, though the Rochester Institute of Technology’s game-winner was even more controversial than anything in the UMD-BU game, with the MSU defender checked into the goaltender by an RIT forward. It’s the first win by a #16 over a #1 in the current tournament format, and while perhaps not quite as monumental as Holy Cross over Minnesota some years back, it was a memorable upset. St. Cloud State, meanwhile, provided some of the best drama of the opening round, winning their Husky war with Michigan Tech with a tying goal from Jonny Brodzinski in the final minute of the 3rd and overtime winner from Duluth native Judd Peterson.

The Huskies’ downfall, however, came at the hands of conference foe North Dakota, which dispatched of them in a methodical 4-1 effort, a scoreline identical to their first-round win against Quinnipiac. The Artists Formerly Known as the Sioux have played with the poise of champions, but they’ll be leaving the friendly confines of Fargo to collide with the other remaining one-seed, Boston University, in Boston in two weeks. The winner of that one will be the odds-on favorite for the crown, as they’ve been the two best power conference teams all season. The right results in the semis could set up a delicious final: Dave Hakstol’s North Dakota versus his old mentor, Dean Blais, the UNO coach whose two titles with the then-Sioux still leave Hak in the shadows. Blais’ squad is the easy rooting choice for Minnesotans, with their veteran coach and bevy of local talent: Jake Guentzel, Justin Parizek, Tanner Lane, Tyler Vesel, Avery Peterson, Luc Snuggerud, and, yes, Jake Randolph, who scored the game-winner in the regional final. Blais’ Minnesota recruiting pipeline has brought a program to new heights, and success should only deepen that connection.

The NCHC, meanwhile, has done exactly what it needed to do in its early years, putting two teams into the Frozen Four this year, with several more coming ever so close. The conference is here to stay, and offers unending displays of great hockey. There’s no good way to spin this year for the Big Ten, but it can only get better from here: Wisconsin was historically bad, Michigan was off, and none of the others really stepped up. Given its resource advantages, this conference will rise, sooner or later. The WCHA put a pair of strong teams into the Tournament, but both bowed out in the first round, making it hard to frame an easy narrative. There is definite promise there, though I still think the WCHA needs to do something big in the next few years lest its schools start to slide further down in the NCAA pecking order.

The four remaining teams now get a week of rest so that we can properly bask in John Calipari’s sleaze, and then go at it next Thursday in Boston.  That gives me time to find some UNO gear in the meantime.

NCAA Frozen Four: The State of the Union Is Strong

13 Apr

NCAA hockey crowned a new champion on Saturday night, and this time around it truly was a new one. Union College, the pride of Schenectady, New York, ousted the University of Minnesota, 7-4. The Dutchmen had one NHL draft pick to the Gophers’ fourteen, and their entire school could fit in a large U of M lecture hall. Even so, it wasn’t much of an upset: Union hadn’t lost a game since January, and had dispatched of another co-favorite, Boston College, in the semis. By the end, there was no doubt who deserved the crown.

As the old Nanne-ism goes, the team that controls the blue line wins the championship, and that was most certainly the case on Saturday night. The man of the hour was that lone Union draft pick, Shayne Gostisbehere, who was an absurd +7 on the night, and could do no wrong; even when he seemed to make an ill-advised pinch, the puck bounced his way. At a tournament in Philadelphia, the Flyers’ draft pick put on a show for his future employers, ruling all 200 feet of the ice sheet. Though it was a bit wobbly in front of its own net–eight goals is an awful lot to give up in a Frozen Four–the entire Dutchman defense was mobile and moved the puck well, with Mat Bodie and Sebastian Gringas also flashing into the fray on the offensive end. They supported each other well, and were rarely fooled by the dekes and pretty passing pulled out by the Gophers’ skill players. Their involvement left opposing defensemen in uncharted territory, and the mistakes followed from there.

Add in a prolific top line and just enough depth to sustain pressure across the board, and Union was just flat-out fun to watch play. So often, championships by less-heralded teams involve great goaltending and narrow survival, but Union did it the opposite way, taking it to the opposition with reckless abandon. They beat arguably the top two programs in the nation in back-to-back games, and their aggressive, up-tempo play is a reminder of how enjoyable hockey can be when puck movement takes priority. Herb Brooks would have been proud.

Being a good northern Minnesota boy, though, my favorite game of the three (all excellent) Frozen Four games was the North Dakota-Minnesota semifinal. While the Union games were fun because anything was possible, the collision between the longtime rivals just dripped with tension and anxiety, with the knowledge that just one little mistake could make all the difference. Yes, it was tentative at times, but the drama, slow build-up, and patient prodding in that sort of game all have their own alluring rhythm. The game-winning goal with 0.6 seconds to go was a study in little details, from the initial face-off win by Kyle Rau to North Dakota’s lackadaisical backchecking to Rau’s pass to onrushing defenseman Justin Holl. Rau and Holl twice faced off in Section 6AA championship games back in high school, but on Thursday night, the old rivals combined to launch their team to title game.

The Gopher defense was sharp against North Dakota, but it was their undoing against Union. Too often they seemed caught in no-man’s land, managing to give the Union defense clean shooting lanes while also failing to clear out the forwards in front of the net. For all the talent on the Gophers, their inexperience showed at times, and they weren’t nearly physical enough to slow down the Dutchmen. Goaltender Adam Wilcox was hung out to dry, and though the Gophers twice battled back to within one, they didn’t quite have the firepower to overwhelm Union in an up-tempo game. Give some of their young guns a few more years and they might get there, but in 2014, experience won out over touted youth.

One Minnesota veteran deserves credit for his effort throughout: Kyle Rau. As a Duluth East alumnus, I’ll never forgive him for 2011, but three years removed from that absurd double-ricochet, triple-overtime game-winner in the state title game, I’ll concede this: there is no player in the nation with more panache. He is a lippy, chippy instigator, always right at the center of the action, and he does all the little things right, from faceoff dominance to diligent defense. The Gopher captain was the heart and soul of his team, and if he returns for his senior year, the Gophers’ offensive depth will be second to none.

The loss is a bittersweet end to the Gopher season. Sure, they lost a lot off last season’s squad, and were a very young group. But they were also among the preseason favorites, and were the top-ranked team for most of the regular season. Pending a couple of possible early departures for the pro ranks, they don’t lose much that can’t be replaced, and should be loaded for another run next season. Still, college hockey is among the least predictable sports, and this program hasn’t been lacking in talent over the past ten years, which did not yield a single appearance in the title game. They may yet rue this wasted opportunity. It’s not easy being the Gophers; even though they attract as much front-line talent as anyone, the perpetual threat of early departure keeps them from ever building a Union-like group of seniors, with players always keeping one eye on their next career move. With the likes of Rau, Taylor Cammarata, and Justin Kloos—small players who don’t project quite as well to higher levels—Don Lucia may have finally found a recruiting strategy that lets him build off the previous year’s results, instead of perpetual reloading with yet another class of talented youngsters. Time will tell.

For now, though, the moment belongs to Union. This college hockey season was dominated by talk of realignment, with the giant Big Ten schools splitting off and forming their own conference with a big TV deal, while the rest of the western teams settled into new tiers based on their size and influence. It may yet prove the beginning of the end for some of the sport’s smaller programs, but in the short term, the parity is phenomenal, with a second straight title for the allegedly lowly Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Union’s win cuts against my own cynicism over the direction of the NCAA, which the results in the other major sports did little to assuage. Hockey is different. Here, a team with zero athletic scholarships can still win it all over the big-time powerhouses with enough experience, pluck, and Gostisbehere. It’s a reminder of what college sports were meant to be back in the golden age of amateurism, if that ever really existed. It’s hard to say just how much the landscape might change in a world of money-chasing conferences and unionized (small-u union) players and an unending rush to develop for the next level, but for the time being, college hockey is one of the nation’s best-kept sports secrets. May God continue to bless it.