Going to the DogsOver 25 years in this business, you see some goofy things from time to time.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
ST. PAUL – Over 25 years in this business, you see some goofy things from time to time.
Three short weekends ago, the supposedly knowledgeable Duluth sports fan wouldn’t have given a plugged nickel for the chances of University of Minnesota Duluth’s icemen. They had just finished losing leads on consecutive nights, and were swept – at home – by the ninth-place team in the league.
Dreams of a home playoff spot were gone. They were replaced by the thought of a nearly week-long road trip to Colorado Springs, as the newly-minted seventh-place team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
However, the trip also brought a surprising thing with it – optimism. Coach Scott Sandelin told me during the weekend that if he had to choose a place to go, Colorado Springs was the place. The thought of taking on a Tigers team that had once been ranked tops in the nation didn’t faze him. And once the games were played, it was obvious that the thought didn’t faze his players, either.
The Bulldogs went from a first-round opponent they liked, to playing in the Final Five on an ice sheet they are growing to love. UMD is a team tailor-made for the NHL-sized 200 x 85 sheet at the Xcel Energy Center, and they showed it with a dominating defensive performance against three of the league’s better teams.
Fifth-seed Minnesota was the first to fall. Then it was the top-seed, North Dakota. Finally, the second-seeded Denver Pioneers went down to defeat, making Sandelin’s Bulldogs the first team in the history of the Final Five format to win the Broadmoor Trophy after playing in the Thursday play-in game.
Winning three consecutive games on three consecutive nights is no mean feat. However, to shut out the first and second placed teams in the league on consecutive nights while playing your second and third straight games is little short of remarkable.
Think about what this team has done. Over a span of nine days, UMD won five consecutive road games. They outscored their opponents by a margin of 16-3. They allowed exactly one even strength goal during that span.
The only team in the WCHA’s top five they did not personally eliminate from the playoffs was Wisconsin. They killed off 15 straight opposing power plays in St. Paul. Senior center MacGregor Sharp played like his hair was on fire – though judging by the Mohawks the players gave themselves in Colorado Springs, the fire might well have quickly burned itself out.
And, of course, there’s Alex Stalock, the uber-goaltender who made a national name for himself last weekend. Somehow, the junior from South St. Paul wasn’t selected as the WCHA Player of the Year in the league awards, but made up for it by winning the Most Valuable Player trophy in the Final Five. With a playoff goals-against average of 0.66, he’s really turning some heads.
That should be enough to make even a Northlander smile.
So now, we’ll be right back down here next weekend for the NCAA West Regional. Princeton is the first opponent, featuring Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) player of the year Zane Kalemba, a goaltender whose goals-against average is even lower than Stalock’s. A possible rematch with Denver awaits should the ‘Dogs win the round-of-sixteen game on Friday night.
But if there’s one thing proven by this year’s Final Four, it’s that the WCHA is deep enough for the seventh-placed team to win all the playoff marbles. That ought to mean it’s good enough to handle ECAC opposition.
Shortly after assuming my duties on Bulldog radio, I made the comment in a post-game show that at the end of the season the Bulldogs would be a team that no one wants to play. I think that prediction has been proven true. All credit to the players, who could have folded up their tents after the Anchorage series and gone home.
They didn’t. They still had hockey to play. Now, they have the opportunity to prove themselves all over again on the national stage. They’ll have to do it on an Olympic-sized sheet – and the 200 x 100 surfaces in St. Cloud and Minneapolis did give them some trouble this year – but the way this team is playing at the moment, betting against them isn’t wise move.