Friday, April 8, 2011

The Bulldogs are Back Where They Started, Just in Time For the Championship

The Bulldogs are playing for a national championship tomorrow. How did this happen?

As a Minnesota sports fan, I'm conditioned to expect failure from my favorite teams: the Viking's traumatic embarrassments in '98, '00, and '09, Timberwolves' eight straight first round playoff exits and subsequent slide into becoming the NBA's worst team, Twins losing five straight playoff series, ten years of consistently mediocre and underwhelming Wild hockey, the underachieving Tubby Smith teams and Tim Brewster's disastrous reign, the list goes on and on. It should be no surprise that the Bulldog's collapse in the 2004 Frozen Four came to mind yesterday as we entered the third period with that dangerous two goal lead.

All year everyone knew the Bulldogs were capable of contending for the national title. After a second half slide punctuated by an overtime loss to Bemidji in the Final Five, UMD fell out of the short list of contenders. Many, including myself, thought that the Bulldogs' inconsistent defense and goaltending was too much of a question mark to build a sustained playoff run.

Yet here we are now. Sixty minutes away from a national championship. Three things, above all else are essential to playoff success: special teams, goaltending, and luck, and the Bulldogs gotten huge contributions in all three of these categories.

Yale sucks. Remember
this goon?
The Bulldogs got lucky by being put in the East Regional. They got to play two overrated teams from the EZAC and that allowed them to build a lot of confidence going into the Frozen Four. Yesterday they faced Notre Dame, a very solid team from top to bottom, but one that was seeded lower than us in the Pairwise. UMD made the championship game without playing a top five team.

Michigan had to beat a big, physical UNO squad led by the best coach in college hockey, a Colorado College team that hung up eight goals on the defending national champion, and North Dakota, the consensus title favorite all season long. Nevertheless, the Wolverines have had some luck of their own too, escaping their first round tilt with UNO on a very questionable goal in overtime. A goal that only became a goal only after a lengthy replay review.

Kenny Reiter was great in the NCAA Regional, shutting out Union and standing tall during the early onslaught against Yale. Yesterday he slipped back into regular season mode, giving up a couple of softies in the first period before settling down and making enough plays to hold on for the win. Which Kenny will show up for the championship?

Above all else, UMD will have to rely on its unbelievable special teams tomorrow. The Bulldogs' penalty kill has been equal parts opportunistic and sacrificial, which is why they have killed off 19 of 22 penalties in the playoffs. Guys have been just eating pucks lately. We have almost double the blocks that our opponents have since the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, and it seems like every time the opposing team makes a mistake on the powerplay, we track the puck down and clear it. Notre Dame had a man advantage five times yesterday, and they managed just TWO SHOTS.

Really though, the best part about watching this team all season has been the chemistry of our top guys. Watching the Connollys, Fontaine, Faulk, and JT cycle the puck in the offensive zone is a delight. They display a combination of trust, creativity and execution that is unparalleled in college hockey. Yesterday they scored twice on that same beautiful tic-tac-toe play they've been running all year. I swear they've scored on that play at least 15 times this season. Fontaine even alluded to it in his post game comments: “We're hitting the exact same plays we've used all year, and we're riding that confidence.”

It's funny how cyclical this season has been. UMD started off hot, with the top two lines clicking and lots of puck luck. The goaltending and defense wasn't great, but it was almost always good enough to win. Then the Bulldogs came back to earth just long enough to put serious doubts in the minds of the fans, only to turn around and play the same exact way they did at the beginning of the season in time for the playoffs. So now here we are: a team with two great lines, great special teams and juuust good enough defense and goaltending. I wanted North Dakota, but most of all I want a national title. And the Bulldogs will have a shot at that Saturday night.

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