Between the Lines: Regional Edition

The king is dead. Minnesota-Duluth proved that the WCHA Final Five semifinal loss to the Gophers was the anomaly, not the four regular-season wins. This isn’t to knock the Gophers, though. If the game is played 10 more times, each team might win five. Minnesota-Duluth has a fantastic team with senior karma and everyone coming together at the right time, and we don’t want to take anything away from them by suggesting Minnesota failed.

But it did seem as though the Gophers were healthy and pouring it on at the right time, and had the tournament experience, and in that sense it is surprising. Here was Thomas Vanek, doing his thing again, turning on the faucet and making the Notre Dame defense look silly in the regional semifinal. Here was Mr. March, Grant Potulny, working his magic on the smaller ice, coming off another game-winning goal in the WCHA final. Keith Ballard was healthy and playing well. Don Lucia, stocking-stuffed neckbrace and all, was pushing all the right buttons again behind the bench.

Perhaps it is just hard to turn on the switch at the right time, and dismiss the regular season. Perhaps there wasn’t that extra oomph of motivation to win a third straight time. Perhaps the goaltending — a concern ever since Travis Weber left school right before the season — finally caught up to the them. Or perhaps Minnesota-Duluth is just that good.

Whatever it is, it was a surprise to see the Gophers depart. But it’s also nice to see new blood at the Frozen Four, and I’m sure the Gophers will recover just fine.

Duluth has been banged up, but patched its guys together and got the job done. The 10-day break will be great for the Bulldogs. It’s hard not to think about this season and not look back to their opening five-game stretch, all away from home. A loss at North Dakota in the Hall of Fame game, followed by a tie and a loss to Boston College and Michigan State, respectively, in the Ice Breaker. Duluth knew it should be a little better than last year’s team, which came just short of the NCAAs, but it was hard to tell how much at that point. And then came two more road games, opening the WCHA season at Minnesota. But the Bulldogs swept the series, went 2-2-1, and it set the tone for the whole season.

“Going into those games, we talked about coming out .500,” said coach Scott Sandelin. “We went to Minnesota and played well, and it did set the tone. … It was important. Any time you can beat Minnesota it’s important. We didn’t have too many peaks and valleys this season, and those first three games really prepared us for the series against Minnesota.”

Denver’s 1-0 win over North Dakota wasn’t a total stunner, since the Pioneers are pretty good, but if there was ever a team this year from start to finish that you felt was clearly headed to the Frozen Four, it was the Sioux.

By the same token, Denver has certainly had better teams. A couple years ago, it went into the tournament ranked No. 1, had a Hobey Baker Award finalist in goal, and had a late lead in Ann Arbor, only to lose 5-3 to one of those home teams, Michigan. Such is what can happen when a crowd starts to get going.

“It was a huge disappointment for us at that time to not advance, our seniors and juniors were part of that team, and they remember that disappointment so well,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “So it’s probably fitting that perhaps we’re not one of the favorite teams, but to play well at the right time.”

This year, without Connor James, out with the broken leg, the Pioneers come through when least expected. You have to feel happy for Gwozdecky, a class coach if there ever was one, finally getting the program back after an 18-year absence. And better news is ahead:

“It looks like we’ll be healthy,” Gwozdecky said. “Connor James will start skating this coming Saturday, and it looks like there’s a better than 50/50 chance he’ll be available for us in the Frozen Four.”

It’s interesting to remember that there was a time when Denver was an absolute power. Under the legendary Murray Armstrong, Denver won the title in 1958, ’60 and ’61. Then lost in the final in ’63 and ’64, and won again in ’68 and ’69, the latter against the Ken Dryden-led Cornell Big Red. But those were different times.

“Murray Armstrong had his run of Western Canada,” said Gwozdecky. “After the season, he’d go recruiting and stop off in Saskaton, Regina, Calgary, find the top five, and that was it. … Things have changed snice then in terms of how competitive it is to recruit. … So there’s no question we’re proud of our history and the championships we’ve won over the years, but now that we’ve been in our new facility the last few years [Magness Arena], there’s a need to establish continued success in this new building.”

Funny that Armstrong is partly responsible for Cornell’s success in that era as well, and for the Big Red’s trend of recruiting in Western Canada, something that continues to this day. The story goes that Armstrong told then-Cornell coach Ned Harkness about these brothers, the Fergusons. Armstrong didn’t want North Dakota to get its hands on them. So the three Ferguson brothers all went to Cornell, and sparked the emergence of Cornell’s dominance of Eastern hockey for the next 10 years.

Speaking of blown three-goal leads, there was no more gut-wrenching collapse than that of Harvard’s against Maine. Sure Maine is very good, sure the Black Bears have “karma,” and had the crowd on its side. But the Crimson’s loss is hard to swallow nevertheless.

Harvard continues to be the biggest tease in the NCAA. In big games, like the Beanpot, other big nonconference affairs, and NCAA games, the Crimson play well enough to fall just short. It’s maddening, especially to their fellow ECAC followers, who so desperately want to believe that Harvard can be one of the schools that carries the torch for the rest of them — the one that helps make the ECAC proud. We were all ready to believe in Dov Grumet-Morris and Brendan Bernakevitch, two guys that played like All-Americans for two periods, and looked like they could win a national championship for crying out loud. And then the Black Bears came charging and Harvard was suddenly powerless to do anything about it.

If Harvard’s intention is really to get itself back to a 1980-94 level, then it still has a long way to go. Winning ECAC tournament championships is fine, but with the rest of the league, minus Cornell, so beaten down in recent years, coming out of that league with championships is not impressive unless backed up with an NCAA win, at least every now and then.

This is not to take anything away from Harvard’s ECAC tournament accomplishments. Twice now in three years the Crimson has resurrected itself from a disappointing regular season, and played well at the right time. But Harvard wants to be a national program, not simply known as being the best of a mediocre league.

Ivy League schools, and ECAC schools in general, should be given a medal for all they have to overcome just to be somewhat competitive. When one breaks through to get to the Frozen Four, it should be a cause for celebration for anyone who still believes in the sanctity of the scholar-athlete. But framing it purely in hockey terms, Harvard is closer to where they were than to a national championship.

Putting that aside, the East final was a heckuva game. Wisconsin must be given all the credit in the world for what it accomplished. Coming off a tough overtime win the night before, the young team brushed off an early Maine goal and stuck around all night, even dominating at times. The Badgers played with no fear, and said, “Hey, if anyone told us we’d be this close to the Frozen Four, we’d take it, and we’re not going to just sit back and hope we get there. We’re going to go after it.” And they did. Two of the studs Mike Eaves brought from the national program, freshman defensemen Ryan Suter and Jeff Likens, were jumping up in the play all night, not afraid of getting burned. Guys like Robbie Earl and Adam Burish were all over the place.

This band of misfits put on quite a show in Albany. People outside of Madison may not be familiar, but if there was a Humanitarian Award for teams, Wisconsin would have to top the list. It’s a team with stories that just don’t stop.

Burish, the sophomore whirling dirvish, was playing healthy this year for the first time since his junior season of high school. In junior hockey, he broke his arm; he also had a boating accident where he broke his kneecap; he severely broke his leg in a car accident and doctors told him he’d probably not play hockey again; and then last season, he broke his collarbone and missed 19 games. (And have I mentioned he talks two miles a minute — he has a future as a FedEx pitch man.)

Bernd Bruckler plays with his father’s initials inscribed on his stick. His dad died young, from a heart attack, right after his first career WCHA win during his freshman year.

Earl lost both parents at a young age, his mom to breast cancer when he was 2, and his dad to a heart attack when he was 11. He was raised by grandparents in Los Angeles.

Dan Boeser overcame non-Hodgkins lymphoma — i.e. cancer — and underwent 20 radiation treatments. Last season, he struggled with his stamina, and then broke his wrist. And amid it all, he battled with first-year coach Mike Eaves. The two worked it out in the offseason, Boeser had a fine year, and scored the OT game winner against Ohio State last Friday. He was, in fact, a Humanitarian Award finalist, after starting a cancer awareness campaign in Madison.

How do you not root for a team like that?

But Jim Howard was back to his usual self in goal for the Black Bears last Saturday, and Maine came away with another Frozen Four appearance. And through it all, here’s Tim Whitehead, the guy who turned down an offer-he-could-refuse contract from Massachusetts-Lowell, taking Maine to the second Frozen Four in his three years at the helm. And this year’s team was expected to be rebuilding in many circles, ranked No. 13 coming into the season.

Most of the conventional wisdom surrounding Whitehead since he left Massachusetts-Lowell has pointed negative: He only got the Lowell job because he was Bruce Crowder’s assistant, and Crowder took Lowell to two NCAA tournaments and Whitehead was just riding his coattails; and then he’s out of a job and Shawn Walsh needs someone to help him out as a battles cancer, and suddenly Walsh passes away, and Whitehead is left with the team by default, and then Maine rides the emotion of Walsh’s death to the 2002 FF, and assistant Grant Standbrook kept the team together.

Well, I think we can safely say at this point that Whitehead has earned the right to his own legacy.

As for Howard, he lives to play another day and get another chance at the NCAA single-season goals against average record, thanks to his team’s comeback on Friday. Howard came into the weekend with a GAA of 1.05, compared to 1.20 by Cornell’s Dave LeNeveu last season. LeNeveu broke a 50-year old record and here it is, one season later, and someone else is one the verge of breaking that. That says a lot about scoring these days, but that’s another issue.

So here’s Cornell fans, spending weeks rooting against Howard only to see him post shutout after shutout. And now, they need him to allow five goals in a loss for their guy to keep the record, but no one was holding their breath.

And then, just like that, Howard allows four goals in just 40 minutes, and then gets pulled with his team down 4-1, and, what do you know but his GAA is now 1.22 and it looks like his season is over — and Cornell fans are thanking archrival Harvard, of all teams, for pulling it off (whom they were rooting for anyway in the annual show of ECAC solidarity). Then what happens? Harvard finds a way to smack Cornell after all, and loses the game, thus giving Howard another life to get his GAA back below 1.20.

So, as Cornell fans play with the slide rules all night, Howard winds up allowing just one goal in an overtime win to Wisconsin the next night, leaving him with a GAA of 1.2046, to LeNeveu’s 1.2023. Frozen Four still to come.

And this gets us to more talk of scoring droughts and stingy goaltenders.

There were just 23 shutouts in NCAA tournament history coming into this season, and then four in 12 games this weekend, including the first-ever regulation tie, between Ohio State and Wisconsin.

That 1-0 loss by Ohio State was the second season in a row, in a similarly-played snoozefest as well. That had everyone going to the history books to count up the Buckeyes’ scoreless drought, assuming it was the longest in NCAA tournament history. The drought goes back to their loss in the 1999 tournament, 4-1, making it stand at 136:42.

But not so fast. Suddenly, as we totaled this up, USCHO’s Jayson Moy, who also happens to be a broadcaster for Rensselaer, said that RPI hadn’t scored in the NCAA tournament since 1985. In other words, the Engineers were shut out in their two most recent appearances, both 1995 and 1994. Their last goal came in the second period of their win in the 1985 national championship game, a span of 156:11.

Ahh, but wait. Now unsure of our memories, we checked the record books and realized that, alas, Michigan State had been shut out in its last two NCAA games — the first round in 2002 and its Frozen Four loss in 2001. And the Spartans’ game against Minnesota-Duluth in the Midwest was just starting. And we sat riveted, waiting for the streak to end, and waiting … and waiting … and … And then they passed Ohio State. And then the second period came and they passed RPI. And then … the game ended. A third straight scoreless game for Michigan State, a new NCAA record 194:18 without a goal.

So the three longest streaks are all active. Michigan State’s spans two coaches — Rick Comley and Ron Mason. RPI’s spans three, Dan Fridgen, Buddy Powers and — though it’s hardly fair to include him — Mike Adessa.

Most ice at multi-purpose, heavily-used large arenas is not great. But Albany’s is considered particularly bad. The rink is warm, the zambonis flood with too much water. It got so bad Friday night, that referees delayed the start of overtime in the late game for five minutes to allow the ice some time to settle.

The next night, they imported a second zamboni from a town rink five miles up the road. Drove it down on a flatbed truck, and used both at the same time for Saturday’s regional final. Getting the ice done faster before periods allowed it more time to settle, and things were generally better.

Who knows how the ice will be next week, where thanks to the chaos of the Bruins hosting playoff games on Wednesday and Friday, there will be a lot going on. Just don’t say the word “Cincinnati” and all will be fine.

On to Boston …