...Now It’s Hockey’s Tournament Turn

John Gilbert

If North Dakota wins this week’s NCAA hockey title, NCHC-leading goaltender Cam Johnson will be a major factor. Photo Credit: John Gilbert
If North Dakota wins this week’s NCAA hockey title, NCHC-leading goaltender Cam Johnson will be a major factor. Photo Credit: John Gilbert

Abandoning all efforts to avoid an East-East and West-West match-ups in the semifinals, the NCAA Hockey Tournament committee has assured us that we’ll definitely have an East-vs.-West championship game Saturday.
The Frozen Four convenes in Tampa this week, and the tournament itself is something of a living testimony to the validity of the PairWise computer ranking of teams. Four of the top six in the regular-season’s final ranking made it through the four regionals to reach the Frozen Four, with No. 1 Quinnipiac, No. 3 North Dakota, No. 5 Boston College, and No. 6 Denver are the four finalists. But it’s anybody’s guess which two will survive what promises to be high-skilled and high-speed semifinals on Thursday.
Those of us in the West, certain that the National Collegiate Hockey Conference is the strongest in college hockey, can take pride that North Dakota and Denver give the NCHC two of the four finalists. At the same time, we can also be disappointed that they face off against each other in Thursday night’s second semifinal.
Top-seeded Quinnipiac faces Boston College in the 4 p.m. first semifinal in a game that may surprise the uninitiated. Quinnipiac is a team that only recently has emerged as an elite college puck program. If winning the ECAC wasn’t enough, powering to the East Regional championship was certainly convincing, with a 4-1 championship game victory over streaking Massachusetts-Lowell sending the Bobcats on to Tampa with a stunning 31-3-7 record.
Boston College, bristling with speed and manpower, has a 28-7-5 record and the Eagles held off rallying UMD 3-2 in the Northeast Region final but hardly need to prove their pedigree at national tournament time.
As the ratings might suggest, the clearcut advantage the West used to enjoy has been replaced by nationwide parity, and while the head-on matchup between Quinnipiac and BC will be a collision of hockey titans, the second game should captivate Western zealots.
North Dakota swept Denver in Denver early in the season, then Denver came to Grand Forks and returned the favor, sweeping the Fighting Hawks in Grand Forks. That left the teams 2-2 against each other, so when they came ot Target Center in Minneapolis for the NCHC’s Frozen Faceoff, UMD surprised North Dakota 4-2, and Denver was beaten by St. Cloud State – the NCHC’s top seed and national No. 2 ranked outfit.
That put the two highly ranked NCHC powers into a third-place battle, and they fought to a 1-1 tie at Target Center. Makes for a nice touch, because with that tie, North Dakota and Denver are 2-2-1 against each other, and can settle that, along with a spot in the NCAA final, when they meet in the tournament’s second semifinal.
To get there, both romped through their NCAA regionals. Denver was sent to St. Paul, where St. Cloud was No. 1 seed, but the Huskies were ambushed by a stunning late rally by Ferris State, which scored twice in the closing seconds to tie the game, then eliminated St. Cloud State in overtime. Denver didn’t flinch. Having a shock of their own in eliminating Boston University 7-2 in the semifinals of the West Regional, the Pioneers proved they were clearly on top of their game in whipping Ferris State 6-3 in a game that wasn’t that close.
Denver takes a 25-9-6 record to Tampa, and will be led by the “Pacific Rim” line that consiss of Dylan Gambrell from Bonney Lake, Wash., centering Trevor Moore of Thousand Oaks, Calif., and Danton Heinen of Langley, British Columbia.
North Dakota (32-6-4) is giving first-year coach Brad Berry a challenge in trying to find the combination to lift the Fighting Hawks to championship status by breaking the mold of perennial challenger that seems to prevail in Grand Forks. North Dakota was the No. 1 seed in Cincinnati’s Midwest Regional, and the Fighting Hawks deflated the late-season sizzle of Northeastern in a 6-2 semifinal, before coasting to a 5-2 victory over Michigan in the final, after racing to a big first-period lead.
North Dakota broadcasts its intentions via its “CBS” line, with Drake Caggiula on left wing, Brock Boeser on the right, and Nick Schmaltz at center. Schmaltz has over 30 assists and his wingers both have over 20 goals to set up a potentially explosive match of top lines at Tampa. North Dakota’s Cam Johnson has 22 victories in goal, with glowing statistics of a goals-against average near 1.50 and a save percentage of nearly .940.
All four teams at the Frozen Four have outstanding goalies, of course. And while Quinnipiac is ranked No. 1, North Dakota was No. 1 until its loss to UMD in the league semifinal dropped the Fighting Hawks to No. 3. Berry, however, would be first to tell you that the only ranking he’s interested in is the No. 1 that’s available Saturday night.

BACKING IN

The Minnesota Wild have made the NHL Western Conference playoffs, but it wasn’t easy. The Wild play their final regular-season game Saturday night at Xcel Center, but they’ve given new definition to the term “backing in.”
The Wild got hot at the right time, pulling away from Colorado with a 6-game winning streak – their longest of a strange, roller-coaster season – providing a 5-point lead with five games remaining. It seemed impossible to blow that lead, but the Wild immediately attempted that task.
Losing 3-2 at home against Ottawa, the Wild then went to Detroit and lost 3-2 again – this time dropping behind 3-0 and rallying furiously to lose just barely. Those two losses could have cost the Wild the eighth and final playoff berth, but fortunately Colorado also was losing.
Going to Winnipeg, the Wild played one of their poorest games of the season and got blitzed 5-1 by the Jets. That was their third straight loss, and a victory would have clinched the playoff spot. Tuesday night, the Wild came home and got snuffed 3-0 by San Jose for their fourth straight loss.
Incredibly, while losing that embarrassing 3-0 shutout to the Sharks, Colorado lost 4-3 at Nashville, guaranteeing that the Avalanche could not catch the Wild for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The offense has hit a roadblock, the defense is suddenly having trouble giving Devan Dubnyk any protection, and the whole Wild team seems to be out...of...gas. Maybe the Wild can snap everything back into focus Saturday in their season finale against Calgary. Otherwise, the relief at making the playoffs might be a brief one, because the Wild undoubtedly will be playing as the eighth seed against top-seeded Dallas.
Interim coach John Torchetti came on TV after the loss to San Jose and somewhat angrily responded to media questions about “backing in” to the playoffs. “I’m tired of all this talk about backing in,” Torchetti said. “We’ve gone 16-10-1, how can anyone say we’re backing in?”
Well, John, it’s because there was a 3-game losing streak before the wonderful 6-game winning streak, which was followed by the current 4-game losing streak. So if the Wild is currently 16-10-1 in their last 27 games, they also are 6-7 in their final 13 – and 0-4 in their last four.