Bulldogs valor up, now will decide who wins NCHC

John Gilbert

In the first game, Clara Van Wieren finished off scoring the only goal of UMD's 1-0 victory over St. Cloud State. Photo by John Gilbert.

UMD won’t win the NCHC title this season, but if they can pull all their loose ends together for the final six regular-season games, they may well decide who wins it.

The Bulldogs languish in seventh place after being swept 5-4 in overtime and 5-2 by Denver last weekend at AMSOIL Arena, while the top four teams in the standings are the closely bunched quartet of North Dakota (11-6-1, 37 points), St. Cloud State (10-4-4, 36), Colorado College (12-6, 33) and Denver (11-6-1, 31).

PairWise be damned, my feeling is that any of those four could win any other college conference in the country. UMD, having lost twice to powerful Denver, finishes their final four series at North Dakota, at Colorado College, and back home against St. Cloud State. How’s that for a playoff tuneup?

The Friday night game might have been the most entertaining and exciting games of the season, and if the Bulldogs didn’t have their torturous loose ends together, they pulled them together in that wild finish with two goals after pulling goaltender Zach Stejskal to tie the game 4-4 — only to fall on a goal by Aidan Thompson at 1:47 of the 3-on-3 overtime. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, all within about four minutes of elapsed time.

No, the loose ends came Saturday night, after another, similar rally seemed to lift the Bulldogs from a horrible 3-goal deficit fashioned in a shaky first seven minutes, to self-destructing when two of their promising scorers — Ben Steeves and Anthony Menghini — wound up sharing penalty box time for misconduct penalties through the final minutes to eliminate any chance of continuing the rally. It was, in a word, embarrassing.

That, after an embarrassing start of three goals on five shots that caused coach Scott Sandelin to pull Stejskal and send in Matthew Thiessen.

“And you know what the most embarrassing thing was?” asked Sandelin. “That stuff at the end. Having two guys sitting there for mouthing off. It’s frustrating, and I get it, but I’m sorry, if they don’t learn it’s not going to bode well for us. You don’t disrespect the team.”

And with that, Sandelin stalked away from the podium. Press conference over.

In the first game, fans could understand why Denver was the preseason pick to win the NCHC, just as it was difficult to understand how the big, potent Pioneers could be in fifth place at the moment. It was a scoreless battle at the start, but Denver got a goal from Aidan Thompson at 13:05, and Tristan Bros converted a pass to score from deep on the right at 15:48 for a 2-0 lead.

The period ended with Denver’s captain, McCade Webster, jousting with some degree of hostility with a couple of UMD defensemen. Surprisingly, no penalties were called for what appeared to be a dozen cross-checks. But after the whistle, Denver coach David Carle had a long discussion with the officials at the Denver bench, and he apparently convinced the refs to review the whole mess. After a lengthy review, they called UMD defenseman Luke Bast for two minutes for cross checking and five minutes for slashing — plus a game misconduct. And Webster got nothing!

The Bulldogs killed the seven-minute power play, and then Aidan Dubinsky scored at 7:37 of the second period to cut the deficit to 2-1. Webster finally was penalized at 13:39 and Quinn Olson tied it with a power-play goal at 15:06. Carter King regained the lead for Denver at 3-2 when Aaron Pionk made a spectacular diving effort to swat the puck free but inadvertently sent it across the slot where King knocked it in at 17:50.

Webster, of all people, scored on a rebound midway through the third period, making it 4-2, and the Bulldogs had every reason to be demoralized. But their determined effort gained a spark when Sandelin pulled Stejskal for a sixth skater with nearly three minutes to go. Aaron Pionk converted a slick pass from Owen Gallatin with 2:19 remaining, and captain Luke Loheit tied the game 4-4 with 1:45 left, on Gallatin’s fourth assist of the game.

But in the overtime, five minutes of 3-on-3, the Pioneers executed better, and Aidan Thompson  circled to get free and beat Stejskal on a breakaway after 1:47. A deflating finish, but one that couldn’t diminish the excitement of the finishing rally.

On Saturday night, however, UMD’s fire was extinguished early when Zeve Buium scored on the first shot of the first shift, at 0:31, and Connor Coupon shoveled in a backhander at 5:25. Jared Wright got loose on the right boards and flew in to score short-side on the breakaway for a 3-0 lead at 6:39. Shots were 5-5, but the score was 3-0 Denver, and the crowd was silent. Thiessen was sent in to tend goal, and he was sharp immediately, and made saves on all eight shots the rest of the first period.

In the second period, Steeves, playing a much more enthusiastic game, scored on a power play at 0:33, his 22nd goal of a remarkable sophomore season. Matthew Perkins scored with a deadly shot at 8:18, his fifth of the year, and it was suddenly 3-2. But Sam Harris boosted Denver back to a two-goal lead by falling on a power play.

Sandelin juggled wingers on his top two lines, moving senior Blake Biondi up with Loheit and Olson, and shifting Steeves to right wing with Perkins and Connor McMenamin, and both lines got more involved. But at 8:15 of the third period, Harris scored his second in a row for Denver to make it 5-2 and the air went out of the balloon.

At 9:57, it got worse. That’s when Anthony Menghini, who has scored seven goals as a freshman, was called for checking from behind. Menghini said something to the ref, and was given a 10-minute misconduct, too. Sandelin sent Steeves over to serve the minor, and it ended just as a whistle blew. Steeves skated out and, as he passed the ref, he made a comment. Bang! He also was awarded a 10-minute misconduct, with eight minutes to go.

Losing the chance to make one last bid to win was too much for Sandelin, and while he has defended his players all season, he blew up this time, although the three-person media contingent was possibly the least effective audience he might have found.

Now, the Bulldogs get to go to Grand Forks, where North Dakota, having just lost in 7-1 and 6-2 shellackings against Colorado College, will not be in a very hospitable mood. Meanwhile, on the women’s front, UMD had a more beneficial answer to the women’s WCHA run to the playoffs.

Needing three points to clinch home ice for the first round, the Bulldogs edged St. Cloud State 1-0 on Clara Van Wieren’s goal at 4:33 of the third period, and goalie Hailey MacLeod held on for the victory by that score. Playing as afternoon preliminaries to the UMD men, the Bulldogs played another amazingly low-scoring battle with St. Cloud on Saturday, this time going 0-0 through all three periods and overtime, and sending the game to a shootout to be decided.

Goalies Jojo Chobak of the Huskies and freshman Eve Gascon of UMD had been brilliant througbout, but when the shootout started, everybody scored!  Hanna Baskin scored for UMD; Emma Gentry scored for the Huskies. Van Wieren scored for UMD; Laura Zimmermann matched it for St. Cloud. Then Olivia Wallin skated in but was stopped by Chobak, putting all the pressure on Finnish freshman Sofianna Sundelin, who scored on Gascon and gave the extra point to the Huskies.

More importantly, the Bulldogs will play at Minnesota this weekend, after which UMD and St, Cloud will reconvene at AMSOIL Arena next weekend for the first round of the best-of-three WCHA playoffs.

And the Huskies, after very impressive performances in both games of last weekend’s series, will not be bothered by not having home ice. Speaking of home ice, the Minnesota Wild played a 1 p.m. President’s Day matinee at Excel Energy Center against Vancouver, and after falling behind by 5-2, the Wild got on a power-play roll and scored six consecutive goals, beating the Canucks 10-7 as Joel Erickson-Ek and Kirill Kaprizov both got hat tricks. Not a bad sendoff for a tough Western road trip.