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Is UND a team of destiny?

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Is this North Dakota squad a team of destiny? Will an eighth national championship banner be hanging from the rafters when we get to the Ralph next season?

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As the final “at-large” seed in the field, UND is attempting to duplicate what Yale achieved last year, and it certainly appears to me that the hockey Gods have been shining down on this program for the past week or so. Allow me to explain.

1.) The Consolation Game: Every other Division I hockey conference has done away with a consolation game in their tournaments, but for some reason, the NCHC decided to play one this season. Without the consolation game, UND would have been eliminated from the NCAA tournament by the 3-0 loss to Miami last Friday. The NCHC consolation game, against a WMU team that had nothing to play for, allowed UND to jump over Michigan into 14th in the Pairwise, putting North Dakota in position to hope for losses by UNH and Ohio State.

2.) The Wisconsin comeback: In the Big 10 tournament final, Ohio State led the whole way, and was up 4-2 with about 6 1/2 minutes to go. It looked like the green and white were finished, but Wisconsin rallied for a pair in the final minutes and beat the Buckeyes in OT, sending UND to the national tourney.

3.) The Switch: As I reported last week, the NCAA made one change to the brackets, switching UND with Vermont, moving UND from the tough East region and a date with Union, to the easier Midwest region and a date with Wisconsin. Those of you who watched the two Union games over the weekend know what I’m talking about. ESPN’s Barry Melrose repeatedly described Union as a team that had “no weakness,” and he’s right.

4.) The MacMillan Goal: Late in the third period against Wisconsin, tied 2-2, Brendan O’Donnell took a shot from the point that ricocheted off Mark MacMillan and trickled past Joel Rumpel to give UND the lead. Said MacMillan afterwards, “I saw O’Donnell get the puck on the blue line. It just went off my side and happened to go in the net. A bit of a lucky one, but obviously one we’ll take.”

5.) The Hot Goalie: Did Zane Gothberg save UND’s bacon against Ferris State? Yes. North Dakota was soundly outplayed by the team from Big Rapids, Mich., for three solid periods (second, third, 1st OT), and was outshot 36-13 over that span, but the goalie from Thief River Falls, Minn., saved the day time after time.

To me, this seems like a lot of good fortune for one week, and to its credit, North Dakota took full advantage. Will the good karma continue at the Frozen Four? We’ll get our answer on April 10, when the long standing rivalry with the Gophers takes center stage.

Last week I promised to explain how a team like UND, at 10 games over .500, could nearly miss making the national tournament. Here goes, and remember, I’m just the messenger.

1.) A weak schedule: UND ended the season with a schedule strength ranked 29 out of the 47 power conference teams (we disregard the 12 teams from Atlantic Hockey for this exercise). The non-conference portion (Boston University, St. Lawrence, Northern Michigan, Bemidji, Vermont) was particularly weak, with four of the five teams being solidly under .500. North Dakota played just 13 games against teams with winning records (7-5-1), compared with Minnesota (22, 14-5-3), Boston College (23, 15-6-2), or Union (19, 13-2-4), among others.

2) Not enough quality wins: The NCAA added a “Quality Win Bonus” to the Pairwise formula this season, and of the top 30 teams in the nation, only Ferris State’s QWB was lower.

3.) Home vs. away: North Dakota played 19 games at home and 15 on the road. Road wins were given more weighting than home wins this year, in another tweak to the Pairwise formula.

4.) Finally, a 4-4 record in the last eight almost did UND in, especially the home loss to Colorado College. If UND had dispatched Colorado College in two games instead of three, we wouldn’t even be talking about this.

Note: The changes made to the Pairwise formula were twofold. First, encourage the larger, more powerful programs, to play more road games against the smaller programs that were left behind in the recent conference realignment. Second, discourage schools from playing a weak schedule loaded up with extra home games. These are both noble goals, at least in my opinion.

Now some notes on the Regionals.

Midwest

UND vs. Wisconsin: After an even first period (1-1), the Badgers came on strong in the second, and were carrying the play until Jake McCabe made a bad pass up thru the neutral zone, which was intercepted by Rocco Grimaldi. The UND center skated in on Joel Rumpel and put a backhander by him, a goal I’m sure the Badger goalie would like to have back. That score provided the energy UND needed. The green and white had the advantage the rest of the way, despite giving up the tying goal to Tyler Barnes midway through the third. UND took the lead late in the third on the goal that hit Mark MacMillan and dribbled in, and followed that up with a pair of Grimaldi empty netters. North Dakota did a great job neutralizing Wisconsin’s many offensive threats, especially 22-goal scorer Michael Mersch. UND coach Dave Hakstol was appropriately pleased after the game, saying “Overall, I think we played a great 60 minutes. There are going to be ups and downs, no question, but our mindset was really sound tonight.”

Ferris State vs. Colgate: Goalie C.J. Motte of Ferris State made 35 saves, and a first period power play goal held up as the Bulldogs beat Colgate 1-0.

UND vs. Ferris State: UND’s forecheck gave Ferris trouble throughout the first period, and North Dakota had a territorial and shot (12-8) advantage in the scoreless first stanza. From the second period on, UND’s forecheck became ineffective, and the Bulldogs had no problem exiting their zone. Ferris State took the game over from there, outshooting UND 36-13 from the second period thru the end of the first overtime. North Dakota was hanging on for much of the final 60 minutes. Goalie Zane Gothberg stepped up after giving up a soft goal though his legs, and he kept North Dakota in the game throughout the Ferris shot barrage. Both teams were looking tired towards the end of the first OT, but UND managed to came out with some energy in the second overtime and Connor Gaarder banged in a rebound, sending UND to the Frozen Four for the 20th time.

After the game, Gaarder commented on the game winner, saying “The rebound came right to me and I kind of just slid ‘er in there.” Coach Hakstol summed it up quite well, when he said “We were put back on our heels by FSU. We came into this game with a lot of respect for them and we leave with a lot. We were fortunate enough to make a play and get the goal in overtime.”

East

Union vs. Vermont: Two goals on the power play and one shorthanded score led Union to a 5-2 domination of Vermont. Forwards Matt Hatch and Max Novak each scored twice for Union.

Quinnipiac vs. Providence: Providence goalie Jon Gillies made 37 saves, and Quinnipiac was guilty of some uncharacteristic defensive lapses, as Providence moved on to the regional final with a 4-0 win.

Union vs. Providence- Union continued to impress, with another dominant win, this one a 3-1 victory over Providence. I’ll have more on the Union Dutchmen next week in my Frozen Four preview.

Northwest

Boston College vs. Denver: Last week I said that BC’s top line of Gaudreau, Hayes, and Arnold was almost unstoppable. That line scored all six goals in a 6-2 drubbing of Denver.

U Mass-Lowell vs. Minnesota State: In a classic goaltender battle, Connor Hellebuyck (Lowell) and Cole Huggins (MSU) each faced plenty of rubber. A shorthanded goal by Lowell’s Joseph Pendenza held up until the teams traded goals in the final minutes. The 2-1 Lowell win sets up an all Hockey East final with Boston College.

Boston College vs. U Mass-Lowell: No lead was safe in this game, and every go ahead goal was quickly answered. BC broke a 3-3 tie midway through the third period, and held Lowell off for a 4-3 win and another trip to a Frozen Four. The Gaudreau line scored two more goals for Boston College.

West

Minnesota vs. Robert Morris: The tiny school from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, led by goalie Dalton Izyk, turned in a valiant effort against the mighty Gophers. The Colonials kept it close until late in the third. Nate Condon, Kyle Rau, Justin Kloos, Hudson Facshing, and Mike Reilly all scored for Minnesota in a 7-3 win.

St. Cloud State vs. Notre Dame: Much like Gothberg for UND, goalie Ryan Faragher was the star for St. Cloud in a 4-3 overtime win. The Huskies were outplayed badly, and outshot 36-12 during regulation. St. Cloud, however, dominated the overtime and Nic Dowd scored the game-winner late. The Huskies have eliminated Notre Dame two years in a row.

Minnesota vs. St. Cloud State: Minnesota’s speed proved to be too much for the Huskies. Kloos scored two more, Rau netted another, and the Gophers won handily, 4-0. Minnesota heads to Philly for another Frozen Four appearance.

UND Regional Notes

Gothberg faced 69 shots on the weekend, allowing just three goals. Two of the three were soft goals, long range wrist shots between his legs, but to his credit, he persevered and was easily the star of the regional final against Ferris State. On the scoresheet, Rocco Grimaldi (3 goals), Mark MacMillan (1 goal-2 assists), and Paul LaDue (3 assists) led the way. Nick Mattson and Michael Parks chipped in with 2 points a piece.

UND’s power play was one for eleven, and the penalty kill stopped seven of eight attempts. And an interesting note on “critical” face-offs those in the offensive and defensive zones. UND has been dominating these (56.6 percent) since the Christmas break, but oddly enough, was below .500 in both regional wins  — 19-25 vs. Wisconsin; 25-29 vs. Ferris St.

Next week, I’ll have an in-depth look at the Frozen Four match-ups, UND vs. Minnesota and Union vs. Boston College, as well as a look at North Dakota’s last two recruiting classes.

Contact Mark Schuttenhelm at marksch58@yahoo.com

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