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Tough ending to swallow

Well, that was a tough one to take. I’ll be honest ... I’m no fan of those Gophers. Which is not to say that I won’t give Minnesota or coach Lucia credit if I think they deserve it, because I do and will continue to.

But that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it. In spite of that devastating, last half-second loss, we can hold our heads high. UND had to play its best game to match Minnesota, and did exactly that. But UND didn’t just match Minnesota, the boys in kelly green and white outplayed them. I’ve watched about 35 Gopher games this season, and with the exception of small stretches of game time, they’ve not been outplayed all that often this season.

But that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it. In spite of that devastating, last half-second loss, we can hold our heads up high. UND had to play its best game to match Minnesota, and did exactly that. I’ve watched about 35 Gopher games this season, and with the exception of small stretches of game time, Minnesota has not been outplayed very much at all.

Dillon Simpson’s final game for North Dakota was one for the ages. He was huge, and I’m not just talking about the two back door plays he broke up. He also blocked two shots, played a ton of minutes, and assisted on Connor Gaarder’s game-tying goal. Drake Caggiula, Michael Parks, and Rocco Grimaldi all peppered Adam Wilcox with rubber. And of course, unlikely hero Gaarder scored yet another huge goal. Both goalies were great. The only glaring error was made by Wilcox, when he left his post on the Gaarder goal.

On the other end, you have to give credit to Kyle Rau. He was involved in both Gopher goals, won 13 of his 18 face-offs (including the face-off that lead to the game winning rush), and had five shots on goal. The Gophers blocked an impressive 30 shots. And give Minnesota credit for pushing the puck up the ice after surviving that UND power play. Many teams would’ve simply dumped the puck to the neutral zone and headed into the locker room for overtime.

Afterwards, coach Dave Hakstol described his team’s effort succinctly. “We left everything out there.”

Union Wins National Title

2000 students, 0 scholarships, 1 NHL draft pick — Union College of Schenectady, New York. The underdog (and ECAC Hockey) wins another national championship.

How about a few more numbers?

Union finishes up the season at 32-6-4, and is 80-27-16 in three years under coach Rick Bennett. The Dutchmen end the season on a 17-game unbeaten streak. Since Bennett took the reins at Union, his team is 22-2 in March and April, with two Frozen Four appearances and one national championship. At mid-season, I said Bennett was building a hockey powerhouse in central New York, and I wasn’t kidding.

How about the game itself? A 7-4 barn burner. An incredible 89 shots on goal. An unbelievable performance by Shayne Gostisbehere, who was on the ice for all seven of Union’s goals, and none of Minnesota’s. The Flyer draft pick registered a staggering plus-7 rating for the game. All in all, a great end to another college hockey season. Early this week, Gostisbehere signed with the Flyers, forgoing his senior year at Union.

Heart, Work Ethic, Skill Set — Is it Enough?

This year’s Frozen Four featured three talented players whose lack of size may hinder their chances of taking a regular shift in the NHL. I’m referring to Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College, Rocco Grimaldi of UND, and Kyle Rau of Minnesota. All three happen to stand about 5-feet, 8-inches or less. It’s no secret that NHL scouts and GM’s have an affinity for big players, but there’s also no question that the league has been friendlier to smaller players since it clamped down on clutching and grabbing about eight years ago.

Still, the fact remains ... there are only 13 players under 5-8 skating in the NHL right now, and that’s not a big number. Perhaps the most well-known player of this group is Martin St. Louis of the New York Rangers. St. Louis has scored almost a point per game in a 14-year pro career, but back in the mid-90’s he was undrafted and putting up some monster numbers at the University of Vermont. I’m talking 267 points in 139 games, almost two points per game over a span of 4 years.

Of the three players I mention, only Gaudreau comes close in terms of point production. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman credited St. Louis’ desire to succeed as being his primary attribute. Gaudreau just turned pro after the Frozen Four, signing with the Calgary Flames. Rau and Grimaldi are NHL draft picks, hard-workers, highly skilled, and great in the face-off circle. Will any of these fine players make it to the big time and stick? We’ll have to wait and see.

Corban Knight — Not                 Just Doing it on the Ice

Since I last mentioned Knight, the former UND center was sent back down to the Abbotsford Heat of the AHL by the Calgary Flames. This was not unexpected, as a rash of injuries played a part in Knight’s call up to the Flames. Recently, Knight was named the Heat’s “Man of the Year.” This is an award given to players on each AHL team, saluting their contributions to the community. Of course, this comes as no surprise to folks that know the young man. Knight is now in the running for the league’s (AHL) “Man of the Year” award. Good luck, Corban, well done.

Early Departures of Note

Besides Gaudreau, some other notable players turned pro early after the season. That list includes freshman D-man Gustav Olofsson of Colorado College; goalie Connor Hellebuyck and forward Scott Wilson of U Mass-Lowell; forwards Phil DiGiuseppe and Alex Guptill of Michigan; forward Caleb Herbert of Minnesota-Duluth; forward Josh Archibald and D-man Jaycob Megna of Nebraska-Omaha; D-man Trevor van Riemsdyk of UNH; forward Ryan Dzingel of Ohio State; forward Ryan Haggerty of RPI; forward Matt Carey of St. Lawrence; D-man Jordan Oesterle of WMU; forward Nic Kerdiles and D-man Jake McCabe of Wisconsin. The Badgers also lost seniors Tyler Barnes, Michael Mersch, Frankie Simonelli, and Mark Zengerle, so coach Mike Eaves has the unenviable task of attempting to replace all that talent.

Notable Non-Departures

And a few players were rumored to be as good as gone, but wound up staying in college. Miami forwards Riley Barber, Austin Czarnik, and Blake Coleman lead this list, along with Providence goalie Jon Gillies.

UND Season Review

Once again, a North Dakota hockey team came on strong over the second half, going 16-7-1 since the Christmas break, and 21-7-1 since that famous player’s only meeting that followed the Nov.  29 home loss to St. Lawrence.

Everything, with the exception of the power play, improved over the second half.

Team offense improved from 2.78 goals per game to a season ending 3.02 GPG, thanks to a much improved (3.21 GPG) second half. At the halfway point, UND was allowing 2.89 GPG, a number that I said needed to come down by about a half a goal per game. A very stingy second half (2.08 GPG) did bring the number down by almost half a goal, to 2.43 GPG for the season.

The penalty kill held steady, finishing the season at 83.4 percent (21st in the nation). The power play, 20.5 percent at the Christmas break, tailed off over the second half, ending up the season at just 17.2 percent (ranked 32nd). Face-off percentage also improved, from .505 at the halfway point to a season ending .523.

UND centers won an impressive 54.2 percent of those “critical” face offs (draws in the defensive and offensive zones) over the second half. Interestingly, that number suffered a precipitous decline at the NCAA tournament (43.1 percent), as UND was below .500 in all three games.

Much like last season, the second period was UND’s best, with a goal differential of plus-18. Also similar to last season, the third period goal differential was a less than stellar minus-1. In spite of the strong second halves, the month of March has not been friendly to UND over the last two seasons (6-5 this year, 5-4-1 last year, 11-9-1 combined). Compare those numbers with the previous three seasons, when UND was 23-3 in the month of March.

Individually, Rocco Grimaldi led the way on the scoresheet (17 goals-22 assists—39 points in 42 games). Grimaldi scored three shorties, three on the power play, and three game-winners. He led UND forwards with a plus-13 rating, and won 58 percent of his face offs. Those are Corban Knight-like numbers, folks.

Fourteen players wound up scoring in double figures, a testament to UND’s balanced scoring. Dillon Simpson led the nation with 109 blocked shots, and Jordan Schmaltz had 62. Freshmen Paul LaDue (plus-15) and Keaton Thompson (plus-14) led UND defensemen in the plus/minus department. Zane Gothberg had a breakout year in goal (20-10-3, 1.99 GAA, .926 save percentage, three shutouts).

What about the future? For a variety of reasons, I think UND can be a dominant team next season. Zane Gothberg has become a legitimate No. 1 goalie. He could, and should, join the ranks of the elite goalies in the country next season.

This season, coach Hakstol had to feed three or four freshmen defenseman (Paul LaDue, Troy Stetcher, Keaton Thompson, Gage Ausmus) to the wolves, and they survived, even thrived. This bodes well for next season. Of course, Dillon Simpson will be sorely missed. The guy is a great defenseman and an absolute workhorse back there, but Nick Mattson and Jordan Schmaltz will do a fine job anchoring the blue line.

The aforementioned group of freshmen will have another year under their belts, and two recruits from the USHL will join the D-corps. Clearly, this looks to be a strength of the team next season.

On the front end, Mark MacMillan, Michael Parks, Drake Caggiula, and Luke Johnson are all poised to join Grimaldi as big time offensive producers next year.

If two or three players in that group do step up, it’ll take a lot of pressure off of Grimaldi’s shoulders, and I think that will improve his game also. Mix in three highly talented recruits in Nick Schmaltz, Trevor Olson, and John Simonson, and scoring goals should not be an issue.

My expectations are that UND will be a top five team when the preseason poll comes out in October. Speaking of October, I shall return then with a look at UND’s new recruits.

Contact Sun sports                         contributor Mark                           Schuttenhelm at