Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Around the WCHA in 140 days

When I embarked on this radio gig for the first time, I didn't know what to expect. The WCHA, to me, means "great hockey". Having followed the league as a fan for so many years, it was an absolute priviledge to get a chance to cover the league and see all the different cities and arenas the WCHA has to offer.

We started with a trip to Houghton, Michigan, on October 28, and the journey finished in St. Paul at the XCel Energy Center on March 16 for the WCHA Final Five. Here is a list of the cities that I had a chance to visit, many for the first time.

Houghton, MI - October 28-29
Anchorage, AK - November 16-20
Mankato, MN - December 2-3
Colorado Springs, CO - December 8-11
Bonita Springs/Fort Myers/Estero, FL - December 25-30
St. Cloud, MN - January 20-21
Grand Forks, ND - February 17-18
Minneapolis, MN - March 3-4
Denver, CO - March 9-13
St. Paul, MN - March 16-17

Since I was on my first tour of duty, I took a few notes. Nothing special, but enough to look back and put together rankings of the cities and arenas I visited. Remember that everyone's experiences are different and, therefore, your mileage may greatly vary.

We'll start with the cities. Since our stays are usually short and I try to get as much rest as I can while I am traveling, my ratings of the cities are often centered around the quality of the hotel we stayed at. Where the stays were longer in duration, other things (i.e. quality of sightseeing)were taken into account.

There are three scores for each city. "Amenities" centers around the hotel itself. Was it comfortable? Were there enough channels on the TV to keep me interested? Did I have a nice view of something, or was I staring at a parking lot or a pool? Was room service any good? Etc...

"Convenience" is, simply, the proximity of the hotel to the arena and to restaurants. You gotta eat while on the road, and I don't like having to drive 20 minutes to find good food.

"Scenery" is what it says it is, and then some. Was the city fun to visit?

We'll go in chronological order, starting in October. All scores are based on a scale from 1-5, with 5 being the best and 1 the worst. I tried really hard to avoid handing out "1"s.

Amenities--> We stayed at the Best Western Franklin Square Inn. Clean room that smelled pretty good, but the bed was like a rock, especially compared to other hotels on the circuit. Didn't have much of a view, but the TV channel selection was among the best. That's good, because there wasn't much else to do there. Score: 3

Conveniece--> The rink was about a 5-8 minute drive away. Houghton is laid out strangely, but that's not much unlike Duluth. I got around okay. It wouldn't have hurt to have a few more quality restaurants to choose from in the general area. I don't remember anything standing out within walking distance from the hotel. Score: 3

Scenery--> Contrary to widely-held belief, Houghton is a cool little town. There aren't any great sights, but it's not a rat-infested smog-hole, either. Very reminiscent of Duluth in a lot of ways, including the overall character of the city. Score: 4
Total score: 10

Anchorage, AK
Amenities--> Stayed at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage. Top-notch. Great service, comfortable room, very spacious. Could have used more options on the TV, but the movie channels were great on the Thursday we were up there, as I ended up in bed by around 5pm AT while my body adjusted to the time difference. Score: 5

Convenience--> Was traveling with the team on this long trip, so I rode to the rink on the bus. The bus driver was annoying, and the rink was far, far away - about a 15-minute ride that felt like it took forever. There were only a couple eating establishments within walking distance from the hotel, and I took full advantage of them. Score: 2

Scenery--> While it was too cloudy to ever catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley, my niece and her family treated me to a couple of great trips around Anchorage. The second, on the Saturday we were there, took us along the Seward Highway to catch some of the mountains and glaciers outside of town. It was a great experience. The pizza joint in Girdwood was fantastic, too. Score: 5
Total score: 12

Mankato, MN
Amenties--> Stayed at the Holiday Inn adjacent to the Midwest Wireless Civic Center. It was reasonably comfortable, with as good a channel lineup as I found anywhere. My only complaint is that my room was right on the pool. I don't have a problem with pools, but the chlorine smell almost knocked me out every time I walked into the room. Score: 2

Convenience--> Bonus points for being within walking distance of the arena. However, there wasn't much for eating establishments anywhere around the hotel, and with how much it snowed on the Saturday we were there, it proved to be a pain trying to find places to eat. Score: 3

Scenery--> I've been in Mankato in the summer, and I've been in Mankato in the winter. I'd much rather visit in the summer if I can control it. It's just a better-looking city in the summer. (Some cities are like that...others, like Duluth, are great no matter the time of year that you're there). Either way, there isn't a whole lot to see in Mankato. Score: 2
Total score: 7

Colorado Springs, CO
Amenities--> The Doubletree in Colorado Springs was among the top hotels on the list this season. Kind people, comfortable rooms, quality service, plenty of space to put your feet up. Of minor annoyance were the two fire alarms that went off during the day Thursday. They didn't make us evacuate, but the noise was deafening. Score: 4

Convenience--> Again, we're within walking distance of the rink. Great. Also great was the selection of eating establishments within walking distance, and if I had forgotten anything important, there was a Target there, too. Score: 4

Scenery--> Spent Saturday traveling up Pikes Peak. Seriously, can you beat that? Well, as I found out a couple weeks later, you probably can. Score: 4
Total score: 12

Bonita Springs/Fort Myers/Estero, FL
Amenities--> Stayed at the Staybridge Suites in Bonita Springs. All I can say is "Wow". If you're ever lucky enough to get to visit this area, whether it be for a hockey tournament or just because, look this place up. Huge beds, two TVs, huge bathroom area, refrigerator, microwave, dishwasher, counter space. Based on how I was treated, they really wanted me to move in, but I resisted. Score: 5

Convenience--> While it was a pretty good drive away from the arena, I'm not going to dock the score a whole lot. There was plenty to do around the hotel, and I found a way to get around (freeloading off former colleague and good friend Chris Long was a smart move). Plus, I was in Florida in late December. How the hell can I possibly complain about that? Score: 4

Scenery--> Spent a few hours at the beach along the Gulf of Mexico. Saw a pelican hanging out on the dock. Watched a sheriff's deputy in a speedboat pull over two people on jet skis. Ate at a beachside restaurant. Saw palm trees the day after Christmas while walking around in shorts and sandles. Yeah, it was good. Special thanks to Long for Driving Mr. Dizzy for a couple days. It was a blast. Score: 5
Total score: 14

St. Cloud, MN
Amenities--> Hung out at the Best Western Kelly Inn. Nothing special, but nothing bad, either. My lasting memory was catching Bob Uecker on Leno the Friday night we were there. Possibly the hardest I've laughed in a long time, and it was for about 15 minutes straight. Score: 4

Convenience--> Easy drive to and from the rink. Plenty of places to eat in the general area. Traffic getting out on Saturday was a bit of an adventure, but St. Cloud is pretty easy to get around. No major issues. Score: 3

Scenery--> No offense, but it's St. Cloud. Not much to do or see there. The river looked nice, but that's about it. Score: 2
Total score: 9

Grand Forks, ND
Amenities--> We were at the Holiday Inn. This trip was hurt appreciably by the bone-chilling cold weather that greeted us, but I didn't let that stop me from enjoying myself. The room was nice. Beds could have been a bit more comfortable, but I don't have any other complaints. Score: 3

Convenience--> The station vehicle really needs a remote starter. That thing got cold. The hotel was a short drive away from the rink, and I didn't have any issues finding places to eat or kill time. Score: 4

Scenery--> It's Grand Forks. It's February. It's -30. I'll give them a "3" because I didn't bother to try getting out to see or do anything. Score: 3
Total score: 10

Minneapolis, MN
Amenities--> Radisson University Inn was the worst hotel we stayed at this year. I didn't like the bed. I didn't like how the room was laid out. I didn't like the room service (good food, but bad service). I didn't like the people. Just not a great experience. Score: 2

Convenience--> Another hotel within walking distance of the rink. Williams Arena and the U Aquatic Center were also nearby. Also plenty to see, do, and eat around the rink. Score: 4

Scenery--> Close enough to downtown Minneapolis that there wasn't much in the way of scenery. My wife was down for this trip, and I took her to the Mall of America and IKEA on Saturday. She hated IKEA, like I did. I felt like I was a lab rat trying to run through a maze in that place. Score: 2
Total score: 8

Denver, CO
Amenities--> Stayed at the Four Points Sheraton Tech Center. Nice hotel. BIG hotel. Good food. Good service. Friendly people. Comfortable room. Score: 4

Convenience--> Not close to the arena, but not that far. Helluva ride from the airport, but that was okay. I'd rather be close to the rink than the airport. Not many places to eat around the hotel. Score: 3

Scenery--> It was fun driving by the new Mile High Stadium and the Pepsi Center. I should have found a way to get inside one or the other while I was there. Score: 3
Total score: 10

St. Paul, MN
Amenities--> Another big hotel - Crowne Plaza. It was tough to get a parking spot, but everyone was nice. The lady at the front desk even told me the easiest way to get to the XCel Energy Center (one person said I should take the skyway, but the other lady made it clear that it was closer - though it was also colder - to walk down Kellogg Blvd). Score: 3

Convenience--> Just a short walk to the rink. Didn't stay long enough to sample any of the nearby eating establishments. Score: 4

Scenery--> Had a really nice view of the Mississippi River from my window. I didn't stay long enough to check out much else, though I'm sure I wouldn't have been impressed, as I've seen it all in St. Paul before. Score: 3
Total score: 10

Now we'll move on to the arenas. The scores are listed in order for each rink. The first score is "press facilities". Since it's where I spend most of my time at the rink, they better be good. Second score is for "comfort and convenience". Are the fans comfortable? Is everything so spread out that it takes forever to get from one area of the arena to another? The final score is "atmosphere". That one should speak for itself. Things like "students on break" or "weather" are not factored into consideration.

Macinnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton--> Great character, much like the town. Easy to get around, with one of the most underrated press boxes in the WCHA. Scores: 4-4-3--10

Sullivan Arena, Anchorage--> Not much atmosphere, as the crowds were pretty small and didn't include many students. No press box, and the setup for the TV and radio people is atrocious. One plus: The rink is very easy to get around. Scores: 1-3-2--6

Midwest Wireless Civic Center, Mankato--> Atmosphere was lacking, except for a large and vocal group of UMD fans on the opposite side of the rink from us. Press box again missing, this time because they decided to make what was to be the press box into an extra suite when they built the place. The setup for media in Mankato was primitive, but it was easier to get around than Anchorage. Had issues getting let in the arena on Friday night because the media passes weren't where they were supposed to be, but I have no major issues. Scores: 3-2-3--8

World Arena, Colorado Springs--> Very nice building. Elevator was slow, but at least it was there and it worked. The people were magnificent, and the arena was very easy to get around. It was a bit of a walk through the ice-level areas to get to the visitors' locker room area. Also, the atmosphere was lacking a bit in the building. Not much noise to be had unless CC scored. Scores: 5-3-2--10

Germain Arena, Estero--> Not bad. Didn't have a ton of atmosphere because the crowds weren't very big, but it was easy to get around with a pretty nice press box. Scores: 4-4-2--10

National Hockey Center, St. Cloud--> I had never been there for a SCSU game before (only to a Division III game and some youth tournaments). I was really missing out. Great atmosphere. Boorish fans in some cases, but a great atmosphere for hockey. Rare modern building in that it wasn't just loud when St. Cloud scored. Easy building to get around with somewhat primitive press accomodations, but a fun place to watch a hockey game. Scores: 3-4-5--12

Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks--> What can I say that hasn't already been said? Unbelieveable building. Easy to get around, with a very nice press box. Great sightlines. Not much atmosphere unless UND scored, which is too bad, because atmosphere was a hallmark of the old Ralph. Scores: 5-4-3--12

Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis--> Anyone who says this place isn't cooler than the Ralph is kidding themselves. Much more atmosphere, and a building that is just as easy to get around and just as comfortable for the fans and media. I loved being able to get to Mariucci for the first time. I can see why so many people think so highly of that building. Scores: 5-4-4--13

Magness Arena, Denver--> Nice building. Good layout, though the press box is a bit screwy (low to the ground with very narrow "desk" space). I liked the place, and it was very easy to get around. But the atmosphere was very poor. The fans who did show up didn't appear too terribly interested in the games, even when Denver was doing well. Scores: 4-4-2--10

XCel Energy Center, St. Paul--> It's really not a fair fight. I could nitpick and say it was a long walk from the elevators to the locker rooms, but it would be nothing but nitpicking. Amazing facility. The atmosphere lacked a bit, but it doesn't take away from the quality of the overall experience. Scores: 5-5-4--14

Sunday, March 19, 2006

College hockey's Big Dance

I think my favorite rambling in the college hockey world as the NCAA Division I pairings were prepared for release today is how Denver somehow got screwed because they finished second in the WCHA and were denied a bid to the Dance.

Unfortunately for the Pioneers and their supporters, the exceptionally fair and equitable system the NCAA has in place didn't forget about DU's holiday tournament loss at home to Princeton. The system also didn't forget DU's overall record of 4-7 in non-conference games, and it didn't forget Denver losing two out of three at home to ninth-place UMD in the WCHA opening round. For DU's outgoing players (I'd say "seniors", but I'm under the impression that junior D Matt Carle will also be leaving), that's a bitter pill to swallow. In essence, three home losses ruined their season, and the last one, a 5-2 loss last Sunday, ended their season.

On one hand, I feel bad for the Pioneers, a classy outfit for the most part. I feel bad for those who follow the program, as DU's fans are among the classiest and most knowledgeable in the WCHA. I feel bad for head coach George Gwozdecky, a good man and a very good coach. But on the other hand, I don't feel bad. The players knew what they had to do last weekend and they didn't get it done. They didn't want it as badly as UMD did in any of the three games, and only some questionable officiating and two very fortunate bounces kept the Pioneers alive for a third game.

Denver fans have a lot to be proud of, with two straight national championships and seven total. And they've handled themselves well this week (most of the pro-Denver whining I've heard has come from people who aren't Denver fans). If they keep supporting the program, they'll see the Pios return to the Dance, probably around 365 days from now. And if Carle somehow decides to come back, they might begin the season as the favorite.

Anyway, the field is set, and it looks like this:

Midwest Regional (Green Bay)
1 Wisconsin vs. 16 Bemidji State
8 Cornell vs. 9 Colorado College

East Regional (Albany)
4 Michigan State vs. 13 New Hampshire
5 Harvard vs. 12 Maine

Northeast Regional (Worcester)
3 Boston U. vs. 14 Nebraska-Omaha
6 Miami vs. 11 Boston College

West Regional (Grand Forks)
2 Minnesota vs. 15 Holy Cross
7 North Dakota vs. 10 Michigan

The West and East regionals are Saturday/Sunday, while the Northeast and West are Friday/Saturday.

Here are some first-glance predictions, which are often more effective than what are produced after painstaking research and actual thinking are done:

Wisconsin vs Bemidji State--> BSU has some spunk, as seen last year against Denver, but they don't have the depth or goaltending to match Bucky. Wisconsin, 5-2

Cornell vs Colorado College--> Cornell has a tough, defensive style with a quality goaltender in McKee. I think their big defensemen will keep CC's smaller forwards away from the slot area, and Cornell will find a garbage goal to hold on. Cornell, 2-1

Michigan State vs New Hampshire--> UNH will be out to atone for Friday's humiliating 9-2 loss to Boston U in the Hockey East semifinals. But they'll find a team in MSU that's too hot and too strong. Michigan State, 4-1

Harvard vs Maine--> Maine has played better since a trip to Florida where they must have left their game at home. However, I think Harvard's speed up front will cause Maine too many problems on Saturday. Harvard, 4-3

Boston University vs Nebraska-Omaha--> For those who haven't seen UNO's Scott Parse play, here's your chance. Unless BU cools off in a hurry, it's going to be your only chance in this tournament. Boston University, 6-2

Miami vs Boston College--> A lot of people are going to pick BC to win this game and force a sixth meeting with BU (BU has won four of the first five). I'm not. I like Miami and star D Andy Greene (a Hobey Baker finalist) to hold off the Eagles. Miami, 4-3

Minnesota vs Holy Cross--> Last year, Denver beat Bemidji State in OT, while Boston College barely held off Mercyhurst. I think Bemidji can give UW a good fight, but can Holy Cross stay with the Gophers? Probably not, though the shaky goaltending that Minnesota will bring to Grand Forks would be enough to give anyone a chance. Minnesota, 7-4

North Dakota vs Michigan--> The Sioux might be the best team in this tournament right now. Michigan's young and talented, but they aren't equipped to beat UND in their building. North Dakota, 3-1

Wisconsin vs Cornell--> It might be in Wisconsin, and it might feel like home for the Badgers, but that isn't necessarily a good thing. The Badgers had lost six games at home before losing any away from the Kohl Center. In a battle of defense, though, I'll take the Badgers to prevail behind Hobey finalist goaltender Brian Elliott. Wisconsin, 2-1

Michigan State vs Harvard--> Can a Eastern team get in the Frozen Four? Former NHLer Ted Donato will have his guys ready, and the Crimson will spring the upset. Harvard, 4-2

Boston University vs Miami--> Boston U's speed vs Miami's grit. In a playoff setting, the grit will usually win, and while BU is the host for the regional in Worcester, it's not usually a home-ice atmosphere for them. I'll take the RedHawks to qualify for Milwaukee. Miami, 5-3

Minnesota vs North Dakota--> Even though North Dakota struggled on home ice this year, I think they have better defense and goaltending, and they're a more physical team. In a battle of WCHA teams, I like the Sioux to go to Milwaukee. North Dakota, 5-2

Wisconsin vs Harvard--> Elliott gets himself ready for Friday's Hobey ceremony (if he ends up getting invited). Otherwise, Elliott shows why he should have been invited. Wisconsin, 3-0

Miami vs North Dakota--> With the Sioux getting hot, Miami has to find a way to slow down those dynamic young forwards while also getting enough heat on Jordan Parise. I don't like their chances. North Dakota, 4-1

Wisconsin vs North Dakota--> I have just projected another WCHA national title, and another all-WCHA national title game. I'm sure that leaves me loved around the country. As for the game, flip a coin. As long as it comes up Sioux, you're a winner. North Dakota, 4-3

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Mile High Upset

Friday, March 10

We arrive at Magness Arena at around 5:15pm MT. I've never been before, and I take a few minutes to walk around after I get my gear set up and I record my interview with UMD coach Scott Sandelin, which we conducted on the UMD player bench. Why did we go to the bench? Because we did. Maybe because it was too cold outside to do it there. Sandelin and I had tried a few different spots for the pregame interviews, and the player bench seemed like a good idea.

Once that was done, I explored a little bit. I like Magness Arena. Plenty of room in the concourses, not too many seats, not cavernous. Very intimate atmosphere, though I'd later learn that the people who attend the games usually find other things to do besides cheering. I liked the layout, even though the press box area was a bit too low (in relation to the ice) for my liking.

The lighting in there is strange, but that's more of a TV issue than anything else. It doesn't affect the fans or broadcasters...it might just look a bit strange on television.

The food is hideously expensive. Thank goodness for expense accounts!

Anyway, I got back to my booth in plenty of time for the broadcast. Time to do the requisite pre-game research. I jot down the power play and penalty kill stats on my scoresheet, and I go over the opponents' line combinations to help me remember all the names. With Denver, there are few issues here, because so many of their players are established names in the WCHA. I start practicing my Matt Carle Superlative List, because I know that with Denver playing for their season this weekend, I'll be calling Carle's name quite often.

Once the game starts, things don't look good. UMD's Mason Raymond takes a rather silly interference penalty :10 into the first period, and Denver takes the lead at 1:25 on a perfect pass from the left point across to the right goalpost, where Paul Stastny, son of HOFer Peter, has a layup past UMD goalie Nate Ziegelmann. Ouch. After watching UMD lose 4-0, 5-1, 5-0, 5-2, 7-0, and 2-0 in succession to close the regular season, I'm pretty sure I don't like the way this thing starts.

But the boys settle down. They get outshot 12-2 for the first period, but at no point after the first couple minutes do the Bulldogs look even remotely close to being overmatched. In fact, once we get past the first ten minutes, UMD actually starts to assert themselves. At the time, no one had a clue that this would become a weekend trend.

UMD didn't get many breaks in the first half of the game. Then things really started to turn for them. The Bulldogs got a power play relatively late in the second period. After some struggles setting up in the DU zone, Josh Meyers took a shot from the point. DU goalie Glenn Fisher made the first save, but Nick Kemp kept the puck alive out front long enough for Andrew Carroll to come flying in to score the equalizer. Not only had UMD tied the hockey game, but they had scored a goal for the first time in 159 minutes and 34 seconds dating back to the Colorado College game on February 25. Despite being outshot by a pretty healthy margin for the game, it was 1-1 going into the third.

The Maroon Machine took the lead early in the third. Mike Curry made a great play on the right wing wall to keep the puck in the offensive zone, and he was able to thread a pass into the slot, where Carroll was flying in toward the goal. Carroll's one-timer off a tape-to-tape pass gave the 'Dogs a 2-1 lead. Stastny's second power-play goal of the game, though, tied it shortly after, and Denver held off a hard-charging UMD team late in regulation to force overtime. Shots were 29-16 at this point, but that didn't truly reflect how the game was being played, as UMD was doing a great job keeping Denver's scoring chances to a minimum.

After a full intermission, UMD needed just 85 seconds to stun the crowd in Denver. After a turnover by Denver in the UMD zone, freshman Matt Niskanen started the offensive rush by completely undressing DU center Geoff Paukovich. Paukovich's whiff sprung UMD on a 4 on 2 rush. Niskanen brought the puck down the left wing and fired it on net. After a mad scramble out front, fellow freshman MacGregor Sharp found the puck and shot it past Fisher to give UMD the upset win. The Denver crowd was silenced, and it wasn't the only time they'd be silenced for the weekend.

Saturday, March 11

Spent some quality time with UMD beat writer Kevin Pates and UMD television voice Steve Jezierski. Went to a place by the hotel called "Noodles", which serves - you guessed it - noodles. Good stuff. Talked about WDIO-TV's inexplicably stupid decision to cut Sunday's potential Game Three from their broadcast schedule. Steve didn't rip anyone for the call. I said that I couldn't understand why they would go through the expense of flying the broadcasters and technical crew out and not allow them to finish off the series should it go that far. But, in the end, it isn't my decision to make. It's the TV station's. They made their call, and nothing can change now, no matter how loudly we may complain about it. We talked hockey, too, and I think all three of us were surprised to a certain extent by the position UMD was able to place themselves in heading into Saturday's game.

As for the game, it started innocently enough. Oh, and Denver scored first again. This time, it was the flukiest damn thing you'll ever see. J.D. Corbin took a pretty innocent-looking shot from near the right point, and it bounced off what appeared to be an area near Ryan Dingle's armpit. Evidently, Dingle used the right kind of deodorant, because it bounced up in the air, high enough to elude Ziegelmann but not high enough to get over the crossbar. Ugh. Another bad bounce for UMD. If this were poker, UMD would be the guy with pocket aces who gets beat by a guy who had 2/7 offsuit and picked up a straight on the river because he was betting like an idiot and sticking around in a hand where he had nothing. They were outplaying Denver, but DU gets the first bounce and a 1-0 lead.

The Pioneers weren't finished. In the second period, they grabbed a 2-0 lead on another nice shot. This one came from Dingle, who picked up his 27th goal of the season by ripping a wrister past Ziegelmann. Like Stastny's second goal the night before, I was left to tip my invisible cap. It was 2-0 in favor of the desperate team, even if they didn't necessarily play like a desperate team that deserved a 2-0 lead.

But UMD hadn't fired their shots in this game yet. The fifth straight power play for the Bulldogs over the course of about 22 minutes finally gave them a chance. UMD's coaching staff watched in disbelief as Stastny plowed Jay Cascalenda into the boards from behind in a blatant effort to get kicked out of what could be DU's last game. Instead, (blind) referee Jon Campion called Stastny for "roughing", ignoring the obvious intent of the new crackdown on hits from behind. (Blind) Campion had already ignored one hit from behind by a DU player (Andrew Thomas), though he had shown his willingness to call such HFB penalties on Friday when he nailed UMD's Nick Kemp for a very questionable major penalty and game misconduct.

The two minutes on Stastny were more than enough. In fact, a one-minute penalty would have been sufficient. Jason Garrison blasted a one-timer past Denver goalie Peter Mannino to pull UMD within one after two periods. It was Garrison's second career goal, both against Denver.

No one knew what was coming. Frankly, I was more concerned about (blind) Campion allowing an overzealous Denver player to put one of our boys in a wheelchair (after all, I had just watched DU get away with two blatant HFBs) than I was about (blind) Campion and his (blind) ARs doing something to cost UMD the game itself.

Leave it to a WCHA officiating crew. They found a way to screw up even worse than they already had. Michael Gergen used a DU defenseman as a screen and beat Mannino up high to tie the game early in the third. Then, after a DU power play was shut down by UMD, the Bulldogs took their second bad beat of the night. Ryan Helgason took a puck in the right corner and pushed it out in front of the UMD goal. Ziegelmann, who had ventured out to play the puck to the right of his net, was on his way back into the net when the puck hit the back of his skate and trickled across the goal line to make it 3-2 Denver with less than five minutes left. Then the officials took over, because the game was apparently not entertaining enough without their involvement.

In the final seconds, UMD had Ziegelmann pulled for the extra skater. They pressured, and finally got a break with 6.8 seconds left when Niskanen's one-timer caught air and was tipped in by senior Tim Stapleton. UMD celebrated what they thought was a tie game. But (blind) Campion and (blind) AR Tim Swiader conferred and decided that Stapleton's stick was high. Replay wasn't conclusive because the only shot they could use was the camera over the crease area, which didn't show Stapleton tipping the puck. With no conclusive evidence to overturn what Swiader swore he saw, the call of "no goal" stood, leaving UMD players, coaches, and trainers, along with the equipment manager, athletic director, and radio and TV announcers livid. The call wasn't going to change, though, and the most important people involved realized that, accepted it, and moved on: The players.

Sunday, March 12

As the snowstorm that would strand us for four extra hours in Denver was getting ready to slam into the Twin Cities, we all got ready for the final game of the series against the Pioneers. The day was anxious. I walked around the hotel area, went to lunch with Pates, watched some basketball, and got ready for the game.

I admitted to Pates and my wife (via text messaging) that I didn't have a good feeling. I felt all weekend like Denver was about to break out, and I figured that if they were ever going to, it would be early in this game, as they had to have been somewhat bouyed by the bad call that kept their season alive.

To a certain extent, I was right, but UMD had a response. Again.

Denver took a 1-0 lead on another pretty power-play goal by Stastny, who was fed on the doorstep by Patrick Mullen. The fact that, for the third straight game, UMD fell behind and kept their poise showed me that I had no reason for a bad feeling.

It took more than 20 minutes, but when the golden opportunity came, UMD was ready to take full advantage. Back-to-back holding penalties on DU gave UMD a 5 on 3 for about 25 seconds. It took Stapleton 11 seconds to tie the game on a beautiful cross-goalmouth feed by Mason Raymond. 1:10 later, Meyers fired a one-timer from the high slot for another power play goal and a 2-1 lead. 30 seconds later, Gergen slammed a one-timer home from the right faceoff circle to make it 3-1. Finally, another one-timer, this one by Garrison, capped a run of four goals in 3:45 to give UMD a 4-1 lead they wouldn't relinquish.

The third period felt like it took three hours. The Bulldogs clearly didn't want to make any defensive mistakes, and the only goal they surrendered came during a frantic Denver flurry while they were playing 5 on 4 with an empty net. They had other chances, but the goalposts were friendly, and Ziegelmann was on fire. He stopped 17 shots in that third period, and made some great saves to keep the score lopsided.

In the closing seconds, Carroll ran down a puck in neutral ice and broke into the DU zone by himself to score the dagger, and empty-net goal that made the final score 5-2.

I know it's an upset, but it didn't feel like one. Frankly, outside of about 10 minutes in the first period Friday and short flurries in the first periods Saturday and Sunday, I felt that UMD was the superior hockey team. The confidence they gained hopefully gives them some momentum heading into the Final Five this weekend. Obviously, UMD (11-24-4) needs to win the automatic bid to go dancing.

But after what happened in Denver, can we really rule anything out.

See you in St. Paul, hockey fans.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I'm alive!

Seriously, I don't try to neglect all of you.

I also had no expectation that I would spend the better part of six days traveling to Denver and back (the "and back" part was an adventure, as anyone who's familiar with the weather yesterday in the Twin Cities can attest).

How fitting that the team bus took I-35E out of St. Paul and just happened to pass the XCel Energy Center on the way home.

See you on Thursday, X.

The rest of you? I'll be back with general thoughts later in the week, including my take on exactly why the WCHA's #2 seed is sitting at home this week, and possibly until next season, while a team with more losses (24) than any Final Five team since 1994 (Michigan Tech had 25 entering the Final Five that year) is moving on to St. Paul.

And you know what? With the way they're playing right now, UMD has just as good a chance as anyone not named "Minnesota" to win. Apparently, UMD fans don't have to "wait 'til next year" to see a difference-maker in net for the Bulldogs.