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.

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