Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Back in the Capital City

The WCHA converted their league tournament to the Final Five format in 1993. Since that happened, UMD has never made the tournament three years in a row.

Until now.

UMD starts their third straight St. Paul soiree with an afternoon date against Bemidji State, the only other Minnesota team in the Final Five, Thursday at the XCel Energy Center.

The Beavers stunned Nebraska-Omaha in two games during the first round, moving their improbable record against UNO to 5-0-1 this season. That means over one-third of BSU's wins this season came against the Mavericks.

Go figure.

It's easy to just put that series on goaltending, because BSU's Dan Bakala was indeed a difference-maker, but he can't score the goals.

"Our best players played very well," coach Tom Serratore said.

By that, he doesn't just mean Bakala. He's also giving the nod to Matt Read, Jordan George, and Ian Lowe, as he should.

Especially Read.

"We had no secondary scoring this year," Serratore said. "Teams could key on him more. He does everything. He's very versatile, got great depth to his game. He's tough as nails. He's good defensively. He makes plays."

Along with guys like Justin Fontaine and Mike Montgomery from UMD, Read could have bolted for the pros, and there's a chance he'd be in the NHL right now if he had chosen the right free-agent contract.

Instead, Read returned, intent on leading his school into the WCHA, and intent on leaving his mark on the growing Bemidji State hockey program.

While his play was consistently strong throughout the season, Read's Beavers were up-and-down all year long, finishing tenth in the standings and never really even threatening to get a home-ice position. They found the right formula against UNO, however, and they found a way to get into the Final Five in their WCHA debut.

"It's kind of like that run we made to the Frozen Four a couple years ago," Serratore said. "There's a real buzz in the community."

For UMD, it's a trip that will never get old. The Bulldogs are there once again, and this time they're playing with no pressure on them.

UMD is virtually assured -- if not completely -- of a spot in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Anything they can do this weekend is not to cement their spot in the field. Instead, it's gravy on what's been a successful season. Last year, UMD knew they probably needed to beat North Dakota in the play-in game. When they lost 2-0, it brought a good season to a grinding halt. Two years ago, they needed a win over Minnesota to have a shot at the NCAAs. They got it, then added two more on a magical run through the tournament.

No one wants to go one-and-done at the Final Five, but UMD at least can go into Thursday's game without insane pressure to win games. It's hard to say for sure that it will help their mindset, or that the mindset needs help.


The Bulldogs are playing a tough opponent, one that needs to win to keep their season going. It's a team they've struggled with in the recent past (4-7-1 in the last 12 games against Bemidji), and one that can burn UMD with good top-line play and quality goaltending.

So what does Scott Sandelin do?

Last weekend, he wanted the Connolly-Connolly-Fontaine line to match up against Garrett Roe's line for St. Cloud State.

Will he want FCC to have to deal with Read all afternoon long?

UMD is home team, so they get the last change, and they get to dictate matchups. Getting the Connollys away from Read might end up being a priority, as UMD has a couple lines -- including the third line with emerging sophomore Jake Hendrickson -- that could match up well against Read's group.

Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing the top lines battle one another. Read is a great defensive forward, but FCC hasn't backed down from many (if any) challenges this season. That's why they've been as good as they've been, and why they have played together virtually the entire season.

My guess is that we'll see a bit of juggling Thursday, especially if UMD gets off to a less-than-stellar start. Sandelin won't fool around in a playoff game. He will seek out the best matchups to benefit his team. As home coach for the game, it's a luxury he will take full advantage of.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Read would be in the nhl if he signed last summer? seriously? you drunk ciskie? lay off the sauce, eh?