Sunday, March 27, 2011

UMD Marches Back to St. Paul

It probably didn't play out the way anyone expected -- what with the participants combining for 45 penalty minutes and 17 power plays, but the UMD Bulldogs will play another day.

UMD used a rash of undisciplined play from Yale to jump to a 5-1 lead through two periods, then kept the ECAC's Bulldogs at bay for most of the final 20 minutes in a 5-3 win Saturday in Bridgeport, Conn. The NCAA East Regional championship game decided the first entry into the 2011 NCAA Men's Frozen Four, and UMD will be in that event for the second time under 11-year coach Scott Sandelin.

"I couldn't be more proud of our team," Sandelin said. "Coming into this tournament, nobody gave us a lot of credit. Our guys showed a lot of resiliency through this tournament, and grinded out a couple wins against two pretty good hockey teams."

Fittingly, all three members of UMD's top line -- Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly, and Justin Fontaine -- scored, as UMD got goals from five different players.

Mike Connolly's 27th goal of the season -- the most by a Bulldog since Hobey Baker winner Junior Lessard in 2003-04 -- came while the Bulldogs were a man down, and gave UMD a 1-0 lead late in the first. It was a very similar play to the short-handed goal Mike scored in the WCHA Final Five loss to Bemidji State, as he and Fontaine skated in two-on-one, and Fontaine found Mike over the middle.

In the second period, Wade Bergman netted his third goal of the season after a clean faceoff win by Jack Connolly. That gave UMD a 2-0 lead. About six minutes later, Yale started cutting ruts to the cubicle of shame.

Jack Connolly was first to take advantage, scoring from a bad angle (almost on the goal line) to make it 3-0. After Yale got within 3-1 on a power-play marker of their own, Yale junior Brian O'Neill was called for a somewhat controversial five-minute major penalty for contact to the head of Jake Hendrickson. The penalty came just eight seconds after O'Neill's 20th goal of the season cut the UMD lead to two, and there was life in the arena, which was nearly sold out.

I had a couple looks at the replay. On the second one, it looked like O'Neill hit Hendrickson below the head, but their helmets came into contact. Hendrickson did lie on the ice for a few seconds, and grabbed at his head when he fell. It's unclear if the officials got a clean look at the hit, or if they reacted to Hendrickson falling.

Earlier in the period, O'Neill was given a minor for elbowing on a high hit that could have been whistled for contact to the head. With that in mind, it makes sense that the officials would react harshly to a second incident.

"Obviously there were a lot of penalties in that second period," Mike Connolly said. "For any team, it takes away a lot of momentum.

"Our power play hadn't been great of late, but it got the job done tonight."

UMD struck twice during the major, with Mike Seidel scoring 19 seconds after O'Neill was sent off, and Fontaine capping UMD's scoring for the night during a five-on-three.

"I thought the game got taken away from us a bit there in the second period," Yale coach Keith Allain said.

Yale scored on two of three power plays they got in the third period to make it 5-3, but they could only muster four shots on goal during even-strength play during the period, and they never seriously threatened to score outside of their power plays.

"True to form, our guys did not quit," Allain said. "We refused to quit and, once again, they tried to overcome the adversity they faced and fought until the end."


It's tremendously disappointing for Yale, which played great hockey most of the season and earned the No. 1 overall seed for this tournament. They were hosting a regional for the second time in three years (they host again next year, too), and there were high expectations that Yale would be the team to end the long dry spell for the ECAC, a league that has not placed a team in the Frozen Four since Cornell made it in 2003.

While it's easy to take pot-shots at the ECAC, Sandelin is quick to credit the league, and especially the two teams UMD played in this regional. He also noted that UMD played Clarkson earlier in the season, and "it was a battle."

"There's a lot of parity," Sandelin said. "There's a fine line. This team (Yale) can push the puck up the rink as good as anyone. I thought Union was as hard-working a team as we've seen."

The reality is that -- just like with the Big Ten in college football and basketball -- there will be a group of fans inevitably looking at the end results, and taking shots at the ECAC. The EZAC jokes will not just stop because Yale won 28 games and Union 26, or because Yale went out west and thumped Colorado College, while Union went to Mariucci and beat the Gophers.

Those jokes won't stop until an ECAC team ends the league's long Frozen Four drought.


As for UMD, a season-long goal has been achieved.

"We reached one of our goals, which was getting there," Mike Connolly said.

For Jack Connolly, it's a chance to match an achievement his older brother, Chris, got in 2008, when Boston University won the national title.

"It's definitely not an easy road to get to the Frozen Four," Jack said. "Seeing him go through it, and all the hard work they did as a team, I think we're emulating that on our team pretty well. I feel like there's no reason we can't go down there and get a couple wins."

"It's right in our backyard," Wade Bergman said. "It'll be nice and close for our fans to get to, and that'll help to have the hometown support. It'll be nice not to travel far."

"We're fortunate enough to be there, and have the support of the state," Mike Connolly said. "We're looking to make the most of it. It's not very often you get an opportunity like this."

No one doubts that North Dakota -- should they beat Denver Sunday -- will have a huge presence in St. Paul. Hell, they probably will have a ton of fans there even if they aren't among the Frozen Four. But UMD is Minnesota's entry in a tournament Minnesota (the university, that is) bid for the right to host a few years back. The expectation was that the Gophers would be able to re-create the 2002 magic, when Matt Koalska and Grant Potulny sent the XCel Energy Center into utter euphoria.


We've talked at length this season about UMD's struggles in five-minute major power plays. The Bulldogs have had X power plays that have run at least three minutes in length, and before Saturday, they had only scored twice.

Before O'Neill's major penalty began, Sandelin decided to make a change to his top power play unit.

"I made the decision to put Mike Seidel out there instead of Brown going into that major," Sandelin said, "so we could balance out our power plays a little bit."

Seidel made the call pay off just 19 seconds later with his eighth goal of the season. All eight have come away from home.

UMD scored five power play goals in two games this weekend, as the one power play no one on ESPN wanted to acknowledge clicked at nearly 30 percent in the regional tournament.

We talked on Saturday's pregame about how UMD has been motivated a bit by perceived slights during the selection show and run-up to this tournament. Fans are often annoyed when athletes talk about these slights, because the athletes are usually full of crap, and we're usually talking about major events during which no outside motivation should be necessary.

But it wasn't about getting the players in the right mindset. It was about the extra juice they clearly got from feeling disrespected.

You might not believe it out there, but it's clear there was a little extra satisfaction for UMD to use their special teams to win this regional. If I had $1 for every comment I heard from a UMD player or coach this weekend related to the idea that either "No one respected our power play," or "No one gave us enough respect as a team," I'd have a lot more than $1.


The East Regional All-Tournament team was all UMD and Yale players. Yale forward Chad Ziegler and defenseman Nick Jaskowiak were joined by UMD forwards Jack and Mike Connolly, defenseman Justin Faulk, and goalie Kenny Reiter.

Reiter was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

"Kenny was phenomenal," Jack Connolly said. "Stood on his head all weekend, made huge stops. He kept us in both games this weekend, and he was our No. 1 star for the weekend. He just played out of his mind."


Naturally, the regional final drew a bit more media than the semifinals did, which means some poor sap who didn't show up earlier was surprised to see all the Bulldog players sporting funky-colored hair.

And said reporter had to become the 348th person to ask about it.

Mike Connolly kept the answer short and sweet.

"Blonds have more fun, right?"

And now, they'll have that fun in the Capital City.

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