Friday, April 08, 2011

Frozen Four: Opportunity Knocks

ST. PAUL -- Close to 24 hours later, things are starting to sink in around these parts.

On Saturday night, for the first time since 1984, UMD will play for the NCAA championship in men's hockey.

The Bulldogs' 4-3 win over Notre Dame Thursday at the XCel Energy Center puts them one win away from history, the kind that will forever define this class of players.

For seniors Mike Montgomery and Justin Fontaine, it's the moment they dreamed of when they turned down chances to play professionally to stay at UMD.

60 minutes Saturday night stands between this team and the biggest achievement of their hockey careers.

The Michigan Wolverines, of course, also stand in the way. It's quite the formidable opponent for UMD, especially when you look at the historical chasm between the two programs.

While UMD coach Scott Sandelin made it clear Friday that his program has tradition and plenty of pride, they don't have 24 Frozen Four appearances, nine NCAA titles, or a coach who will likely hit 800 wins if he sticks around next season.

"We have great respect for their program," Sandelin said of Michigan, coached by the legendary Red Berenson, who held court in the media room before Sandelin.

Berenson told stories from his playing career. "When I played -- and this was in the 1950s -- the WCHA was Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado College, and Denver. That was it," he noted, while mentioning that Wisconsin, a great program in their own right, didn't even exist when he played.

Berenson has been at Michigan -- his alma mater -- since 1984. He has never beaten UMD while with the Wolverines, not that he's had a lot of opportunity to do so, since Michigan has been in the CCHA for some time.

On this one night in St. Paul, a night where UMD will be the visiting team on the ice but the home team when it comes to crowd support, none of that matters. All that matters is which team can bring enough of that extra effort to skate around with the NCAA trophy.

It's going to be a fun battle of small goalies. In an era where goalies under six feet tall are almost dismissed as having any chance to succeed at a high level, the NCAA final features two small-stature goalies who keep coming up big for their respective teams.

For UMD, Kenny Reiter may have allowed a clunker in the opening minute, but he made some huge saves, including a stop on T.J. Tynan on a partial breakaway in the final minute of the first period.

Michigan senior Shawn Hunwick was not a top prospect coming out of the North American Hockey League, the same lesser-regarded junior league Reiter (along with UMD captain Mike Montgomery and senior Kyle Schmidt, to name two) played in. Hunwick showed up at Michigan and simply outplayed a guy who was thought to be a better candidate to be Michigan's No. 1 goalie in Bryan Hogan. At five-seven, Hunwick doesn't look imposing at all, but his athletic ability and smarts make him as dangerous as any goalie UMD will see.

Words cannot describe the excitement in the UMD fanbase as this game draws closer. Bulldog fans far and wide are searching for tickets for Saturday's final, the first for UMD in 27 years. Many recognize the opportunity that awaits this program, and they certainly understand how significant this moment is.

For a fan, that's all you can do at this point. I can't sit here and tell you that guys like Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly, and Justin Fontaine will own the night, just like I can't tell Michigan fans with certainty that Matt Rust, Carl Hagelin, or Chad Langlais will be the most important players in the game.

Like most big hockey games, this is likely to come down to things that we can't predict.

Who will get the bounces?

Which goalie will have a better game?

Who will benefit from the officiating "beans" more?

Who wins the special teams battle?

The answers to those questions will likely determine if Michigan skates with their tenth national championship, or if UMD gets their first.

Unfortunately, they're just not very easy questions to answer. It's kind of like a coin flip.

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