I am proud to say I cover hockey. However, I am a fan of the sport first.
I’ve been a UMD season-ticket holder since 2003. I remember sitting in front of the television and yelling to the point of nearly losing my voice as the Bulldogs skated to the 2004 Frozen Four, and then took a two-goal lead in the national semifinal against Denver.
As you are probably aware, not much has gone right for UMD since. They were on their way to a win over St. Cloud State in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, but then Bobby Goepfert stood on his head for four overtimes over two nights. His team was pretty thoroughly outplayed, but part of playing the game is scoring goals, and UMD just couldn’t on those nights. St. Cloud won the series, and UMD was sent to the golf course prematurely, only to find when they got there that the two best players on that 2006-2007 team (Matt Niskanen and Mason Raymond) had signed pro contracts.
Last year’s team was strong defensively, but couldn’t score goals. MacGregor Sharp led the team with 17 points. Andrew Carroll led in goals with eight. It doomed them to an eighth-place finish and a two-game playoff loss to Denver.
With how the regular-season ended, no one saw this coming. The Bulldogs went 0-3-2 down the stretch, with two straight losses to Alaska-Anchorage providing a painful farewell for seven UMD seniors. In retrospect, one of the worst home weekends in a long time may have been a blessing in disguise. UMD deserved to lose those games, and they knew it. Instead of moping or resigning themselves to a one-and-done playoff fate, this Bulldog team used the adversity as a coming-together point.
Since they didn’t know they had to fly to Colorado Springs until the close of play Saturday, they had to set up a rather arduous travel schedule. Fly to Minneapolis and then Denver Wednesday evening, and bus from Denver to Colorado Springs. It was early Thursday morning before they arrived. Instead of being tired after such a difficult late-season trip, UMD looked fresh and prepared Friday. A 4-1 win Friday was followed by a 3-1 triumph Saturday.
By now, you know full well what happened over the weekend in St. Paul. It was the kind of history that you don’t get to see every year, and it was a performance for the ages. In a way, it was fitting, because this team made a commitment to themselves after that Anchorage series, and they’ve played near-perfect hockey since.
The most amazing statistic is that they have yet to trail in the playoffs. In fact, the only time any UMD playoff game this year has been tied has been 0-0. Once UMD has taken the lead, they’ve held it. You can credit Alex Stalock all you want, but the 18 guys in front of him deserve their props, too.
One of my worries about UMD going to Colorado College is that they struggled (3-5-3) on the big sheet during the regular season. They allowed too many goals in most of those games, including four in one at Anchorage, six at St. Cloud State, and five at Minnesota. The defense took a few hits in those games, but they have protected Stalock wondrously in the first five playoff games.
Princeton brings speed, skill, and goaltending to the table Friday night. UMD can’t be looking forward to a potential rematch Saturday with Denver (neither can Denver, for that matter, or it could be Miami vs Princeton in front of 550 friends and family at Mariucci). But they haven’t looked forward to anything yet. They’ve focused on the task at hand, even on Saturday night in the WCHA Final Five championship, when they led 3-0, fans were ready to party, and it would have been easy to lapse. Instead of giving up a lame goal late in the game, UMD only let Denver attempt six shots the whole period (five were blocked).
No matter what, the thousands of Minnesotans who will show up at Mariucci Arena Friday night need to appreciate what this UMD team has done. They not only made history, but they’ve shown that from adversity can come special achievements.
That this group of kids banded together and stormed into the NCAA Tournament is the stuff of stories 20 years from now. Expectations are growing in Duluth, but let’s hope the fans also bring a sense of perspective to the rink Friday. The ride this team has taken us on the last two weeks is one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon, and we thank you for it.