Sunday, March 23, 2008

Peaking at the right time

Five games in three days and a trip to Grandma's place later, I return to file my report (by the way, who had Davidson over Georgetown? This guy! I also hit on Villanova to the Sweet 16, San Diego over UCONN and Siena over Vandy. Can't say I had Western Kentucky though).

In sports, there is a beginning, a middle and an end to the season. Some teams get off to a great start and falter down the stretch. Some teams find their stride in the middle of the season, and some find it even later. The Gopher men's hockey team is one of those later teams - a team that has somehow found a way to win when it looked like the season was a miss.

While Minnesota came one goal short of the Broadmoor Cup with a 2-1 loss to Denver in the finals Saturday, what has transpired during the past nine days is the heart and determination of many that is worth a title.

For a team that needed a prayer two weeks ago for a NCAA bid, this morning there was no doubt the Gophers were in after knocking off St. Cloud State (3-2) and Colorado College (2-1) this weekend, one week after dispatching Minnesota State University-Mankato in a three-game series. I'll have more on Boston College and the NCAAs later this week.

For now, let's focus on the Final Five, in which the Gophers became only the fourth team to play three games on the weekend. Like their predecessors, Minnesota wasn't able to complete the weekend sweep as Denver scored two second period goals to win their third Final Five title since 1999.

After Ryan Flynn tipped in a Stu Bickel blast early in the second period to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead, Denver tied the score on a shot from Denver freshman Tyler Bozak, whose shot richcheted off the leg of Gopher defenseman Cade Fairchild past goaltender Alex Kangas.

In the final minute of the period, Minnesota native Tom May scored his second goal of the weekend after getting behind Derek Peltier and stuffing it five-hole on Kangas.

Minnesota actually outshot Denver, but Pioneer goaltender Peter Mannino was in a zone all weekend, coming up with key saves in a period in which the Gophers outshot Denver 14-6. So far in Mannino's career, he is unbeaten against the Gophers.

“Our guys have played a lot of hockey over the past two weeks. I’m really proud of them. Even though we lost, they competed and played hard and I’m proud of them for that. You look at the other teams that have played three games (in the Final Five) and their scores weren’t as close as ours. Denver earned the win and did what they had to do to win,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said.

As my sign said Thursday, the Gophers have done what they have and are still playing because of Kangas, who was chosen as the most valuable player of the tournament. He has given up 15 goals in the past 10 games. This weekend, he made 94 saves on 99 shots.

He had two of his biggest wins Thursday and Friday, in which the Gophers knocked off two NCAA tournament teams in St. Cloud and Colorado. Against State, senior Mike Howe (a St. Cloud native) knocked in a rebound off the back wall with 12 seconds left to upset the Huskies.

The next night, it was freshman Mike Hoeffel, who banged in a shot off a Tiger defenseman in overtime to beat the top seeded team. He also scored a goal in the second period to tie the score.

“This team never ceases to amaze me. It starts with the goaltending. He’s been brilliant and we’re just finding ways to win, "Lucia said following the CC game. “We talked coming into the tournament about the great goalies and expected low-scoring games. I think Mike’s first goal was the big one. They score a power play goal and he comes back a minute later. We kind of played the game we needed to play and we got the lucky bounce. I’m really proud of our guys. We felt as coaches all year this team was close but couldn’t get over the hump. It’s a real credit to our leaders and seniors.”

Now, the Gophers have a few days to prepare for the NCAAs, in which Minnesota faces Hockey East regular season runners-up and conference tournament champion. I haven't seen them since December, in which the Eagles won the Dodge Holiday Classic, but I can tell you they have a freshman goaltender that isn't as proven as Kangas. That could play into the Gophers hands.

One thing is for sure, if the Gophers score three goals, they'll win right now. It all starts with 5-on-5 play, but the power play has to start getting more chances. The past two weekends, the Gophers are 1-26 on the power play (however, opponents were only 2-17 this past weekend.) with the only goal coming on a 5-on-3 rebound goal by Evan Kauffman against St. Cloud State.

The first round game in the Northeast Regional is set for Saturday at 6:30 p.m. (central time). Top-seeded Miami (Ohio) and fourth-seeded Air Force meet in the first game on Saturday at 3 p.m. (central) with the winners to play on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. (central) for a berth in the Frozen Four April 10 and 12 in Denver. The first round game will be televised nationally by ESPNU and shown on tape delay on Saturday night at midnight. The regional title game will be shown live on Sunday on ESPNU.

Again, more to come later this week.


Anonymous said...

BC goalie John Muse is just as proven as Alex Kangas. Muse has played every minute in net for BC this season and just proved himself again over the weekend after backstopping the Eagles to a Beanpot title in February. He held the fort with 45 saves in a come-from-behind triple-overtime Hockey East semifinal win over highly-ranked New Hampshire on Friday, and then posted a 29-save shutout in the conference title game over Vermont on Saturday. He should have been the goaltender on this season's Hockey East All-Rookie Team, why he wasn't is a mystery.

Anonymous said...

All good points, but the kid did give up four goals in that triple-overtime game against UNH. Also, the shutout came against Vermont. Vermont.

You'd be hard pressed to find another goalie in the country as hot as Kangas is right now. Even when you consider Mannino and Bachman.

Anonymous said...

I read on the Strib's site that a local channel will be picking up the Saturday night game aired on ESPNU. It looks like FSN is in talks.

The Sports Guy said...

I guess I hadn't seen Muse's numbers this weekend. I would say he was impressive. Remember that New Hampshire is a No. 1 seed, so that is a solid win. Vermont had nothing left in the finals.

I wouldn't be surprised to see FSN pick it up. They generally haven't in the past, but that's because the Wild or Wolves were on. Neither are during that time slot Saturday. It would do good numbers for the price they pay.

Anonymous said...

Well, Vermont is no national powerhouse, true, but guess Muse couldn't do better than to shut them out ... Kangas is very good, too, have seen him on TV several times this year and he saved Minnesota's season after Frazee faltered. Saturday should be interesting, Gophers and Eagles haven't met in NCAAs in 18 years ...

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