It was an entertaining day of hockey at the XCel Energy Center yesterday. Both semifinals on Thursday were ultimately decided in the final minute of play with the trailing team coming up just a bit short. Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan held on to advance to Saturday's championship game.
Minnesota-Duluth 4 Notre Dame 3
This wasn't exactly a match-up of marquee goalies heading in. Both Mike Johnson of Notre Dame and Kenny Reiter of Minnesota-Duluth are capable of really shaky outings from time to time, and at least early on, it looked like we were going to get one of those shaky outings from both goalies. That's perhaps understandable given it was the first time on this big of a stage for each of the goalies.
The wide-open high scoring game definitely favored Minnesota-Duluth and their dangerous power play. The Bulldogs were able to capitalize on a couple power play opportunities while Notre Dame wasn't able to squeeze anything through with the man advantage.
Notre Dame cut UMD's lead from 4-2 to 4-3 early in the third period and controlled play pretty much the entire period. I thought for sure that Notre Dame would be able to tie it up, but Duluth's defense did a good job of holding strong, and Notre Dame was never quite able to put a shot through traffic and into the net.
So Minnesota-Duluth will get their shot at a national title. And if UMD was ever going to win a national title, this might be their best. Justin Fontaine and Mike Montgomery are playing their last college games on Saturday. Justin Faulk probably is too. The Connollys have one year left, if that. And the depth behind those guys isn't exactly UMD's strongpoint. They'll have a huge home ice advantage. It's hard to imagine a more perfect set-up for them.
Michigan 2 North Dakota 0
Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick was pretty much the story of the night. Michigan played a brilliant game defensively, but they weren't quite perfect against the dangerous Sioux squad, and when North Dakota got quality chances, Hunwick was unbeatable. A couple plays in particular stood out to me. Getting a glove on a snipe by Matt Frattin late in the first period. Sliding across the crease to make a big save in the second period. Stopping Jason Gregoire after Gregoire made an incredible move to beat Chad Langlais cleanly late in the second period. And a big pokecheck on a wide open Brad Malone in the third. He had zero margin for error the entire night and was able to lead his team to a win.
It's another disappointing end for North Dakota in the NCAA tournament. There's so much randomness in the one-and-done format that I don't think you can ever blame a team for not winning it all, since so much has to go right for that to happen, but with so many great teams all falling apart at pretty much the same place, you have to wonder if there is some kind of mental block there for the Sioux when it comes to the Frozen Four. Of course, there's worse problems to have than that, but it has to be frustrating.
This has been far from Michigan's best team this season, at least from a talent perspective, but it is a team that seems to understand their shortcomings, and understands the way that they have to play to win games. It's not the exciting style Michigan has played in the past, but at the end of the night, it's good enough for Louie Caporusso to tell an artist's rendering of the average Sioux fan how many goals that guy's team couldn't score. Michigan has to have a ton of confidence, especially in their goaltending after beating three straight WCHA opponents en route to the title game. They'll need to beat one more to take home the title.
It's impossible to predict just how the championship will go, but it as the makings of a really good match-up. Michigan brings a stingy defense that. ever since two brutal defensive errors in the first period against Nebraska-Omaha, has only allowed one goal in the tournament, while Minnesota-Duluth is the one team that is arguably more dangerous on offensive than North Dakota. Hopefully it produces another tight and exciting game like the first two in this year's Frozen Four.