Run Ends For Dogs
by Gregg Paul/CHN Correspondent
ST. PAUL, Minn. It's a rarity when the ninth place team advances to the Final Five, especially when you start 17 underclassmen among your 25-man roster.
Minnesota-Duluth finished the season in ninth place in the WCHA and faced the daunting task of facing the two-time defending NCAA champion Denver Pioneers on the road in the first round of the playoffs. After trading a pair of 3-2 games with each team knotting a win, the Bulldogs battled their way to a 5-2 win in the deciding game of the three game series and a berth in the Final Five. The Cinderella story would continue, at least for another night.
Yet as their game with St. Cloud State opened, one had to wonder if the Bulldogs had even shown up at the correct ball. A mere 44 seconds into the game they would fall behind as they lost a faceoff cleanly in their own end. Then the Bulldogs gave up another goal just over three minutes in. St. Cloud's Nate Dey simply blew around the entire Bulldog defense. To make matters worse, Bulldog goalie Nate Ziegelmann fanned on a pokecheck as Dey danced around him for an easy tap in.
One could question if the Bulldogs were simply caught in a dream world as they stood around and watched helplessly as the Huskies took command of the game.
When the Huskies added a power-play goal at the 12:55 mark, it appeared the glass slipper was shattered. Yet Duluth showed it had some life left as it finally got on the board to cut the lead to 3-1. That goal seemingly sparked the Bulldogs and, although they trailed, they would dominate the game, outshooting St. Cloud 26-9 through two periods.
Apparently the youth and inexperience caught up with the Bulldogs as they watched the Huskies score off another faceoff 48 seconds into the third period, a play eerily similar to the earlier goal. That kind of deja vu is typical to dreams, repeating themselves throughout the night while you sleep.
Slowly the clock was ticking towards midnight and Cinderella's dream would come to an end. Despite outshooting and out-chancing St. Cloud most of the game, a late empty-net goal would seal their fate and turn their carriage into a pumpkin. A 5-1 loss in a game that perhaps no one thought they had a chance to play in.
"I thought that after the first five minutes, and for the next 35 minutes we actually played pretty well," said a somber UMD coach Scott Sandelin afterwards. "It's tough to play catch-up hockey. And I was proud of the way our guys played after, you know those first couple goals.
"I didn't feel it was a 5-1 game, but that really doesn't matter."
So what does really matter? Obviously not every Cinderella story has the storybook happy ending. Yet is there enough there to build on for the future?
"For our young guys to get a taste of it ... sometimes you got to go through things and experience them before you realize what they are," said Sandelin. "A couple of our guys were like 'Geez, this is a big tournament!'"
A big tournament indeed, as was testament to the fact that this game set a WCHA Final Five attendance record for the Thursday play-in game. More than 16,000 fans paid their way in to see if Cinderella could continue to wear the glass slipper, yet there didn't appear to be much disappointment voiced from the masses.
"They've had a good year and gone through some tough times but just to get here and end the year here as opposed to in Denver was a big, huge plus for us," said Sandelin.
So what kind of shape does that leave the Bulldogs in for next season? They only lose three players from the lineup they iced for this game, and they are left with a core group of players who have now gained invaluable experience in the limelight of the WCHA Final Five.
Having this experience under their belts to fall back on in preparation for next season, perhaps the Bulldogs can become the Belles of the Ball, instead of seeing their season come to a crashing halt at the stroke of midnight. It may be way too early to tell, but at this point, any story book ending is possible for next season.