UMD's No. 2 Unit Shined on the Big Stage
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. The scouting reports, the headlines, the interview time. All of it. Every last one of them included the names Connolly, both Jack and Mike, and Fontaine, Justin that is.
They talked about their puck movement.
They talked about their scoring.
They do a lot of it.
But they never talked about Kyle Schmidt. They didn't include J.T. Brown. And they didn't bother to interview Travis Oleksuk.
Then, Minnesota-Duluth arrived at the Frozen Four.
J.T. Brown scored a goal and assisted on two others. Oleksuk added a marker in the national championship game. And Kyle Schmidt scored the biggest goal in Minnesota-Duluth history — No. 2 isn't even that close — assisted, of course, by Oleksuk. And even if you didn't notice, they've been doing things like that most of the year.
Schmidt, darting in from the blue line, redirected Oleksuk's centering feed past Michigan goaltender Shawn Hunwick at 3 minutes, 22 seconds of the first — and only — overtime Saturday night. The goal clinched UMD's first national championship. It also made a pretty substantial statement to the college hockey world.
The Connollys and Fontaine form a pretty good top line, but the Bulldogs have a pair of lines that can play with the best.
"We see what they can do in practice every day. In my opinion, they're the best line in college hockey. No one has been able to shut them down on a consistent basis," Schmidt said of UMD's top line. "But secondary scoring is huge on any team. Fortunately, we were able to get some tonight and a couple goals on Thursday."
The contributions from UMD's second line created a source of pride in their dynamic top line. The attention from the rest of the world means little. Championship teams find greatness within each other. Stars exists and carry the torch and burden of performance throughout the season. Jack Connolly enjoys that part. More than anything, though, he enjoys the experience of watching his unheralded teammates pick up the slack when he can't get it done.
"Our team was looking for me, Mike and (Fontaine) to lead us for most of the year," Jack Connolly said. "But (Schmidt, Oleksuk and Brown) stepped up and took our team to a new level. J.T. had an outstanding tournament. That line played phenomenal and kept the pressure on the (defensemen) in both games. That line was definitely our MVP."
Brown's contributions to Duluth's national championship began when he arrived on campus. However, the ones he'll remember, came this week. His goal on Thursday against Notre Dame eliminated a 1-0 Irish lead that threatened the Bulldogs' mindset early. The most impressive moment of Brown's Frozen Four display, though, came in the third period of Saturday's national championship game.
With the score tied, 2-2, and 10:41 remaining in regulation, UMD junior Brady Lamb went off on a hitting after the whistle minor. As the teams' lined up for the faceoff to the left of UMD goaltender Kenny Reiter, Brown sized up the Michigan power play.
Michigan center Carl Hagelin won the draw back to the point. Freshman Jon Merrill quickly turned to fire, as Brown bolted from his position to pressure the point man. A quick bobble and an even faster rush from Brown sent the play back the other way. As Brown burnt the neutral zone, he bull-rushed down the ice like his dad Ted used to do as a running back for the Minnesota Vikings, and turned toward Hunwick, Merrill desperately hooked Brown. The effort prevented Brown from taking a shot. It also negated a Michigan power play at the most crucial of times.
"I was hoping he would win it back hard," Brown said. "Those are tough plays to make. He kind of bobbled it, so I just picked it up and made a B-line down the left side. I thought I was going to have a step on him, but he got a stick on me."
"That was probably the biggest play of the game in my opinion," Schmidt said of Brown's rush. "Later in the game like that, for us to take a penalty and then to have him just bust down the wing full speed and take it to the net, the guy had no choice but to take a penalty. He drew that penalty and got us back 4-on-4."
Contributions such as this are an element of Brown's game generated by his compete-level and commitment to becoming a better hockey player. He impacts games in other ways, though — more conventional ones. With his first-period assist on Saturday night, Brown closed his rookie season with 16 goals and 21 assists. A cool 37-point season isn't a bad way to begin a career.
"Early in the year, we needed to find someone like a J.T. Brown to come in as a freshman and be an impact player," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "We put him in the position, and he had a phenomenal year, obviously phenomenal game tonight in the tournament.
"We just needed someone to kind of help out and give us a good solid second line that could score. And he was certainly that."
To Brown's left on a nightly basis stand Oleksuk and Schmidt. Throughout the tournament, the trio provided consistent scoring chances and energy to UMD. All season, Oleksuk came up huge, again and again. He scored 13 regular-season goals, but seven were game winners, the second-most in the country. Against Michigan, the Connollys and Fontaine struggled to create scoring chances, and were tired after the first period. Since Sandelin reunited the line on Feb. 5 against Minnesota, not much has slowed the trio. In fact, in its first game back together, Mike scored five goals, Jack recorded four assists and Fontaine pieced together a three-assist game of his own.
The Wolverines' experienced forward lines and prudent defensemen successfully neutralized the threat of the Duluth talismen. The presence of the Bulldogs supporting cast propelled them to the tournament in the first place, but not once was it needed as badly as Saturday.
"We can't rely on those guys game in and game out," Sandelin said. "We all know they what they can do, but we needed guys like J.T. and Kyle to step up, which they've done during the year."
They did it Saturday night, too. No one will forget them anymore, either. Not in Duluth anyway.