A Mountain Too Tall
UMD Unable to Recover From Deficit Against BC
by Michael King/CHN Writer
WORCESTER, Mass. On the path through the Frozen Four last season, Minnesota Duluth rode the strength of its offense with reliable defensive play to the first national championship in program history.
Entering the NCAA Tournament this season — returning significant scoring depth at forward — there was no doubt that the Bulldogs could score goals. With an offense operating at a national-best 3.67 goals-per-game entering Sunday, the ability to quickly transform a game with scores in rapid succession was clearly their strength.
That was on full display Saturday night in the regional semifinal against Maine. A two-goal deficit encumbered through the first two periods was little to overcome for the Bulldogs. UMD scored five unanswered goals, including registering the tying and game-winning goals within a 60-second frame in the second.
Against one of the nation's top defenses Sunday night in No. 1 overall seed Boston College, that same offense was silenced. The Bulldogs fell, 4-0, leaving a second consecutive Frozen Four appearance at the DCU Center. This was only the second time that Duluth was shut out this season.
"We had some chances tonight on the power play," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "But keep trying to play catch-up, sooner or later it's going to bite you."
After falling behind 3-0 early in the third period, their pedigree suggested a comeback was possible. However, the Bulldogs' play did not. The UMD players failed to take advantage of the same scoring opportunities as they consistently had this season.
"I feel like we didn't play badly — we had chances — and [BC goaltender Parker] Milner made some great stops for them," Connolly said. "The BC defense made it difficult for us tonight."
Against less dominate teams, like Maine or Minnesota State in the WCHA playoffs, surrendering the first goal did not render a comeback impossible. In fact, deficits of 2-0 and 1-0, respectively, in those games appeared to encourage Duluth's most passionate play.
But the Eagles posed a greater challenge.
Having trailed only a cumulative 5 minutes, 33 seconds over its 17-game winning streak since late January, BC has played much with the lead. Naturally, the Eagles have become very comfortable competing from this position of strength. Few teams have defeated BC once having fallen behind.
Sunday night, a silent BC offense in the opening 20 minutes afforded ample opportunity to strike first. But two quick Eagle goals in the next frame created a sense of urgency for UMD. Then, a misplayed puck by goalie Kenny Reiter early in the third further increased the Eagle lead.
Even with the gift of three consecutive BC penalties in the third period, the Bulldogs still failed to score. UMD cycled the puck well on those three power plays, including nearly a minute with a 5-on-3 advantage, and forced Milner to move around the crease. It looked nearly identical to the same type of play that yielded a power-play goal Saturday night against Maine.
Most coaches and players reference needing a "bounce" or "lucky break" to advance in the playoffs because only the best teams are left.
The Bulldogs did not get either. Yet, the team's confidence remained, despite BC's reputation for stout defensive play.
"It was the position we were in last night, in terms of being down two," senior defenseman Brady Lamb said. "We had a quiet confidence on the bench. We weren't worried by any means. Obviously, it wasn't the outcome we wanted or expected, but we knew we had battled back before and had success doing that."
For one final time in 2011-12, the Bulldogs could not translate that confidence into another electrifying comeback.
The Eagle defense, of course, was the primary suppressor of the UMD attack, in addition to perfect play in net.
And whatever few mistakes the BC defenders committed, Milner took swift corrective action. The junior goalie made 33 saves and was especially brilliant through the sequence of multiple Duluth power plays.
"They had so few second chances and Milner made some timely saves, including a few that he probably had no business making," BC captain and defensive leader Tommy Cross said. "Our team defense, from the forwards down, did a good job of keeping (Duluth) to the outside."
Ultimately, the inability to score first and build a lead was the undoing of this team. It was the same development that sunk the Bulldogs in the WCHA's Final Five last week in St. Paul, Minn. UMD fell behind 3-0 to Denver and successfully mounted a comeback. But the team lost in the second overtime, evidently having exerted significant energy erasing such a deficit against an NCAA-bound team.
Last year, the Bulldogs built advantages on the scoreboard by the second period in each of its four NCAA Tournament wins. The pattern helped UMD evolve into an aggressive and dominant team by the time it had been crowned national champions.
Looking toward next year, the Bulldogs have much to replace in the playmaking ability of Connolly and the solid defense of Lamb. Others could capitalize on the success of this season and last and jump to the National Hockey League.
One of the keys for Sandelin in maintaining the ability of his program to compete among the best of the WCHA — while overcoming the lost talent — will be to instil the mindset of earning that first goal and playing the rest of the game with the lead.
Certainly, it is not a simple task, but, as Duluth found last season, it's one of the few characteristics that can distinguish teams between NCAA tournament participants and national champions.