FELDY: I'm back at a quiet (for now) Xcel Energy Center for the NCAA championship game, Minnesota-Duluth against Michigan. The Wolverines are chasing their 10th national title; UMD seeks its first, in just its second-ever appearance in the final.
It's pretty clear this game will come down to two things: Goaltending and special teams (though, you could say that about any hockey game at any level, I suppose). So, let's take a position-by-position look at the finalists. The puck is set to drop exactly 1 hour, 49 minutes from now.
The reasons: Michigan doesn't have the dynamic group of playmakers that two of the other Frozen Four teams do, but, obviously that didn't matter in the Wolverines win over top-ranked North Dakota on Thursday. Still, UMD has the best line in the country (Mike Connolly-Jack Connolly-Justin Fontaine). And, in Thursday's 4-3 win against Notre Dame, the Bulldogs received key contributions from second-liners J.T. Brown and Kyle Schmidt, and third-liner Joe Basaraba. UMD can't afford to sleep on Michigan's third line, though. Seniors Ben Winnett and Matt Rust, and junior Luke Glendening, are smart players and veterans who won't back down from UMD's offensive playmakers.
The reasons: Michigan gave up 40 shots to North Dakota on Thursday. Say all you want about Michigan's d-men's willingness to drop and block shots, but had it not been for the sensational play of goalie Shawn Hunwick (more about him later), the Wolverines would be watching tonight's game in Ann Arbor. Duluth's defensive corps lost talented Dylan Olsen after Christmas break, when he left for the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Yet, despite losing a player who was a first-round draft pick, UMD's defensemen seem to have become stronger as a group down the stretch. Freshman Justin Faulk -- who likely will head to the NHL after this season -- is one of the best offensive defensemen in college hockey. He has 33 points in 38 games.
The reasons: Shawn Hunwick has been outstanding for the Wolverines in the national tournament, allowing a total of three goals in three games. He's just 5-foot-7, but the way he's playing is reminiscent of the way diminutive North Dakota netminder Karl Goehring (he of Apple Valley and Minnesota high school state tourney fame) played during the Sioux's run to the 2000 NCAA title. Hunwick will have to carry the Wolverines again tonight, and will again have to be their best penalty killer. On the other side, UMD's Kenny Reiter is an adventure. He made some nice saves against Notre Dame, but allowed two soft goals on shots from above the circles. If he isn't focused tonight, UMD will have to win an 8-7 game.
The reasons: Duh. Did you watch the Bulldogs power play on Thursday? As I state above, it's a well-oiled machine and they run a system that is rather unorthodox, sort of an inverted umbrella, I've heard it called. Faulk runs the point as efficiently as any player in the college game, which leads to the question: Why not just focus on stopping Faulk at the point? Well, because that leaves a 4-on-3 for guys like Connolly, Connolly, Fontaine and Brown. Not good odds for the opposition. To be successful, Michigan has to do what it did to North Dakota -- wall up at the blue line, force UMD to dump it in, then take away time and space, not letting the Bulldogs cycle the puck.
The reasons: See Thursday's win against North Dakota for the reasons here. Red Berenson might be in his early 70s, but the college game has not passed the Wolverines head coach by. Against UND, he took a Michigan team that traditionally plays an um-tempo, we're-gonna-outscore-you style, and turned it into Alaska-Anchorage, but with better players. They mucked up the neutral zone, took away time and space from the Sioux and got them flustered, forced them to make bad passes and try to become too creative. In other words, the old-timer still has a few tricks up his sleeve and knows how to coach. More importantly, he has a group of players who buy into what he asks them to do.
The score: UMD 3, Michigan 2, OT.
The reasons: I just can't see Michigan getting away with playing a muck-it-up style two games in a row against talented teams like UND and UMD. North Dakota had a handful of great scoring chances where, either Hunwick robbed them, or they missed the net. That won't happen twice in a row. Hunwick will hold Michigan in the game again, but, in the end, UMD has too much firepower and they'll bring the NCAA championship trophy back to AmSoil Arena for the first time.