Frozen Four features shootout, upset
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- And that, boys and girls, is why they play the games.
It's no secret that playoff hockey, especially in a single-elimination format, can often come down to special teams and goaltending.
Sure enough, Minnesota Duluth provided the former and Michigan took care of the latter Thursday at the 2011 Frozen Four national semifinals played at the Xcel Energy Center.
The prevailing wisdom coming into this weekend was that North Dakota, the only remaining No. 1 seed and therefore the prohibitive favorite, would simply roll to two more wins and finish off what has been another great season in Grand Forks with the school's eighth NCAA title.
Instead, the Fighting Sioux found themselves on the wrong end of a 2-0 score against the Wolverines, and now Dave Hakstol's club and its tearful legion of fans are headed back to North Dakota to start another offseason still looking for their first national championship since 2000 despite five Frozen Four trips in the past seven seasons.
Remember, NoDak arrived here in the State of Hockey in a state of domination to the tune of being unbeaten in its previous 15 games (14-0-1). The Sioux outscored Rensselaer and Denver by a combined score of 12-1 in the Midwest Regional. And they were perfect in their previous five games played in this building. In other words, these two Frozen Four games were supposed to be little more than a formality.
The guys in the other dressing room, Red Berenson's Wolverines (29-10-4), hopefully packed more than an overnight bag because they find themselves with a reservation in Saturday's national championship game (ESPNHD and ESPN3.com, 7 p.m. ET) against the Bulldogs (25-10-6), who fought off Notre Dame 4-3 in Thursday's first semifinal.
Michigan will be seeking its 10th NCAA hockey championship and first since 1998, while Minnesota Duluth will be playing in its second title game and looking for its first crown.
Regardless of what happens in the season's final game, what every one of the 19,139 in attendance will remember from Thursday night is the play of Michigan goaltender Shawn Hunwick.
The senior walk-on, all 5-foot-7, 166 pounds (if you believe the line chart), turned away 40 shots and shut down college hockey's second most potent offense. The Sioux, who were shut out for the third time this season, came in averaging better than four goals per game and hadn't been blanked since back on Nov. 20 against Nebraska-Omaha.
"I was pretty confident," Hunwick said. "I think I'd rather be in a game like that than getting 15 shots against. Those are tough games. But when they keep coming at you, you gotta be ready. And our team did a great job, and I felt like I was seeing it pretty well. And it was a lot of fun."
It should be noted that as well as Hunwick played and despite the fact that he faced 40 shots, he did get help from the players in front of him. Michigan did a good job of controlling play in the neutral zone and kept the puck to the outside for much of the game. It helped Hunwick to avoid many second-chance opportunities.
After five goals were scored in the first period of the opening game, there was little expectation in the building that Ben Winnett's greasy goal at 13:26 of the first would end up being the game winner. Scooter Vaughan scored an empty-netter at 19:24 of the third to provide the final margin.
"We knew we had to overachieve to find a way to win this game," Berenson said. "And I think that's what you saw. And yet our goalie had to be our best player. Our penalty killers were strong. Our defense played a lot in their own zone. They held up well. It was an endurance contest for our team."
In addition to being outshot 40-20, Michigan was whistled for -- but killed off -- four penalties. The Wolverines limited the Sioux to five shots with the man-advantage.
"There was no frustration in our game," Hakstol said. "You keep going. You keep working. We created the opportunities. Unfortunately one didn't go in.
"And that's the sudden finality of the NCAA Division I sports. It's a one-game shot. You win and you move on. You lose, and it's a very sudden and final finish."
In the other semifinal, Minnesota Duluth advanced on the strength of its power play.
The Bulldogs were 3-for-6 with the man-advantage while Notre Dame missed on all five of its opportunities.
The game winner, Jack Connolly's 18th goal of the season, came at 5:51 of the second period on, you guessed it, the power play.
"Obviously people can see that game was dictated by one thing: special teams," Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. "They have an exceptional power play, and we couldn't generate any offense on the power play. I thought we took some bad penalties. I thought we took some uncharacteristic penalties.
"Our special teams this year have been a bit of a disappointment. They've been one of the staples of our program for the last five years. But for some reason, even with some of the offensive talent we've had, we've had difficult times with the power play. Part of that is that we don't have like Duluth's quarterback out there at the point. [Justin] Faulk is a threat out there from a shooting perspective and he's also a good playmaker."
Faulk finished with three assists -- two of them coming in special teams play. And Justin Fontaine also contributed three helpers.
As impressive as UMD was with the man-advantage, the Bulldogs were just as good if not better on the penalty kill. They limited the Fighting Irish to just two shots over those five power-play opportunities.
And when the game tightened up in the third period, goaltender Kenny Reiter was there at the rescue. Duluth was outshot 15-2 in the final frame, and the only ND goal came very early when Calle Ridderwall scored the Irish's third goal at 2:05.
Reiter closed the door the rest of the way.
"We went with [Reiter] because we knew he was capable of playing that way," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "We've seen it in his time here, and so we had confidence going into the regional, and he's lived up to that.
"I think our guys are feeding off that, too. I didn't really like the shots in the third period, but we didn't need to make him work that hard, but sometimes through the year your goalie needs to win games for you. And he certainly has been a big, big part of that the last three games."
Both Michigan and Minnesota Duluth faced an extra attacker in the final minute and had to play all the way to the final whistle to earn their spots in Saturday's title game.
"When you play in this event, you have to play 60 minutes," Jackson said. "Twice. And we didn't. And that's really what it boiled down to."
And that's the main reason why Michigan and Minnesota Duluth get to play the final 60 minutes (or more) of the 2010-11 college hockey season. Winner take all. Overtime, anyone?
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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