Josh Meyers got the ball rolling, MacGregor Sharp gave a push and the Minnesota Duluth hockey locomotive was back on track.
Senior leadership has directed the Bulldogs through a dizzying five-game postseason ride and into the bright lights of the NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament.
Seven seniors, with a minimum of 125 career games each, will be in UMD’s lineup for a West Regional semifinal game at 8 p.m. Friday against Princeton University at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.
The No. 7-ranked Bulldogs (21-12-8) have won a school-record five straight playoff games, righting themselves from a 0-3-2 regular-season finish.
“After the two losses to Alaska Anchorage [at home to end the regular season], we knew things needed to change,” said Meyers, a senior defenseman from Alexandria, Minn. “We had to look at the rest of the year as a one-game elimination situation. We weren’t in the [WCHA] Final Five yet, we weren’t in the NCAAs yet, but if we put a winning streak together, we could get there.”
The opening playoff game, in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s first round, Meyers scored a power-play goal at the end of a five-minute advantage in the first period against Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo. Sharp, a senior center from Red Deer, Alberta, followed with a power-play goal late in the first period and it was 2-0.
UMD won 4-1 and eliminated Colorado College 3-1 the next night with the help of goals from senior forwards Nick Kemp of Hermantown and Michael Gergen of Hastings, Minn.
“We realized that to be good, you have to play good defensive hockey,” said Kemp, a winger. “That’s kind of been our motto: Play physical hockey all over ice.”
UMD’s quest continued at the WCHA Final Five last week, opening with a 2-1 win over Minnesota in the play-in game at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. Sharp and senior winger Matt Greer of Vadnais Heights, Minn., scored, and junior goalie Alex Stalock made 39 saves, tying a season high.
Sharp started things again in the semifinals with a goal against regular-season champion North Dakota on the way to a 3-0 victory.
In Saturday’s title game, against defending champion Denver, UMD led 2-0 midway through the second period on two Sharp goals and claimed its first WCHA playoff championship since 1985 by a 4-0 margin. In the Final Five, the Bulldogs cut opposing shots on goal each game from 40, to 31, to 20.
“If you want to name names, we have some great players like Sharpy and Al, but you win with a team concept,” says senior winger Andrew Carroll of Shoreview, Minn. “It’s everyone fighting together and we’ve been fighting for our lives. Thinking about what we’ve been able to do, it’s so exciting it gives me the chills.”
Total games played by UMD’s seniors are 155 for Sharp, 151 for Gergen and Carroll, 148 for Kemp, 141 for Meyers and 125 for defenseman Jay Cascalenda of West St. Paul.
They were the freshmen class of 2005-06, along with three others, defenseman Matt Niskanen and Mason Raymond, who left after their sophomore seasons for the NHL, and defenseman Jason Garrison, who left after his junior year and is in the American Hockey League.
“Most of us were playing every night from our first year,” said Greer. “The longer a season goes now, the more that experience pays off, and makes all the hard work that much more satisfying.”
Greer typifies a senior class that’s recognized for its role players — shot blockers, penalty killers and defensive stars.
“Our seniors have helped our team develop the right chemistry. They’ve said, ‘Let’s do the little things right. Let’s go the extra mile. Let’s make a commitment to each other.’ They’ve shown the way,” said assistant coach Steve Rohlik.
In the 0-3-2 finish, UMD had leads in each game and couldn’t hold on. In the playoffs, they’ve yet to trail and have the second-best win streak in Division I behind Notre Dame’s 10 straight wins.
“Winning is about poise and making plays under pressure. That’s what our team has learned the past two weeks,” said first-year assistant coach Brett Larson.
Head coach Scott Sandelin said a steady, strong season got away briefly, but he points to the final period against Anchorage, when UMD outshot the Seawolves 18-10 (and 49-31 for the game), as the start of the comeback. In the playoffs, UMD has scored six power-play goals, two empty-net goals, a short-handed goal and a four-on-four goal. The team’s penalty killers were 15-for-15 in the Final Five.
“The last month of the regular season was a grind; almost no one in our league had a great record in the second half,” said Sandelin. “Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, and we’ve learned what it takes to win and are playing the best we have all year.”