Ahh the words that I've been waiting to write since I started this blog back in 05. Tonight the Michigan Wolverines could become NCAA Champions for the first time since 1998--and the first time since I completely fell in love with Michigan hockey.
The only team standing in our way is the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, who seek to become the first team since 1993 to win their first NCAA Championship. Here are ten things to know about UMD.
1) They finished the regular season in fourth place in the WCHA, one point behind our first round opponent, Nebraska-Omaha. They are 25-10-6 on the season and were 15-8-5 in the WCHA and 3-1-0 on neutral ice. They started the season on a tear, going 11-1-2 out of the gate. They faltered down the stretch and went just 4-5-2 heading into the NCAA Tournament, with two of the wins in the first round of WCHAs.
2) They did okay against NCAA Tournament Teams, but certainly not great. They were 1-2 against North Dakota, 1-1 against Denver, 0-1-1 against CC, and 1-1 against Omaha. Then they obviously beat Union, Yale, and Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament.
3) The offense is solid. They finished the year 11th in goals per game at 3.41, which is .06 ahead of where Michigan ended up. They have three of the top 12 in points per game, however, in Jack Connolly, Justin Fontaine, and Mike Connolly (no relation). Jack averaged one assist per game, second to only Hobey Baker-winner Andy Miele in that regard. That line combined for 44% of UMD's offense this season.
I've talked to some people here in WCHA country who swear the Connollys are the two best forwards in the WCHA.
They get some offense from the blueline, but it's almost entirely due to Justin Faulk, their Merrill. He was a second-round pick of Carolina and has 8-25--33 in his freshman year. Six of those tallies were on the power play. They had gotten 12 points in 17 games out of Dylan Olsen, but he went pro around New Years. The remainder of the defense corps combines for 35 points. As a whole (including Faulk) they have 6 goals while not on the man advantage.
4) Where the offense really gets scary is on the power play. Both Connollys have 7 markers with the man advantage, while Fontaine has 12, good for second in the country. As a whole, their power play is 7th in the country at 23.3%. They've scored 49 PPGs on the year and have only given up three shorthanded.
You only have to look to the Notre Dame game to see how good they can be when they are rolling, however. UMD was 3 for 6 in that game. They were 3 for 9 against Yale and 2 for 8 against Union. All in all, 8 of their 11 goals in the NCAA Tournament have come with the man-advantage. Over the past 11 games, their power play has cashed in on 33.3% (17 of 51).
The lesson here: STAY OUT OF THE BOX!!!!!! Or kill penalties like against North Dakota if you do end up in the sin bin.
5) Defensively, the Bulldogs are 17th, giving up 2.59 goals per game. (As a reference, Michigan has risen to 6th in the national rankings, at 2.21 goals per game.) Their goalie is senior Kenny Reiter. He's 15-7-5 on the season with a 2.32/.914. He's played well in the NCAA Tournament (Most Outstanding Player at the East Regional) but gave up a major softie to get Notre Dame back in the game in the third period. I heard the other two goals weren't anything special either. He can be beaten. From the limited amount that I've watched Duluth in the NCAAs, he seems like a decent puckhandler.
6) The PK is middle of the pack: 27th at 82.2%. (Michigan is 21st at 83.4%.) They have 7 shorties, we have eight. They've been shorthanded 4 more times than Michigan all season. Duluth gets the advantage on the special teams because their power play is much better than ours.
7) The teams haven't played since October of 2001, when they beat us 3-2. I distinctly remember that we were highly-ranked at the time, they were not good. I was working at the Michigan Union Bookstore that day, and when I checked the score line I ended up being really pissed off. Let's not repeat that. Why do I remember that, and I probably couldn't tell you what I had for dinner two days ago?
8) Jack Connolly was named to the All-West First Team as an All-American. Mike was on the second team, along with Carl Hagelin.
9) Fontaine has points in 11-straight games and has been held off the scoresheet on just three occasions since the start of 2011. He has 11 multi-point games since January 1, including four in the postseason so far. He had three assists against Notre Dame in the semifinals. Jack had an 11-game point streak of his own snapped a few weeks ago, but he has also scored in all but three games this calendar year and has 2-2--4 in the NCAA Tournament. Most of that damage came against Yale. Mike has been held off the scoresheet on five occasions in 2011, but had a five-goal game against Minnesota(!). Strangely enough, that was his only multi-goal game since OCTOBER. And he had FIVE. He has 2-3--5 in the NCAAs. Again, most of that damage (1-3--4) was against top-seed Yale.
10) Travis Oleksuk has just 13 goals on the year, but seven were game-winners. A second-generation Bulldog, he's been their Mr. Clutch.
In reading up about Duluth, it sounds like they're scary offensively, but are largely a one-line team. Michigan will have last change in this game, which is a good sign as we can get Rust's line out there against the Connollys. The defensemen don't activate often, but Faulk is as good as it gets at both ends of the ice. He's got a killer shot on the power play, and that opens things up for the Connollys and Fontaine down low.
Reiter is a pretty good goalie who was excellent in the East Regional, but struggled against Notre Dame.
If Michigan comes out with one more effort like the last three, I fully expect to have "one for the other thumb" tonight. It should be a great game and it could go either way, but I like having last change, I like the way Michigan is playing right now defensively, I love the way they've been killing penalties, they've shown the ability to shut down a ridiculous top line, and Shawn Hunwick is the best goalie in the country right now.
I'm getting ready to head out the door to St. Paul. GO BLUE!