When I previewed this weekend's series, I noted that it was a chance for both UND and UMN to stabilize their positions atop the NCHC and the Big Ten, respectively.
Well, both teams did that, but only one of these teams is particularly happy. What's going on?
For the UND Fighting Hawks, they had plenty of reason to be happy. They sank Western Michigan and picked up their 11th weekend sweep of the season, which to be honest, wasn't entirely unexpected. What was unexpected was the performance of typically-solid sophomore goaltender Cam Johnson.
His play on Saturday night put the Fighting Hawks on their heels, trailing an unranked Broncos squad after only 12:50. Johnson stopped one shot before allowing the next three for goals, including a flubbed goal over his glove hand less than five minutes into the game. Johnson was pulled in favor of Matt Hrynkiw, who stepped in and gave the Fighting Hawks some stability.
That stability proved to be a catalyst for UND's comeback. The stability Hrynkiw provided allowed the Fighting Hawks to begin their rushes up the ice from the defensive zone, allowing them to position their all-star line of Drake Caggiula , Nick Schmaltz , and Brock Boeser in the right spots to break out of the zone. It's the type of play that's driven their offensive engine all season.
That system also provides structure to a dominant North Dakota transition game, which produced this goal on Friday night for Schmaltz. Note, the video is courtesy of the University of North Dakota and your mind will be blown at roughly the :44 second mark.
On Saturday, that motoring offense was stifled at times by Johnson's inability to contain the puck and allow his team to set up the play going forward.
At the end of the weekend, and in truth, at the end of the season, the real test was their Senior Night. With emotions running high and trailing by two going into the second period, the Fighting Hawks had a point to prove. But for the first time, it wasn't to anyone outside the room. They've been a darling of hockey blogs and the USCHO rankings all season, but a deficit like that to a team like this can break teams.
So, when UND rolled the Broncos 4-1 in the following 40 minutes, they proved themselves to be every bit as scary as I've insisted all season. I'm not a fan of the Fighting Hawks, but I'm a fan of good hockey, persistence, and seeing what happens when a system clicks. In the last 40 minutes of regular season hockey for so many seniors in North Dakota, that's exactly what they produced.
So with the celebration for UND well under way, what's going on with the University of Minnesota Gophers? Well, fortunately for them, they took Friday night's game against Michigan State and secured a bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
The two teams played a tight game on Friday, tied midway through the third until Tommy Novak gave the Gophers an edge. Novak has been a revelation for the Gophers in the latter half of the season, giving them an unexpected offensive punch that has been a challenge for opponents to plan against.
For some reason, though, Novak's play has made him the repeated target of high or dangerous hits from opponents. In particular, he was the target of two rough hits against the University of Wisconsin Badgers earlier in 2016. He seems healthy nevertheless, but I wonder about his durability in the long term.
In any case, the Gophers eeked out a win and secured a better position in the Big Ten tournament, which is good for their tournament chances. That win is especially valuable given the embarrassing trouncing that came on Saturday night.
Goalie Eric Schierhorn has slowly emerged as a stable force in the marron and gold crease. Unfortunately for the Gophers, like for the Fighting Hawks, their stalwart was something less than that on Saturday. Schierhorn played a solid first 20 minutes, until a slew of bad goals caused Don Lucia to pull him from the game midway through the second.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, Brock Kautz is no Matt Hrynkiw, and he couldn't provide the stability they needed to put together a comeback. On Saturday, the Gophers were shut out by a churning Spartans offense. It's possible UMN simply got ahead of itself and the players had turned their minds to the tournament to come. If this is the case, it's an indictment of the attitude of players on the Gophers' bench, because the fact of the matter is they're not as talented as many of the teams they'll face in the NCAA tournament.
Worse yet, by losing to the Spartans on Saturday, their chances at an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament took a big hit. They'll need to win the Big Ten tournament to guarantee that bid, and to do that, they'll have to bring a bigger, more dynamic, and more focused game in the coming weeks.
Whether or not they can do that is something we'll see sooner rather than later. At this point, it's on the leaders in the room to step forward and show their younger teammates that donning the maroon and gold is about more than just the history of the colors, but about contributing to that tradition with every game, every period, every shift.