‘X’ factor may be teams’ familiarity
Fond memories, hopes carrying championship contenders
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The seniors from the University of Michigan have traveled a long way in their college hockey career, only to wind up back in the same place.
When Matt Rust, Carl Hagelin and Louie Caporusso lead their Wolverine teammates on the ice Thursday night at the Xcel Energy Center to face North Dakota in the second semifinal game at the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four (8 p.m. ET, ESPN 2), they’ll be on the same ice where they played their first collegiate games, at the 2007 Ice Breaker Tournament.
“It’s great being back here in Minnesota,” Caporusso said. “I remember it like it was yesterday, playing our first game against BC.”
Caporusso certainly would have fond memories of that game. A native of Woodbridge, Ontario, Caporusso scored his first collegiate point by assisting on Hagelin’s goal midway through the first period, then got his first collegiate goal in overtime when he poked the puck away from Boston College goalie John Muse, setting up an own-goal situation by the Eagles.
However, the Wolverines aren’t likely to enjoy such luck on Thursday, when they face a North Dakota team that is unbeaten in its past 15 games. “We need to play our game,” head coach Red Berenson said. “If we let them do what they are good at, they will do it. We need to stay on the ice, be responsible with the puck and be ultra responsible without the puck.
"If you give this team out-numbered rushes and power-plays they will take you right out of the game.”
The Sioux also will have the backing of a large -- and vocal -- traveling fan base that is no stranger to the Xcel Energy Center. North Dakota has won its past five games at the “X,” capturing the Broadmoor Trophy in each of the past two seasons as WCHA Champions at the Final Five.
“The Xcel Energy Center is a beautiful arena,” junior forward Jason Gregoire said. “If there is a rink out there that can rival Ralph Engelstad Arena it would be this one. I am looking forward to seeing our fans come out for the game [Thursday]. At the WCHA Final Five our fans were unbelievable. It is going to be a really fun night for us.”
The Wolverines’ seniors, for their part, know a thing or two about facing hostile crowds in St. Paul, as their win against BC earned them the right to play Minnesota for the Ice Breaker championship, a game that saw the Gophers claim a 4-3 victory despite the first two goals of Rust’s collegiate career.
“I think the most important part is us sticking to our game,” Rust said. “Obviously there are a lot of lights, glamour and the entire atmosphere surrounding the Frozen Four, but coach always tells us it’s still a hockey game and we are always against someone who wants to win as much as North Dakota does. Just sticking to the simple things and knowing how close we are will really come together for us and we will do some special things.”
The only team in the field that wasn’t in the Frozen Four three years ago, Minnesota-Duluth, has its own special distinction as the only team from the “State of Hockey” in the field.
“We are just really excited to be here,” senior defenseman Mike Montgomery said. “We know we have a good following. We are excited to go out there and showcase our team.”
When the Bulldogs earned the right to play here by winning the East Regional, it was a showcase for goaltender Kenny Reiter, who made 62 saves on 65 shots against Union and Yale, winning Most Outstanding Player honors for the weekend. When Reiter takes the ice on Thursday, it will have been nearly two weeks since those games in Bridgeport, Conn., but Reiter is confident he can come out in similar form.
“I think we would have liked to play these games last weekend,” Reiter said, “just to keep our momentum going coming off the regional. I am playing with confidence right now. I have confidence in my teammates. It hasn’t been too hard. I’m just trying to go out there and stick to the basics and I think that is what helped me play so well at the regional.”
“When he is confident it brings confidence to the rest of the D-core,” Montgomery said. “We feel we can play more aggressive and know Kenny has got our backs. He has been solid all season, but really been something else this postseason.”
Some observers might consider the Bulldogs’ hair to be “something else,” but UMD head coach Scott Sandelin admires the camaraderie his team has shown.
“Anytime a team can do that, and everyone buys into it, I think it tells you what kind of team it is,” Sandelin said. “My son’s peewee team did it. I think it’s great, and it does bring the team together.”
The Bulldogs’ opponents, of course, are no stranger to golden domes, but Notre Dame also has its own emerging star in net in Mike Johnson. A sophomore from Verona, Wis., Johnson was named the Most Outstanding Player at the Northeast Regional after making 32 saves in a 4-3 overtime win against Merrimack and 38 saves in a 2-1 victory against New Hampshire.
“Mike is a character kid,” Jackson said. “One of the things he is going through is that he had never truly been a number one goalie, and last year he was just thrown into it. He had top five numbers in the country in the first half last year before fading out. This year he took a positive step, he was much better in shape, and worked hard in the offseason. He had some stellar games this year.”
As the Frozen Four approaches, Jackson hopes that Johnson has two more stellar games in him.