Two teams battle for respect on very different spectrums Saturday.
If the Union Dutchmen have ever had the opportunity to legitimize themselves in this era of college hockey, then it would have to be this Saturday against the #1 nationally ranked Minnesota Gophers.
While the Dutchmen are eager to solidify their respect among the tournament regulars, the Gophers could establish themselves as the second best program of the new millennium. A Minnesota win would make them one of the biggest among the big.
Minnesota’s program has a real opportunity to separate itself in terms of the best teams in the new millennium. Winning a national championship is no joke. Just ask the Boston College Eagles. They have won four in their last 13 seasons ( three in the last seven seasons) and stand as the winningest team since 2000, but it took them 52 years to win that second one in 2001.
Similarly to the Eagles, the Gophers have been a steady ship in the 2000’s, a situation they likely don’t take for granted. After Minnesota’s NCAA championship in 1979, they went 23 years before winning a Frozen Four final again in 2002. In that long span (long unless you ask a BC fan), they had two appearances in the finals, those being in ‘81 and ’89. Since 2002, they’ve won one more championship (against New Hampshire Wildcats in 2003), two conference championships and been regular season champions in 2006, 2007, 2012, 2013 and this past season, 2014. This has been a phenomenal 12 year run, especially considering how some titanic college hockey schools have suffered the pains of drastic fluctuation. The Boston University Terriers, who won their fifth NCAA championship in 2009, had a 5-12-3 record this year in Hockey East, 10-21-4 overall.
Considering how difficult it is to stay afloat from year to year in the NCAA and how stable the Gophers have been in the past 14 years, a third championship for Minnesota in the 2000’s would cement their status as a modern dynasty.
In contrast, Union, is continuing to provide evidence to suggest that they’re more than just the best team in a so-so ECAC conference. Yes, though BC has a stellar offense centered around Johnny Gaudreau, the Eagles entered the tournament with a freshman goalie and a defense that left the team unbalanced. However, there is no discrediting the Dutchmen for beating one of the best teams in the country hands down on Thursday, a team that proved its worth two week ago in a tough Regional Final against the UMass-Lowell River Hawks. The Dutchmen appearance in the final game on Saturday demonstrates significant growth since head coach Rick Bennett’s arrival three years ago, and a win would secure their respect for the near future in the NCAA tournament.
The most convincing part of the Union win over BC on Thursday was the fashion in which they won, outscoring a freakishly talented offense 5-4. Johnny Gaudreau, who scored 36 goals in 40 games this year, had one goal and two assists against the Dutchmen. Union was that much better with Daniel Ciampini’s third goal of the night with 1:05 remaining practically sealing their victory.
If you believe in destiny, it seemed to be on the Gophers’ side Thursday when Minnesota’s Justin Holl skated into the slot and shot past North Dakota goalie Zane Gothberg to win the game with less than a second to go. Certainly, that could play into the intangibles Saturday. The Gophers are grateful to be in the finals after grinding out the win two days before.
However, maybe that’s fate setting the Dutchmen up for the best possible initiation into the upper echelon of college hockey.
And if you’re wondering about how small of a David Union is to its Goliath of an opponent, you should note that, as the Associated Press’ Mike Wisniewski pointed out on Friday, Union has a total of 2,220 and no scholarship athletes. Minnesota has 50,000 undergrads and dolls out the maximum of 18 allowed in NCAA hockey.