The puck was in his glove and then it was in the net. Just like that, one team took control of the game, while the other was left shaking its heads and wondering what just happened.
Last week’s NCAA National Championship game was something else.
One team, Boston University, was stacked with star power and had arguably the best offense in the country. The other, Providence College, made its first trip to the Frozen Four in 30 years and was trying to win its first title. The Friars were also the last team to make into the tournament and some analysts didn’t give them much credit since they played their regional in their own backyard.
BU was the heavy favorite, although they shouldn’t have been. Providence was predicted to win Hockey East before the season, so the Friars were more than capable of upsetting the mighty Terriers. The Friars struck first when Anthony Florentino popped a rebound over BU goalie Matt O’Connor. However, BU showed how potent its offense as they scored two goals in four seconds — a new NCAA tournament record.
Despite being outshot 18-6 in the first period, the Friars kept up with the Terriers and on the power play, Mark Jankowski fired a one-timer past O’Connor. However, Providence went into the second break down by one goal once again as Tyler Hohmann tapped a rebound past Providence’s sprawling goalie Jon Gillies.
BU was able to hold its slim advantage until midway through the third period when the strangest goal many had ever seen bit O’Connor. O’Connor had been playing with fire the entire tournament as he gave up soft goals and gave up a terrible goal the previous game against North Dakota after misplaying the puck behind the net, but this one topped them all. Providence’s Tom Parisi lofted the puck into the air in the neutral zone and O’Connor calmly snared the puck out of the air. What happened next is hard to explain, even for O’Connor. After grasping the puck in his trapper, it managed to fall out. O’Connor was unable to find it and instinctively went into the butterfly position to block it. Unfortunately for the Terriers, O’Connor ended up knocking the puck into the net and just like that, the Friars tied the game at 3-3.
BU head coach David Quinn called a timeout to calm his squad down, but it didn’t help as Providence struck again moments later. The Friars won the ensuing faceoff and Brandon Tanev beat O’Connor top shelf to get what ended up being the winning goal. Gillies then showed why he was one of the best netminders in the country (and why he won most outstanding player in the tourney) in the closing minutes as he made two big pad saves, but his best save came after Quinn pulled O’Connor to get the extra attacker. With two Terriers set up on the far side of the net, it looked as if Gillies was doomed as the goal was wide open. However, the junior was able to reach back with his stick to keep the puck from crossing the line and swatted it down the ice. Seconds later, Gillies threw his stick and pads in the air as the Friars mobbed him after winning the title, while his counterpart, O’Connor, sat on the bench with his head buried in his hands. This is the second time in three years that the last team in the tournament ended up winning it all.
As devastating as his mistake was, O’Connor didn’t cost the Terriers the title. However, his gaffe is what everyone will remember from the game and he knew that. Some players might’ve shied away from the media and most of us in the profession would’ve understood. Instead, he faced the music and took questions from reporters, some of them repeatedly. He didn’t have to sit and answer for an error that was hard to explain, but he did it and he earned a lot of respect for doing so. Hopefully, he will be remembered for that as much as his mistake, but I doubt it.
O’Connor wasn’t the only person who had to face the music after the tournament. North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol did too and his fanbase was less forgiving. Hakstol led the Fighting Sioux to its seventh Frozen Four in 11 years, but once again, they felt short of winning their eighth national title. UND has had its share of star-powered teams including one in 2007 that included both Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie, but the Sioux just couldn’t seem to get past that first game at the Frozen. They also lost that game three years ago to Boston College, so including this year’s loss to BU, that’s four losses to teams from Beantown. The UND faithful are growing frustrated with Hakstol’s lack of a title and although his job is very secure, his seat is starting to get a little warm. I’ll admit, there have been times where I’ve grown frustrated with a lack of another title (UND has now gone 15 years without one. It may not seem like much, but it’s a century to Sioux fans), but I know that Hakstol is a phenomenal coach and it really is only a matter of time until he wins one. As painful as these losses have been in the Frozen Four (the last two have really hurt), Sioux fans should keep in mind that many teams are envious of UND’s situation and would trade places in a minute. Keep hope alive. It’s going to happen.
With the college season coming to a close, the NHL is entering its “second season.” Like the Frozen Four, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a crapshoot as every team is capable of hoisting the cup in June. My favorite thing about this year’s pairings is that five of the seven Canadian franchises made it in, including Winnipeg, which will always be close to my heart. Things are always more fun when Canada is involved and to me, it’s hard to find something more fun to watch than seeing Canadians belt out their national anthem in unison. Will that stirring sight take place in the Finals? That’s up for debate as are my first round predictions.
Anaheim vs. Winnipeg- This appears like a mismatch as the Ducks racked up 109 points to win the conference, while the Jets had to wait for the last few games to make it in. However, I think Winnipeg will give Anaheim a battle. The Jets have two 60-point scorers in Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler and a good offensive defenseman in Dustin Byfuglien, who had 45. Winnipeg also can keep up with the Ducks in net. However, I think Anaheim’s firepower will be too much as Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry push the Ducks into the second round. Anaheim in five.
St. Louis vs. Minnesota- This is an interesting matchup all around. For me, it’s fascinating because both teams are prone to having great regular seasons, only to fall apart in the playoffs. Only one will get to move on this year and it’s a toss-up. Both teams have good offenses and great leaders in the Wild’s Zach Parise and the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues have the best power play in the conference, but I think the stellar play of Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk this season gives the Wild a slim advantage. Minnesota in seven.
Nashville vs. Chicago-The Predators are a bit of surprise this year as they made the playoffs with 104 points. The Blackhawks are not as they’ve been one of the kings in the league for the past few years. Once again, Chicago is loaded with Toews, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa lead the offense. Fellow star Patrick Kane, who has been out 12 weeks with a broken clavicle, is also set to return this series, so the Blackhawks are clearly going to put the puck in the net. The pressure is going to be on Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne to keep the Preds in the series as Nashville’s offense is not in the same class as Chicago’s. Rinne is more than capable of stealing some games for the Preds and I think he’ll get one, but that’s it. Chicago in five.
Vancouver vs. Calgary- The fact the Flames are in the playoffs is hard to believe. Calgary has a great young player in former Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau and Jonas Hiller is a good goaltender, but the Flames don’t have much else. Vancouver isn’t anything special either other than the Sedin brothers, Henrik and Daniel, and goalie Ryan Miller wasn’t on the top of his game this year. It’s not going to be a pretty series, but I think the Canucks are slightly better so they’ll move on to the second round. Vancouver in seven.
Montreal vs. Ottawa-The Senators have been a feel-good story this season thanks the hot play of goaltender Andrew Hammond, dubbed “The Hamburglar.” Ottawa was also seemingly out of the playoff race just two months ago, but the Sens kicked it into gear. Montreal on the other hand, looked good all year and contended for the President’s Trophy for the majority of the season. Carey Price has also been outstanding in net and the Habs have three 60-point men including fan favorite P.K. Subban. I think Ottawa makes things interesting, but the Habs will be too much for even Hammond to handle. Montreal in six.
Tampa Bay vs. Detroit- Get ready for a fun series because the Lightning have the ability to strike quickly (literally) and the Red Wings almost always bring their best effort in the postseason. Tampa is known for its offense with scoring machine Steven Stamkos and 72-point man Tyler Johnson, but the Bolts also have a strong goalie in former Maine Black Bear Ben Bishop. For the Wings, this could be their last chance. Detroit is getting old, but its stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg still have some jump in their skates. The question for the Wings lies in net as backup Petr Mrazek has gotten the call over starter Jimmy Howard. Mrazek has shown some promise, but I think the Lightning will be too much to handle. Tampa in six.
N.Y. Rangers vs. Pittsburgh- Remember when the Penguins were the team to beat in the league and were on the cusp of a dynasty? It wasn’t all that long ago, but right now, it looks as if all that promise is fading away. Pittsburgh still has future Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who can kick it into gear quickly, but goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is a question mark. Fleury has a reputation of choking in the playoffs, and if that happens again, the Pens are screwed. Pittsburgh’s opponent is also kind of good. The Rangers won the President’s Trophy and came close to winning the Cup last year, falling to Los Angeles in the Finals. This year, the pieces seem to be in place. They’ve got offense in Rick Nash, Derik Brassard and Martin St. Louis along with in my opinion, the best goalie in the league in Henrik Lundqvist. Pittsburgh will put up a fight, but the Rangers are primed for a deep run. New York in six.
Washington vs. N.Y. Islanders- I told you that Tampa-Detroit was going to be fun, but this series could be even better. This is the Isles last year on Long Island as they will move to Brooklyn next season, and they would like to leave on a positive note. They have the talent to go far as John Tavares is a stud with 86 points, but he has a good supporting cast in former Golden Gopher Kyle Okposo and former Fighting Sioux center Brock Nelson. The goaltending situation is good with Jaroslav Halak, but it’s not ideal. On the other end are the Capitals, another team who for years seemed like a Cup contender, but now, might actually be one. Washington still has Alexander Ovechkin, who racked up 81 points this year, along with center Nicklas Backstrom and a good defensive corps led by John Carlson and Mike Green. Braden Holtby has also become one of the best goalies in the land and I think he outplays Halak in a thrilling series. Washington in seven.