Perhaps the nation's most consistently good team this season was also the first one sent back to their campus with a loss.
Against seemingly all odds, Minnesota lost to Yale 3-2 behind a slow start and a bad overtime turnover, ending their second-seeded season far earlier than most thought would be possible.
And yet here we are, with No. 15 Yale having slain the heavily favored Gophers and not even breaking that much of a sweat to do it. Of particular note was the play of Kenny Agostino, who went from being a relatively unknown Pittsburgh Penguins prospect to the answer to a Jarome Iginla-related trivia question to scoring the opener then setting up the OT game-winner in the space of about 36 hours. Not a bad way to impress your new bosses.
After a scoreless first period that saw the Bulldogs outshoot the Gophers 11-5, Agostino led the charge with an even-strength goal at 7:08 to stake his team to the early lead, thanks to a badly mismanaged neutral zone play that gave he and his teammates a 4-on-2, and with Agostino — a fairly lethal sniper who had 15 goals entering the game — the far-side trailer as the play developed down the right side, he got himself about 600 square feet of space in which to work and just wired one past freshman Adam Wilcox.
Gus Young scored in much the same way on a power play 8:20 later, simply blowing a shot past Wilcox to stretch the lead to two.
This was, to say the least, unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for the Gophers, who were, possession-wise, dominating the game. They finished the game with 81 shot attempts, but only put 28 on net, which made it a little easier on Jeff Malcolm than it probably needed to have been. To its credit, though, Yale was fully committed to protecting their goalie and finished the game with almost as many blocks as shots allowed, at 25.
But as these things so often do, it started to tilt heavily into the higher seed's favor in the third period. The Gophers came out of the dressing room a little angry, and attempted 11 shots in just the first 7:27 before Yale's Colin Dueck went off for tripping. Not long after that, Nate Schmidt pulled his team within one on a seeing-eye wrister with Wild draft pick Erik Haula fronting the net.
Preds pick Zach Budish brought the game back even at with 6:20 remaining in regulation because, somehow, he was able to find himself all alone out front — how you lose Budish, who finished the season with 14 goals, out front is beyond me — but the centering pass from Haula through two bodies was right where it needed to be and it sure looked like the Bulldogs would be in tough to even keep it that close.
Minnesota kept pressing, Yale kept diving in front of every shot and occasionally clearing the zone, and shots in the third finished 12-6. The result seemed inevitable, as the Gophers were dominating nearly all facets of the game after that wobbly-legged start, but one area in which they dominated most thoroughly — at the dot — ended up being their undoing in overtime.
Panthers blue-chip prospect Nick Bjugstad won the opening draw of the overtime period so emphatically that it trickled all the way back toward his own left faceoff circle, and poor Ben Marshall had no idea a hellhound was on his trail. Almost as soon as he touched the puck and tried to circle back behind his own net, Agostino was all over him, forced a quick turnover, and Seth Helgeson was so far to the other side of the ice he had no hope of getting to the centering pass to Jesse Root.
Minnesota earned the extra period, sure enough, but one miscue earned them a plane ticket home nine seconds later. Root's was the fastest overtime goal in NCAA tournament history.
So as it turns out — and this was also borne out by three of the four results today — the WCHA, which had a lot to crow about in getting six teams into the tournament this year, is instead eating a bunch of it. Its best team from front to back this season lost to Yale of all teams in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and one supposes that's how single-elimination tournaments sometimes go.
So now we're short one of the four No. 1 seeds in this tournament already, and full marks to the Bulldogs for that. But this was an impressive performance from Agostino in particular, as powering past whatever pressure he might have felt from being part of the meager return for Iginla and proving the doubters wrong for a day had to feel pretty damn good.
These teams entered the tournament as the two hottest in the nation, going a combined 43-8-5 since the beginning of December, and most thought it was a crying shame they had to meet in the first round. However, in actually watching this game, you could really tell how Lowell went 22-3-1 down the stretch, and how Wisconsin started out 1-7-2.
To say the Wisconsin defense was discombobulated would be excessively kind; I don't have the exact numbers on this, but if they didn't give up a baker's dozen of breakaways or odd-man scoring chances because of neutral zone miscommunications, they at least climbed into the double digits. Lowell scored on four such chances.
Moreover, the offense that pumped seven past Minnesota State and four past St. Cloud was nowhere in evidence, as Lowell did what Lowell always does: Keep things to the perimeter and give Jets draft pick Connor Hellebuyck plenty of space to make saves. He made 31 of them, and the only shot that beat him came on a power play, and hit two bodies on the way to the net. A good night in a season full of them, as he improved to 19-2.
You had to feel for Joel Rumpel at the other end of the ice, because he stopped an early breakaway to keep the game scoreless but his defense continually treated him like he ran over each of their dogs individually. Five goals against on 25 shots isn't going to look good on the stat sheet, but what chance did he really have? The River Hawks carved up the Badger defense for 60 straight minutes.
This one brought the WCHA to 0-2 on the day.
North Dakota 2, Niagara 1
This was another nervy result for the Western power, as the Purple Eagles actually led 1-0 through the first 40 minutes. However, relatively early in the third, the former Sioux decided they would actually put in the effort required to shake free of Niagara's stifling, in-your-face defense. And so they did.
Goals from Toronto's Andrew MacWilliam and Montreal's Danny Kristo just 57 seconds apart put NoDak ahead less than three minutes into the final period, and still the favorites persisted in peppering Carsen Chubak, who made 41 saves in the loss. Shots ended up 20-7 in the third, thanks in large part to Niagara going to the box four times in that final 20 minutes as they struggled to keep up.
This was the expected result for North Dakota, and could have been a lot worse in theory. But theory isn't practice, and that they had to sweat this one doesn't speak too well of anything that happened today.
Early on, this one looked like it was going to go the Pioneers' way, as they led 2-1 after the first period and UNH was playing some rather dubious own-zone defense. But then, something happened, and Denver became completely disorganized in all facets of the game and the host Wildcats straight-up ran away with the game late in the second period.
That period was penalty-filled, but Trevor van Riemsdyk finally capitalized at 14:34 to pull UNH back even. Denver would probably have been happy to get out of the period with the score that way, considering UNH was now outshooting them heavily, but Dalton Speelman scored just over five minutes later to give UNH the lead it never again thought about surrendering.
Casey DeSmith turned in his first good performance in weeks, stopping 31 of 33, and dropping the WCHA's vaunted entries into the tournament to just 1-3 on the day. Ugly stuff all around.
1. Kenny Agostino, Yale
Again, getting both the first goal of the game and the primary assist on the OT winner thanks to a huge forechecking effort is all well and good, but he also logged big-time minutes, put four shots on goal and finished a plus-2 against the No. 2 team in the nation. Just a massive game, and anyone wondering who he was in the immediate wake of the Iginla trade probably knows full well now. You know for sure Minnesota does.
2. Ryan McGrath, UMass Lowell
Despite the River Hawks scoring six goals, McGrath was the only one to finish with multiple points, but the way he did it was rather impressive. Less than six minutes after Nic Kerdiles scored in the third period to cut Lowell's lead to two, McGrath set up Derek Arnold on a beautiful 2-on-1 rush to stretch the game out again. Then, just to put the exclamation point on the win, he also scored a power play goal even after his team put one into the empty net, which is the ultimate way to serve up a little humiliation.
3. Trevor van Riemsdyk, UNH
Another guy with a goal and an assist, but this time from the blue line. He helped set up UNH's first goal and then gave them a lifeline back into the game with a strike of his own, in addition to playing the kind of lockdown defense for which he became famous among Hockey East forwards. His way won't be quite so easy against the River Hawks in the East Regional final tomorrow, but this was another in a string of very strong performances for the sophomor
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