Thumbs up, thumbs down, three stars: Bulldogs dominate, but Buffalo underwhelms
DULUTH -- Another Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey season is in the books, which means another Frozen Four has come and gone for ‘Bulldog Country’ as well.
Those of us who follow the program are getting spoiled by all these Frozen Four trips. They’re all memorable experiences, whether the Bulldogs win the national championship or fall short.
KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., was the third straight trip for UMD after United Center in Chicago in 2017 and Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in 2018.
Below are my thumbs up, thumbs down and three stars from this year’s Frozen Four experience.
Thumbs up to Bulldogs domination
Back in October, UMD junior goaltender Hunter Shepard offered an interesting quote about the team’s motivations going into a national championship title defense.
“We need to play gritty, like we have something to prove,” Shepard said at the start of the season. “There are always going to be people out there that still think we shouldn’t have won last year. They think it was a fluke and we’re not going to have a good year this year. Those are the people that are going to motivate us.”
It jumped out to me because up until that moment, the word “fluke” had never come up in conversations with anyone about the 2017-18 national champion Bulldogs.
Yes, that team caught some breaks along the way with St. Cloud State and Denver both losing in the regionals. There was also that whole .0001 thing to get into the tournament initially, but no one seemed to question the legitimacy of UMD’s run last year.
And no one should be questioning it again this year. Shepard is going to have a hard time next season creating that same chip on his shoulder after the butt-kicking he and his teammates gave Massachusetts in the championship game and Providence in the semifinals.
UMD had two goals disallowed against the Friars, and still won 4-1, getting two empty-net goals late to give that game the scoreline it truly deserved.
Meanwhile, the Minutemen were held to just two Grade-A scoring chances with one coming in the first period, one in the second and nothing in the third.
The Bulldogs had nine Grade-A chances, scoring on three for the 3-0 final score. That scoreline probably should have read 5-0 in favor of UMD.
Typically I’d consider a lopsided result like Saturday’s to be a snoozer. As much as it hurts deadlines, the fan in me thoroughly enjoys seeing titles decided in overtime. That wasn’t the case Saturday, however. Watching a defending national champion thoroughly dismantle a challenger with 30-plus wins was refreshing.
It left no questions about who the best team was in college hockey this season. That’s not always the case in this sport.
“Even at our best, I don't know if we beat Duluth,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said Saturday. “We'll go home knowing that we lost to a better team tonight, for sure.”
Thumbs down to empty seats
As the News Tribune crew made its way around downtown Buffalo on Wednesday, we could tell we were in a hockey town. We felt like we were just down the road from Duluth in St. Paul.
I mean, there was a Buffalo Sabres-themed Tim Horton’s a block from KeyBank Center (Tim Horton played his final two NHL season with the Sabres). You don’t get any more hockey than that.
Then the puck dropped Thursday afternoon. And again Saturday for the NCAA championship.
So. Many. Empty. Seats.
The 2018 championship in St. Paul this was not, where families were selling off their prized top-secret hotdish recipes to get into Xcel. Large swaths of KeyBank’s upper bowl were empty throughout the Frozen Four as an arena that seats 19,070 only drew announced crowds of 13,051 on Thursday and 13,624 on Saturday.
So what was the problem?
Let’s start with ticket prices, which are steep. All-session tickets started at $225 and that was for the upper level. Lower-level seats started at $475. Single-session tickets started at $120.
As Paula Weston at USCHO.com pointed out, the median income in Buffalo is $31,668. That’s why Sabres tickets start at $30. The NCAA priced the locals out of this tournament, meaning the only way KeyBank Center was going to sell out was with the right mix of teams. To get the ‘Bulldog bump’ that St. Paul did, the NCAA needed Cornell, which is three hours away in Ithaca, N.Y., to make a run.
That brings me to my second knock on this year’s Frozen Four, and that’s location. This was not an easy city to reach. Buffalo is a lengthy drive (or train ride) and an expensive flight for most everyone in college hockey towns.
And Buffalo is by no means a destination city like Chicago was in 2017, or Tampa, Fla., in 2016. That means it’s easy for people to say “pass” when they see the price tag.
3. Ellicottville Brewing Co.: A bus boy at Buffalo’s Anchor Bar (the birthplace of Buffalo wings) recommended I have an EBC Blood Orange Hefeweizen. I haven’t been big on fruit beers lately, but I took his advice anyway. It was phenomenal, so later in the week I tried EBC’s Blueberry Wheat and Orange Chocolate Blonde. All were phenomenal.
2. Blue cheese: When it comes to wings, I’m a ranch guy, but my colleague at the Grand Forks Herald, Brad Schlossman, warned me that’s a big ‘no-no’ in Buffalo, where they insist you get blue cheese. I took his advice, despite the fact I normally am not a fan of the stuff. It’s one of the few cheeses I shy away from. Blue cheese was a great choice. Buffalo does that and wings right.
1. Bulldogs fans: Buffalo was a tough and expensive place for UMD fans to reach, but they still came in droves, whether it was from Duluth or Irma, Alberta. We were serenaded to a “Let’s Go Bulldogs!” chant during dinner Wednesday at Anchor Bar. It was impressive to see all the Bulldogs fans in Buffalo.
Minnesota Duluth will celebrate its 2018-19 national championship men’s hockey team at 6 p.m. Tuesday on campus at Romano Gymnasium. Doors open at 5 p.m. The event is free to the public and will include a team autograph session, as well as photo opportunities with the 2011, 2018 and 2019 NCAA championship trophies.