By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The first thing you noticed when walking into the KeyBank Center before Thursday’s Frozen Four double-header was the empty seats.
There were rows and rows of them. In fact, there were sections with only a handful of fans in them.
What’s more, the unoccupied seats weren’t limited to the 300 section of the building. There were plenty of unused seats downstairs too.
What happened? This was an event that packed in the patrons to capacity when it was held here in 2003. Sixteen years later, as the announcers always say, there were plenty of good seats available.
There were a couple of factors that probably were out of the organizers’ control. None of the teams that reached the Frozen Four were particularly close to Buffalo. The University of Massachusetts is said to be six hours away by car while Providence is a seven-hour drive – and those numbers may be low. As for Denver or Minnesota Duluth, well, let’s just say it’s a long, long way. It might have helped to have a Cornell or Michigan here, although that’s something that can’t be controlled.
Second, it’s certainly possible that the fans came in shifts for the two games. Some saw their favorite team in the first game and left afterwards. Some came later on for the second game, perhaps because of a particular loyalty and perhaps because they had to get out of work and then come to the game. Now, if I’m buying tickets for two games, I’m staying for two games. But I have a frugal side.
But maybe the biggest factor was ticket prices. In 2003, a seat for a game was $40, with $120 for the weekend package. This time it was $120 or $240, plus some fees. Based on some comments I saw and heard, some of the fans of Western New York weren’t ready to pay that – even if tickets were cheaper here than they were in Minnesota last year.
It’s a fair question to wonder if the Sabres’ problems have spilled over a bit into an attitude about hockey in general. Fans have spent a lot of money in the past several years to see a team miss the playoffs constantly. Maybe they aren’t too anxious to spend more money on teams that don’t feature a personal attachment.
This is the second event in two years in which a big hockey event has come to Buffalo, and the crowds have been disappointing. The World Junior Championships didn’t do well either, although the outdoor game may have disguised the final attendance numbers.
And so we’re 0 for 2 in our last two at-bats. Will we get another chance to step up to the plate and host an event like this? No one is going to talk about that right now, but somebody needs to take a good-sized look at what went wrong. These events add to the quality of life in our region, and I’d hate to see them stop coming because we couldn’t fix the problem.
Minnesota Duluth advances again
It was rather easy to pick out the turning point of the first semifinal of the day between Minnesota-Duluth and Providence, eventually won by UMD by a 4-1 score.
The game was in the third period, tied at 1-1. The two teams were about as even as could be, even if the Bulldogs did have a couple of goals called back along the way. Then with Minnesota-Duluth already down a man due to penalty, Billy Exell picked up a second penalty. That meant the Friars would have 1 minute and 18 seconds with the two-man advantage.
“That penalty, I saw a guy breaking to the net,” Exell of UMD said. “You do anything you can to stop him and not let him get a shot off. We were stressing a little bit in the box.”
But while Providence had a couple of good (but not great) chances, it didn’t score a go-ahead goal. One of the biggest reasons why that happened was that Justin Richards won about three key faceoffs. That stopped the Friars’ power play – which is a very dangerous unit – from setting up in the Duluth zone.
“Anytime you get a face-off win, it’s good, but on the penalty kill it’s that much more important,” Richards said. “You can clear it, and it kills off 20 to 25 seconds.”
It took a little more than three minutes, but the Bulldogs soon turned up the offensive pressure. They were in the midst of a very good shift, when they scored the go-ahead goal. Naturally, it was Exell who got it – going from a potential goat to a definite hero within a matter of minutes.
“I went to the net, the rebound came to me, and I happened to put it in,” he said.
After a couple of empty-net goals in the final minute, Minnesota Duluth had the victory. This will be the third straight year that the Bulldogs have reached the finals, and that sort of experience certainly came in handy against a pesky Providence team.
“There are a lot of guys that are playing in their third Frozen Four,” Richards said. “We’ve learned how to play under pressure. That experience really came into play tonight.”
“I know it’s hard,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said about reaching another final. “It’s extremely difficult. This was a very, very hard hockey game. I can’t say enough about our players … This is tremendous for the program and the university, to be in this position. I never take it for granted.”
Minnesota Duluth will play the winner of Thursday’s other semifinal, between Massachusetts and Denver. We’ll update this story later in the evening.
It took a while, but Massachusetts advanced to the title game against UMD early on Friday morning.
Marc Del Gaizo absolutely blasted a shot from the left point that no one probably saw until it went into the net at 15:18 of overtime. It gave the Minutemen a 4-3 win over Denver. UMass and UMD will square off for the national championship on Saturday night at 8.
“It’s probably the proudest moment of my life,” the defenseman said. “It seems like a dream, but we’re going to play for the national championship.”
Massachusetts was enjoying its first trip to the Frozen Four for most of the first 50 minutes of the game. In the first period, UMass had already scored a power-play goal to tie the game at 1-1 (Bobby Trivigno) when it received a huge break. Ryan Barrow of Denver picked up a five-minute major and a game misconduct for head contact with one of his teammates already in the box for a minor infraction.
Mitchell Chaffee and John Leonard scored on the power play, That meant UMass had scored three goals with the man-advantage within 1:41. But that wasn’t enough.
The Pioneers got one of the goals back (Cole Guttman) with a little less than 10 minutes to play. That made the UMass fans, the most enthusiastic bunch in the building, understandably nervous. And they had reason to be. Guttman got just enough space in the slot to rip home the tying goal with 3:41 left. The Minutemen held on for the rest of regulation time, which sent it into overtime.
For those with a bent for history, the last time that a game in the KeyBank Center went into unlimited overtime (in other words, no five-minute session) was the Sabres’ last playoff game here. It came in 2011, and Ville Leino – yes, that Ville Leino – scored the winner for the Flyers. Philadelphia won the next game too to take the series in seven. Buffalo hasn’t been back in the postseason since.
The overtime featured plenty of scoring chances on both sides. The game went on for more than 15 minutes of playing time. More to the point, the calendar even flipped to April 12 as the clock went past midnight. Finally, Del Gaizo sent everyone home at 12:02 a.m., the latest finish in Frozen Four history.
“In overtime, we had lost two forwards (to game misconducts), and played three lines,” coach Greg Carvel said. “The kids dug deep and proved their resiliency.”
It was a great win for UMass, which only a few years ago won five games in the entire season. That means the Minutemen will have some momentum going into the final.
“All I’m worried about is recovery,” Carvel said. “We’ll be ready.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB).