Connect with us


A Pause In Puck Playoff Frenzy

Gilbert: Playoff college hockey is the best of the season.

College hockey conference champions will be crowned, while the NCAA Tournament awaits. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Postseason college hockey playoffs are the most exciting and best hockey of the whole season, in my humble opinion, although the disruptions of recent years have sometimes lessened the impact of such competition and proven sometimes the results don’t match our anticipation. That is the case this spring, when the St. Cloud State Huskies are the only one of the six state-based Division I teams to advance from their league playoffs to aim at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff as the guaranteed entry to the next level — the NCAA playoffs.

There have been times when Xcel Energy Center has been abuzz with activity with three or four of the nation’s top-ranked teams gathering to fight it out for a guaranteed bid into the NCAA tournament. This spring, league champion North Dakota and pre-season favorite Denver are among the nation’s elite, while Omaha and St. Cloud State are battling for that level of prestige.

At 7:30 p.m. on Friday, St. Cloud State — which is on the outside of the NCAA’s PairWise-based top 16 — will take on powerful Denver in the second NCHC semifinal, after North Dakota takes on Omaha in the first semifinal at 4 p.m. at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. The two winners will advance to Saturday night, where they will clash for the playoff title and the automatic NCAA berth, and will have the unique benefit of playing after the Minnesota Wild play at 1 p.m. that afternoon at the X.

They will all want to get comfortable in the home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, because the NCAA Frozen Four will be held there April 11-13.

The UMD Bulldogs had both the highest of hopes and the longest of long-shots as they headed west to contend with a mountain snowstorm and get to Denver’s Magness Arena, where the powerful Denver Pioneers had no mercy and not a lot of patience in whipping the Bulldogs 4-0. The next game was closer than the final score of 5-2 indicated but still a Denver victory, ending the Bulldogs’ season.

St. Cloud State had to go to Sunday and win the third game of a best-of-three series to subdue Western Michigan, leaving behind NCHC rival Minnesota Duluth, along with Minnesota State Mankato. St. Cloud State will serve as Minnesota host for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

Beyond the NCHC
Bemidji State still is in good position to advance, having beaten Lake Superior State 4-1 on Saturday to gain the CCHA championship playoff game against Michigan Tech, which eliminated MSU Mankato with a 4-3 Tech victory. 

Minnesota had high hopes of repeating as Big Ten tournament champion but first had to get past Michigan, its quarterfinal foe, and the rival who had knocked out the Gophers in the two previous seasons. The Wolverines, who had beaten the Gophers two weeks earlier in a wild 6-5 overtime battle, gained a 1-0 lead and stretched it to 2-0 in the second period, then held off the Golden Gophers 2-1 after Jimmy Snuggerud scored to cut into the deficit in the third.

In normal circumstances, that defeat would have ended Minnesota’s season, but the Gophers have managed to hold their high rank in the PairWise and in the national rankings even while falling in the Big Ten standings. So, while Michigan advances to face league champion Michigan State this weekend, with the tournament winner getting an automatic invitation to the NCAA party, the Gophers are virtually certain to be awarded an NCAA at-large bid and sneak in the back door.

The four NCAA regionals are scheduled for Sioux Falls, S.D., Maryland Heights, Mo., Springfield, Mass., and Providence, R.I. Undoubtedly, if the Gophers get an at-large invitation, they will be sent on the road to an Eastern regional, or get a lower seed to stay in the west, both of which will be more difficult to win.

Much as all of us in Minnesota would love to see another playoff match with Minnesota against anybody, and things won’t seem normal to have NCAA tournaments without UMD or MSU Mankato, you have to consider the big picture and know that if you’ve ever been anywhere between East Lansing and Ann Arbor, Mich., then you have some idea how every sports competition between Michigan and Michigan State becomes the biggest rivalry in the country.

With Michigan State as big a surprise conference champion as Michigan was finishing fourth, the single-game elimination between the Spartans and Wolverines will be well worth watching on t he Big Ten Network, when they collide at a sold-out Munn Arena in East Lansing on Saturday night.

When the shooting finally stops in each conference championship, the survivors will be scattered among four regionals around the country, each playing semifinals and finals to determine one Frozen Four team for the NCAA semifinals and finals back in St. Paul at Xcel Energy Center.

“Go, Buzzy, Go!”
Back in 1966, I had recently pulled out of the University of Minnesota to accept a sportswriting job at the Duluth News Tribune. It was a fascinating time, because UMD had just made the move to begin shifting to Division I in hockey and into the WCHA as a conference. Ralph Romano was coach, athletic director, ticket manager and sports information director at UMD, and he did an amazing job of manipulating all of those tasks at once.

My wife, Joan, and I found an apartment that could house us and our young son, Jack, and we were very close to Romano and his operation. So, when he invited us to meet him for a recruiting rip to his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, it was high adventure. We drove up the North Shore, got a hotel room, and met Romano at the arena to watch a junior hockey game where a young prospect named Ron Busniuk was the top attraction.

A stocky counterman with quick moves and a hard-nosed willingness to mix it up in the corners, Busniuk — universally called “Buzzy” in the region — caught our attention right away. Our toddler son chanted “Go, Buzzy, Go…” every time Buzzy touched the puck. Romano was successful in recruiting Busniuk, who came to UMD and never forgot our closeness. Freshmen were ineligible to play varsity hockey in those days, and we had Buzzy over to our apartment for dinner. Joan remembers him with a tiny souvenir hockey stick, playing floor hockey with Jack on the living room floor.

Busniuk stepped in and led the team in goals and points as a sophomore and junior. When he was a senior, Romano shifted him back to defense, where he not only led the Bulldogs in goals and points but also earned All-WCHA and All-America honors in 1970.

After leaving UMD, Busniuk signed with the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL, and after two seasons, he signed with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, where he was a highly valued asset as a puck-moving defenseman. for two seasons. He later played several more years with the New England Whalers and Edmonton Oilers of the WHA, before retiring back home to Thunder Bay, where he coached the Thunder Bay Twins to two Allan Cup national senior men’s championships.

I had lost touch with Buzzy, after writing about him for most of a decade, and I never heard that he was ill. So it was a jolt to me when I read that Ron Busniuk had died earlier this month at age 75 at a residence in Thunder Bay.

They’ve already held the services up there, and while it may be traditional to wish “Godspeed” to a close and highly respected friend who has died, our family prefers to send him off with one final “Go, Buzzy, Go!”

Click to comment

2024 State Tourney Guide Issue

Click on the cover to view!

2024 Hockey Day MN Recap Issue

Click on the cover to view!

Sign Up Here to Receive Our Free E-edition!


More in College