WORCESTER, MASS. — Momentum is a funny thing.
While it's hard to describe precisely what this idea of momentum means in sports, it's undeniable that it can have an enormous impact on the outcome of a game, tournament or season.
In Saturday night's NCAA tournament regional semifinal between Maine and Minnesota-Duluth, there was one key play that flipped all of the energy in UMD's favor, powering the Bulldogs to a 5-2 victory.
Down 2-1 in the second period, Minnesota-Duluth's Caleb Herbert forced a turnover and had a clean breakaway towards Maine goaltender Dan Sullivan. What happened next was strange, unexpected and downright inexplicable. Herbert missed the net on the breakaway, but the puck bounced back off the glass and then came back, rolled off Sullivan's back and into the goal for the equalizer.
"I ended up missing the net, but we've been working in practice where you bank it off the wall and off the goalie's back," Herbert joked.
Maine's campus is just 277 miles from the DCU Center in Worcester. Minnesota-Duluth's campus is just over 1,400 miles away. Hundreds of Maine fans made the trip down for the game, and their chants completely drowned out any Bulldog fans that may have made the long journey.
Maine's fight song echoed throughout the arena as it took an early two-goal lead. Planned or not, Herbert's unbelievable goal completely silenced the Maine faithful. A previously raucous crowd was stunned; the energy was sucked out of the building.
Minnesota-Duluth took that energy and quickly used it in its favor. Exactly a minute later, UMD's Jake Hendrickson found the back of the net, putting the Bulldogs up 3-2. Minnesota-Duluth had momentum on its side and wasn't giving it back.
Herbert's goal could be described as a fluke, something that was pure luck. The Bulldogs' victory, and place in the regional finals, cannot be.
Minnesota-Duluth entered the tournament as the fifth overall seed and defending national champion. The Bulldogs have been here before. One would think that a team coming off a game in which it trailed by two goals and then scored five unanswered to advance would have all of the momentum going into Sunday night's game, but that's not the case. (Momentum is a funny thing -– remember?)
The Bulldogs skated past Maine to reach the regional finals, where Boston College will be waiting for them with a berth to the Frozen Four on the line. While UMD's confidence is assuredly sky-high at this point, it's nothing compared to the roll that Boston College has been on.
The Eagles entered the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and winners of their last 15 games. A victory over Air Force to get them into the regional finals extended that streak to 16 games. The Eagles last lost a game on Jan. 21 -– against the Maine Black bears.
Minnesota-Duluth will be playing against a red-hot Eagles team and will once again essentially be playing a road game, as BC's campus is just 36 miles from the DCU Center. That means virtually the entire crowd will be cheering for the Eagles. It's not an easy task, but the Bulldogs know what they're up against. They've played in hostile environments before. After all, they are the defending champs.
All it takes is one big save or one crushing hit to swing all of the energy in your favor. Minnesota-Duluth probably can't count on another miraculous ricochet goal on Sunday, but you can bet the Bulldogs will bring intensity and a competitive fire in their attempt to seize momentum from Boston College and skate into another Frozen Four.