Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Three Stars: Fanti takes Bulldogs on wild postseason ride to cap college career
UMD junior goaltender saved his best six games as a Bulldog for last, helping the team win an NCHC postseason title and taking them within a game of the NCAA Frozen Four before signing an NHL deal
DULUTH — For the first time since 2016, a men’s NCAA Frozen Four will not include the University of Minnesota Duluth after the Bulldogs lost to Denver 2-1 on Saturday in an NCAA regional final played at the Budweiser Event Center in Loveland, Colorado.
A freak bounce off the glass behind the Bulldogs' net ended a run of four straight Frozen Four appearances, starting with the loss to the Pioneers in the 2017 NCAA title game in Chicago. UMD won back-to-back national championships in 2018 in St. Paul and 2019 in Buffalo; the pandemic wiped out the 2020 Frozen Four in Detroit; and a run at a third-straight NCAA title ended with a loss to Massachusetts in last year’s Frozen Four semifinals.
Below is the final Thumbs up, Thumbs Down and Three Stars of the 2021-22 Bulldogs hockey season by News Tribune college hockey reporter Matt Wellens, taking a look back at the 2022 NCAA men’s hockey regionals.
Thumbs up to Ryan Fanti
The UMD men’s hockey team entered the 2022 postseason at a low point having surrendered home-ice advantage to the St. Cloud State Huskies on the final weekend of the regular season by picking up only two of the three points necessary to lock up a home NCHC quarterfinal series at Amsoil Arena.
On top of that, the Bulldogs went all of December, January and February without winning back-to-back games — something that’s kinda necessary if you want to have any postseason success.
Everything changed in the playoffs. The Bulldogs team that went 7-12-3 over the final 10 weeks of the regular season disappeared and the Bulldogs fans had come to know and love from the four straight Frozen Four runs appeared.
And Ryan Fanti was a big reason why.
Fanti — the junior and second-year starter out of Thunder Bay, Ontario, who signed with the Edmonton Oilers on Monday — got hot between the pipes. He eased into things by making 21 saves on 23 shots in a 5-2 Game 1 victory at SCSU on March 11. He followed that up by making 38 saves in a 4-3 overtime win on March 12 to sweep St. Cloud State at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
At the 2022 NCHC Frozen Faceoff on March 18-19, the goalie who came into the 2021-22 season without a single shutout in his college career picked up his fifth and sixth shutout of the season via 30 saves in a 2-0 win over Denver in the NCHC semifinals and 25 saves in a 3-0 win over Western Michigan in the NCHC championship.
All of a sudden, a Bulldogs team that was once hovering around the .500 mark and in danger of missing the NCAA tournament was hoisting another trophy at Xcel Energy Center and going into the NCAA tournament as the fifth overall seed.
In the Loveland regional semifinals, Fanti scored his third shutout in a row and seventh of the season — one short of the single-season program record of eight by Hunter Shepard in 2017-18 — with 28 saves against Michigan Tech.
Denver then finally ended Fanti’s shutout streak of 224 minutes, 41 seconds late in the first period of the regional final, and they defeated Fanti and the Bulldogs via what the game-winning goal scorer, Denver sophomore forward Carter Savoie, himself called a “lucky bounce” in the third period.
“Crazy,” was the word Denver goaltender Magnus Chrona called it, saying, “That’s probably one of the worst situations you can be in.”
Fanti didn’t necessarily see it that way on Saturday evening as he broke down what he thought he could have done to prevent the goal from happening.
“The initial point shot I saw a little bit late and I probably shouldn’t have went out too far, kind of reaching for it,” Fanti said when asked about Denver’s game-winning goal. “I had an idea it was going to bounce pretty hostile-ly back into me, but I tried to get back in between my posts before it came back. It beat me to it and got stuck on top of my pad, where maybe I should have turned around and faced the shot, or faced the bounce of the glass, looking back. It’s something that happens in a gametime decision. A tough bounce that could have gone either way.”
If you’re wondering how Fanti was able to do what he did this season — win NCHC Goaltender of the Year, lead the team to a conference postseason title and within a win of the Frozen Four — that answer sums it up. He strives for perfection. He always believes he can be better.
The goal Fanti gave up was indeed a tough one to end your season on — and his college career — but for Fanti, it’s ironic, in a way. For the past couple weeks, Fanti had been calling the incredible plays he’d been making “lucky” saves. On Saturday, it was a “lucky” play that beat him, even if he won’t admit it.
“You create breaks. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said of the loss. “That’s this tournament in one-game shots. Sometimes you get some luck, sometimes you don’t. Tonight, they probably got the little bit of luck that made them go on and win the hockey game.”
Thumbs down to complaining about the regionals
There were some great, great hockey games played between Thursday and Sunday at the NCAA men’s hockey regionals this year, from the Bulldogs battle with Denver to the overtime battles on Friday in Worcester.
There was also the drama in Albany on Thursday, with Harvard nearly rallying to upset Minnesota State and the controversial clock malfunction wiping out Notre Dame’s buzzer beater against North Dakota.
Unfortunately, the hot topic of the regional round continues to be the empty arenas they are played in, and whether moving all the regionals to the homes of the four No. 1 seeds is viable (it’s not).
These debates have been going on for years, and I myself get sucked into them as well. I hate myself for it, because it’s a complete waste of time.
The powers that be — the NCAA, ESPN, college coaches and administrators, etc. — decided long ago that the opinions of fans and writers like myself are wrong, and that the current system for NCAA men’s ice hockey regionals is fine.
Tweeting, “Biggest game, smallest crowd,” doesn’t impact these powers one bit.
The NCAA made that clear back in 2020, where on the eve of the 2020-21 season, it announced the regional sites through 2025-26.
That’s right, we still have four more years of this format ahead of us. We have four more years of playing regional tournaments in places such as Albany, New York; Worcester, Massachusetts; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Allentown, Pennsylvania, that are perpetually empty.
Loveland, Colorado; Providence, Rhode Island; Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Fargo, North Dakota, — which are only packed if the home team makes it — will also continue to be part of the rotation, while Toledo, Ohio; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Maryland Heights, Missouri (outside St. Louis), will try their luck at drawing a thousand or so fans at best.
These sites are set in stone, so instead of arguing about where these tournaments should be played, or what format is best, here are some suggestions that could improve things, ever-so-slightly.
- Don’t start the regionals on Thursday afternoon, less than four days after announcing the tournament field on Sunday night. That gives fans absolutely zero chance of finding plane tickets (because few could drive anywhere this year) and hotels at affordable rates at the last second. At least wait until Friday to start the regionals, and while that means two finals will be played on a Monday night, there’s a better chance fans make those games than ones played at noon on a Thursday.
- Speaking of playing at noon on a Thursday, stop playing games at noon on weekdays, or anytime in the afternoon on weekdays. I understand you’re trying to create the ultimate television watching experience for all those fans stuck back at home, unable to get to any of these regionals themselves, but guess what?
There are just as few people watching these games on ESPNU as there are in the seats at the rink
. They don’t even crack the ratings.
- The NCAA needs to allow these buildings to be themselves and show off their character (if they have any; I’m aware some of these sites — such as Worcester — don’t). Stop forcing rinks to entirely rebrand themselves with the NCAA's boring logos and video board “promotions.” DNT photographer Clint Austin and I covered NCAA events in three different locations over the past three weeks between the women’s and men’s tournaments. The NCAA’s cookie-cutter approach to championships doesn’t make them feel larger than life. They feel lesser than what you’d experience at a conference tournament, or at a regular season home game.
Matt’s Postseason Three Stars
3. UMD fifth-year senior wing Koby Bender — The Cloquet native got the party started this postseason with a natural hat trick against St. Cloud State in Game 1 of the best-of-three NCHC quarterfinal series. He also had an assist that night, and helped set up three more goals in the NCHC and NCAA tournaments.
2. UMD fifth-year senior wing Kobe Roth — Roth finished the postseason with three goals and two assists, scoring a pair of goals against Michigan Tech in the NCAA regional semifinal.
1. UMD junior goaltender Ryan Fanti — In what were his final six games as a Bulldog, Fanti posted a .961 save percentage and 1.14 goals against average in the NCHC and NCAA tournaments, including three shutouts. He’ll finish the rest of the 2021-22 season with the Bakersfield Condors in the American Hockey League before his entry-level contract with the Edmonton Oilers kicks in next season.