Thursday, December 18, 2014

UMD Women's Hockey Struggling With Elite Opponents

Earlier this week, UMD announced it would not renew the contracts of head women's hockey coach Shannon Miller or her assistants, Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury. There's been much made of this story (read the above link for interviews with both Miller and athletic director Josh Berlo, and you can podcast my interview with Berlo from Thursday morning here -- fast forward to around the top of the show's third hour), and there is probably more to come.

Hopefully, the end of the story includes a long and fruitful playoff run for the women. They've worked hard this season, as evidenced by practices and games I've seen, and they're clearly improved from the start of the year. Miller is doing a very good job, and if the group can rally from this and not let it affect play, there's no reason UMD can't return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since a quarterfinal exit in 2011.

Yes, I said 2011. It's the only sustained NCAA Tournament drought Miller has experienced since joining UMD to launch its women's hockey program in 1999. UMD missed in 2004 after three straight titles, but rebounded to make the national playoffs seven straight years -- with two more titles -- before this three-year absence started in 2012.

That stretch of missing the national tournament has coincided with a precipitous drop in success for UMD against the other elite programs of the WCHA, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Since I couldn't sleep Wednesday night, I started doing some research on this topic. The findings are quite interesting.

After going a respectable 6-7-1 against Minnesota in 2008-2010, it fell off a cliff for the Bulldogs against their biggest in-state rival.

In the four-plus seasons since UMD's last national championship -- won, coincidentally, in 2010 at Ridder Arena -- the Bulldogs have played 21 games against the Gophers. The record? 3-16-2. In those 16 losses, UMD has been shut out nine times. Over the 21 games, UMD has scored 28 goals and allowed 78. A tie (followed by a UMD shootout win for an extra WCHA point) in October broke a streak of 12 straight losses to the Gophers by an aggregate of 55-10.

Against Wisconsin, things haven't been much easier. Over the last 20 meetings stretching to the start of the 2010-11 season, UMD is just 4-14-2 against the Badgers. They've been outscored 55-35. Games have generally been much more competitive, even if UMD isn't winning a significantly higher number of them. UMD is 4-10 against the Badgers in games decided by one or two goals in those last 20 meetings. In the 21 games against the Gophers, only six have been decided by one or two goals, with UMD going 3-3.

(NOTE: This research does not differentiate between regular-season and playoff games. Teams meet four times -- two games at each respective venue -- during the regular season, for a fully-balanced, 28-game league schedule.)

So since the start of the 2010-11 season, the score of the average Minnesota-UMD game: Minnesota 3.7, UMD 1.3

The score of the average Wisconsin-UMD game: Wisconsin 2.75, UMD 1.67

Certainly this is a bigger problem against the Gophers than it is the Badgers, but UMD is not nearly as competitive against the WCHA's two best programs as it used to be.

If you throw in North Dakota, which had a nice run thanks to the Lamoureux twins, the numbers don't get much better. In the same time frame, UMD is 5-9-4 against North Dakota.

Here are the overall winning percentages of the WCHA's top four programs over the last four-plus years (all numbers are through this week):

UMD: 84-59-17 .578 (1 NCAA appearance)
North Dakota: 97-58-13 .616 (2 NCAA appearances)
Wisconsin: 138-27-9 .819 (3 NCAA appearances, 1 title, 1 second place)
Minnesota: 155-18-7 .881 (4 NCAA appearances, 2 titles, 1 second place)

In addition, UMD has not picked up a single point against the Gophers at Ridder Arena since Jan. 14, 2011, a run of seven straight regulation or overtime road losses to Minnesota. UMD's last regular season win at Minnesota was Jan. 23, 2009.

(UMD beat Minnesota at Ridder on March 19, 2010, in the Frozen Four semifinals.)

WCHA teams who have won more recently at Minnesota than UMD has (regular-season games only)? Wisconsin (Nov. 6, 2010), North Dakota (Nov. 17, 2013), and Bemidji State (Nov. 1 of this year). Ohio State (Jan. 11 of this year) has a point at Minnesota more recently than UMD's last point there.

All the while, Miller has continued to be the highest-paid women's hockey coach in Division I (at least that we can find). Over the last four years, via public employee salary postings easily accessed for Minnesota and Wisconsin, Miller has made an average of around $223,000 in base pay. Wisconsin's Mark Johnson has averaged $166,000, while Brad Frost of Minnesota has made $134,000 on average.

(All numbers are rounded for simplicity.)

******

It isn't easy to admit it, but there's no question. The program has fallen off a bit in recent years. Part of that is the push forward Minnesota has made since Frost took over. Wisconsin has also surged ahead of UMD. What's even more interesting is how well North Dakota fared against the Bulldogs. You could argue UMD -- a five-time national champion over a span of just ten years -- has been the fourth-best program in the WCHA since the start of the 2010-11 season.

(In fairness, UND has fallen back a bit so far this season, and I don't think I'm qualified enough to say UND has passed UMD in terms of recruiting. It's clear Minnesota and Wisconsin have.)

Maybe it comes back in 2015, but UMD is 1-4-1 against Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, and that was with all but the UND games at home. A six-game run that starts with UND at home in late January will tell us a lot, because that's followed up by roadies to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Beyond that, UMD would surely have to take down either Minnesota or Wisconsin in order to make the Frozen Four, assuming it finishes strong enough to make the NCAA Tournament.

No matter what happens, it won't be a "plug and play" situation for whoever takes over for Miller. It would be tough enough to ever have to take over at UMD for Miller, but the controversy surrounding her departure at the end of this season will only increase the pressure. Make no mistake: There are many who are very loyal to Shannon Miller. You don't win 375 games in one place -- and she'll add to that number before she leaves -- without building up some equity and earning the respect and loyalty of people around you.

Throw in there the fact that UMD is no longer the top program in its conference, nor is it really knocking on the door of a well-established top two. This should be a destination job for any qualified Division I women's hockey coach, but that person will have plenty of work to do to get this team back to legitimate, year-to-year, national contention.

I don't care who gets the job. I just hope whoever does is able to use the program's history and high-quality facilities to get UMD back to the top of the WCHA. It's a place the Bulldogs haven't been in a while, and it'd be nice to knock on the door again.

Duluth Marshall Makes The Leap

This broke Wednesday night from Northland's News Center, but it has now been confirmed by Duluth Marshall. The school sent out a press release affirming its desire to move the boys' hockey program to Class AA.

Here is the press release.
Marshall School is working with the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) to move to AA for its boys hockey program. The move is expected to be approved by the MSHSL and take effect for the 2015-2016 school year.

“The move to AA represents a new chapter in the storied history of Marshall/Cathedral boys hockey,” said Kevin Snyder, Marshall’s Athletic Director. “It will indeed be a challenge, one I believe our coaches and players are ready to meet. Excellence in the classroom and in athletics competition can and should go hand-in-hand. The Toppers have proven that in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.”

Marshall has appeared in seven MSHSL state tournaments at the A level, including three-consecutive second-place finishes from 2006-2008. Before joining the MSHSL, the Hilltoppers won five-straight Minnesota State Catholic titles from 1965-1969 as Cathedral High School.

“We want to create an opportunity for our students to compete at the highest level, whether in the classroom or on the ice,” said Brendan Flaherty, Marshall’s head hockey coach. “This will give our hockey players the chance to display their skills on the largest stage, the same way we want all of our students to pursue great opportunities academically.”

On average, more than 98% of Marshall graduates attend a four-year college. The 66 students who graduated from Marshall in 2014 were offered more than $5 million in merit-based academic scholarships. The Class of 2015 has an average ACT score of 27, three points higher than the Minnesota state average.

“Marshall School has always been a destination for students who want to pair incredible academic opportunities with outstanding extra-curricular opportunities,” said Kevin Breen, Marshall’s Head of School. “This is another opportunity for us to tie excellence and access together for students who want to explore this caliber of experience.”
Obviously, this is a huge development for local hockey. Marshall should be able to attract more elite local players with this move. The Hilltoppers will be competitive in Section 7AA, no question about it, no matter the severe enrollment disparity with Duluth East (1,400-plus students compared to 268 at Marshall).

There are a couple logistical questions (nothing that will stop the move from happening):

1. Who comes out of Section 7AA, or will there be two play-in games? Assuming Marshall goes to Section 7 (and why would the MSHSL do anything else?), you have four local teams -- Marshall, East, Cloquet/Esko/Carlton, and Grand Rapids -- along with Andover, Cambridge-Isanti, Elk River, Forest Lake, St. Francis, and St. Michael-Albertville. Would there be any need to cut teams? Not necessarily, unless teams are falling back to Class A and they want at least eight teams in as many sections as possible. I'd imagine St. Michael-Albertville is the first to go if they're bumping teams out of the section.

2. Will anyone move to Section 7A to replace Marshall? That move leaves nine teams in the section. There's no real need to have ten, but there's a pretty good fit for Section 7 that hasn't been in it in a while.

Proctor.

The Rails haven't been in Section 7 since they won their only section title in 1996. Currently mired in a section where Moose Lake is the closest team to them, Proctor sure makes a lot of sense for a new Section 7A starting next season. In fact, it almost makes too much sense.

Either way, congratulations to Duluth Marshall. And best of luck. We'll see if it has any kind of ripple effect on other schools.

(We're all looking at you, Hermantown. Not saying you have to make the move, but now there's no one else for everyone to stare at.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

UMD Women's Hockey Program Ending an Era

The only coach the UMD women's hockey program has ever known, Shannon Miller, will be finishing the 2014-15 season and then moving on from the university.
The school made the announcement Monday night via a press release.

University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey head coach Shannon Miller will not have her contract extended beyond the 2014-15 season, due to financial considerations. Two assistant coaches and a part-time director of operations will also not have their contracts renewed.

“We deeply appreciate and are proud of what Shannon has built and accomplished at UMD,” said Athletic Director Josh Berlo. “She established a winning program, raised it to the highest level of competition and sustained a national championship tradition over the last 15 years. Today’s decision about Shannon’s contract was an immensely difficult and financially driven decision. Unfortunately, UMD Athletics is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women’s hockey coaching staff. However, we remain committed to supporting the Bulldog women’s hockey program.”

Chancellor Lendley (Lynn) Black expressed his deep appreciation for Coach Miller’s tenure: “Thank you for being one of the best coaches in the history of UMD Intercollegiate Athletics.  I will always fondly remember our 2010 trip to the White House!”

Coach Miller came to UMD in 1998 and immediately established the program as a national powerhouse, winning five NCAA championships since the program’s inception. In that time, she developed 28 current and former Olympians, as well as multiple national team coaches. The championship tradition of Bulldog Women’s Hockey was built with players from the United States, Canada and around the globe bringing an international community to Duluth. Coach Miller boasts a .713 winning percentage at UMD.

"I am extremely shocked and saddened by this news, as is our entire staff and team,” said Miller. “But we are committed to staying here to coach these great young women for the rest of the season and to a national championship."

A national search will take place following the 2014-15 season.
UMD is 12-5-3 this season and off until Jan. 10. Senior forward Zoe Hickel was one of the only players to chime in on Twitter Monday night.

Lots of emotions here, and understandably so. I'm in the building quite a bit, but I'm not going to claim great knowledge of the goings-on on the women's side of Amsoil Arena. That said, if you think the players aren't going to speak out in support of the person who brought them here and has been coaching them for however long, you're insane. If they don't come out and support Miller here, something is probably amiss.

Miller has always been courteous and professional in my inquiries to her over the years. I have no gripes, not that I'd necessarily share them in this forum anyway. But I don't.

(And you know me. I'd probably have said something on Twitter if I had a gripe.)

I am scheduled to visit with Josh Berlo on Thursday -- previously scheduled -- and I don't expect to hit him up any earlier than that. Duluth News Tribune noob Matt Wellens did speak both to Berlo and Miller Monday night.

Berlo interview
Miller interview

I'd suggest reading both of them. Good quotes from each party, and Matt asks just about every question I could think to ask myself. And he did it on his day off.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Rally Again, But Michigan Tech Scores Late to Split Series

Well, the Drama Dogs did it again.

Down 2-0 after one period Saturday, then 3-1 after two, UMD found a way back in Houghton against Michigan Tech. From the time Dominic Toninato scored to make it a 3-2 game until Mike Neville's game-winning goal with 18.4 seconds left for Tech, the Bulldogs outshot the home side 13-4. The forecheck was cranked up, the forwards were flying, and UMD looked like a team poised to steal another game.

Toninato's 13th goal of the season got UMD started, and Austyn Young followed up a Willie Raskob point shot for his third of the year to tie the game.

(Toninato had three goals on the weekend, while Austin Farley chipped in two. Both guys have a nose for the net and can be counted on to make plays when things might not be going all that well around them.)

The way the game started, there's no question UMD was fortunate to be even at that point.

Michigan Tech was putting heat on the Bulldogs early, and it paid off on a Tyler Heinonen goal at 3:33 of the first. Less than 90 seconds later, a bizarre play in the crease led to an Alex Gillies goal that made it 2-0. That goal ended Kasimir Kaskisuo's 15th straight start very early. On came Matt McNeely for his first action since Oct. 17.

While Kaskisuo has been great this season, Saturday wasn't a good start for him. Both goals were preventable, both on his part and on the guys in front of him, and I think Scott Sandelin's decision to pull the goalie was twofold. He wasn't playing well, and UMD was in for a long 55 minutes if it didn't improve some things in its own zone.

The Bulldogs still had problems away from the puck, including lax clearing attempts that helped lead to Tech's goal that made it 3-1 in the second period. But nothing was as glaring as the mistake that led to Neville's winning goal, where UMD just lost coverage and let him get down the right wing and cut toward the net unchecked.

It was something Sandelin eluded to a bit in our pregame conversation.

"We got away from some things, especially in the third period (Friday)," he said. "Part of that comes from not moving your feet and not engaging."

Sandelin went on to explain that it can be difficult to defend well on a consistent basis when a team has the puck a lot at the other end of the rink.

He's a prophet, because he unknowingly laid out the blueprint for Michigan Tech to win the game. The Bulldogs had the puck almost constantly after Young's goal, and when Tech got it, UMD was not sharp in its own zone. This time, the Bulldogs paid for it with a loss.

******

It's break time. This team is 12-6. Don't dwell on how Saturday's game ended. It sucked, but it's not like UMD lost to a crap team. Michigan Tech is legitimately good, and this is a huge win for the Huskies. A series split was probably justified, as each team took turns being the better team on the ice. They were fun games to watch and it would be great if the two teams met again in 2015.

12-6 is solid. UMD has played ten different teams this season. All but one (Colorado College) was ranked when the Bulldogs played them. Only one other (Notre Dame) isn't ranked as of last week.

There are warts, and we'll discuss some of them during the time off, but UMD is unquestionably a national contender.

Health becomes a huge key now. Counting the exhibition games at Lakehead the weekend after New Year's Day, UMD plays 20 games in ten weekends before the NCHC playoffs start March 13. Looking way ahead in the future, the Bulldogs won't have a weekend off until either 1) the season ends, or 2) the week before the Frozen Four, whichever comes first (and I know which one of these I want to come first). UMD simply doesn't have the luxury to rest for a week here or there and get guys healthy. Now, either the team stays healthy, or the depth gets a big-time test, like it did in November.

The penalty kill took a good step last weekend -- going six-for-six after a bit of a mini-slump. That and the power play need to gain consistency as the season wears on. Kaskisuo is the bell cow in net, undoubtedly, so he must show progress and be ready for a grind after Christmas.

(By the way, read this piece from College Hockey News' Ryan Lambert, talking about how often college teams should be playing their No. 1 goalies. Ice time should not be an issue for Kas going forward. Just need to do a better job in front of him.)

Just don't let Saturday cloud your judgment. The Bulldogs are in position to make serious noise come March and (hopefully) April.

******

This will be the last post for at least a few days. At some point before the Jan. 9 return to NCHC play, I'll post my midseason All-NCHC team and have some other thoughts on the halfway mark of the season.

I'll be in Thunder Bay for the exhibition games, but I don't know that there will be a ton of posts about those. And I'm off for some time in between now and then.

If you don't visit the blog again before 2015, thanks for supporting the blog, our broadcasts, and the UMD hockey program. Have a Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Game 18: UMD at Michigan Tech

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- In the runup to Friday's series opener, I asked UMD coach Scott Sandelin what he thought the keys were to breaking down Michigan Tech goalie Jamie Phillips, who entered the game with a .943 save percentage.

"You gotta get traffic," he said. "You gotta get shots. You have to get him moving a little bit east and west.

"You have to get around him, and we have to work hard to do that."

Mission largely accomplished. UMD attempted 38 shots in the first period and 74 for the game. There were people at the net a lot, with Phillips flailing more than a few times to try to draw a penalty that never came.

(There was some contact with Phillips, but he did a good job selling what came at him.)

This game should be intense. Tech has lost three straight at home, and Mel Pearson will have his team ready for battle. UMD jumped on Tech pretty early Friday, but the Huskies eventually got off the mat and competed pretty darn hard. That's the team I expect to see the Bulldogs have to deal with from the outset in this one.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Krause
Farley - Cameranesi - Kuhlman
Osterberg - Decowski - Young (Austyn)
Young (Blake) - Thomas - Crandall

Johnson - Welinski
Soucy - Raskob
Corrin - Molenaar

Kaskisuo - McNeely - Fons

MTU
Vallis - Pietila - Sturos
Petan - Kero (Tanner) - Gould
Heinonen - Neville - Hietala
Eick - Steman - Gillies

Watson - Sweeney
Hanna - Roy
Auk - Hyland

Phillips - Kero (Devin) - Messina

(Programming note: I'll be back with the normal Monday blog to recap the weekend's events. Then we'll go silent for most of the next two weeks. The team is off until Jan. 2, and I'm taking a bunch of time off in that span as well.)

Minnesota State Cancels Hockey Game Due to Flu Outbreak

Minnesota State has cancelled its Saturday men's hockey home game against Princeton after an outbreak of the flu on the MSU team.

Here is the statement from the university:
Kevin Buisman, Minnesota State Director of Athletics, has announced that the men’s hockey game for Minnesota State vs. Princeton, scheduled for Saturday evening in Mankato, has been cancelled.

“Several members of our men’s hockey team have come down with the flu and we do not have enough healthy student-athletes to field a team tonight,” said Buisman. “After consulting with several stakeholders, including the NCAA, Verizon Wireless Center and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and discussing our options, it was decided to cancel the game.  There were several complicating factors in the decision which involved facility scheduling, individual and team travel and the fact that there is no guarantee that we would have enough bodies to play tomorrow.  We know that our fan base and those that follow us would have wanted to see the third-rated Mavericks play tonight and hope everyone can understand this difficult situation and the issues we faced in coming to this decision.”

Buisman said that the game would be declared a “no contest” and that plans for ticket reimbursement will be announced at a later date.
Obviously, this is the right thing to do. Player safety is first and foremost, and if MSU didn't have enough healthy players to field something that at least resembled a full lineup, there is no reason to move forward with this game.

I couldn't find a provision in the NCAA rule book to cover this, but I do not have access to WCHA by-laws and can't tell you if it's covered there. Either way, I'm glad it's a no-contest, as opposed to a forfeit that would give Princeton a 1-0 win. That doesn't benefit anyone and serves to penalize Minnesota State for a matter completely out of its control.

There isn't much information on this situation beyond the statement, but I'd encourage you to follow the wonderful Mankato Free Press Mavericks beat guy, Shane Frederick, on Twitter @puckato. I presume he'll have more on this story as he gathers more information.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Toninato's Bookend Goals Lead UMD to Quality Road Win

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- Here's how good a season Michigan Tech has been having to this point.

Before Friday night, Tech had faced a two-goal deficit for 9:16. In 14 games. So they played 840 minutes and only trailed by two goals for a hair over nine of them. That's about 1.1 percent of the time.

On Friday, UMD took a 2-0 lead in the second period, then added an insurance goal after Tech got on the board in the third. In a 3-1 win for No. 9 UMD over No. 4 Michigan Tech here, the Bulldogs led by two goals for 27:28, or nearly half the game, and nearly three times as much as Tech had trailed by two goals all season long before this game.

The Bulldogs came out firing on Friday. UMD took 38 shots in the first period alone, getting a lot of good chances and doing a good job making Tech goalie Jamie Phillips work to see pucks and make saves. And he made saves. Lots of them. Phillips stymied UMD until a power play late in the first period. After Andy Welinski's center point shot was deflected high, it bounced back toward the front of the net. Austin Farley deftly poked it out toward the slot, where Dominic Toninato had what was basically a tap-in for a 1-0 UMD lead.

The Bulldogs added to the lead with a four-on-four goal in the second period, when Farley jammed in a rebound off a Tony Cameranesi sharp-angle shot. That was the first two-goal lead of the night for UMD. And as I mentioned, getting up by two against this team is quite an accomplishment.

After Dylan Steman tipped in a Cliff Watson point shot to halve the lead, Toninato struck again. This time, it was a breakaway that was brilliantly set up by linemates Adam Krause and Alex Iafallo.

This served as a fitting conclusion to the game's scoring, given how fantastic this line was for almost the entire affair. They combined for seven shots on goal, 17 total attempts*, and plenty of offensive zone time.

Cameranesi's line was also good. He, Farley, and Karson Kuhlman had 13 shots on goal, 17 attempts*, and their share of puck possession in the offensive zone.

(* - Unofficial, because I'm counting off the shot chart and I'm old so I can't sees as good as I used to.)

Both lines were fantastic defensively. They used their sticks to break up passes and rushes, and all six players blocked shots and stopped Tech from making plays down low. Farley's effort was especially notable a couple different times, breaking up potential chances before Kasimir Kaskisuo had to do anything. Kaskisuo was rock-solid with 25 saves and some superb rebound control, but he never had to make a "wow" save because the guys in front of him were so good.

Tech coach Mel Pearson was highly complimentary of UMD going into the week. He was almost equally complimentary after Friday's game, when appearing on Tech's radio postgame show.

UMD was the better team Friday. Pearson knows it. He's going to make some adjustments, and it'll be up to UMD to bring it again Saturday as it goes for the sweep.

******

The ending to Friday's game was somewhat bizarre. Not because of anything that happened on the ice.

Instead, it was something that didn't happen.

Pearson chose not to pull Phillips late in the game.

Tech had puck possession in the offensive zone a few times, sustained it for a while at one point, but Phillips stayed put. Pearson told Tech VOX Dirk Hembroff after the game he just didn't feel the timing was right, even though it looked like an obvious move.

It's not a crime or anything like that. But with how aggressive coaches are about pulling goalies (see: Blais, Dean), it's weird to see someone choosing NOT to. Looking back, Pearson may have telegraphed his decision in the final three minutes by passing on taking his timeout a couple times.

He has his reasons. I doubt it would have had a great impact on the final outcome. But it was weird at the time.

******

A quick personal note.

This series is the final in a two-year arrangement UMD and Tech had for non-conference games. I do not know if the teams have any plans to continue playing, but I do not believe they do at this time. Obviously, things like that can change.

No one wants me trying to set the non-conference schedule. I'd litter it with driving trips when we do play on the road, because it's easier than flying, and it means we have a better chance of getting some of our fans to make trips and be able to attend games.

And this place has always been special for me. In October 2005, I fell into the UMD play-by-play gig, taking over for the great Kerry Rodd.

(By the way, it isn't lost on me that I followed someone as good as Kerry, and yet have been lucky enough to do this for almost ten seasons now. Usually, the guy who replaces someone that good ends up on his keyster within a year or two because everyone hates him. I'm lucky in that the people who hated me kept their mouths shut.)

The first games I had a chance to call were here. I can look back now, find the box score, and tell you UMD won 6-3 on Friday behind two Mike Curry goals. The teams tied 2-2 on Saturday, and I was off and running, so to speak.

(I was petrified. I've never been that nervous, outside of maybe my wedding day, and that isn't even a guarantee. I had literally no clue what I was doing or what I had gotten myself into. I remember Matt McKnight's first goal Friday. I don't think I had a clue who scored it at the time. Called a few high school hockey games, but this was a pace, an intensity that I wasn't at all prepared for. And it took me a couple years to figure out how best to prepare for games.)

Ever since then, I've thoroughly enjoyed calling games here, because it reminds me of that first weekend. Also because it's an awesome building with great history, great character, and about the nicest people you could ever ask to meet and/or work with.

If Saturday is the end of that run for the time being, so be it. I'll follow this team wherever it goes and enjoy the hell out of doing it. But I'll miss this place if I don't get a chance to come back.

******

Elsewhere in the NCHC, St. Cloud State outshot Omaha 49-27 Friday night. But Ryan Massa was in goal for UNO, and SCSU's Jonny Brodzinski was ejected in the second third period on a questionable contact to the head call.

There will be a new No. 1 in the polls. Or at least I'd assume so. Denver took down North Dakota 4-1 in Denver. The Pioneers got another goal from Joey LaLeggia -- in other words, another day at the office for him -- as well as a goal and an apple from Quentin Shore and two assists from Gabe Levin. Oh, and UND's Mark MacMillan was ejected from the game on a possibly questionable checking from behind call.

(The Brodzinski penalty was a lot more questionable than the one on MacMillan, but that isn't going to make North Dakota fans feel any better.)

(Rant: Listen, I think we've all seen enough. Officials simply have to be given the power to review potential major penalties. It's gotten to the point of ridiculousness. Put a clock on the amount of time officials can view the video, make the screen go black after that time has expired, and put the onus on the officials to trust what they saw in live action if there isn't anything compelling on replay. /rant)

(Speaking of that, can we put a time limit on all reviews? The officials took so long to review UMD's first goal that I started to think they were going to overturn it no matter what. I saw the replay three times and I have no idea what they looked at for so long. There's another problem. Whenever a review is initiated, it should be made clear to everyone what the review was initiated to look at, and it should be made clear what was seen. There's almost no communication from downstairs to the press box or the crowd in general. That's unacceptable. Like the NHL system or not, their Situation Room blog is fantastic for almost real-time updates on the reason for and result of all video reviews that are conducted. The first college hockey league to adopt a similar system will be looked at as pioneers of the sport.)

(Ahem, focus ...)

In Kalamazoo, Frederik Tiffels scored twice, including the winning goal at 1:58 of overtime, as Western Michigan beat Colorado College 3-2. CC tied the game with three seconds left on a power-play goal by Cody Bradley, but Tiffels' overtime goal sent the Tigers to an 0-8 record in league play.

Game 17: UMD at Michigan Tech

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- For UMD's first visit here in over two years (Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 2012), you could have asked for better weather.

Well, some more sunshine would be nice (maybe Saturday, I guess), but I'm not about to complain about mild temperatures, no snow threat, and no bone-chilling wind.

Weather won't be an issue, but the opponent might be.

Michigan Tech is 12-2, stout defensively with great goaltending, and deep and experienced up front. Mel Pearson's Huskies are no slouch at all.

Tech has conceded just 21 goals in 14 games so far, and that includes two games against a pretty strong Minnesota State team where the Mavericks swept but only scored five goals. Make no mistake: Tech is a tough team to break down in its own zone.

However, it hasn't faced a team as speedy or deep as UMD. The Bulldogs will present challenges with their forecheck and pressure that Tech simply hasn't faced, outside of -- arguably -- Minnesota State.

(I'd argue that Minnesota State, Miami, and Minnesota are the three best teams UMD has faced to this point. Please don't ask me to put them in any kind of meaningful order, because I don't know that I can. But they're all very good.)

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Krause
Farley - Cameranesi - Kuhlman
Osterberg - Decowski - Young (Austyn)
Sampair - Thomas - Crandall

Johnson - Welinski
Soucy - Molenaar
McCormack - Kotyk

Kaskisuo - McNeely

MTU
Petan - Pietila - Sturos
Johnstone - Kero - Gould
Heinonen - Hietila - L'Esperance
Eirck - Steman - Gillies

Hanna - Roy
Watson - Sweeney
Leibinger - Hyland

Phillips - Wintjes - Kero

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bulldogs Tangle With Longtime Rival Michigan Tech in Meaningful Non-Conference Series

Every game counts.

Part of the beauty of the NCAA PairWise system is that every game will matter in some way, shape, or form. Some end up meaning a bit more than most.

This could be one of those weekends.

The way No. 9 (polls, that is; No. 2 PairWise) UMD and No. 4 (No. 5 PWR) Michigan Tech are playing, this weekend's series in Houghton could go a long way to deciding placement in the final and all-important PairWise when it comes out in March.

It's something that hasn't escaped UMD coach Scott Sandelin.

"I think we all know how important every game is," he said this week. "Obviously, they are having a great year. I think it's going to have a playoff-type intensity. You look at how we've played each other over the years, it should be a great series. I think both teams know how important it is to try to win some games before break."

Tech coach Mel Pearson is looking forward to the weekend.

"I just enjoy the way Scott and his team play," Pearson said. "They play the game the right way. They skate, they have skill. They play hard, they're physical, but they play within the rules, and I like that. These are the games your players want to play in. They want to be pushed."

For Sandelin, he's still a bit hot under the collar when talking about his team's 3-2 overtime win over NCHC cellar-dweller Colorado College, a game that saw the Bulldogs fall behind 2-0 before a second period awakening. When asked about the return of senior captain Adam Krause last week, Sandelin noted something he said to me Saturday.

"He was the only guy in the first period on Friday who was playing, compared to the other 19."

Certainly, the team was sparked by a play Krause made in the first period, when he drove hard toward the net with puck possession and ended up crashing into the goal after he lost an edge. It was the hardest offensive play UMD made in the first period. Once Karson Kuhlman set up UMD's first goal in the second period, the Bulldogs were off and running.

"It's been great playing with Tony (Cameranesi) and (Austin) Farley," Kuhlman said this week. "We've been getting a lot of chances, and luckily we've been putting the puck away when it counts. That's led to goals by other lines. It's a great motivation boost for us."

Kuhlman keys a penalty kill that has slipped under 80 percent for the first time this season. Expect to see more of Krause on the kill if the penalties pile up in Houghton. That's not a given, given the way things have been going for UMD. The Bulldogs, once the nation's most-penalized team by a lot, have seen their penalty minutes decrease precipitously. UMD has dropped to tenth at 15.9 minutes per game, good for fourth in the NCHC. Fewer penalty minutes? Fewer power plays to defend.

Unfortunately for UMD, the kill has sprung a couple of leaks. Sandelin said Saturday that a UMD defensive mistake led to CC's Friday power play goal, a back-door tap-in by Sam Rothstein. Sandelin noted UMD had done a great job in the first 1:45 of that kill, but two players went toward the puck carrier, leaving Rothstein wide-open. The Tigers scored off a net-mouth scramble on the man advantage Saturday.

The Bulldogs have still taken a few silly penalties recently, but not nearly as many as they have been. The issues they've had on the kill appear to be correctable. Remember, these are Division I athletes UMD is facing, too. They're going to make a play once in a while. UMD just needs to be a little more consistent on the kill. This isn't far off.

Tech has a ton of veterans. Pearson's forward group is as deep as he's had it. Blake Pietila, David Johnstone, Tanner Kero, and Alex Petan should be familiar names, as should Malcolm Gould. They're all back and they're all contributing. The blue-line might not have a bona-fide star, but guys like Shane Hanna, Cliff Watson, and Riley Sweeney are all solid defensively while contributing at the other end of the rink.

Oh, and there's goalie Jamie Phillips. His save percentage? A solid .943. It's not an accident. He's played over 800 minutes, all but 2:31 of Michigan Tech's games. UMD has a heck of a task trying to get enough pucks by him to win games.

No matter what happens, remember these results. For both teams, this weekend could mean a higher or lower seed, or it could mean the difference between making or missing the NCAAs*. Intensity should be as high as it's ever been between these two longtime WCHA rivals.

(* - Don't believe me? The 2009-10 Bulldogs missed out on the NCAA Tournament by a margin so slim that UMD would have made it if any one of about three losses it suffered during the season were flipped to a win.)

Monday, December 08, 2014

Monday Musings: Brooms Broken Out as UMD Thumps Colorado College, Tie For NCHC Lead

It got hairy for a few minutes.

But Saturday was something I felt UMD needed. An emphatic wire-to-wire victory.

(The Denver game was fun. But it was scoreless after a period and didn't really turn in UMD's favor until the second.)

The Bulldogs led throughout -- basically -- in a 7-2 win over Colorado College Saturday night. With the win, UMD moved back into a tie for first in the NCHC with Miami, which lost to Omaha Saturday. If North Dakota fails to sweep at Denver this weekend, Miami and UMD will remain tied for first into the new year.

Saturday was all UMD, outside of a sequence during the third period. Tony Cameranesi had scored on a Brenden Kotyk rebound to make it 4-0, but Colorado College scored twice on scramble plays to halve the lead. At 4-2, some in the crowd went from jubilantly chanting for ice cream to perhaps gnawing on their fingernails a bit.

UMD's older guys -- the leaders -- changed that. Andy Welinski and Derik Johnson helped set up a rebound goal for Justin Crandall that made it 5-2 (the ice cream goal, so to speak), then Adam Krause made it 6-2 before Austin Farley capped the scoring.

Just before the game, while visiting with family in the hallway, I commented to a loyal listener that I thought it was time for UMD to get this kind of win. No pulled goalie at the end, no rally from a deficit like Friday, no overtime heroics. UMD was the deeper, faster, and stronger team, and it showed on Saturday.

12 different players got on the scoresheet Saturday, including standouts Andy Welinski, Dominic Toninato, Alex Iafallo, Adam Krause, Austin Farley, Tony Cameranesi, Karson Kuhlman, and Cal Decowski, along with depth guys like Austyn Young, Brenden Kotyk, and Nick McCormack.

Krause and McCormack both returned from injury, and neither appeared to miss a beat. Krause was quickly reinserted on UMD's top line Friday and had a three-point weekend. McCormack helped set up a goal on Saturday and finished plus-three.

I've already written about UMD's depth shining. This weekend, it did so again, though in a different way.

Who do you want to shut down? Put your top checking line on the Toninato line, and Cameranesi's line runs wild. Shut down the top two lines, and you have to deal with guys like Decowski, Crandall, and Kyle Osterberg, who aren't even among the "top six forwards" at this time.

Oh, and after a rather unproductive year from the blue line, the defense is definitely contributing more this season. UMD's eight defensemen combined for five goals (all by Welinski) last year, totaling 48 assists and 53 points in 216 total man-games. The group has combined for 96 appearances so far this year, with 10 goals (six by Welinski) and 31 points. That's a 36-game pace of 70 points on 23 goals and 47 assists.

UMD needs to solve some things on the penalty kill, which hasn't been as good as it was in the first part of the season. It's weird, because as the PIM numbers have dropped appreciably*, the penalty kill percentage has, too.

(* - On that note, you don't hear anyone harping on UMD's lack of discipline anymore, do you? The Bulldogs have gone from being easily the most penalized team in the sport going into November to a team barely in the top ten in penalty minutes per game now.)

This weekend, UMD travels to Houghton for a two-game series against Michigan Tech. I'll have to check with the coaches, but I believe this is the last series against Michigan Tech in their current deal. Hopefully it's one that they find a way to continue. Tech is a strong team this season under Mel Pearson, and I'm expecting the MacInnes Student Ice Arena to be as loud as I've ever heard it for these games. It'll be a fun way to finish the 2014 portion of the schedule.