Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why the NBA is Still Killing the NHL

Let there be no doubt: The NHL is growing.

Boosted significantly by local Chicago numbers, the Stanley Cup Final did very well, relatively speaking. The numbers, including eight million-plus viewers for the clinching game on Monday, are even better when you consider the NHL has never done wonderfully in the ratings when "non-traditional" markets are involved. When it's an Original Six or a blue-blood (i.e. Pittsburgh), the league can pull some good numbers. But when Tampa Bay, San Jose, or that ilk play, the numbers tend to go down.

(Tampa pulled some really good local ratings this time around, which has to make the league happy. The buzz there was palpable, especially compared to past championship series involving teams like Los Angeles or Carolina.)

However, the NBA Finals -- featuring mid-size market teams with big-market superstars -- more than doubled the NHL's strong -- by its standards -- numbers. Game 6 Tuesday pulled over 23 million viewers, and Game 5 Sunday topped 20 million, too. Imagine if you replaced "Golden State vs Cleveland" with "L.A. Lakers vs Anyone."

So the NHL is growing. Any hockey fan will tell you they prefer many things about hockey to basketball, and even casual hockey fans will agree that the Stanley Cup Final is riveting television. The secondary ticket market was abuzz, and fans who attend are ridiculously into the games.

Why doesn't it translate to TV numbers that at least draw the gap closer?

(Keep in mind, too, that this is not a head-to-head comparison. The NHL and NBA do not contest their championship series games on the same night and haven't since 2009, when it happened once.)

Greg Wyshynski chimed in with an excellent piece on this before the Final started. It largely cites the lack of true superstars in the NHL, the guys fans care about no matter what team they're on. Yeah, there's Sidney Crosby, the most polarizing player in the game (think the John Cena of the NHL, or the LeBron of the NHL, because anyone who says they like hockey has an opinion on Crosby, good or bad). But no one else really moves the needle that way, no matter how hard we might try.

Greg also notes that the thought of watching hockey on a beautiful evening in June probably isn't something fans are big on unless they have a compelling reason to (or if they have a dog in the proverbial fight).

And he's right.

But the star power issue is worth revisiting, because I think I have an answer.

Turn on an NBA game, and the biggest names in the game are always accounted for. LeBron is always doing something, as are guys like Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, and so many others. Rare is the night where a big NBA name is rendered invisible by the opponent, or by their own ineffectiveness. Even when they're off, you know where they are.

In the NHL, star players are constantly checked tightly and largely rendered invisible in the playoffs. Jonathan Toews is a factor all the time, even when he isn't scoring. But the stories of the Cup Final were Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos because of what they weren't doing. There were long stretches of games where you would have struggled to find either of them with a searchlight.

It seems petty, because many of us who watch hockey do it because it's such a great team game. But we're not talking about hardcore fans. We're talking about those who only check in late in the playoffs, or only care about star power.

It's not that Chicago and Tampa don't have star players. And it's not even that the NHL does a poor job marketing individual stars, though it could be better in this area. So what's the problem? Guessing, but perhaps these casual fans turn on a game, hear about Antoine Vermette and Jason Garrison, then decide they don't know who those guys are and watch "Flip or Flop" instead.

And even if I'm right on this, I don't have the solution. I'd complain about all the obstruction and stick infractions that happen during playoff games, but it's clear by now the league (or the players, or a combination of the two) wants games called this way. Light on penalty stoppages and heavy on "turning the other cheek." Like it or not, and I don't, but the ship has sailed. The idea that star players should have to fight through this garbage is archaic. Things are happening that are against the rules. Call some damn penalties.

With that, we might have stumbled on something. Rarely do NBA officials hesitate to call fouls. Sometimes -- see "Shaq, Hack A" -- this leads to games dragging on and on. OK, not sometimes. Often.

Yet it doesn't drain the ratings. Why? Maybe fans like the idea that the rules are being enforced, even when the stakes get high.

So maybe that ship hasn't sailed, NHL. Your commissioner used to work for the NBA. He has to have a few connections still, right?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

North Dakota Can't Get This Right

Hope everyone's had a great spring. Summer is almost here, believe it or don't.

If you're a Twitter follower (@BruceCiskie if you're not), you'll be excited -- or dismayed -- to know that our third annual 100 Day Countdown to the UMD season opener starts July 1.

(Yes, the exhibition is Oct. 4, but we count down to the first game that counts, which is Oct. 9 against Bemidji State.)

Later in the offseason, I'll draw up a projected line chart for the upcoming campaign, an exercise that serves to get me really excited for the season. But today, we talk about one of our adversaries.

Out at North Dakota, they've been Nickname-Free since 2012, when the NCAA finally twisted their arm enough to get them to drop Fighting Sioux. Well, officially at least.

Go to any sporting event involving a North Dakota team, and you're bound to see a few "Sioux" jerseys floating around. Hell, there was a guy in a Sioux jersey at UMD's regional in Manchester this past March. UND was playing in Fargo, mind you.

There's a large group of UND fans who simply haven't moved on from the Sioux name. And since the school has been sans nickname this whole time, they haven't had any real reason to move on.

It's something that could change this summer. The university has a committee put in charge of finding the school's next athletic nickname. The process has made headlines throughout the spring, and now UND is down to seven options for a new name.

"No nickname" remains one of the available choices, along with "Fighting Hawks," "Green Hawks," "Nodaks," "North Stars," "Roughriders" and "Sundogs."

I'm not here to break down the choices. Honestly, I don't care what North Dakota calls itself.

But it has to call itself something, at least in my view.

The process of a new nickname, at least to me, is partially about moving on. UND's rabid -- that's a compliment, guys, so don't flood the inbox -- fanbase has been given no reason to move on from a name it loved so much.

Yes, the argument exists that a large number of fans wouldn't move on anyway. Maybe that argument is correct. But what is undeniable is this: No nickname means the vast majority of the fanbase will not move on.

They might not want to, but this process should be about moving on, not endorsing the status quo, where "Sioux" is only not UND's nickname officially. Fans yell "Sioux" at the end of the national anthem, still chant "Let's Go Sioux" during the game, and still wear Sioux jerseys and other clothing bearing the logo all the time. The university might not be making bank on the nickname, but it still exists.

While a new name doesn't guarantee the Sioux legacy will fade away, no name guarantees it won't.

So for what it's worth, as much as I appreciated the old name and the old logo, and as much as I respect what UND has, I strongly feel UND has to implement a new name and not go with no name at all.

I also recognize UND can't win here. No name, and exactly what I've laid out happens. But those loyal to the Sioux name will struggle to accept any name that is put in front of them. They'll reject it at first, and it might take years to reach full acceptance. It'll be a process, just like the last few years have been.

It's been three years, and it's time to start new traditions.

Ok, there's my $.02. It's time for me to move on.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Andy Welinski to Captain 2015-16 Bulldogs

To the surprise of -- probably -- no one, Duluth native Andy Welinski has been named captain of the 2015-16 UMD men's hockey team.

Official word:
Defenseman Andy Welinski has been promoted to the University of Minnesota Duluth's team captain position for the 2015-16 season while a trio of fellow seniors -- forwards Tony Cameranesi, Cal Decowski and Austin Farley -- will serve assistant captaincy roles with the Bulldogs.

As a minutes-munching assistant team captain last winter, Welinski set career highs for goals (nine -- a number bettered by only one other National Collegiate Hockey Conference blueliner), points (21) and plus-minus (+2) en route to securing a spot on the All-NCHC second team. In addition, the Anaheim Ducks draft pick generated the second most shots (100) of any league defensman and was one of just five rear guards to score shorthanded. Welinski, a Duluth native and 2012-13 Western Collegiate Hockey Association All-Rookie Team selection, has finished as UMD's top scoring point man in each of the three previous seasons and will head into his senior year with 58 lifetime points (18 goals and 40 assists) to his credit.

Cameranesi, who like Welinski has skated in all 114 games since joining the UMD program two years ago and is also a National Hockey League draftee (Toronto Maple Leafs), paced the Bulldogs in scoring for the second time in three years this past season, racking up nine goals and 21 assists for 30 points. Farley was three slots back on the team's scoring charts with 24 points (eight goals and 16 assists) and tied for the team lead in both power play goals (4) and game-winners (3) while Decowski, UMD's 2014-15 nominee for the NCHC Sportsmanship Award, chipped in a personal-best 16 points as a junior. That trio took shifts in each of UMD's 40 outings this past season.  
I talked to Welinski after UMD's heart-breaking loss to Boston University in the NCAA Northeast Regional (I'm still not in a frame of mind to further discuss the events of that game). At the time, he was deciding between returning for his senior season or joining the Anaheim Ducks organization (they drafted him in 2011). He played both sides well, noting that he's always wanted to play pro hockey, but his time at UMD was a dream come true, and it would be an unbelievable honor to wear the "C."

In the end, the draw of captaining his hometown team, and the sting of last year's bitter ending in Manchester, won out for Welinski. It wasn't surprising. He told me he decided after the BU game that he wanted to return, but he knew he was emotional at the time and needed to think about it and weigh everything before deciding.

After so narrowly missing out on a trip to Boston (and I firmly believe UMD would have been a factor and not just window dressing at the Frozen Four), Welinski and assistant captains Cameranesi, Decowski, and Farley hope to lead the Bulldogs to the 2016 Frozen Four in Tampa.

Can't think of a better way to go out than that.

Monday, May 11, 2015

About the Wild and Baby Steps

So the Wild lost in four straight to Chicago and are done. It's probably my fault, since I had them winning it all.

(I was most pleased about my "Wild in six" prediction in the first round, because I know a lot of really smart people who didn't agree. But alas, I blew it big-time when I misunderestimated Chicago.)

Anyway, the Wild lost in six to the Blackhawks last year. Four this year. So it's a step backward, right?

Well, it isn't that simple.

The team's step backward actually took place from Nov. 4 through Jan. 13, a stretch where the Wild went 11-16-5 and blew some great opportunities to make headway in the Western Conference.

See, it was that stretch of average/really bad hockey that led the Wild to trade for Devan Dubnyk on Jan. 14 and start its season-ending tear the next night in Buffalo.

For nearly three months straight, the Wild battled night in and night out to just get a seat at the playoff table. Not many teams can be 13th in the conference after Jan. 1 and still make the eight-team tournament. Especially in a very difficult Western Conference. Just being able to do that -- especially given 1) the very difficult schedule, 2) the fact so many teams in the West were fighting for those seats at the table, and 3) the Wild had to do it almost exclusively by scoring goals five on five because the power play was completely useless -- was a hell of an accomplishment.

It also probably should have foretold the premature end to the season.

Go back and watch Games 2 through 4 against Chicago. And the third period of Game 1.

Then go watch the Wild win race after race and -- more importantly -- battle after battle against St. Louis the series before.

Chicago was dialed in against Minnesota, but the Wild were clearly slowing as the series wore on. Advantages I thought existed going into the series did not. We know the Blackhawks have a ton of scoring punch. Patrick Kane is incredible. Jonathan Toews is Mr. Everything. Their blue line sells out and blocks shots like no other, and Joel Quenneville is great at what he does.

But I thought Minnesota had the edge down the middle, with improved center depth (even if they're not great on draws). Then Brad Richards undressed Marco Scandella in Game 1. And Charlie Coyle didn't score in the series (also didn't finish the series playing center, a real indictment considering how much time the coaching staff invested in Coyle in the middle during the regular season). I was wrong.

I also was surprised at how slow Minnesota's defensemen looked. I knew Chicago had speed to burn up front, but the Blackhawks really made the Wild look silly in their own zone at times.

Offensively, Corey Crawford played well for the 'Hawks. He did. You don't post a near-.950 save percentage, even in a small four-game sample, by accident. But the Wild made it too easy on him. There wasn't enough net drive, and the blue line didn't do a good job creating lanes and getting pucks through traffic, something Chicago was much better at (and Dubnyk's elite puck-tracking ability was sneakily on display throughout).

Chicago also won an inordinate number of races and battles for pucks. Why is that? Did the Wild see a dialed-in adversary and struggle to meet the intensity level? Did the Wild finally succumb to the three-month grind they put themselves through just to get in?

I think it's a little bit of a few things, but the fatigue factor certainly weighs heavily. You're never going to get a team to admit it ran out of gas (though UMD was close in March when Denver won those two games in the NCHC playoffs). But the Wild clearly didn't have as much energy against Chicago as was present against the Blues in the previous round.

Watch Jason Zucker nearly get beat to a loose puck by Marian Hossa. Watch Scandella lose a board battle to Richards. Watch Coyle's effectiveness slip.

Too many guys weren't at their best against Chicago, while the Blackhawks played four very strong games.

So is it a step back.

Decisively, no.

The Wild needed to rip off a hell of a run in the second half of the season. When Dubnyk came on board, Minnesota was 18-19-5, good for 41 points, 13th in the West. As it turns out, making the playoffs required a minimum of 55 points in 40 games, a 70 percent rate that is almost unfathomable against a tough slate of Western foes.

The Wild got 59 points, nearly 74 percent of the available points.

The end result -- loss to Chicago in the second round -- was the same. The end result -- getting swept -- looks worse than a year ago.

But the fact this team was still alive to get swept in the second round is something worth noting, not forgetting.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Adam Krause Gets AHL Deal

While former UMD forward Justin Crandall made his pro debut Wednesday (two assists for ECHL Reading against Florida) and defenseman Derik Johnson should debut this weekend, we were waiting for word on UMD captain Adam Krause.

Wait no more.

I've learned that Krause -- from Hermantown -- is moving on to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on an AHL deal starting next season. The two-year Bulldog captain will report to the team's ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers (great name and logo).

Krause completed his four-year run at UMD in Saturday's Northeast Regional final loss to Boston University. In 133 games, Krause compiled 16 goals and 37 points, including seven goals and 17 points in 31 games this season. Krause also was a plus-15 on the 2014-15 campaign, as UMD went 21-16-3.

A strong leader in the locker room, Krause was also a fantastic student (NCHC Scholar-Athlete Team this year) and one of the most active UMD players you'll ever find when it comes to community service. He was a nominee for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, as well as the Hockey Humanitarian Award.

By the way, Krause's Wheeling Nailers face the Reading Royals on Wednesday. Just saying.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

UMD Notes: Scott Sandelin Laments Loss to BU

Scott Sandelin apologized for going off on a tangent a little bit, but who could blame him?

Asked what he would remember about his 15th UMD team, the fifth to make an NCAA Tournament and the eighth to win 20 or more games, Sandelin started by talking about how this was really "a team," one that didn't have a superstar but had a lot of unselfish players.

Then came the tangent.

"I've had a lot of great teams," Sandelin said. "It's not even about winning. We've had some great kids. This group was pretty special. Unfortunately, they almost got to where they wanted to go. That's the part that's hard for a coach, when you see that. It was a fun group to work with. They worked hard. They cared about each other.

"Like I've said, some things you can't control. I kind of feel like that last game kind of got taken out of our hands. I don't like that, because I think it cheats the kids a little bit. They're the ones that people come to watch. You just want them to play and decide a game. That's the unfortunate thing, that's the thing that probably stings the most. Whether that sounds like whining, I really don't care. Because the bottom line is that for four of those guys, they can't play again.

"Sorry, I went off the deep end a little."

The topic, not surprisingly, came up a couple times at Sandelin's season-ending press conference Wednesday. In this case, he sort of brought it up on his own, but he was asked about it earlier.

"Obviously disappointed, but proud of our team and how we played," he said. "Some things you can't control as we saw. Came up a little short."

Asked about memories of the Minnesota win, Sandelin acknowledged it's a highlight for a lot of people, but also said "I'll remember more the disappointment of losing a game that some other factors came into play, and our kids not advancing to play in Boston."

I haven't brought this up much, largely because I know most of you are UMD fans, you're probably bitter about what happened, and I doubt you need any reminders. Also, the more I think about the way that game ended, the more bitter I get about it. Can only imagine at least a few of you are the same way.

It might be a topic we can discuss more in-depth at some point, but now is not the time. I'm glad the coach said what he said, because frankly the easy way out would be to repeat the "Some things you can't control" line until everyone goes away. Sandelin did a good job elaborating on his frustration without really stepping in something.

******

For those who haven't heard, UMD's non-conference schedule is as follows for 2015-16:

Sunday night exhibition vs. Lakehead
Opening weekend home and home vs. Bemidji State (Fitzgerald triplets!)
Then a home and home vs. Minnesota
The following weekend, at Notre Dame
Then home vs UMass-Lowell to finish October

The other non-conference series is a two-game set at Northern Michigan in early February. UMD will also host the U.S. Under-18 Team for an exhibition after Christmas.

I have not seen the full schedule, but clearly it will become NCHC-heavy beginning in the first week of November.

******

According to sources, UMD picked up a verbal commitment from Hibbing/Chisholm defenseman Scott Perunovich this week. Since I reported the commitment on Twitter, Perunovich has made it official. One of the first people to congratulate him on Twitter? Hermantown sophomore Ryan Sandelin. I think you've heard of his dad.

Anyway, Perunovich was one of the top 1998-born players in the Northland last year. As a sophomore for Hibbing, he racked up 56 points on 11 goals and 45 assists in 27 games. Perunovich is likely three to four years away from pulling on a Bulldog jersey, but I've heard nothing but good things about his puck skills and vision.

Former Bluejacket Adam Johnson is the top forward in UMD's 2015 recruiting class. Oh, and Scott Sandelin hails from Hibbing. There's that, too.

Andy Welinski Undecided on UMD Return

UMD defenseman Andy Welinski will either get paid to play hockey next season, or he'll captain what could be one of the top teams in college hockey.

While he is leaning toward a return to UMD, Welinski hasn't made a decision yet. The Ducks draft pick is weighing his options carefully before making one.

"Something that I looked at coming into school, and it's been this situation after each year," Welinski told me. "It's gotten bigger after every year, so I've got some options to look at, and we'll see where it goes.

"With the resources I've used and people I've talked to about previous guys who've made this decision, it needs to be what I want to do. Do I think I'm ready? What I learned when I was younger in high school is you need to set both feet and stick with it. It does no good to look back and say 'Wish I would have done that.' It's purely a development decision. Do I think I can play?"

(For those who don't know, Welinski left Duluth East a year early and went to the USHL, where he put together a couple pretty strong years with the Green Bay Gamblers.)

Welinski said he doesn't have a timetable for his final answer.

Will he be motivated by the bitter ending to UMD's 2014-15 season? Perhaps.

"Initially, right after, I made my decision right away that I was coming back," he said. "The emotions and everything, without weighing anything on it, I wanted to be back. You want to play one more game in a year. The opportunity to have one more year is something not everybody has."

The well-spoken blue-liner will graduate next year if he returns, another piece that will weigh on his decision.

If he leaves, he says Duluth and UMD will always have a special place in his heart.

"I've been living a dream here for three years. I grew up going to UMD games, and idolizing all these players. It's easy to get lost in it. It's unbelievable, the facilities and university, being just a couple miles from my house. It's something that I'll never forget.

"From a people standpoint, the people I've met in college, especially my teammates and coaches, they've really impacted my last three years."

If he stays, Welinski will be honored to wear the "C" for the program he grew up watching.

"Kind of a dream. We came in with eight guys in our class. You never know who's going to be there our senior year. It would be a huge honor. From the seniors and older guys who've worn letters my first three years, I've learned a lot from them."

Welinski might be a little conflicted about this decision, and there may be some lingering bitterness over the end of the season (justifiably so), but that smile was as wide as I'm sure most of yours were when I asked about being on the third UMD team in history that can brag about ending Minnesota's season.

"Can't complain here," he said, laughing. "We matched up well against them. It's the biggest upset that a two-seed beat a three-seed in the tournament. It's obviously exciting."

(Yes, people actually called it an "upset." The other three UMD wins must have been accidents or something.)

From a readiness standpoint, my eyes are biased, but I think Welinski has some development he can achieve at this level. By no means was he ever rotten, but I do think he tailed off a little bit in the second half compared to the first. It showed itself with more inconsistency from him than we had seen before Christmas.

That said, Welinski's been a big-minute guy for UMD now for three years. Not many guys come in as freshmen at this level and play the number of minutes he logged from the outset, and he has been on UMD's top pair for most of his Bulldog career. If he leaves, it's hard to begrudge him, given the resume he's got from his college career.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday Musings: BU Takes Advantage of Late Power Play to Eliminate UMD

One second.

That's all that separated UMD from a successful penalty kill in the third period against Boston University. Crow all you want about the holding penalty against Andy Welinski -- and based on the standard that had been set by the WCHA crew in calling nothing for most of the first 55 minutes and change, it was a terrible call -- but the Bulldogs were that close to rendering the call moot.

But Evan Rodrigues got open enough to rip a shot by Kasimir Kaskisuo and give BU a 3-2 lead it would hold for the final 2:24 to advance to the Frozen Four.

It was one of those moments. You could see the play develop, and there wasn't much that could be done. Rodriguez made a great play to drag the puck around a sliding defender, and he ripped a shot Kaskisuo had little chance to stop. Sometimes, you have to tip your cap.

UMD shut down Jack Eichel, who was held off the scoreboard for just the sixth time in 39 games, but the Bulldogs couldn't contain linemate Rodrigues, who scored twice. As a result, BU heads to the Frozen Four with North Dakota, Omaha, and Providence.

For most of Saturday, I actually thought UMD was the better team. The difference was that Rodrigues ripped off a couple great shots, and the Bulldogs couldn't solve BU goalie Matt O'Connor when they were able to generate gobs of offensive zone time and wear down BU a bit.

UMD showed its best traits on Saturday. The Bulldogs played with speed, were physical when required, rarely got pushed around despite BU possessing some bigger guys, and clearly weren't awed or intimidated by the Eichel line, even though it's damn good and Eichel's going to win the Hobey. Kaskisuo battled, played calm and relaxed, and just didn't get rattled. Neither did the rest of the team.

******

Four Bulldog careers closed on Saturday night in Manchester. Senior forwards Justin Crandall and Adam Krause, defenseman Derik Johnson, and goalie Alex Fons put on our colors for the final time.

Those doors close, and more doors open. Both the "warm bodies" door -- UMD has four recruits lined up for 2015 -- and the "leadership" door.

The 2015-16 recruiting class includes forward Adam Johnson of Hibbing, near the top of the USHL in scoring this season, and defenseman Neal Pionk of Hermantown, who leads the USHL in scoring by defensemen. Also, the staff has added Spruce Grove forward Parker MacKay, who should sign this spring. Nick Deery will come in from the MJHL as the third goalie starting next year.

(MacKay and the Saints are in the AJHL North Division finals at the moment, tied 1-1 in a best-of-seven series against Bonnyville. MacKay has eight goals in eight playoff games so far.)

That will fill the physical void.

How about leadership?

Great teams need strong leaders. Oftentimes, leaders emerge who aren't wearing a letter on their jersey. But UMD is losing two strong captains and a third guy in Johnson who -- in his last two years -- went from "barely able to get in the lineup" to being relied on for big minutes in big spots.

If Andy Welinski returns, the Bulldogs have a good candidate to be captain.

(More on this in a bit.)

But others will be needed. Will some seniors step up, like Cal Decowski (ahem, CAL DECOWSKI!!!11!1!), Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, etc.? Will we see leadership from juniors like Dominic Toninato, Kyle Osterberg, or maybe Carson Soucy?

Too early to tell.

But it will come from somewhere. If it's effective and strong leadership, UMD will be a contender again in 2015-16.

******

Kaskisuo was fantastic in the NCAA Tournament, to the point I voted him Most Outstanding Player for the Northeast Regional (votes were due before BU got the late power play). He played well in both games, and this summer will be a key to his success going forward. I think he has a chance to be one of the best goalies in the NCHC, if not Division I, next season if he has a good offseason.

His presence allows Hunter Miska to play one more year in the BCHL with Penticton. Senior Matt McNeely will back up Kaskisuo. His work ethic, even in not playing much this season, caught the eye of many around the program. McNeely is a highly-respected part of this team, and for good reason. His play against Minnesota at the North Star College Cup wasn't an accident, and if something had happened to Kas, he would have been ready to go when called on.

******

Now, for potential flight risks.

Welinski is the big one. The Ducks draft pick has multiple options, beyond "return for his senior season" and "sign with Anaheim." Because he was drafted in 2011, he could become a free agent if he waits out 30 days after leaving school and turning pro.

I have no indication what the mobile defenseman will do at this point.

Our other drafted players were sophomores Soucy and Toninato and junior Cameranesi. Soucy (Wild) will almost certainly be back. I'd be surprised if Toronto signed either Cameranesi or Toninato, though Cameranesi could be tempting given the organization's need for a reset and the strong year he had. His lack of size could be a hindrance, though he has plenty of speed and skill, and he showed a lot of toughness shaking off that big hit he took in the second period Saturday and not missing a shift.

Of the undrafted players, forward Alex Iafallo bears the most watching, I believe. I wouldn't rule out interest from the pro ranks, but will it be the right fit and make him decide he wants to leave?

Last year, we went into the offseason fairly certain Caleb Herbert would turn pro, and he signed within a week. The year before, we were surprised to see Chris Casto make the jump, but that also happened pretty quick after the season ended.

Reality: We should know within a month what departures we're dealing with for 2015-16, if any.

******

Finally, a word of thanks. First, the UMD staff -- Scott Sandelin, Jason Herter, Derek Plante, Christian Koelling, Chris Garner, DR. Suz Hoppe, Hogie, Bill Watson, Brant Nicklin, Blake Palmer, Josh Berlo, Bob Nygaard, Brian Nystrom, Jay Finnerty, Morgan "Li'l Nyggs" Nygaard, Jeff Stark, and everyone at Amsoil Arena and within the athletic department who help make this job easier.

It's cliche, but this job isn't worth doing if it ever stops being fun. I enjoy every day I get to spend around the UMD staff and players. I told Josh Berlo Saturday that this was the best group I've worked with in my ten years calling games, and I meant it. These kids were a treat to deal with, and they were a hoot to be around at the rink, on the bus, and at the airport.

Thanks to Matt Wellens for assimilating himself as best as possible, and for the transportation help in Manchester.

Most importantly, thanks to my wife and son for continuing to sacrifice and allow me to do this. Couldn't ever manage doing it without their support.

And thanks to all of you. I don't spend much time on blog metrics, and I'd probably keep writing this even if no one was reading it regularly. But I know a lot of you do, and I appreciate it. We're doing some different stuff at the radio ranch, and that's affected my ability to give you the kinds of updates I used to. Thanks for the patience, and for your loyalty. It isn't unnoticed.

Hopefully we can reconvene the band in October and take this thing to the beaches of Tampa next April for the 2016 Frozen Four.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Game 40: UMD vs Boston University (NCAA Northeast Regional Final)

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- High-end skill vs depth.

Experienced goaltending vs freshman.

What's the storyline for this regional championship? We're about to find out.

I believe this game comes down to UMD's ability to neutralize the top line of the top seed Terriers, centered by Hobey Baker favorite Jack Eichel. Teams have been able to play with Eichel, Evan Rodriguez, and Danny O'Regan (65 combined goals, 173 combined points) for spurts of games, but not for 60 minutes.

Can UMD's depth play a role in the game? Scott Sandelin wasn't averse to using all four forward lines in the regional semifinals against Minnesota. He won't be in the regional final, either, especially if Cal Decowski, Austyn Young, and Charlie Sampair can give the kind of quality shifts they gave Friday. Can Sandelin indirectly affect BU's choices for line matchups by consistently rolling three or four lines when BU wants to use its top line more?

We'll find out. To paraphrase Sandelin after Friday's win, if you can't get excited this time of year, something's wrong with you.

Lines?

Lines.

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

Johnson - Welinski
Soucy - Raskob
Corrin - Kotyk

Kaskisuo - McNeely - Fons

BU
Rodrigues - Eichel - O'Regan
Baillargeon - Hohmann - Oksanen
Greer - Lane - Roberto
Phelps - Moran - Piccinich

Grzelcyk - MacLeod
Hickey - Fortunato
Somerby - Diffley

O'Connor - LaCouvee - Moccia

Friday, March 27, 2015

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Trample Gophers, Advance to Northeast Regional Final

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sometimes, you survive and advance.

Friday at Verizon Wireless Arena, it was more like "thrive and advance" for the UMD Bulldogs.

After a sleepy start, UMD put up three goals in a 5:59 span of the first period en route to a 4-1 win over Minnesota in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinals. The win puts the Bulldogs in Saturday's regional final against No. 1 seed Boston University.

"I thought we started a little slow," head coach Scott Sandelin said. "Kas (freshman goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo) made a couple saves early on, then we found our legs. From that point on, we played a pretty good game."

I'd say.

For the first six or seven minutes, the Bulldogs looked every bit a team coming off a bye. The Gophers took it to UMD, getting the early lead in shots and generating a couple scoring chances, though UMD did a good job sticking with its structure and avoiding big defensive zone breakdowns.

The Bulldogs' third line, centered by Jared Thomas with wings Justin Crandall and Kyle Osterberg, put together a strong shift in the UMN zone, getting UMD its first real scoring chances about eight minutes into the first. It wasn't the turning point, but it started to get the Bulldogs going and get them into the game.

Then Willie Raskob set up Tony Cameranesi for a back-door tap-in to get UMD on the board. From there, it was all Bulldogs until the outcome was decided.

"It's really important against any team," Sandelin said, "but certainly our success against Minnesota in the four wins, we scored the first goal."

Less than three minutes later, Brenden Kotyk set up a Justin Crandall tip that made it 2-0. Then Raskob added one -- that went in off Minnesota junior Mike Reilly -- before the first period ended, and at 3-0, there were actual Gopher fans on social media declaring the end of the game.

Sandelin noted that he implored his guys to do a better job getting to the net, and clearly players took heed.

"We talked pretty much the last two weeks that we need to do a better job of getting to the net, getting pucks to the net," he said. "I thought we did a better job of that and we were rewarded with some goals."

The second period was all UMD on Friday. The Gophers barely had the puck long enough to turn it over. UMD created chances, cycled pucks, intercepted clearing attempts, and had huge gobs of offensive zone time. Each line, it seemed, took a turn doing something of note in the offensive zone.

Minnesota just didn't have anything.

"Maybe it just seemed like we were a bit emotionally flat at times," Gophers coach Don Lucia said.

More than anything, I think this is what surprised me the most. Yeah, Minnesota pushed back in the third period a bit. AJ Michaelson had a nice scoring chance, Hudson Fasching got loose down low a couple times, and Seth Ambroz got a late goal to spoil Kaskisuo's shutout bid (so much for Kaskisuo being overcome by nerves in his NCAA Tournament debut; he said afterward it was just a "normal game" for him). And I've never really thought of the Gophers as a chippy, dirty team that takes cheap shots when it's behind late. 

That said, there just seemed to be a lack of emotion. They weren't engaging UMD physically, instead just standing around and letting the Bulldogs do whatever they wanted.

A reporter asked the Gopher players who were made available at the press conference if they thought the small crowd played a role. For his part, sophomore Vinny Lettieri wasn't having anything to do with it.

"There were more fans here than when we came out in Detroit (at the Big Ten Championship last weekend)," he said.

I've said that I think small crowds at regionals tend to randomize results in some cases.

But in this case, there was nothing random. For the better part of 40 minutes, this was a nationally televised whipping administered by a UMD team that has spent the entire season showing it has Minnesota's number. Over the last seven meetings dating to last season, UMD is 5-1-1 against the Gophers with four straight wins. Considering Minnesota hasn't been some middling outfit the last two seasons, that's a really impressive number.

******

This sets up what should be a great regional final Saturday between UMD and Boston University. The Terriers got a Danny O'Regan overtime goal to edge past No. 4 seed Yale 3-2 in the first game Friday. Hobey favorite Jack Eichel set up the winner with a blast from right point that came off the pad of Yale goalie Alex Lyon and went right to O'Regan for the winner.

O'Regan, Eichel, and Evan Rodrigues have combined for 65 goals and 173 points this season. Eichel has 67 points on 24 goals and 43 assists. Oh, and he's a draft-eligible freshman.

(BU dressed eight freshman skaters on Friday. Neither team is blessed with much NCAA Tournament experience.)

BU coach David Quinn -- an alum in his second season after taking over for retired legend Jack Parker -- made it clear Thursday that his team is not a one-line team. Second-line center Cason Hohmann has 28 points, and right wing Ahti Oksanen has 24 goals after getting one Friday.

But UMD got goals from its second and third lines, plenty of pressure from its top line, and fourth-line wings Austyn Young and Charlie "Chuck" Sampair had five shots between them against Minnesota. It's a one-game snapshot, but BU's third and fourth lines combined for six shots against Yale, two for Nick Roberto and three for Robbie Baillargeon.

I think that will be a huge part of Saturday's game. Definitely bears watching. Will UMD's depth make the difference? Or is Boston University's high-end top line going to be too much for UMD to handle?

Also, with somewhat limited time to study up, how will Quinn handle matchups. He's the home team coach, so he has last change. I'd guess he tries Eichel's line against Dominic Toninato's line at first. Neither team is good on draws, but Cameranesi has become very good as of late, and Toninato really struggled in the circle (3-16) against the Gophers.

I don't think Sandelin minds this matchup. Toninato, Alex Iafallo, and Adam Krause have the ability to play physical and possess the puck. Just like Minnesota, I think that'll be a huge part of this regional final. UMD wants to play a possession game, make opponents play defense and play a 200-foot game to generate any kind of possession on their own. The best defense is puck possession. Eichel and friends can't score if they're defending in their own zone.

Sounds simple. It won't be.

But equally important to the Eichel line matchup is how the other lines play against BU's other lines. If UMD can show an advantage in depth, and whoever plays against the Eichel group can find a way to slow those guys down, the Bulldogs will work from a position of strength.

******

Good Friday for the NCHC, not so good for everyone else.

In Fargo, St. Cloud State -- should I do the ESPN thing and call them "St. Cloud (Minn.) State"? -- and North Dakota pushed the NCHC to a 3-0 start to this NCAA Tournament, and also guaranteed the second-year league at least one Frozen Four team.

St. Cloud got an overtime goal from Duluth's Judd Peterson to beat Michigan Tech 3-2. The Huskies couldn't hold a late lead, as Jonny Brodzinski tied the score with 37 seconds left in regulation. Peterson's goal was set up by Joe Rehkamp after Tech defenseman Riley Sweeney fell down at the blue line, creating an odd-man rush.

West Regional host North Dakota polished off Quinnipiac 4-1 to finish the day in Fargo. Drake Caggiula scored and had an assist, while Zane McIntyre made 29 saves for UND to set up a rematch against a Huskies team that won over North Dakota at last week's NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

After his team's win, birthday boy Bob Motzko said his SCSU team would either get a road game or a neutral-site game on Saturday.

It'll be a road game, not that I have to tell you.

Also Saturday, the Midwest and Northeast Regionals open up. In the Midwest Regional at South Bend, No. 1 Minnesota State plays RIT, while Omaha battles Harvard. Providence houses the East Regional, which has top seed Miami playing Providence while Denver takes on Boston College. Those regional finals are Sunday evening to finish filling out the Frozen Four field.

Coverage of UMD-BU can be heard on 92.1 The Fan and the Red Rock Radio Bulldog Sports Network starting at 4pm (Central). The game will be televised on ESPN2 and available on the WatchESPN app (sign in with your TV provider, and you'll have access to the stream as long as you get ESPN2 at home, which I think is available on even the most basic cable/satellite packages).