Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hunter Miska, Neal Pionk Leave UMD Early

Disappointing, exciting, but not terribly surprised.

I think those terms all apply in their own way, amid news in the last 48 hours that two cornerstone players for UMD are leaving the program early for pro hockey.

It's disappointing in a sense when players leave early, from multiple selfish standpoints. Obviously, it stands to hurt the team going forward, and frankly I'm going to miss being around all the players who depart the program.

Of course, it's also exciting. These guys have a chance to make it in the pros, and that's always fun to see happen. 

And in the case of freshman goalie Hunter Miska and sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk, both of whom have announced their intention to turn pro, it isn't surprising UMD lost both. I wrote about it last week, strongly intimating they might go.

Miska signed Saturday with the Arizona Coyotes, where he joins an organization struggling in terms of goalies at all levels. With just four under contract beyond this season, Miska (he turns 22 in July) will have a chance to make an immediate impact.

An older freshman when he arrived, I was never convinced he'd be a four-year guy. But as the season wore on, and Miska practically carried this team at times, it was clear he had a chance to go pro. When Michigan Tech freshman goalie Angus Redmond signed with the Anaheim Ducks last month, it only increased my fears Miska would be the program's first one-and-done player since Justin Faulk in 2010-11.

(Keep in mind, older freshmen especially are risking a lot by staying in school when there are viable offers to go pro. Their window to make it in the pros is much shorter than younger guys in the same situation.)

Sophomores Nick Deery and Hunter Shepard combined to play five games in 2016-17, with Deery starting twice and Shepard once. Their numbers were pretty solid (Deery was  .934 and Shepard a .922), and head coach Scott Sandelin -- who was clearly prepared for these players to leave -- spoke last week about his confidence in both. UMD will bring in another goalie to compete for a job. There are some accomplished junior goalies who are uncommitted, so I'm interested to see who they're able to get. Even on short notice, the Bulldogs have a chance to add a pretty solid goalie for the 2017-18 season and hopefully beyond.

With three freshmen goalies on the roster, UMD had none committed for future years. While it might look like a scramble drill at this point, they know where to look and it shouldn't be a drawn-out process.

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Pionk, meanwhile, confirmed Monday his decision to leave UMD and head to pro hockey. A free agent, Pionk's destination isn't yet known, but making his decision now opens the door for him to visit NHL franchises on their dime, instead of having to pay his own way for such trips if he didn't make the decision beforehand.

(It's a path J.T. Brown followed when he left after the 2011-12 season and eventually signed with Tampa Bay.)

The Hermantown native is a good-skating, right-shot defenseman with tremendous poise and the ability to take over games. He should attract plenty of interest from NHL teams. Money-wise, there won't be a lot of difference in the offers he gets (there are maximums on these deals and bonuses), so Pionk will be allowed to make a decision based on the fit, system, and perhaps most importantly, his path to the NHL.

Matt Wellens indicated the possibility that defenseman commits Dylan Samberg or Hunter Lellig could come in early. Both are draft eligible this summer for the first time. If the UMD coaches don't want to bring one of them in a year earlier than planned, look for them to recruit a player to fill Pionk's spot on the roster. But with him gone, Nick Wolff (37 games, 2-10-12) and Jarod Hilderman (11 games, 0-1-1) are the only players back with any real notable experience from the 2016-17 season. Nick McCormack only played four games, has 24 games played in three years, and has yet to show he's a viable option for significant minutes. Will Campion got in just one game, and it was in October.

Who's coming in? Two Andersons -- Mikey and Matt -- and a Perunovich (Scott). Mikey Anderson is Joey's brother, while Matt is not related. Expect both Andersons to eat a lot of the missing minutes. Perunovich might be a bit more of a developmental prospect early, but once he settles in, his vision and puck-moving ability will be highly-valued, especially on the power play.

With Pionk's departure, UMD is probably short at least one player. Would assume they want eight defensemen to start the season. If Samberg or Lellig don't come in early, I would expect UMD to recruit another player to fill the void. Time will tell what direction UMD decides to go.

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Will there be other departures? It doesn't appear so. Joey Anderson, Adam Johnson, and Riley Tufte, likely the biggest "flight risks" among the remaining returnees, have all confirmed their intention to return to school.

It leaves UMD with what appears to be a formidable offensive group that might be a bit leaky in the back end while the young guys get acclimated. It also prioritizes the already-important work that these players do on their own over the summer. Everyone will need to report in great shape and prepared to learn the Bulldog way when the leaves (which will come in soon, I promise) start to change colors.

Check out @BruceCiskie on Twitter for more discussion. Enjoy the NHL playoffs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2016-17 Unquestioned Success for UMD

For UMD players, it's certainly fine to be sad over not being able to bring a national championship back from Chicago. Seven seniors saw their careers come to an end Saturday night, and they may have had the sads even if UMD had won the game. It's the end of a great era for all of them, a time of their lives they won't soon forget.

But with time comes perspective. Looking back, there can be no doubt that UMD had a great season, one of the best in program history. The Bulldogs played 42 games and lost all of seven, five of the seven coming by one goal. The young players grew up in a hurry, hardened by playing in a mind-blowing 19 one-goal games (14-5) to go along with seven ties. And four of the games UMD won by two saw gaps widened by empty-net goals at the end. That would be 30 of 42 games decided by zero or one goals, or that were one-goal games in the final minute and change before UMD tacked on an empty-netter.

That's a lot of meat-grinder games. It was great to have such a focused group of seniors, but how valuable was this experience for UMD's younger players, the guys who will have to carry the water going forward?

Asked if his program will miss the pure talent, the little things (penalty killers, shot blockers, etc.), or leadership of this senior class, head coach Scott Sandelin hedged a bit.

"All of them," he quipped. "Certainly, the leadership, the mindset those guys had really carried over to our team. They were really driven to come back and be successful. I think they were really instrumental in that. Their play spoke for itself."

Think about it. Seven losses in 42 games, with 30 of the 42 games being in the neighborhood of "spine-tingling". It was a special season with a special group, one that will be unquestionably missed. Now, the hope is the seeds are sown for future senior classes to carry on the success brought by the last few groups.

UMD has seen some good captains over the years, and clearly these seven learned from guys like Adam Krause and Andy Welinski before them. Dominic Toninato did a great job setting the tone for the group and being one of the team's most consistent players on the ice. That's what captains do. Lead by example in all areas, be vocal when necessary. It's probably too easy, but I expect another local product -- Karson Kuhlman -- to captain next season. He was already captain material before he started at UMD, but the value of playing for great captains over his three years will be realized next season.

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We don't know yet what will happen with a number of UMD seniors, or if the program will lose any underclassmen early to the pros.

Defenseman Carson Soucy signed with the Minnesota Wild and could make his pro debut for AHL Iowa as soon as Thursday. Toninato was drafted by Toronto, but is not in a hurry to sign, so that one will probably wait until after the season ends. Free agent forward Alex Iafallo should pick his organization sometime soon. Defenseman Dan Molenaar is retiring from hockey, and other senior players are going to wait until later in the spring or this summer before deciding on their futures.

As for any early departures, Sandelin's message to the media Wednesday was basically "wait and see". It's believed the two major risks are defenseman Neal Pionk and goalie Hunter Miska. Pionk reportedly has garnered a lot of interest from NHL organizations. There's no doubt that teams will look at Miska, who came in as a 21-year-old freshman and earned a spot among the finalists for the Mike Richter Award, won by Denver's Tanner Jaillet. We've already seen Michigan Tech freshman Angus Redmond turn pro after one year, and it isn't crazy to suggest Miska could be gone.

Sandelin noted his belief in backups Nick Deery and Hunter Shepard, both of whom have three years of eligibility remaining. However, it stands to reason the coaches would scour the junior ranks for another goalie who could come in and compete for a job if Miska leaves.

UMD has signed defensemen Mikey Anderson (Joey's brother), Matt Anderson (no relation), and Scott Perunovich (Hibbing kid), along with forward Nick Swaney, who played a second year for USHL Waterloo this season and has been outstanding. He should be ready for a top-six role early in the season, if not at the outset.

Sandelin didn't want to speculate on even the number of recruits he wants to bring in for 2017-18, but that doesn't stop us from trying. 😃

On the blue line, they lose four unless Pionk goes early. If they lose Pionk, they have four back and signed three, so worst case it stands to reason UMD would want to find one more defenseman. I don't know the odds of commit Hunter Lellig coming in 2017, I think he's more likely to play next season in the USHL.

Up front, the Bulldogs lose three players and don't expect to lose anyone early. Swaney is signed, and Peter Krieger will be eligible next season after transferring from Alaska-Fairbanks and sitting out a season. If the ideal number is 15 forwards, UMD will need two more to fill the roster.

Des Moines (USHL) forward Kobe Roth of Warroad and Cloquet native Koby Bender, another USHL forward, could also sign for 2017-18. Roth had a solid season for Des Moines, while Bender has been so-so in Muskegon (production hasn't been great, but he's also not a front-line guy for a playoff team). Both are 1997 birth years. I would presume we'd see at least one and maybe both in for 2017-18 to fill out the class.

As far as filling the lines, a first look could lead you to something like this for a depth chart:

Tufte - Johnson - Anderson (Joey)
Krieger - Swaney - Kuhlman
Young - Peterson - Mackay
Recruit - Thomas - Exell
Miller - Spurrell - Recruit

Wolff - Pionk
Anderson (Mikey) - Perunovich
Anderson (Matt) - Hilderman
McCormack - Campion

If Pionk leaves, UMD is left with just Hilderman and Campion as right-handed defensemen, assuming no one else is brought in. That could be a concern coupled with the youth back there.

******

The full schedule will be released eventually, but this is what we know:

Oct. 1 Alberta (exhibition)
Oct. 6 Minnesota (IceBreaker at Amsoil Arena)
Oct. 7 Union/ Michigan Tech (IceBreaker at Amsoil Arena)
Oct. 13-14 Bemidji State home/home (not sure the order)
Oct. 20-21 Merrimack
Oct. 27-28 at Maine
Nov. 3-4 at St. Cloud State
Nov. 10-11 Western Michigan
Nov. 17-18 at Miami
Dec. 1-2 Denver
Dec. 8-9 at Omaha
Dec. 29-30 (guessing on dates) at Ledyard Classic (hosted by Dartmouth, with Yale and New Hampshire)
Jan. 12-13 at Colorado College
Jan. 19-20 North Dakota
Jan. 26-27 St. Cloud State
Feb. 2-3 at Denver
Feb. 16-17 Miami
Feb. 23-24 at Western Michigan
Mar. 2-3 Omaha

UMD will also play a home and home with Minnesota State, a Saturday night in Duluth in one half of the season, and a Tuesday in Mankato during the other half.

******

Thanks to all the UMD players and staff and administration for another great sports season. Your help is never unnoticed and always appreciated.

I'll be around here and there with news and updates. Around that, enjoy the spring and summer. Don't forget to join us next season back on KDAL (610AM and 103.9FM) for UMD hockey. Download the KDAL app to get a head start and be ready for the launch of UMD football Aug. 31.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Game 42: UMD vs Denver (NCAA Championship)

CHICAGO -- Here we go. One game left in the college hockey season, and it belongs to the NCHC. UMD and Denver collide at United Center for the national championship. The teams met Dec. 9-10 in Denver, with the Pioneers winning 4-3 before UMD took the rematch 3-1 in what was probably the best-played series of the regular season for the Bulldogs (in terms of their play and the quality of the competition).

Game preview
Great senior classes collide
Harvard recap

6:30 montage on 92.1 The Fan. Stream it here (it should be active by 6pm). Hope you all enjoy it, wherever you are.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Anderson
Osterberg - Johnson - Kuhlman
Tufte - Peterson - Mackay
Young - Thomas - Exell

Pionk - Kotyk
Soucy - Raskob
Wolff - Molenaar

Miska - Shepard - Deery

DU
Lukosevicius - Gambrell - Terry
McLellan - Borgstrom - Finlay
Janssen - Marcinew - O'Connor
Romig - Ritt - Staub

Butcher - Plant
Hammond - Davies
Hillman - VanVoorhis

Jaillet - Cowley

Frozen Four: UMD, Denver Seniors Earn One More Ride

CHICAGO -- Both combatants in Saturday's NCAA title game at United Center boast seven-man senior classes.

While every one of those players took a different path to this game, those seniors are a large reason both the UMD Bulldogs and Denver Pioneers have found themselves playing for the ultimate prize in college hockey.

On the UMD side, while each senior has made a large impact on this team, the main water-carriers have been captain Dominic Toninato and longtime linemate (going back to their time in juniors with Fargo) Alex Iafallo.

"Number one, they had a lot of success together in Fargo," head coach Scott Sandelin said Friday. "So when you're bringing them both in at the same time, I'm not going to screw that up, you just keep playing them together. And at times I've thought is one helping the other or hurting the other, maybe they're too comfortable, and we've tried that, as you've seen moving Al maybe to a different line.

"But we always seem to go back to those two because of their chemistry. And I think they love playing together. I think they both complement each other very well. So been pretty easy. And we've just had to find a right winger for those guys.

"But if you look at them, again, I've said this a number of times, they've been awesome for us this year. I think they've both had great years. I think they both have played at a very high level consistently."

Toninato set up Joey Anderson's first-period goal in Thursday's semifinal win over Harvard with an offensive zone faceoff win. Then Iafallo tipped a pass from Willie Raskob with 26.6 seconds left to lift UMD to another in a series of one-goal wins.

(Iafallo, by the way, was named a First Team West Region All American by the American Hockey Coaches Association Friday. He was previously named first-team All NCHC and hit 50 points for the season and scored his 20th goal of the season for the winner Thursday.)

"It's a pretty surreal feeling," Kotyk said of getting to the championship game. "We've all had different paths. But I think we've come together as a team. Everybody brings something a little different to the table."

Kotyk is the oldest player on the team at 25, older than people who are here covering the tournament. He arrived at St. Scholastica as an older freshman, then transferred to UMD after one season. That meant sitting out the 2013-14 season and getting three years of eligibility after that, hence the age gap.

"I think we've got guys who bought into their roles," Raskob said, "and I think that's been the difference this year, is everyone's accepted the role they have on the team and, yeah, it's been incredible and so amazing and so surreal, and just taking everything in and enjoying the moment."

Raskob has been pretty consistently a top-four defenseman for UMD since his arrival from Shattuck-St. Mary's by way of his hometown of Hastings. Raskob's informal nickname, Mr. March, might need to be expanded to add April. In 18 postseason games in his career, Raskob has six goals, 12 points, and a plus-eight that leads all active UMD players.

For most of his career, Raskob has been paired with Carson Soucy. When the latter went down with a lower-body injury March 3 against Western Michigan and couldn't play in the NCAA West Regional two weeks ago in Fargo, Raskob did everything he could -- including scoring the overtime winner against Ohio State -- to make sure his partner got to play in the Frozen Four.

"That's huge," Soucy said. "It shows how close our team has been. That's what it takes to get here, you have to want to do it for the guy sitting next to you."

UMD's punching bag, so to speak, has been forward Kyle Osterberg. Along with posting strong offensive numbers this season (12 goals, 23 points, three game-winners), Osterberg has been a fixture on the penalty kill throughout his career, and he has been good at drawing both penalties and the ire of his adversaries.

Not many things have made me happier in my 12 years doing this than watching Dan Molenaar have the season he had. The senior and former state champion at Eden Prairie has been snakebit by injuries and illness during his UMD career, but has put it all together this year to become a steady influence on the blue line. The only game Molenaar has missed was the opener against Michigan Tech (healthy scratch).

True to his form, Molenaar was a class act when asked about his emotions heading into the championship game.

"I want to give credit to the guys who aren't in the lineup," Molenaar said. "The last couple of years in the regionals and stuff I was out. I know how hard that is. But they've just been exceptional teammates. And I think that's a reflection of the character in our room, and I think it speaks volumes to the program that so many people laid the foundation to build. And it's just a blast to be here with these guys and, yeah, there's no other way we want to end it."

The task Saturday is formidable, against a Denver team that has a similar senior class that's on a mission to complete the journey that fell short last year, when the Pioneers lost a national semifinal to eventual champion North Dakota.

DU is captained by Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, who eschewed the potential start of his professional career for one more year in college. He has led the charge for a group of older Pioneers who have spoken openly about their singular goal for this season.

"Well, you know, we've been here last year, and obviously we lost in the semifinal," said forward Emil Romig. "And it was pretty crushing for a lot of us. And so with you speaking to being on a mission, I mean, we've been working to get back here all year long. Ever since we lost, we wanted to do whatever we can to get back here, and we've worked really hard to accomplish that. And being back here definitely feels great. But, I mean, you know, we've got to finish it off."

Butcher could choose free agency this summer over signing with the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him. However, he told NHL Network Friday after winning the Hobey his "sole focus" is Saturday's game against UMD.

It's the spot this group has worked all season to get to, and they refuse to be denied now.

Sound familiar?

Friday, April 07, 2017

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Aim for Second National Championship

CHICAGO -- Before Thursday's national semifinal against Harvard at United Center, I asked UMD coach Scott Sandelin, working his third Frozen Four at UMD, how to balance a group of players in their first Frozen Four enjoying the moment with the do-or-die mentality it takes to win at this level.

"You don't get out of your routine," he said. "You can't take the excitement away. It's hard to get to this point. It's still a hockey game. You have to go in there and everyone has to trust what you've done all year, have confidence, and go play. This is not a time of year to throw in a bunch of new stuff. Hopefully, our guys play our best games of the year."

On the UMD roster, there isn't one player who has been through this before. Sure, you have coaches with ring cred. Captain Dominic Toninato's father, Jim, was on two UMD Frozen Four teams in the 1980s. Freshman forward Joey Anderson has played in some highly-charged environments with U.S. national teams, most notably the World Junior team that won gold in Canada barely three months ago.

And as we've discussed at length on this here blog, there doesn't seem to be anything that phases this UMD team. No deficit too large, no challenge too difficult. These guys know what lies in front of them Saturday night.

"We know they're very skilled hockey team," senior defenseman Brenden Kotyk said. "They've got Will Butcher back there and (Henrik) Borgström and (Dylan) Gambrell. (Troy) Terry. They're all exceptional hockey players.

"So I just don't think we have to quit what we're doing right now, we've just got to keep playing defense on those guys especially and be real hard on them. I think that will be key to us."

"We know they pose a big challenge in some ways because of how they play and their offensive ability and puck possession ability, and I think they defend very well, too," Sandelin said.

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Denver is a classic example of a team that's more than the sum of its parts. Borgström jumps off the page, and off the screen when you watch him play. He's that kind of player. DU coach Jim Montgomery has talked at length about the offensive ability Borgström has, but this week was asked about what area he's seen his star freshman improve most in. He didn't hesitate.

"He's played without the puck," Montgomery said. "When he wants to, he can be dominant on all 200 feet of the ice. It's just a question of whether he wants his motor to go."

Sandelin was asked about defending the Finnish star, who didn't play in the Dec. 9-10 series between these teams in Denver because of illness.

"You're going to give up some things," Sandelin said. "But you just gotta be aware and you gotta take as much time and space away, just like any good player. You do your best.

"Sometimes you've got to respect those guys a little bit, because if you're too aggressive, they can make you look really stupid. So you've got to be a little bit smart with angles and different things. Reminds me about playing against Jack Eichel a couple of years ago. Just because they have a little more length versus the shorter guys, but they're hard to defend."

Gambrell is a highly-talented offensive player. Terry is another one. Jarid Lukosevicius not only has the best name in college hockey, but he might be the most underrated player on this team. Lukosevicius leads this stacked roster with 147 shots on goal. He's not bashful about firing from anywhere, and with the shot he possesses, he shouldn't be.

On the blue line, Butcher (seven goals, 37 points) just won the Hobey Baker Award (well deserved, by the way), and he's joined by emerging freshman Michael Davies, underrated puck-mover Adam Plant, and big junior Tariq Hammond, who scored off a beautifully-executed odd-man rush in the semifinal thumping of Notre Dame.

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A reporter asked Sandelin about trying to slow down Denver, which is almost undoubtedly the fastest team in the country (all due respect to UMD, because I think the Bulldogs are fast, but UMD is a heavier version of Denver, capable of playing with a lot of pace but probably not quite DU's).

Sandelin: "When you look at -- if you look at, number one, just forechecking, their D -- they're very -- they don't have maybe the biggest guy. Hammond is a bigger player, but they've got some great skill and shiftiness. You've got to be careful. You can try and play really aggressive in their face, but they support the puck so well and those guys are pretty elusive that you've got to certainly play above the puck. Be aggressive when you can be.

"But just defensively you've got to be tight. And you're going to have to weather some storms. They're going to play in the offensive zone and they transition well, but in the offensive zone, they possess the puck, they move, they get five men involved in the attack, and obviously they've got some great guys to finish around the net.

"And they're a very good small-area team, and their D add to that with their involvement. So sometimes you're going to have defensemen at the blue line, our defensemen, just sometimes how they move around.

"And there's got to be a lot of communication. Like I said, we've seen them play. We've played against them. So that helps. And we've seen a lot of teams play that way, so that helps.

"But I just think one of the things they do really well is not just on their forecheck, but their end zone forecheck. They're probably one of the best puck pursuit teams that get above you and they don't give you room, and they make it very difficult to make clean plays or plays because they recover above the puck and they pursue the puck so well."

Montgomery called the rivalry between the two "fiercely respectful", and he was effusive in his praise of the Bulldogs Friday, especially the top line of Toninato, Alex Iafallo, and Anderson.

"They're a great college line. And I think maybe the best line in the country. And I think you've just got to know when they're out there and match their intensity.

"Their intensity, I think, fuels that team. And I think the third player that fuels that team with intensity is (Neal) Pionk on the back end.

... "I know how good -- we all know how good and talented Duluth is. They're a mentally tough team. They're hard in all three zones. They don't give you an inch. And we know that. You're going to have to go out and earn it. That's why I think it's going to be a great game (Saturday) night."

The only matchup we saw with these two teams was that aforementioned December weekend in Denver. The Pioneers won 4-3 Friday, then UMD won 3-1 Saturday. Sandelin quipped again Friday that he felt his team played better in the game it lost than the one it won, an opinion he shared with me after the series ended while we were traveling home.

The Friday game was as good a pace as you'll see in a college hockey game, and UMD held its own quite nicely, even playing its first game in 19 days and doing it at altitude.

Players on both teams talked about the respect the teams have for one another.

"It's always physical against those guys," DU senior Emil Romig said, "but obviously we really respect each other. This year we've been, you know, switching off in the No. 1 and No. 2 spot basically all year long. So basically there's a lot of respect.

"They're big, they're strong. They skate well, and it's always been tough. So I think it's going to be a great game."

"That weekend was a lot of fun as a player," Pioneers forward Colin Staub said. "It was back-and-forth hockey. It was a lot of speed. It was pretty physical, and like it was the time Duluth was the No. 1 team in the country and it was 1 versus 2 that weekend and there was a lot of hype going into it and it was a lot of fun for players."

Toninato deemed it the "ultimate rubber match. We've been one and two all year, so this is for all the marbles. We need to play the best full 60 minutes we have all year."

"They have good forwards who will make plays. We have to play our game," senior defenseman Carson Soucy, who played Thursday for the first time in eight games, said.

******

I look at this matchup, and the first thing that needs to be understood is these teams' paths to this point were different. By no means am I trying to discount Michigan Tech, Penn State, or Notre Dame, or claim that UMD had a more difficult route to the title game.

They're different enough teams that the differences matter, if that makes sense. Denver is a full-on pace team. The veteran presence the Pioneers get from guys like Butcher allows them to grind on teams when it's called on, but it's not their preferred style. They want to get out and skate. They're lethal in transition, very hard to forecheck effectively against, and don't take a lot of penalties.

Denver might want to push the pace Saturday night, but look for UMD to play a similar game as Thursday against Harvard, where the Bulldogs are content to use their grinding forecheck to wear down its foe and create scoring chances. One observer compared UMD's forecheck to, well I'll just let you read it because it's more fun that way.



Frankly, it's not the craziest thing Mike Eidelbes has ever tweeted. Not even close. In fact, I'd say it's accurate. No one in the country -- with all due respect to North Dakota -- forechecks as well as UMD. Outside of maybe Denver. But that's where there are stark differences in the teams these two have faced in this run.

UMD was challenged by an Ohio State team that frustrated it by coming at the Bulldogs in waves, especially once down a couple goals in the third period. Against Boston University, UMD played a much stronger defensive game and found a way to get the winner in overtime. But make no mistake, they were different games. The Bulldogs found a defensive posture in the BU game and were not going to let the Terriers destroy them with their speed and skill up the rink.

Harvard was very much the same. UMD had to take that first-period punch when Harvard just got too many chances on the power play. But the Bulldogs were not going to be an easy bunch to beat five-on-five. Until the end, when Harvard's goalie was pulled, UMD did a good job keeping the Crimson's good chances to a minimum (the somewhat-subjective "Grade-A Scoring Chances" chart, which is kept at the Frozen Four, gives Harvard five at even-strength before the flurry after Iafallo's winner; by comparison, UMD had seven).

By no means do I think UMD wants to slow the game down. That's not a pace UMD is good at playing, as we saw a few times this season. And there's a difference between playing a good pace game and a run-and-gun game, which is more Denver's style. UMD hits hard and attacks fast, and the Bulldogs can use their high-pressure defensive style (we hope) to limit Denver's looks and great chances while also forcing the kinds of mistakes other teams have struggled to force.

******

Much will be made of the first-ever all-NCHC final. Trust me, it's significant.

In fact, it says more about the relative strength of this conference than anything else you'll ever see in a 16-team, single-elimination hockey tournament. Everyone likes to (erroneously) tie the strength of these leagues to member schools' success in piling up national championships. But this has been the NCHC's season in many other ways.

1. Its top two teams, UMD and Denver, were the top two teams in the country by any respected metric for basically the entire season.

2. Imagine if Western Michigan were healthy down the stretch, had earned a one seed, and if North Dakota had fallen to a four. The real possibility of an all-NCHC Frozen Four existed, and it wouldn't have taken a lot of result-twisting the final weekend to make it happen.

3. For the second straight year, NCHC members were dominant in non-conference play. In fact, every NCHC member school beat at least one NCAA team from outside the conference. Yes, even Colorado College (Cornell) and Miami (Providence and Ohio State). And you wonder why coaches of the league's top teams have so much respect for the league their teams play in.

4. And if you're one of those who thinks a league's strength is actually related to the number of national championships it wins, the NCHC is about to win a second straight. And I'll guarantee you one of its teams will be among the top favorites to win in 2018.

Montgomery said it best after his team flummoxed Notre Dame Thursday night. Asked why he thought his team could jump on the Irish with their pace, he said "Because outside the NCHC, what I've seen the last two years is we're able to jump on people. That's not going to happen Saturday night. It's an NCHC opponent.

"NCHC opponents, two best teams consistently throughout the year in the NCHC, it's going to be a barn burner and a great show for college hockey."

******

If you're back in Duluth, there are a number of watch parties that UMD is promoting for Saturday night's game. Duluth parties are being held at Tavern on the Hill, Grandma's Sports Garden, Dubh Linn Irish Brew Pub, Sneakers Bar and Grill, Green Mill, and Kirby Student Center.

Also, the Black Woods in Two Harbors is hosting a party, as is Palmer's Tavern in Hibbing (the hometown of UMD coach Sandelin and sophomore forward Adam Johnson). There are also parties being held in such locales as Dallas, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, and Seattle. The UMD Alumni Relations Office has a full list here.

ESPN has the game with John Buccigross, Barry Melrose, and Quint Kessenich.

Obviously, we'd love if you listened to the radio broadcast. 92.1 The Fan in the Duluth area, or a FREE stream that works on desktop or mobile here. We start with what I think is a cool montage at 6:30, so join us for that. Pregame interviews with UMD seniors Toninato and Soucy, who have been such great kids to get to know the last four years. We chat with old friend and UMD alum Jess Myers, who is attending his 25th Frozen Four, after the first period, and Zach Schneider of KBJR joins us after the second to lend his perspective to this wonderful week we've spent in Chicago.

And we'll have plenty of time for thank yous and salutes, but this experience has been great so far. Different in a lot of ways from 2011, when we were in familiar territory in a city we all knew pretty well. Making the trek to a new city (at least for me) has been fun. For someone like me who's usually pretty intimidated by big cities, it's been fun to settle in and actually start to feel somewhat comfortable. Only one thing can make it better, and we'll find out soon enough if that's in the cards.

Friday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Iafallo's Late Goal Pushes UMD to National Championship Game

CHICAGO -- This is old hat for UMD.

Over this 20-game stretch that has seen the Bulldogs go 16-1-3, this team has won five times in overtime, four other games by one goal, and three of those four one-goal wins have come with the winning goal inside the last 1:21 of regulation.

That's nine hair-raising wins among the last 16, and while the announcer's heart rate is in the 175 range during these games, I swear this team has a collective resting heart rate of around 22. Nothing seems to phase them.

That, by the way, is the ultimate compliment for a hockey team. I'm not sure I've ever been around one quite like this. And while I'm sure they could be rattled by something, I have no desire at this point to find out.

Alex Iafallo tipped a Willie Raskob pass through the legs of Harvard goalie Merrick Madsen with 26.6 seconds left, lifting UMD past the Crimson 2-1 and into the national championship game for the third time in program history. In the first-ever all-NCHC final, UMD will battle Denver for the title Saturday night at United Center.

"It was a good pass by Joey (Anderson, who passed the puck to Raskob)," Iafallo said. "We kept it in there at the blue line. And that was pretty much the key to the goal. And Raskob made a good play. We do it in practice all the time. So simple things like that, getting the puck to the net. Just had to shovel it in."

Iafallo did something UMD has done so many times this season. He got inside position on a defender and drove the net hard. And, yes, it's something they work on regularly in practice.

"It appeared we had a couple opportunities to get the puck out and we get trapped I think with three guys on the boards," Harvard coach Ted Donato said.

So how does UMD do this all the time?

"I just think that we're a really composed team," Anderson, who posted his fourth straight two-point game, said. "I think as the game wears on, we play a really good style that allows us to maintain our game, and we're able to finish chances when we get them. And that's been the way we've done it lately."

"We've got our experience," head coach Scott Sandelin said. "We've got our senior group. They've been through, they've won a lot of games, they've been in some big games. But I think just the way our year has gone, maybe getting some confidence, winning some of those games earlier in the year and throughout the year."

It's been a year where the Bulldogs' mettle has been tested multiple times. In 41 games, UMD has fallen behind at least 1-0 19 times, nearly half the games. Thursday's win after trailing 1-0 moved the Bulldogs to a record of 12-4-3 when allowing the game's first goal.

(For additional perspective, UMD's adversary Saturday, No. 1 Denver, is 8-7-3 when conceding the ice-breaker goal in a game.)

"I think pretty much every bit of ice was hard to get out there," Donato said. "I give Minnesota Duluth a lot of credit for that. I thought neither team really had a lot of zone time. I think both teams had some good chances."

Sandelin agreed that the two teams fought hard for every inch of ice.

"I thought our first period, I thought we had maybe the edge in that. I thought the second period they were really good. I thought they won a lot of puck battles. I thought they controlled a lot of the O zone time especially down low.

"They played their game well. The third period I thought they had more rush plays, where I thought we maybe had a little better O zone time than we did in the second period."

******

The game wasn't over. There were still 26.6 seconds left after Iafallo scored. Donato took his timeout, pulled Madsen, and Harvard won a couple faceoffs to set up as dramatic a sequence as you'll see anywhere, in any sport.

The Crimson got a couple offensive zone looks after Anderson barely missed a bouncing puck near the UMD blue line for a potential clear. Two Harvard shots drew iron, with UMD freshman defenseman Nick Wolff getting a piece of one of them.

"It’s nerve-wracking but yeah, the puck was on the right side and they crossed it over to the middle," Wolff said. "Right when he shot it my first thought was go down, and it hit the top of my knee, and hit the cross bar and out. If it had been one inch lower it would've gone bar down. We were very fortunate it stayed out."

"We had opportunities to score there at the end, hit a couple of posts," Harvard co-captain Alexander Kerfoot said. "We took it to them. And just wasn't meant to be."

The second Harvard shot, taken by Luke Esposito, bounced back towards the high slot, where Anderson cleared it to center and touched off another UMD celebration.

"That was definitely the longest 30 seconds of my life," senior captain Dominic Toninato said. "I mean, they had some good chances and we were fortunate. So, we got one more game for a national championship."

UMD goalie Hunter Miska (39 saves) was asked if he got a piece of either great Harvard chance.

"I think Wolff said he got a piece with his knee. Yeah, it's all good tonight."

(That's Miska in a nutshell, in case you were wondering.)

******

Per Nate Wells (@gopherstate) on Twitter, this is the first time since the NCAA Tournament went to a 16-team format that the No. 1 and No. 2 teams will meet for the national championship. Never has it been more fitting than it is this year.

Back in February, College Hockey News' Joe Meloni wrote:
So often in recent years, the field has given us an open tournament. Seeding suggested some favorites, of course, and any number of variables can change an outcome on a given night. However, both Denver and Minnesota-Duluth have proven they are capable of overcoming these variables and recovering quickly. Moreover, their play will assure them the least difficult paths through the NCAA tournament.
... Upsets may happen, of course, but whether it's a regular-season title, the NCHC playoffs or the NCAA tournament, Denver and UMD are about to begin a memorable race that ends on April 8 at the United Center in Chicago.
He wasn't the only one. ESPN play by play guy John Buccigross was pretty blunt from the outset of 2017 that UMD and Denver had separated themselves from the pack. It was a take that was out there, but these two teams had to get through what has been for years a meat-grinder of a tournament that gobbles top seeds like breakfast.

More to come later, with a UMD-Denver preview on the way. Should be a great game. 6:30 pregame Saturday on 92.1 The Fan or free around the world by clicking here.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Game 41: Harvard vs UMD (NCAA Frozen Four Semifinal)

CHICAGO -- For the fifth time in program history, the UMD men's hockey team is at the NCAA Frozen Four. This time, the Bulldogs are where the tournament bracket expected them to be, if inanimate objects could expect things.

UMD is the No. 2 overall seed in a tournament that saw the top three overall seeds get to Chicago. For an event full of parity for so many years, it's an interesting turn.

This semifinal matchup with Harvard features a lot of cool storylines. The best? UMD senior Carson Soucy is back in the lineup after missing seven games with a lower-body injury. There was a point in time where it wasn't certain he could have played again, even at this stage of the season. That Soucy was able to work his way back to health, and his teammates rallied around him to an extent like they did, says a lot about this group.

What does it change? With the emergence of Nick Wolff and continued stellar play of Neal Pionk (and let's not forget Willie Raskob's continued penchant for playing his best hockey when the ads at a rink are covered by NCAA signage), UMD's coaches have more choices for who to throw on the ice for clutch situations. The six as they're laid out -- with all due respect to seniors Brenden Kotyk and Dan Molenaar, who unquestionably are also a part of why UMD is here -- don't have to be that way the whole game.

If a particular situation calls for physicality, Soucy, Pionk, Kotyk, and Wolff are all options. If you need to move the puck, get Raskob, Molenaar, and/or even Pionk out there. Wolff has really taken steps as an offensive player, too. Kotyk will still be used on the penalty kill, where his stick and shot-blocking prowess are large factors.

Should be a fun game. Hope you enjoy the broadcast.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Anderson
Osterberg - Johnson - Kuhlman
Tufte - Peterson - Mackay
Young - Thomas - Exell

Pionk - Kotyk
Soucy - Raskob
Wolff - Hilderman

Miska - Shepard - Deery

Harvard
Donato - Kerfoot - Zerter-Gossage
Esposito - Malone - Moy
Zielonka - Horton - Krusko
Tringale - Pelton-Byce - Floodstrand

Sherman - Marino
Olson - Fox
Dombrovskiy - Anderson

Madsen - Gornet - Lee

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Frozen Four: Johnson, Donato Present Challenges for Defenses

CHICAGO -- We already discussed some of the basic similarities that we'll see in the first national semifinal Friday night, when UMD battles Harvard.

As mentioned in that post, both teams have dynamic sophomore forwards, capable of scoring from almost literally anywhere.

For UMD, it's Hibbing native Adam Johnson. Senior Alex Iafallo has the team lead in goals with 19, but Johnson has scored some massive goals -- and some impressive ones -- this season. Case in point, his overtime winner in the NCAA West Regional final against Boston University.



Mentioned it at the time, but what an impressive play by Johnson, who naturally downplayed it to an extent.

“I took a one-timer and the shot got blocked," he said that night. "I was fortunate enough to get it back on the wall and I saw an opening. I just tried to fake a shot and get that guy to bite and shoot it by him. I found the corner and it was a good feeling.”

It's the kind of play Johnson has become quite adept at making. His shot -- and his ability to get that shot through to goaltenders -- has been a factor for UMD all season.

And when in doubt, Johnson has proven he has enough skill to score from behind the goal line, a trick he's successfully pulled off at least three times this season.

"Really quick feet," Iafallo said of his sometimes-linemate. "Very agile. He makes a lot of juice. Very good hands. He's been great for us. Especially on that power play, the last goal in overtime. Just simple things like that. He's very good at it."

It isn't so simple. Boston University coach David Quinn gave Iafallo credit on that play at first, for keeping the puck in the offensive zone with a strong pinch after BU won the faceoff and captain Doyle Somerby wrapped the puck around the wall. But Johnson's play -- firing the initial shot off Somerby, realizing he was stunned, and taking the puck right back at him -- was outstanding. UMD coach Scott Sandelin has preached a shoot-first mentality on the power play, and as of late the Bulldogs have turned a corner in that area.

Starting Feb. 3, UMD scored at least once on the man advantage over eight straight games. Since then, over 14 games total, the power play is 15-for-63 for a 23.8 percent clip that has lifted UMD's season total to an even 20 percent. Not the best season UMD has ever had on the power play, but it's gotten better and more productive and, more importantly, more dangerous. Johnson plays a huge role in that. With him and fellow sophomore Neal Pionk up top, teams have to respect the point shot, allowing more room to maneuver down low for guys like Iafallo, Dominic Toninato, and Joey Anderson.

Harvard sophomore Ryan Donato was a more highly-touted prospect heading into college, but he does a lot of the things Johnson does for UMD. The second-round pick of the Boston Bruins is the son of head coach Ted Donato, a former NHLer himself. Ryan Donato has a lethal shot, one that he's used to post a Crimson-leading (tied with senior Tyler Moy) 21 goals this season.

He can fly, an asset Johnson shares, and one Donato used to knife through the Air Force defense for a huge goal in the regional final win March 25. He also has a lethal shot and, like Johnson, can score from practically anywhere. He scored four goals against Union Feb. 10 and has 25 points in 23 games since the calendar flipped to 2017.

Overall, Sandelin is impressed with what Harvard brings to the table in this national semifinal.

"I think they're very balanced," he said. "Obviously, they've got some very talented forwards up front. Their top two lines especially. There's a lot of skill, a lot of deception. They're a puck-possession team. I've been impressed with their poise and composure."

That skill leads to a dangerous Harvard transition game, one that UMD can't feed into, not with turnovers and not with other mistakes, like slow or poorly-timed shift changes.

"Watching the tape," Sandelin said Wednesday, "I think a couple of their opponents had bad line changes, which led to some goals off rushes. We've got to have good rush coverage, making sure we're doing little things like that, making sure we're not changing at the wrong times. Those are mistakes that we just can't catch up."

******

The second game pits two old friends against one another. Denver coach Jim Montgomery got his start in this profession when he took a gig as a volunteer assistant at Notre Dame, working for Jeff Jackson.

Now, with Montgomery in his fourth year at DU, their paths cross on the sport's biggest stage.

"He's a great young coach," Jackson said of Montgomery. "He's got a great future ahead of him. He's got all the right aspects to being a great coach. I'm proud of him. I'm happy for him."

"For me, I'm happy," Montgomery said. "I think it shows that our relationship is special and that I learned from a great coach because he's here again for the sixth or seventh time in his career, and I've managed to get back here for the second year in a row.

"So whatever he taught me, I've been able to apply, and I think both teams play with a lot -- I guess the same way, and we don't beat ourselves, and we're hard to play against."

Jackson won three titles at Lake Superior State, but is seeking the first in Notre Dame history. Denver has seven titles, but none since 2005, when George Gwozdecky was still at the helm.

Frozen Four: Bulldogs, Harvard Share Similarities

CHICAGO -- You don't always know what you're going to see when you face an unfamiliar foe on a stage like the NCAA Frozen Four.

Thursday, UMD will see an unfamiliar opponent, yes, in Crimson-hot Harvard (16 straight wins, 17-0-1 last 18 games). The teams haven't met since the 1995-96 season (a UMD non-conference sweep backstopped by current Bulldog volunteer assistant coach Brant Nicklin). They haven't played in the postseason since UMD swept Harvard in a two-game, total-goals series in 1985. The two only have one common opponent this season (Boston University, which UMD beat to get to the Frozen Four, and Harvard split two games with).

But the Bulldogs aren't unfamiliar with Harvard's style, and they sure aren't strangers to a team being carried by great seniors and high-end young skill.

The Crimson might have Tyler Moy, Sean Malone, and Alexander Kerfoot up front, but UMD has Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo. Harvard has dynamic skill on the blue line with Adam Fox, but UMD has stud sophomore Neal Pionk. Ryan Donato might attract a lot of attention for Harvard adversaries, but so does Adam Johnson for Bulldog opponents. And while Merrick Madsen might tower over Hunter Miska in terms of height, both have been a huge reason for their respective teams getting to this point.

"The style they play, we've seen some of that," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "They do have some similarities to teams we've played. So that's good, as far as going up against that.

"Again, it's a very solid team that you've got to play a very, very -- hopefully minimize the mistakes, especially with pucks, and certainly, again, hopefully continue to do what we've done and capitalize on our opportunities, because I think we've done a good job of that this year when we get them."

Crimson coach Ted Donato, who was part of the last Harvard Frozen Four team in 1989, feels similarly.

"I think they have some size and strength and defensive prowess," he said, "kind of like Cornell at times, and certainly up front I think they have some play makers, and they have some size and strength as well. I think their goaltender is playing as well as anybody in the country."

I leave the direct comparisons to coaches whenever possible, but watching this Harvard team it's hard to not be impressed. Donato has three lines that can really go, and while Fox is their most dynamic defenseman, there's no question guys like Wiley Sherman and John Marino can bring it, too. Madsen is just a force in net. He's 6-5 and plays as positionally sound as anyone I've seen this season. The Crimson do a very good job of blocking shots, but they also clear lanes so Madsen can see shooters and square up to them.

Before the Boston University game, I chatted with Sandelin about trying to beat a big goalie in BU freshman Jake Oettinger.

"He's going to stop everything he sees cleanly," Sandelin said. "We've got to create some second, third opportunities. We've got to get him moving. Get some moving screens and get pucks there to maybe get him opened up a bit. He just takes up so much of the net."

Asked about beating Madsen, Sandelin offered this:

"First of all, let's get pucks to the net. Again, you've got to attack. We've got to get inside, you know. I think anybody will say that to try and score, but they do a great job defending. They block a lot of shots. They really do a good job inside the dots. So they don't make it easy. When you have those opportunities, you've got to try and get pucks to the net, take pucks to the net, and if you do have shot opportunities, not a lot of them are going to get through because they do a good job blocking shots too. So you might have to look at other ways."

******

Is this just another game?

I would say, in an ideal world, all these players are able to treat this as such while also enjoying and savoring the moment they're in. Only four of 60 teams get to be here (thanks, Cap'n Obvious), and it's a special opportunity for all these coaches and players.

"This is a great opportunity, and every time you get here, you feel pretty lucky to be in the position that we're in," Sandelin said.

Miska talked about how tall the United Center is ("That's him," Sandelin quipped about his sometimes-eccentric star freshman goalie). But while it might have been momentarily weird to be in such a big building, Miska isn't about to do anything out of the ordinary to get ready for this national semifinal game.

"I'm going to treat it like any other game," Miska said. "I'm not going to change what I do on a daily basis. Just going to go do my daily routine and play my game."

Harvard players concurred.

"I think we're trying to treat it like any other game," Kerfoot said. "It's really exciting to be here at the (Frozen) Four. It's our goal all year long. Especially us three being seniors, it's pretty exciting just to end our college careers here.

"I think, if we get too caught up in everything else, we won't be as focused on our game. So we're just trying to treat this like any other weekend."

"We've played in really big games this year with the Beanpot and ECAC tournament and things like that," Malone added. "I think we could use our experience there and know that we have to come out playing our game hard right away."

(And look at what Harvard did to Boston University in the Beanpot championship game. Beat the Terriers 6-3, outshot them 46-17, including 18-2 in the first period. BU coach David Quinn said his team was "fighting an uphill battle" all night, even when it briefly had a 2-1 lead in the second period.)

While none of these players can draw on Frozen Four experience, there's other big-game experience out there. As an example, there's Harvard's win in the Beanpot, its first Beanpot title in 24 years. UMD won its first conference playoff title since 2009 and its first-ever North Star College Cup title. And individual players with national team experience can draw on that, too.

"You have to take the crowd out of it," UMD freshman Joey Anderson said. "You have to calm down and stick to the game, make sure there aren't too many ups and downs. Keep an even keel."

Ted Donato, however, knows this isn't just another hockey game.

"This is certainly a different game," he said. "I think you can always try to -- in your mind, just think of it as a different game. It's not just another game. But mentally, they're preparing as if it's another big game that they're playing."

Friday, March 31, 2017

Frozen Four: Bulldogs Return to Glory

It doesn't always work out this way.

For every Justin Fontaine, who returned to UMD for a chance at a national championship that didn't elude him, there's a Jimmy Vesey, who returned to Harvard, won the Hobey Baker, but whose team couldn't get out of the first round last year.

For every Carson Soucy, who returned to UMD this year for a chance at redemption in the NCAA regionals after two years of heartbreaking losses in the round of eight, there's a Joey LaLeggia, a pure superstar in college who played out his four years at Denver but fell short of the Frozen Four as a senior.

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

It's one thing to have a group like the one UMD has. Players like Soucy, captain Dominic Toninato, and linemate Alex Iafallo could very easily have turned pro after last season. They had good college careers, but no one would have batted an eye if they gave up their last year for the chance to play for real money and take steps toward the NHL.

"They came back for a reason," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said recently. Actually, he's said it at least three times that I remember.

"For us as coaches," he told me in February, "the fun part is watching those guys grow and mature. They're all leaders for us. They play big time roles for us. They've been very successful. They set examples on and off the rink by working hard and being good teammates. They've helped continue the culture we've tried to have here."

That word. Culture.

Such a meaningful term in sports. In this case, it's what Sandelin and his staff have worked to achieve for 17 years. When impactful seniors, great players, and great leaders leave the program, there are bodies waiting to fill those roles. At UMD, this hasn't always been the case, but now you're seeing it develop.

Yes, the Bulldogs lose Soucy, Toninato, and Iafallo, along with Willie Raskob, Brenden Kotyk, Dan Molenaar, and Kyle Osterberg. All seven are having perhaps their best seasons at UMD, for a variety of reasons. Toninato and Iafallo continue to be top 200-foot players while being as productive as ever. Soucy was having a good offensive season before being injured. Raskob has stepped up big-time since Soucy was lost, and Kotyk has shaken off a late-season injury to be a continued shot-blocking fixture. Molenaar is finally healthy after a snakebit career to this point. Osterberg has stayed healthy while producing big goals and drawing key penalties at key times.

It's an impact not often made at UMD, but a look at the top of the NCHC shows two top programs nationally -- Denver and North Dakota -- that reload without rebuilding on a seemingly annual basis. It's a good roadmap for the future of the Bulldogs.

While they will leave a hell of a leadership void when they're done, UMD is hoping to have built a culture where others step in. Guys like Karson Kuhlman, Avery Peterson, Jared Thomas, Parker Mackay, Adam Johnson, Neal Pionk, and eventually Nick Wolff will be expected to help fill that void. And, again, they're all capable in their own way. 

With what UMD loses once this awesome season ends, the Bulldogs will unquestionably need everyone who stays to pull some of that weight. Next year's team will be younger, with some high-end skill on the way. The mix will be different, for sure, but the goals will be unchanged.

******

Soucy is in an interesting spot. He's missed seven games with an injury, but has not been ruled out for the Frozen Four semifinal Thursday against Harvard in Chicago. While he's done what he can as a cheerleader and perhaps a behind-the-scenes coach of sorts, helping Wolff and fellow freshman Jarod Hilderman on the blue line, he's itching to play.

"It's not easy," Soucy said. "You focus on what you can do to help the team. Stay positive, give a little advice here and there. Our whole D-corps played big minutes against skilled teams. Not always easy to watch, but fun to see us win."

Soucy was watching Saturday's regional final with the other UMD scratches when Johnson netted the game-winner on a power play at 1:57 of overtime.

"If you would have videotaped our reaction, it would have been pretty funny," he said. "It was pretty quick, chairs going back, we got a big hug, then sprinted downstairs. You could see our guys' emotion, because we worked all year to get to this spot.

"Getting over that hump, that game we've lost the last two years. It's going to be fun to play, if I can, and I think our team's excited for it."

Sandelin wouldn't elaborate on Soucy's status Wednesday after telling media Tuesday that he remains "week to week". Soucy did practice Wednesday after being able to skate with the team last week in Fargo, but there's simply no definitive word on whether there's a chance he plays Thursday against the Crimson.

Remember, this is a lower-body injury, so Soucy wasn't skating for some time. He has to not only get his body back in "hockey shape" and be sure he's okay to take contact, but there's a conditioning element involved, too.

******

Team and staff (and your humble correspondent) fly to Chicago Tuesday. Media activities at United Center Wednesday. Semifinals Thursday. Join us on 92.1 The Fan if you can. #ListenToTheRadio