Monday, January 23, 2017

Monday Musings: History Made as UMD Dominates for North Dakota Sweep

It's one thing to sweep an NCHC opponent on the road. UMD had already done that twice this season (St. Cloud State and Omaha).

It's another thing to sweep North Dakota on the road. UMD hadn't done that since Jan. 27-28, 1995, nearly 22 years ago.

Lots of neat little factoids came out of Saturday's 4-0 Bulldog win over North Dakota at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

  • It's the first time UMD has ever beaten North Dakota in five straight meetings.
  • First time UMD ever swept a four-game regular season series from North Dakota
  • First shutout of UND in Grand Forks since Glenn "Chico" Resch and the Bulldogs won 3-0 Nov. 22, 1969
  • First shutout of UND in Grand Forks for anyone since St. Cloud State's Ryan Faragher in 2011
  • First sweep of UND in Grand Forks for anyone since St. Cloud State in 2013
There's probably more. In fact, I know there is.

UMD's three biggest rivals are widely considered to be Minnesota, North Dakota, and St. Cloud State. The Bulldogs now have six straight wins over Minnesota (a program record), five straight over North Dakota (also a program record), and are 5-2 in the last seven meetings with SCSU. That's an aggregate record of 16-2 over the last 18 meetings.

Of all the things this group of players has accomplished so far, this might be the most impressive. At least temporarily, they've turned UMD's three most significant rivalries on their proverbial ears.

North Dakota junior Trevor Olson, a Duluth native and former linemate of UMD captain Dominic Toninato, gave the Bulldogs much credit after the game.

"They're a good team," Olson told reporters. "Big, fast, physical, veteran group .. . the way they play, they just frustrate teams."

UMD certainly frustrated UND over the weekend. As head coach Scott Sandelin bluntly said of Friday's game: "We were the better team."

UMD was fast, tenacious, and unafraid to get physical against a heavier opponent. The Bulldogs set the tone for the weekend quickly and never let up. On Saturday, North Dakota came out with a big push. Its top line of Brock Boeser, Austin Poganski, and Shane Gersich spent the better part of a minute in the offensive zone after the opening faceoff, getting a couple good scoring chances and nearly popping the game's first goal.

When that didn't happen, and Adam Johnson scored off a UND turnover that became the Bulldogs' first decent scoring chance of the night, it could very well have been over on the spot. If that and Willie Raskob's power play goal later in the first didn't end the game, Toninato and Alex Iafallo working their bag off to create a chance that led to Toninato's short-handed goal in the third sure did.

Instead of UND getting an early goal, momentum, and getting the sellout crowd into the game, UMD jumped on the Fighting Hawks and never let the crowd get involved. Turning one of the loudest buildings in college hockey into one of the world's largest public libraries was a huge development that just added to everything that was going right on this weekend for the Bulldogs.

******

So, Riley Tufte had a pretty good weekend. The freshman scored his first college goal in the Jan. 13 loss to St. Cloud State. He then took his act to North Dakota and spent the weekend abusing UND defensemen and winning position/physical battles in front of the net.

Tufte opened UMD's scoring in the Friday win by getting to the front of the net and tipping in a Dan Molenaar point shot. He won another battle in front and got to a rebound off an Avery Peterson shot for UMD's last goal of the game.

That meant Tufte got his first three UMD goals by going to the net and being a presence in front. But the kid can fire it, and he showed everyone Saturday when he stripped Hayden Shaw of a puck at the UND blue line, walked in, and ripped a wrist shot by Cam Johnson to make it 4-0. Earlier, Tufte had been robbed by Johnson on a great passing play that started when Peterson intercepted an outlet pass and found Karson Kuhlman, who sent a one-touch pass to Tufte in front.

The popular question among UMD fans revolves around Tufte at this point. What happened?

Well, if you'd been paying attention, either on the blog or on the air, you'd have known this was coming. It was just a matter of time. Tufte might not have been pleased with his first-half production, but his coaches were pleased with his progress once he found his way into the lineup. Tufte returned from break a determined player, and started playing like a more confident player in the offensive zone. His hard work is now paying off, and there's little doubt Tufte and Peterson are in position to be huge players for this team as the second half continues.

Peterson wins draws, plays with great intensity, and the work he's done with UMD power skating coach Bronwynn Pichetti is showing in games, as he's in better position to be a factor on the forecheck. He's a faster and better overall skater than he was in Omaha, and that improvement has made him a much more dangerous player. Peterson always had scoring ability and was always a smart player who had good intensity. His skating is a big difference in his game now.

(The lesson, young players, is to always work hard on your skating. It's one facet of your game that can make the biggest difference as you move your way up the ladder. Not all elite skaters have the talent to be great players, but a guy like Peterson has all the other skills, and now is seeing the results of his work to become a better skater.)

I've seen jokes on Twitter about UMD's midseason free-agent acquisitions. I'd prefer to refer to Peterson as a trade deadline addition. Either way, Tufte and Peterson have made UMD deeper than it was, and what it was before break was one of the deepest teams in the country.

******

UMD has taken back the No. 1 spot in the latest PairWise rankings, which mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process. As of this writing, the meaningless human polls aren't out, but UMD should be atop both.

More importantly, UMD took a huge step forward this weekend. The Bulldogs played a team they are -- right now -- better than, and business was properly handled with few shenanigans along the way. 

(North Dakota has high-end talent, but Tyson Jost missed Saturday's game with injury, Brock Boeser still isn't right, and UND just isn't as deep as it has been in the past. That lack of depth really shows when the top line isn't producing, which it wasn't outside of Gersich's goal Friday, a goal that shouldn't have counted because of offsides. Defensively, the Poolman brothers are good, and captain Gage Ausmus is a really solid player, but again, there just isn't a ton of depth right now. Ausmus not being able to finish the game Saturday was a huge issue for them.)

This weekend, UMD steps out of the NCHC for the final time this season, as it partakes in the final North Star College Cup.

(Both Matt Wellens and I have eluded to this multiple times. I don't think it's been confirmed by anyone at Minnesota, but the clearest indicator the tournament is disappearing came when UMD announced it will play home-and-home series against Minnesota over a four-year stretch that starts after the teams open next season in the Ice Breaker at Amsoil Arena. The tournament hasn't drawn well since its first year, and I'm not sure any of the participants -- except maybe Minnesota -- were happy with the way things were going.)

Friday, the Bulldogs and Gophers resume their long rivalry with the nightcap game at 7, following Bemidji State-St. Cloud State at 4. Minnesota is 14-6-2 overall, and the Gophers lead the Big Ten by two points over Penn State after splitting last week with Wisconsin. Sophomore Tyler Sheehy is having another strong season with 15 goals and 32 points (30 points as a freshman). But Minnesota might be vulnerable in the back. The Gophers enter the weekend with a team save percentage of .892, which compares to .922 for the Bulldogs.

Surely, Don Lucia will have his team ready, being that Minnesota has lost six straight in this rivalry for the first time ever. Yes, ever. It's a great chance for UMD to strengthen its chances at a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament.

******

By the way, since I'm all about self-promotion, I'll be on the Sit Down And Cheer podcast from the University of North Dakota this week. We taped on Friday after the game, and it was a fun, free-flowing discussion with UND sports information director Jayson Hajdu and longtime UND radio voice Tim Hennessy. I'll tweet the link when it drops, so follow me on Twitter @BruceCiskie.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Game 24: UMD at North Dakota

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- UMD has played North Dakota 234 times. It has an opportunity Saturday to do something it has never done.

Beat North Dakota in five straight meetings.

My, how the worm turned. UND swept UMD in Duluth with a pair of shutout wins in December 2015, then last February took a pair of 2-1 games in Grand Forks. The Bulldogs finally were able to turn the tables by beating North Dakota 4-2 last March at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, a win that not only spoiled UND's chances at a league playoff championship, but also clinched UMD a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

The sweep in Duluth Oct. 28-29 was followed by a 5-3 win on Friday. Now, UMD has suddenly won four straight against the Fighting Hawks. The Bulldogs have clinched their first four-game regular season series win over North Dakota since the 1995-96 season (split 5-3 games in Grand Forks, then 3-1 and 3-2 wins in Duluth). UMD has never swept a four-game regular season series from UND.

One aspect of Friday's game that I didn't bring up in the postgame blog: Faceoffs. Against what was the nation's fourth-ranked faceoff team entering the series, UMD won 35 of 60 draws. That's 58.3 percent of the faceoffs against a team that typically wins them left and right.

Since break, UMD has won 93 of 173 faceoffs, a .537 percentage. It's not world-beating, but it's allowed the Bulldogs to rise from 55th nationally coming out of break to 44th entering this game, with a season percentage of .477.

No changes for UMD, but North Dakota continues to be affected by injuries. Freshman forward Tyson Jost (lower body) left Friday's game in the third period and did not return. He went awkwardly into the goalpost during a play in the first period, looked to be in some pain afterward, but stayed in the game until the third. He is out for the rematch on Saturday. Also out is sophomore forward Joel Janatuinen (undisclosed). He played the whole game and scored the game's last goal, so no idea what happened to him.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Johnson
Osterberg - Thomas - Anderson
Tufte - Peterson - Kuhlman
Miller - Spurrell - Exell

Soucy - Raskob
Pionk - Kotyk
Wolff - Molenaar

Miska - Deery

UND
Gersich - Boeser - Poganski
Hoff - Gardner - Wilkie
Yon - Bowen - Olson
Wolanin - Simonson - Gornall

Poolman (Colton) - Poolman (Tucker)
Ausmus - Shaw
Johnson (Casey) - Peski

Johnson (Cam) - Hrynkiw - Tomek

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Shake Off More Adversity, Beat North Dakota

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- As if there hadn't been enough tests of UMD's resolve this season, here come two disallowed goals, including a literal buzzer-beater, in the first period. UMD sports information poobah Bob Nygaard couldn't think of the last time UMD had two goals disallowed in the same game, and he was certain it had never happened in the same period before.

So instead of being up 3-1 in Grand Forks after one period Friday night, UMD went to the room in a 1-1 game. A lesser team is rattled by this type of thing, wonders what it has to do to get a bounce.

Not this group.

Adam Johnson went coast to coast as a UMD power play came to an end early in the second to give the Bulldogs the lead for good at 2-1, UMD added two more in the second and went on to a 5-3 win over North Dakota in front of a packed Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Lots to digest from this game, and we'll get to Johnson's incredible goal and the second period surge it jump-started for UMD in a bit, along with the newly-formed UMD line that appears to be a beast for opponents to deal with, but first let's address the disallowed goals and get that out of the way.

On the first, with 4:41 left in the first period, Billy Exell appeared to score on a rebound. Jade Miller fired a puck to the front, across the UND goal crease. Sammy Spurrell collected and tried to jam it home, but UND goalie Cam Johnson came out and challenged. That caused Spurrell -- who was in the crease -- to roll over the top of the goalie. As that happened, Exell threw the puck home, a classic case of goalie interference, by the way it's written in the college hockey rulebook.

Argue it all you want, but Johnson has the first right to that space in the crease. If UND scores on Miska in similar fashion, you're all blowing up my Twitter and probably that of the league. You know this is true. It was a good call.

On the second, the puck legally crossed the goal line without a doubt, and it did so before the clock hit zeroes, except North Dakota challenged the Willie Raskob goal, saying UMD was offside on the zone entry. And UMD was offside. By a lot. Pretty easy call for the officials.

******

That second disallowed goal came on a UMD power play that carried into the second period. At the tail end of it, Johnson took control of the puck deep in the UMD zone, went around the back of the net, and started up the rink. He didn't stop until he scored, giving UMD the advantage.

That play seemed to add even more jump to a UMD team that already had plenty of it. If there was any residual effect to the disallowed goals, it was gone. UMD had the lead it probably deserved at that point, and the Bulldogs didn't just try to defend it. They kept attacking.

Sammy Spurrell caught Cam Johnson napping at 5:58 and scored from the left corner to make it 3-1. That ended Johnson's night, as Matt Hrynkiw finished the game for UND. In seven previous appearances against UMD, Johnson had a 1.88 goals against and .943 save percentage. UMD touched him up for three goals on 15 shots in this game.

A Karson Kuhlman dump in bounced to the front of the net, where Avery Peterson beat Hrynkiw for a 4-1 lead late in the second. Hrynkiw had been sharp, but the puck bouncing back to the front appeared to make him freeze, instead of making an aggressive move that he seemed to have time to make.

UND got two in the third, but UMD was able to get a second Riley Tufte goal for big insurance.

The third period wasn't perfect from UMD, but the Bulldogs did enough to get their tenth NCHC win this season and move six points up on Denver for the top spot in the league (more on that in a bit). I wasn't a huge fan of how the Bulldogs finished this game, but the closer score was aided a bit by a Shane Gersich goal that shouldn't have counted. UND was offsides on the play, unquestionably, but UMD was unable to challenge the call because it had used its timeout in the second period.

All in all, UMD did a lot of things that have been difficult to do, most notably chase Cam Johnson from a game. Outside of some not-stellar moments in a pretty meaningless third period, it was as thorough a performance as I've ever seen from the Bulldogs in this building.

******

It feels like UMD got two huge trade deadline acquisitions coming out of break. Peterson and Tufte have both been going, and the performance of that line with Kuhlman in this game was nothing short of prolific.

On this night: Three goals (two by Tufte), three assists (two by Kuhlman), six points (two from each player), 15 shots on goal (Kuhlman had six, Tufte five, and Peterson four), and each player was plus-three if you're into that sort of thing.

It's funny when people ask how this team has evolved. I don't think UMD has gotten worse or anything like that, but it's hard to point to many individual players who are a lot better now than they were, say, before Thanksgiving. But a huge, huge difference in this team now versus November is the play of Tufte and the addition of Peterson. As Dave Starman of CBS Sports Network noted in our chat Friday, there's no question Peterson is having fun again. Whatever happened in Omaha, he wasn't having fun at the rink. From the moment he arrived in Duluth, there's been a different chemistry with the team and staff that has brought out a different Avery Peterson. This version is much more dangerous, and it's a huge get for a team that didn't necessarily need to add a player of his caliber to win.

It also shows the character of everyone involved. Peterson has said it many times. He grew up playing against the other 218 kids on this team, and they would sometimes play together on select teams in the summer and fall. He knew a lot of them. But this team went into break at 12-3-3. They didn't necessarily need to add a piece. If Peterson wasn't such a great fit, maybe it screws with the chemistry and things that were already working. Instead, Peterson couldn't be a better fit, and he's enhanced this team in just the six games he's been able to play in. He's only going to get more comfortable, and look out, NCHC.

The Bulldogs are a sum-of-the-parts group, and while they strive for balance out of all four lines, they'll take what they're getting at the moment. With Parker Mackay out (upper body) for probably a month or more, this line is going to have plenty more chances to show what it can do.

******

Elsewhere in the NCHC, St. Cloud State did UMD a huge solid. The Huskies got a tying goal in the second period from Jack Poehling, then younger brother Ryan scored the winner in overtime as SCSU topped Denver 3-2. Denver starting goalie Tanner Jaillet was pulled after allowing two goals on 30 shots over 40 minutes. Evan Cowley finished the game. As of this writing, there is no word on if Jaillet is healthy or was injured and had to come out of the game. According to reporters on site, Jaillet stayed on the DU bench, but that doesn't necessarily mean he wasn't injured enough to come out.

Duluth East grad Jake Randolph scored on a power play with 6:16 left in the third period as Omaha tied Miami 3-3 in Omaha. The RedHawks got the extra standings point on a three-on-three goal by Scott Dornbrock.

In Kalamazoo, Colt Conrad scored early in the third and Aaron Hadley added insurance late as Western Michigan recovered from kicking away a 2-0 lead and beat Colorado College 4-2.

In the NCHC standings, UMD leads Denver by six points, while third-place North Dakota and Western Michigan are 12 points out. Omaha and St. Cloud State are tied for fifth, with Miami one point behind in seventh. Everyone in the league except SCSU has two games in hand on the Bulldogs.

Saturday is a gigantic opportunity for the Bulldogs to effectively eliminate the defending regular season champs from the race. A win over North Dakota opens up a 15-point gap that is going to be exceptionally tough for UND to make up, even with two games in hand. And, again, UMD is out of league two of the next three weekends (the North Star Cup, then Omaha, then a bye), so points are essential right now.

It'll be interesting to see what happens to the UND lineup. Freshman Tyson Jost was injured at some point in the game and wasn't on the bench in the third period (good eye, Bruce). Defenseman Christian Wolanin was ejected for a check to the head on Peterson, and probably should face a suspension. I'd think Brad Berry comes back with Johnson in goal, but he's been pulled in his last two Friday starts and Hrynkiw was pretty good in relief.

No matter what, boy does UMD have a chance to do something I didn't think it would be able to do this weekend. Hopefully the Bulldogs seize the moment.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Game 23: UMD at North Dakota

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- As much as UMD fans don't like North Dakota, and as much as anyone can understand the myriad of reasons why this might be the case, this is still a building every UMD fan should take the time to see at least one.

Greetings from the gorgeous Ralph Engelstad Arena, where the Bulldogs try to continue a recent run of success against their longtime nemesis, the University of North Dakota, um, Fighting Hawks (it's still weird, sorry).

UMD got progressively better last weekend, finding a way to eek out an overtime win over St. Cloud State on Saturday after being stymied 2-1 by the Huskies on Friday. North Dakota had to respond on Saturday as well, and did so by beating Miami 3-1 after a 6-3 loss Friday that featured five third period goals by the RedHawks.

The Bulldogs play this series without the services of sophomore forward Parker Mackay (undisclosed injury). He was not practicing this week when your humble correspondent was at the rink. That will mix up UMD's lines, with the most notable change being on the top two lines. Adam Johnson moves back to wing and is on the top line, while Joey Anderson will skate on the second line with Jared Thomas and Kyle Osterberg. The top line can still go without Anderson, as has been proven numerous times over the last year-plus (that was UMD's preferred combination for the second half of last season, too). Can Anderson have an impact on Thomas' game, which has been up and down for a goodly chunk of this campaign? We shall see.

Also, center Sammy Spurrell draws back in on the fourth line as Thomas moves back up. This restores what has become a key piece of the UMD penalty kill.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Johnson
Osterberg - Thomas - Anderson
Tufte - Peterson - Kuhlman
Miller - Spurrell - Exell

Soucy - Raskob
Pionk - Kotyk
Wolff - Molenaar

Miska - Deery

UND
Gersich - Jost - Poganski
Janatuinen - Gardner - Boeser
Yon - Hoff - Bowen
Olson - Simonson - Wilkie

Poolman (Colton) - Poolman (Tucker)
Ausmus - Shaw
Wolanin - Peski

Johnson - Hrynkiw - Tomek

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bulldogs, North Dakota Set For Showdown in Grand Forks

For the UMD Bulldogs, Oct. 28-29 is going to be a highlight of the season, no matter how the season turns out.



More notably at the moment, you can bet North Dakota hasn't forgotten.

"We didn't play that great that series in Duluth," North Dakota sophomore forward Joel Janatuinen said this week. "They kinda gave it to us."

UMD won the Friday game 5-2, taking a 3-0 lead in the second period before UND rallied with two late goals to pull within one. The visitors went into the locker room after 40 minutes with momentum, but it was Neal Pionk giving UMD a much-needed insurance goal on the power play in the third period before Alex Iafallo completed a hat trick by hitting the empty net late.

On Saturday, North Dakota held UMD to two first-period shots, but head coach Scott Sandelin said he didn't mind how his team was playing at that point. UMD got two short-handed and one power-play goal in the second period for a 3-0 lead, and played well defensively in the third to preserve a shutout for freshman goalie Hunter Miska.

It was surely a long ride back home for the Fighting Hawks, and one they haven't forgotten.

"They swept us, so I definitely remember that," UND defenseman Tucker Poolman said.

"You remember the feeling you had when we got on the bus," second-year North Dakota coach Brad Berry said this week.

UMD has been on the other side of this a few times. The Bulldogs know what to expect this weekend.

"You look at a program like North Dakota, they don't get swept often," UMD senior defenseman Willie Raskob told me this week. "There's no doubt they'll come ready to play. They've been playing better hockey since we played them, too."

Sandelin -- who picked up his 300th win at UMD on Saturday -- was more pointed in looking ahead to this series.

"They're a different team," he said of UND. "A team right now that's playing extremely well. They've been scoring a lot of goals, and if you're not prepared to play in that building, you're going to be in the same situation.

"They're always hard on pucks, strong in puck battles and body position. They play physical. If we think we can turn it on and off, we're not going to fare very well. We have to be mentally prepared to go in there and fight for every inch on the rink. If we're not in that mindset, I'm not sure what the weekend's going to be."

There's no doubt Sandelin wants to see better starts out of his team. The Bulldogs haven't been habitually giving up the first goal, but instead it's more than that. The bench boss is looking for his team to start a game on its toes, forcing the issue and getting in opponents' faces. That'll be especially necessary this weekend, and for the record it would have been even if UMD hadn't swept this team earlier in the season.

******

Berry is quick to note, as he should, that this isn't the same UND team that the Bulldogs beat twice in October.

"I think we were going through a time where things were going well," he said of that series, "but we didn't run into a team like (UMD) that was experienced and has a lot of good players and depth in the lineup. We learned a lot from that weekend, we needed to get better. I firmly believe we have gotten better."

Even when handed a chance to make an excuse on a silver platter, Berry refuses to, but I will, at least to an extent.

North Dakota's best player, sophomore forward Brock Boeser, missed time in the first half of the season due to wrist issues, and he eventually would miss the World Junior Championship because of surgery on that wrist. It was a problem that flared up sometime before the UND-UMD series in Duluth, and one that got worse the more he tried to play through it. UND shut him down around Thanksgiving and he had surgery in December.

Without Boeser, North Dakota struggled at times, splitting series with Michigan State and Western Michigan, but the Fighting Hawks went to New York and beat Boston College 4-2 at Madison Square Garden and went into their holiday break 9-6-3.

Without Boeser and star freshman Tyson Jost, a first round pick to Colorado last summer, UND went to Union and won a huge non-conference game 3-1 on New Year's Eve, then swept Omaha by outscoring the Mavs 16-4 over two games in Omaha.

Last week, there was a hiccup, as UND kicked away a 3-1 lead by allowing five third-period goals in a 6-3 loss to Miami. Berry pulled starting goalie Cam Johnson after the third of those five goals, but Matej Tomek allowed two goals on five shots to finish the game. On Saturday, UND cut its shots allowed in half (30 to 15) and won 3-1.

"The last 25 minutes, the game got away from us a little bit," Berry said. "Made a couple adjustments, personnel and structure, and our guys came out hard. We left something on the table as a group Friday, and wanted to rectify that Saturday."

How has this team survived the injuries and offseason departures? Next man up, that's how.

Shane Gersich scored nine goals and had 11 points in 37 games as a freshman. In 23 games this year, he's blown those numbers out of the water, as Gersich leads UND with 16 goals and 30 points.

"He's been real good," Berry said of Gersich. "He works hard in the weight room, skates extra, does extra skill work. He's just a hockey player who wants to get better.

"Last year, we had a few seniors, had Nick Schmaltz and Drake Caggiula in prominent roles. He (Gersich) saw there was opportunity there, and he grabbed it."

******

On the UMD side, I already mentioned freshman Riley Tufte could be an X-factor in the second half of the season. Add another.

Like Tufte, but for different reasons, junior Avery Peterson didn't contribute statistically to this team's first-half success. The two went into the break with a combined zero points, as Tufte worked to figure things out and Peterson waited out his transfer eligibility.

But Peterson has made an impact in a short amount of time. In five games, Peterson has two goals and an assist, and while he didn't factor into the scoring on Kyle Osterberg's overtime winning goal Saturday night, he decisively won the faceoff that set the play up.

Peterson played wing on Friday, then was moved back to the middle on Saturday, and it was a moved that absolutely paid off for the Bulldogs.

"I liked him a lot better in the middle of the rink," Sandelin said. "Won a key faceoff at the end. I think he's much better in the middle of the rink. He's big, he's strong. I love the intensity that he plays with. I think he brought a lot of energy."

Bet on Peterson staying at center for a while. He's legitimately the Bulldogs' second-best option in the middle behind Dominic Toninato, especially if he (Peterson) plays like he did on Saturday. He had a monster game and it's exciting to see if he can build on that this weekend in Grand Forks.

******

This is a huge opportunity for UMD. The Bulldogs lead Denver by three points in the NCHC, and North Dakota sits nine points back in third.

(Denver, by the way, is at St. Cloud State for what should be a great series.)

Remember, the Bulldogs are out of league play two of three weekends after this series (North Star Cup next week, then a home set with Omaha, followed by the only bye of the second half of the season). This is where the lost home points against SCSU and Colorado College could hurt.

If you're a "win the league" person, you've become a huge St. Cloud State fan. And Omaha. Each of those teams plays Denver four times before season's end. SCSU makes a return trip to Colorado Feb. 24-25. And remember, Denver doesn't play UMD or North Dakota again, and just finished up with Western Michigan for the season.

UMD makes this moot by just winning games, of course, but Denver has two games in hand, so remember, the Bulldogs already need help to win the league. Every game UMD loses increases the amount of help required. And I can promise you this group wants to win a league championship. The ultimate goal comes in Chicago in April, of course, but don't think anyone is poo-pooing a league title here. It's important.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Blow Lead, Win in Overtime

Everything came up roses in the early going for UMD Saturday against St. Cloud State. The Bulldogs weren't overwhelmingly good, but instead pounced on opportunities and took a 3-0 lead on the Huskies when Dan Molenaar scored early in the second period.

But oh how things change when the team playing from ahead gives up a bad goal and becomes undisciplined. Blake Winiecki got SCSU on the board with a bad-angle shot that caught UMD goalie Hunter Miska off-guard. It was a rare miscue for Miska, who has been so solid this season, but it didn't look like he had any idea there was a puck coming his way.

Shortly after that, UMD began a parade to the penalty box. Jared Thomas took a double-minor (two for goalie interference, two for roughing), and St. Cloud State got a power play goal to make it 3-2. Thomas' penalty was just the first, however. Dominic Toninato got a slashing minor, and then Brenden Kotyk was ejected for a hit from behind 31 seconds later, giving the Huskies a long five-on-three and relegating UMD to five defensemen for the rest of the night.

Jimmy Schuldt unleashed a rocket of a one-timer from the high slot to tie the game during the five-on-three, but true to its season-long form, the UMD kill rallied back and killed off the rest of Kotyk's major to keep the game tied.

UMD came up empty on a five-minute power play of its own in the third, but largely controlled five-on-five play. Couldn't get one home, so it wasn't until Molenaar set up Kyle Osterberg's tip for the winning goal that UMD emerged victorious.

Good game, nice crowd, lively building (something we haven't seen enough of this season), and a good way to close out the homestand. UMD has been a much improved home team as of late, and it was uncharacteristic to see the Bulldogs go winless over three at Amsoil Arena (with just four regulation goals scored).

It wasn't a virtuoso, not at all. But heading into the weekend, I was looking for improvement. Friday against SCSU was better than Saturday against Colorado College. UMD took another positive step on Saturday, and not just because it won. Saturday was a more complete effort by the Bulldogs, one that can be built on as North Dakota looms.

******

It's not all duckies and bunnies. There's no panic over the fact UMD has taken major penalties in three of the four games since holiday break ended. Of the three, only one of them -- Willie Raskob's contact to the head major that drew a one-game suspension from the NCHC -- was a truly regrettable hit. Avery Peterson had no intent, but probably deserved an ejection for his hit in the Friday CC game.

The call on Kotyk looked good to me until I watched the replay. By no means is this a rip of the officials involved. They don't get to look at the replays, which appear to show Winiecki was already falling down and Kotyk barely made any contact. Live action, it looked -- and I said this -- like Kotyk followed through on a push to the back, and I can't be mad at the call that was made based on that.

What I can be mad at is the NCAA Rules Committee still refusing to allow video review of potential major penalties in the regular season. Officials were allowed to look at video of such plays during postseason games last year, something that was well-received by everyone involved.

"When there’s so much on the line come playoff time for these schools, I think everyone enjoys the fact that the right call is going to be made a very high percentage of the time," NCHC Director of Officiating Don Adam told me in September.

I continue to hold out hope the committee will see the light. On Will Borgen's interference major in the third period, the officials spent the entire media timeout discussing the hit (a high and late hit on UMD's Neal Pionk) and still hadn't reached a verdict when we came back from break. Allow them to review that video, and there's no doubt in my mind the delay isn't as long.

(By the way, the replay I saw, it looked like Borgen got Pionk square in the head. Since I was pretty vehement about the fact Raskob deserved a suspension for his hit, I would be negligent of my duty if I didn't say Borgen deserves and should get a game for his hit. We'll see if the NCHC takes action.)

Anyway, I really don't think there's any reason for panic. There's an element of bad luck involved here. That said, I am a bit concerned about the poorly-timed run of penalties in the second period of a game UMD led 3-0. The Bulldogs took six penalties in the game, all in the second period. All six infractions occurred in a span of 5:06. Is it worth panicking over a game where the adversary had four power plays? No. But UMD has to do a better job avoiding runs like that.

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Next up is the return trip up Highway 2, as North Dakota gets the rematch it's probably had circled since UMD finished a home sweep Oct. 29.

(I'm not sure anyone will admit it in Grand Forks, but let's not be dumb. This matters to them, and it should.)

Those two UMD wins in Duluth moved the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time. They held that spot -- outside of one week -- until the CC games in Duluth Jan. 6-7 knocked them from the perch.

Since playing UMD, North Dakota has gotten healthier -- Brock Boeser is back from wrist surgery in December, an injury that had impacted him for some time before he got cut open -- and the Fighting Hawks appear poised to make a run. There was a hiccup Friday against Miami, as the RedHawks scored five in the third period to win 6-3, but UND is 4-1 since its holiday break ended, and included in that was a two-game sweep in Omaha where it put up 16 goals.

I do think North Dakota can be vulnerable in the back, a spot it was quite strong last year, but the biggest key for UMD is avoiding matchup nightmares with the UND top lines while playing on the road. Boeser and star freshman Tyson Jost are separated at the moment, so we'll see which line Brad Berry wants dealing with Carson Soucy, and which one has to deal with Pionk. Neither are a picnic to play against.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Game 22: St. Cloud State at UMD

After a frustrating Friday, UMD tried again in the rematch against SCSU.

Quick blog, truncated prep time because of the UMD women's game (a 5-3 win over Minnesota to sweep the Gophers!). But as you can see, a few changes for UMD. Jade Miller draws back in, Avery Peterson moves back to the middle, and a couple line jumbles you can see below.

Lines?

Lines.

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

Soucy - Raskob
Pionk - Kotyk
Wolff - Molenaar

Miska - Deery - Shepard

SCSU
Jackson - Winiecki - Newell
Poehling (Nick) - Peterson  - Poehling (Jack)
Eyssimont - Poehling (Ryan) - Benson
Papa - Storm - Wahlin

Ahcan - Borgen
Schuldt - Cholowski
Widman - Nevalainen

Smith - Driscoll

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Better Effort for UMD, Same Result in Series Opening Loss to St. Cloud

Apologies for the late blog. Had a difficult conversation for breakfast in order to assure you an ELITE blog as a means of making up for my tardiness.

We talked during the week about UMD's lack of intensity and/or emotion in last week's series against Colorado College. If it was going to be an issue Friday, St. Cloud State shocked the Bulldogs into the game early when sophomore defenseman Will Borgen decked UMD sophomore Adam Johnson near the SCSU blue line. It was a clean hit all the way, but Johnson seemed jarred initially by it. He stayed in the game.

Unquestionably, UMD's intensity was better, and the Bulldogs played late in the game with a sense of urgency that was somewhat lacking last weekend as well. If you take the long view, these are good things, but they didn't lead to a better result, as UMD fell 2-1 for the second straight game. It's UMD's fourth one-goal loss out of five losses this season. More on that in a bit.

World Juniors gold medalist Jack Ahcan scored both goals for the Huskies, who started the second half of the season 1-3 and were swept at Miami last weekend. Freshman goalie Jeff Smith made 41 saves and made many of them look easy. Maybe they were, and UMD absolutely needs to do a better job of getting to the net. The Bulldogs scored eight goals in St. Cloud that weren't empty-net tallies. Of those, the Bulldogs got half of them by going to the net and either creating traffic or finding rebounds. UMD's only goal Friday -- the first of Riley Tufte's Bulldog career -- came from doing the same darn thing.

Smith kept himself in good position and made himself big by playing at the top of his crease. UMD did a number of good things in this game, but did not do nearly well enough making the goalie move laterally or make him sag deeper into the crease. For much of the night, UMD shot like a team that doesn't have a lot of confidence, putting pucks right in Smith's midsection.

Part of this is SCSU's defensive corps, which will be elite if its key pieces -- Ahcan, Borgen, Jimmy Schuldt, and Dennis Cholowski -- stay together (Schuldt should be a big-time free agent target for NHL teams once the season ends, Borgen is drafted by Buffalo, and Cholowski is a first-round pick by Detroit). Any team that wants to get to the dirty areas against these guys will have a hell of a challenge. They're good positionally, skate well, and are good with the puck. UMD is a forecheck team, and that forecheck struggled to get going on Friday.

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One guy SCSU couldn't stop on Friday was Tufte. In his 17th college game, Tufte finally got his first goal. It won't be his last.

I've been a staunch defender of Tufte's from the start. Yes, you could argue he should have played a year in Fargo. He decided junior hockey wasn't for him, and I can't be mad at that. He showed up in Duluth ready to work and eager to learn.

I don't care that the scoreline shows 1-1-2 in 17 games, which no one should be impressed by. As head coach Scott Sandelin says, they look beyond production when evaluating the players, and when you look beyond Tufte's production, you see development. Look no further than how Tufte played Friday versus how Tufte played the first time the Bulldogs met St. Cloud.

The Friday game in St. Cloud was probably the worst game Tufte's had. He struggled on the wall, losing races and battles, and was guilty of a couple garish turnovers. He rebounded and played better in the Saturday game, and he's been progressing steadily ever since.

This time around, Tufte was winning those wall battles, getting to the net, and creating havoc. That's how he scored, and he had a couple near-goals before that happened. There's no doubt Tufte's earning more ice time, probably earning more power play time (the power play really struggled on Friday), and he's getting better day by day.

Ultimately, that's all you can ask of a player. Improve every day. Tufte is, and he's showed these last three games that he will be an X-factor for UMD in the second half. He has been bumped to the top six, and I'd expect him to stay there.

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After the game, Sandelin hinted at potential line changes. There were a couple centers -- Johnson and Jared Thomas -- who had difficult moments. While Johnson stayed in the game after the Borgen hit, it seemed to jar him a bit. Johnson needs to use his speed to be at his most effective, and he wasn't always doing that on Friday. I'd argue Johnson has every tool in the toolbox, outside of a little more size, to be an effective pro. He has speed, good puck skills, and he has an uncanny ability to make plays while at full speed, something you can't teach and something the pro coaches love in a skill player.

But Johnson has to be more consistent. He needs to want the puck on his stick and he needs to get his feet going when he has it. I'm not sure moving him back to wing is the answer, because I do like him playing in the middle where he can be more of a factor, but when he isn't going at his peak he struggles as a center.

Thomas hasn't scored since October 2015, a span of too many games to count. He's had some really good moments in there. As an example, I liked his game last Friday against Colorado College. He was good on draws, moved the puck well, was fine defensively, and was probably UMD's most consistent physical forward in that game.

Against St. Cloud State, he had a couple garish turnovers in the defensive zone that nearly led to Huskies goals, and he wasn't strong on a power play that was largely ineffective in five chances (four, really, since the officials saw fit to wipe out a UMD power play with a terrible goalie interference call on Neal Pionk).

Thomas had been UMD's most consistent faceoff man in the first part of the season. Over the first 14 games, he was only under 50 percent on draws three times. In the seven games since, it's happened five times. He's 39-for-84 in the circle since the first break, which came after the Omaha series ended Nov. 19.

Scoring goals can only get you so far as a player. I'd argue Thomas has been fairly effective this season, even though it's clear his confidence has been shaken a bit by this scoring slump. He's found goalposts and missed the net on golden opportunities this season, and I can't help but feel for someone who has shown themselves perfectly capable but appears to be absolutely snakebit in front of the net. But if he isn't going to score, he has to do other important things -- i.e. win faceoffs, get to the net, be effective defensively -- well. Hopefully he can get back to that and cement his spot in this lineup as a result.

******

The sky is not falling. UMD has lost five of 21 games this season. Four of them (FOUR!) have been by one goal. Games only get tighter in the second half of the season, so the Bulldogs have to be more effective around the net to be successful.

After a "hot" start in one-goal games, UMD is now 4-4 in those situations this season. Yes, there have been some other games where UMD got empty-net goals to widen the final margin, but we've talked about this before. A great record in one-goal games indicates some fortune. UMD had it early, not so much as of late.

The power play has to get going. UMD has 17 power play goals on 158 power play shots, a 10.5 shooting percentage that is only one point higher than its overall shooting percentage of 9.5 this season. To contrast, UMD's opponents have a shooting percentage of 13.8 on the power play, 9.1 overall.

The power play had been okay, even when not scoring. The game-by-game stats I keep show that it was generating opportunities, and outside of consistently scoring goals the power play was passing the eye test. It was not effective on Friday.

******

Elsewhere in the NCHC, Miami put up five third period goals to beat North Dakota 6-3 in Grand Forks. Anthony Louis, Carson Meyer, Karch Bachman, Ryan Siroky, and Louie Belpedio struck for the RedHawks, with Bachman's goal giving Miami a 4-3 lead and chasing UND starting goalie Cam Johnson. Matej Tomek took over and allowed two more goals on five shots. Ryan Larkin made 30 saves in goal for Miami, which has quietly won five in a row.

Fredrik Tiffels scored the winning goal on a five-minute Western Michigan power play, and the Broncos went on to take down No. 1 Denver 3-0 in Kalamazoo. Ben Blacker got the shutout for WMU, while Chris Dienes and Sheldon Dries tallied empty-net goals.

In Colorado Springs, Tyler Vesel scored twice, Jake Randolph had two assists, and Omaha beat Colorado College 5-2. Vesel scored his power play goals after Brandon Makara gave CC a 1-0 lead in the first period. After tough weekend at home against North Dakota where the Fighting Hawks scored 16 goals, UNO got a sound night from goalie Kris Oldham, who made 26 saves.

******

Before I go, a shoutout to the UMD women's hockey team, which beat Minnesota 3-2 Friday at Amsoil Arena. The Bulldogs got a third-period goal by Katherine McGovern to provide the winning margin, as each team struck twice in the third period. UMD got goals from Kateřina Mrázová in the first period and Lara Stalder -- who had assists on the other Bulldog goals -- in the second. Kelly Pannek and Sarah Potomak had the Minnesota goals, both on third-period power plays as the Gophers went two-for-two on the power play. Minnesota has scored six power play goals on 12 chances against UMD over three games, accounting for six of the nine goals the Gophers have over those three meetings.

Maddie Rooney, who has been a rock in goal for UMD, made 15 of her 28 saves in the third period. UMD led in shots 35-30, and picked up its first win over Minnesota in exactly five years (last one was Jan. 13, 2012). The teams play again at 3pm Saturday.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Game 21: St. Cloud State at UMD

Should be a fun series this weekend between two teams that can't be thrilled with last week's events. UMD, of course, settled for two out of six points against Colorado College at home, while St. Cloud State got zero of six at Miami. In that set, SCSU led 2-1 late Friday before a controversial major penalty allowed the RedHawks to score a late equalizer and overtime winner.

UMD will play without senior defenseman Willie Raskob, suspended for a head contact incident on CC's Mason Bergh Saturday. It's a warranted punishment that we've discussed enough. Freshman Jarod Hilderman draws in for the series opener, his first game since Oct. 15 against Notre Dame.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin Wednesday lamented a lack of emotion and intensity in the previous weekend. You can bet that his players will be prepared to change that this weekend. Huge opportunity to bank some points this weekend before a tough set at North Dakota and then a stretch of two out of three weeks where UMD won't be playing in conference.

Lines?

Lines.

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

Soucy - Molenaar
Pionk - Kotyk
Wolff - Hilderman

Miska - Deery - Shepard

SCSU
Wahlin - Peterson - Papa
Jackson - Winiecki - Newell
Eyssimont - Poehling (Ryan) - Benson
Poehling (Jack) - Storm - Poehling (Nick)

Ahcan - Borgen
Schuldt - Cholowski
Nevalainen - Lizotte

Smith - Driscoll

Bulldogs, St. Cloud State Both Seek Redemption After Tough Weekends

Undoubtedly, last weekend was not what UMD was looking for.

"I don't want to sit here and talk about everything we did wrong," head coach Scott Sandelin said this week. "I want to give CC credit."

Sandelin did that, noting their left wing lock, played to near perfection, caused UMD all sorts of problems.

"We just never got going."

As I wrote on Monday, any complaining or bellyaching about how UMD played or how the officials officiated or how the ice was or anything else had to be predicated by giving the Tigers credit. Feeling good about themselves after a Florida College Classic championship, Colorado College waltzed into Amsoil Arena and played the way it wanted to play. The Bulldogs struggled throughout both games, never seemed emotionally into what was going on, and got the result that level of play would warrant.

But let's be fair to UMD. It was one bad weekend after a long series of good to great weekends. Even the great teams have them. North Dakota got swept at Denver and later lost and tied at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff before going on to win the NCAA title.

If we believe this UMD team has a chance to be a great team, the occasional hiccup is still inevitable. And if the group tackles adversity week to week the way it has tackled adversity during games, there is zero reason to be concerned.

Some examples:

Oct. 7 at UMass-Lowell: Trailed 4-1 midway through the second, rallied to earn 4-4 tie
Oct. 28 vs North Dakota: 3-0 lead became 3-2 in final minute of second, scored only goals of third in 5-2 win
Nov. 4-5 at St. Cloud State: Trailed 3-1 both nights, won both games 5-3
Nov. 12 vs Western Michigan: After late goal gave WMU a 4-3 win Friday, UMD won 2-0 Saturday
Dec. 10 at Denver: After 4-3 loss Friday, UMD won 3-1 Saturday
Dec. 17 at Bemidji State: Gave up goal :44 in, trailed into second period, won 2-1 and didn't allow a shot in back-to-back BSU power plays over final 3:37 of regulation

Sandelin wants to see some emotion this weekend, which he said was lacking last week.

"It was just kind of dead. Very flat. Maybe a combination of not playing enough over 30 or 40 days. We gotta find a way to get back to it. We had a good, very simple talk Monday about getting back to what we need to do, focusing more on the things we need to get better at.

"Hopefully our guys learned the lesson," he said. "Our league is tough. Certainly, we didn't play well enough either night to win two games, but we had opportunities. We have to be better this weekend for sure."

Senior forward Kyle Osterberg noted classes at UMD resumed this week, and that return to "routine" might be a little bit of a boost for most guys. After all, athletes are creatures of habit.

******

St. Cloud State, meanwhile, also had a disappointing start to 2017. The Huskies went into break with a 2-1-1 mark over their last four games, including a win and tie at Western Michigan. They've come out of break 1-3, swept by Miami last weekend and having split games at the Desert Hockey Classic the weekend prior.

"It's been good and bad," SCSU coach Bob Motzko said this week. "It's just like our team. We're in every game, it's tight. We don't score like we did a year ago. We don't have an All-American goalie like last year (Charlie Lindgren), but they've given us a chance in every game. I like our hockey team, I like it a lot.

"We're just not there yet, but we're coming."

Sophomore Mikey Eyssimont leads with ten goals, followed by Duluth Marshall graduate Judd Peterson with nine. Freshman Jack Ahcan, a World Junior gold medalist along with Motzko (head coach), video coordinator Matt Chapman, and of course UMD freshman Joey Anderson, has 13 points in 16 games.

The goalies, Jeff Smith and Zach Driscoll, have basically split time, each playing in 12 games and being separated by just 30 minutes played. Smith has a 2.98 goals against and .891 save percentage, Driscoll a 3.13 and .889. Smith started both games at Miami with Driscoll ill, but Motzko said he was back in practice this week and we don't know which goalie will get the nod in the series opener.

******

Motzko, by the way, had nothing but praise for UMD's Anderson, who played top-line minutes and was used in many key situations in the World Juniors.

"There was one moment, he's in the hall, and I put my arm around him and said 'Except for Duluth, I love you'. He's a special kid and hockey player. One of my favorites. Last year on that (Under 18) team, (Clayton) Keller and (Kiefer) Bellows got all the accolades for what they did, but I got the feeling Joey was the straw that stirred that drink.

"I found myself using him in the big games the most, because I could trust him. I hate to say it, but you guys got a special one up there."

Motzko was grateful for the chance to work with this team, one he said he knew during evaluation camp in the summer in Michigan had a chance to be special.

Sandelin told reporters Wednesday UMD will "do something" Friday to honor the members of the World Junior team that are part of the Bulldogs and Huskies.

Also, it's Hall of Fame weekend, with the UMD Athletic Hall of Fame inductions set for Saturday. All six inductees -- former men's hockey star and Hobey Baker winner Junior Lessard, Tim Battaglia (baseball and football), Barry Fermanich (baseball and basketball), Lindsey Dietz (basketball), Dave Hicks (skiing and golf), and Angie Jones (softball) -- will be honored on the ice after the first period of Saturday's game. For the radio folk, Lessard will be with us after the second period Friday, and Battaglia after the second period Saturday.