Saturday, January 07, 2012

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Another Dominant Third Period

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- You could see it coming. It almost seemed as inevitable as a sunrise and sunset. And Western Michigan couldn't stop it. Not even a 27-day layoff could stop it.

The UMD men kept it rolling here Friday night, beating Western Michigan 4-1 to run its unbeaten streak to a school-record 15.

As has been the case for much of this streak, the Bulldogs got the job done with an overwhelming third period effort. Friday was the third time in 15 games that UMD scored three goals in the third period. UMD has at least one goal in the third period of 14 of the 15 games. The only game where UMD didn't score in the third period was its last before Friday, a 4-2 win at Wisconsin in which the Bulldogs did all the necessary damage in the first two periods.

In the last 15 games, UMD has outscored opponents 24-10 in the third period.

(For the season, UMD has outscored the opposition 77-45. The first period is even at 17, so UMD has a 60-28 edge from the start of the second period on.)

Friday night's third period was just like many of the others. UMD looked like the superior team. They were physical. They made good passes (not perfect, but good). They won battles all over the ice. For the most part, they kept goalie Kenny Reiter from having to do too much back there (one shot on goal, according to the official stats, in the last half of the period).

UMD also took advantage of its opponent's lack of discipline.

In the third period, Western took two minor penalties. They came 28 seconds apart, and the accompanying five-on-three was too much for the Broncos to defend. It didn't help that Luke Witkowski, one of their top defensmen, was one of the two offending parties.

(WMU coach Andy Murray was not happy with Witkowski's hooking penalty, but it was a hook. He got his stick up into the hands of a UMD player, forcing a turnover that sent the puck into the neutral zone. The Broncos got away with a much more flagrant foul in an earlier UMD power play, but that's no excuse for missing another obvious penalty. The kneeing call that led to the original power play was an easy, textbook call for the officials to make.)

During the five-on-three in a 1-1 game, some guy named Jack Connolly skated across the top of the UMD formation, left to right. He stopped and sent a tape-to-tape pass back to his left, where Travis Oleksuk was all by himself at the bottom of the faceoff circle. Oleksuk isn't going to miss that shot in his sleep.

Three minutes later, Joe Basaraba came into the offensive zone two-on-two with Mike Seidel. Seidel drove to the net, and Basaraba waited for the WMU defenseman to give him enough of an opening for a shot from the left circle. Once he had that room -- and it wasn't much -- he let one rip through WMU goalie Frank Slubowski to give UMD a 3-1 lead.

Jake Hendrickson added the empty-netter, and UMD had a 4-1 win.

UMD is not immune to anything. The Bulldogs started this game slowly, as expected, and they certainly had their share of average shifts in the first 20 minutes. You could see players keeping the game somewhat simple. Shorter passes, quicker shifts. A couple penalties in the first period didn't help the cause, including one before all four lines could take a shift.

I still thought there was some inconsistency in the second period, but you could see UMD starting to get things going again. They had a couple tremendous shifts after J.T. Brown's tying goal, including one that led to a Brown breakaway that Slubowski had to stop. The third period was a lot of nothing for a while, but UMD took advantage of the five-on-three, and that really seemed to change the rest of the game. The Broncos were somewhat deflated after that, and not even a good five-on-four kill where they didn't allow any real chances could get them back in their groove.

And, yes, someone grabbed the puck. When you make history, you make sure you get the puck.


The Broncos tried their very best to knock Connolly off his game. They hit him, denied him space, and hit him some more. It was a good, hard, physical effort against college hockey's best player (yes, I just said it, and I'm probably going to say it a few dozen more times before the season ends). Wasn't dirty, though a couple hits were a bit on the high side. Instead, it was a team doing its best to use physicality and intimidation to keep a guy from controlling the game.

Didn't matter.

You could see it coming. Connolly, Basaraba, and Seidel had a quality shift to close the first period, generating pressure and a nice scoring chance. They had a few more good shifts in the second period, and Caleb Herbert certainly looked good with that group while Seidel was serving a ten-minute misconduct. UMD's top line had a dominant third period, as it's done a lot during this streak.

For Connolly, it was just another day at the office. In the third periods of UMD's last 15 games, the team's senior captain has eight goals and nine assists. That's 17 points in 15 third periods, kids. A three-point-per-game pace. He steps up in third periods of games, and he is a huge reason why UMD continues to put such games away.

On the season, Jack has 32 points in 19 games. If UMD plays in 41 games, as it did last year, Connolly is on pace for 69 points, ten more than last season (59). At this rate, he'll have 60 before the WCHA playoffs even start.

Oh, and he is doing this -- scoring at this pace -- despite a "slow start" that had people wondering if the preseason Hobey hype was unwarranted. Seriously.

Over his 17-game point streak, he has 12 goals and 18 assists. I already quoted the third period numbers, which are incredible. But over 17 full games, he's almost at two points per game. At this rate, he's going to blow everyone out of the water in the scoring race.

After all, the Gophers are done playing cupcakes, and Wisconsin is done with them after taking care of RIT Saturday night.

"In the first month, I think Jack played well," coach Scott Sandelin said before the game Friday. "It seems like since we switched the lines in Denver, that was the weekend where he really took off. Showed his leadership, and showed his ability to be a top player in the country. Sometimes we get spoiled. We expect great things from him.

"I can't speak enough about how his play, and I think he's matured into a really good leader."

There are some great players in college hockey. Justin Schultz comes to mind immediately, as do guys like Austin Smith, Nick Bjugstad, T.J. Tynan, and Brian Flynn, and so many others.

But none of them are doing what Jack Connolly is doing right now. Namely, carrying college hockey's best team on a school-record unbeaten streak.

If that's not enough to make you think "Hobey," go ahead and hang out, because I'm sure he'll give you some more reasons before we're all said and done.


Elsewhere in the WCHA, well, guh.

Alabama-Huntsville got a late goal to beat Denver 3-2. The loss dropped Denver out of the top 20 in the Pairwise. Simply a disastrous loss for the Pioneers, and the WCHA in general, which has now dropped two games to UAH. The Chargers only have two wins. Blah. DU chose to rest Jason Zucker after the World Juniors, and they paid dearly. Zucker will not play in Saturday's finale, either, and that's a must-win for Denver.

Wisconsin beat RIT 6-3. Schultz -- easily the best defenseman in the country, and possibly the best I've seen at this level in my seven years of calling UMD games -- scored two goals and had two assists. He's pretty good.

St. Lawrence knocked off Minnesota State 4-3, and Cornell beat Colorado College 3-1.

So, yeah, not a good night for the WCHA.

On Saturday, in addition to all these series finishing up, North Dakota plays Clarkson in Winnipeg, and the Gophers host Notre Dame.

You almost have to root for Minnesota, kids. Seriously. This league needs another non-conference loss like Jessica Biel needs to go on a diet.

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