Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: The Train Keeps A Rolling

OMAHA, Neb. -- For the UMD men's hockey team, it's unquestionably been an awesome ride.

J.T. Brown made sure it continued.

The sophomore's career night Friday helped UMD past Nebraska Omaha 6-2 in front of over 16,000 paid customers, a record crowd for this program. It was a monumental night for UNO hockey, but the Bulldogs did their thing and ruined it.

UMD used a four-goal third period to pull away from another tight game, and Brown was the ringleader on this night. UNO did a solid job against scoring leader Jack Connolly's line, keeping that group off the board until it was already a 4-2 lead.

They had nothing for Brown and linemates Travis Oleksuk and Caleb Herbert. A Herbert shot led to a Brown rebound goal at 1:23 of the first. UMD led 2-0 before UNO answered with two second-period goals to tie the score.

As we talked about last week, though, the third period is where UMD makes things happen.

The margin over the last 17 games is now 31-10. You can point to a lot of things over this 17-game streak, but this might be the most important factor.

Either opponents are completely out of the game through two periods, or they simply have no chance because UMD will wear them down in the last 20 minutes.

The Bulldogs are now 15-3-3 overall, in first place in the WCHA at 11-2-2 (the Gophers lost at North Dakota), and the road record is now 8-0-3. UMD hasn't lost a game away from Duluth in its last 15 (12-0-3). UMD is 22-5-7 in its last 34 games away from Duluth, dating back to the start of last season.

Brown's other two goals came :28 apart in what was a tie game in the third period. Mike Seidel had already been stopped on a penalty shot attempt (never actually got a shot off, because the puck was poke-checked by UNO goalie John Faulkner).

For Faulkner, who I thought had played pretty well, the roof caved in during that third period. UMD pressured with 20 shots, many of them of quality. And they did it without the benefit of a single power play. The entire third period was played at even strength.

UMD is 14-0-3 over the last 17 games, and the Bulldogs have indeed found some different ways to win. The third period dominance, however, is a repeat storyline, and it's no accident. UMD assistant coach Jason Herter was on our coaches' show back in September, and one of the things he noted was that the players almost all came back with superior scores on their conditioning tests than they did prior to last season. This is where that conditioning pays off.

The Bulldogs looked fresh in the third period Friday. They looked like a team that hadn't just played 40 minutes against a Division I opponent. It continues to be a big key for the nation's hottest -- and perhaps deepest -- team.

In Saturday's game, we'll see if Dean Blais can find an answer for Oleksuk's line. We'll also see if that answer comes at the expense of stopping Connolly's line.

No matter what, UMD will return home next week, and it's likely they will remain the nation's top-ranked team in all metrics. The other four teams in the top five all lost Friday, including Ohio State at home to Michigan and Boston College to Massachusetts, both shutouts.


Connolly's two points in Friday's game ran his point-scoring streak to 19, three off the school single-season record. The captain now has eight goals and 12 assists during the third periods of these 17 games.

The points push his career total at UMD to 172, moving him into a tie for 13th place on UMD's all-time scoring list with Dan Fishback (1979-83). Former Hobey Baker winner Chris Marinucci is in 12th place, one point ahead of Connolly and Fishback.

Bill Oleksuk -- Travis' dad -- sits in 11th place at 190 points. Connolly is on pace for 60 points in the regular season, a total that would move him into eighth place all-time, one ahead of Huffer Christiansen. If UMD can extend the season long enough, a top-five slot might not be out of reach for Connolly.


In Grand Forks Friday, North Dakota got a third-period goal from Brock Nelson to beat Minnesota 2-1. That gives UMD sole possession of first place in the WCHA.

In the first period, UND junior Danny Kristo got the boot for a hit from behind on Minnesota defenseman Ben Marshall. Here is the video, courtesy of nearly half my Twitter followers.

Clear-cut. Blatant.

So what the hell is Kristo trying to argue?

I know it's not much of a tantrum, but combine that with the hit itself, which was bad enough, and a message needs to be sent.

The rules regarding checking from behind have been in place since like 2005. That's six years. At what point is it fair to expect that we will start to see some changes in the way the game is played?

Josh Archibald's hit on Connolly here Friday was not much different, only without the additional jab thrown as part of the follow-through on the hit. The irony about it is that Archibald -- and every player on both teams -- took Jack's Pledge during the week leading up to this game.

These hits have to stop. There can be no way around it. And, obviously, the current system isn't working. You might argue that we're not seeing as many hits from behind lead to ejections, but it doesn't mean we're not seeing notably fewer hits from behind.

This is on players, coaches, and officials. We know WCHA officials -- and college officials in general -- aren't perfect. They aren't going to see everything, and they're not going to call everything. That's just human nature. But we need them to be better than they are. We need coaches to preach the importance of clean play that abides by the rules.

And players need to have that respect for one another. It's that respect that will prevent many of these dangerous and unnecessary hits. No, not everyone will practice that respect for opponents. But with improved teaching from coaches, more respect from players, and hopefully more accurate and consistent officiating, perhaps we can get this problem fixed.

It starts, in this case, with discipline. There is no reason why the WCHA should allow Kristo to play Saturday night. He embarrassed himself and his program with that sophomoric tirade after getting the boot, but before that, he committed a flagrant infraction with a dangerous hit. His follow-through suggests an intent beyond just playing a physical game.

At some point, someone has to get serious about this. With all the talk about hitting from behind all week long -- and at all levels of the game -- how can anyone think this is a clean hit? Not only is it not a clean hit, but at no point in the play is Kristo moving to do anything that would be a clean hit. Marshall didn't turn at the last second. Kristo didn't bump a guy who lost an edge. He plastered a guy from behind, and followed through with a jab to the head as he "finished his check."

I have a lot of respect for Kristo, and even more for North Dakota's coaching staff and program. But Kristo's play in this instance was disrespectful, and it would be nice to see the WCHA show some leadership on this issue. It would be the opposite of what we usually see in college hockey, and you could track something like this as one of the reasons we're seeing the changes we're seeing come 2013.

The WCHA won't do anything, and Kristo will probably play Saturday. Hopefully nothing stupid happens. If this were the NHL, Kristo would be asked to drop the gloves and answer for what he did. In the college game, he will probably get chirped at all night, and if the Gophers get a chance to get an extra shot in, they'll probably take it. I just hope they remember that two wrongs don't make a right.


The rest of the scores from Friday saw Michigan Tech beat Alaska Anchorage 6-2, Denver knock off Bemidji State 6-3, Wisconsin shut out Minnesota State 4-0, and Colorado College get by St. Cloud State 3-1.

The standings show UMD (24 points) up on Minnesota (22). Colorado College (20) is third, followed by Denver and Nebraska Omaha (17), North Dakota (16), Michigan Tech (15), St. Cloud State (13), Bemidji State and Wisconsin (12), Alaska Anchorage (7), and Minnesota State (5).

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