Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Work to Do, But UMD Starts Playoffs Strong

Friday night was a pretty good example of playoff hockey, not only in Duluth but many other WCHA venues.

Games were tight on the scoreboard. Many of the games were "loosely" officiated, meaning the standard for a penalty was blatantly obvious (too many men) or flagrant (foul from behind on a breakaway).

In Duluth, only three minor penalties were served, and a fourth was called that led to a penalty shot. Two of the three served minors were for too many men on the ice, and both were so obvious that there was no reason for anyone to question them.

In the end, it wasn't anything related to the power plays that decided the game's outcome. Instead, UMD did what it has done for much of the season's second half, riding even-strength goals to a 4-2 win over Minnesota State.

The Bulldogs got quality shifts out of all four lines, outstanding play out of Travis Oleksuk's line yet again, a strong game from captain Jack Connolly, and two goals by senior defenseman Brady Lamb.

Oleksuk's line was good from the start Friday. JT Brown and Caleb Herbert combined for a great scoring chance in the first 30 seconds. Brown connected just past the halfway mark of the first for the game's opening goal. Herbert -- who played like he was chafed about not being on the WCHA All-Rookie team -- was all over the ice, back-checking, hustling, and playing with an impressive edge.

He also provided some comic relief. On the game's first penalty, a UMD bench minor for too many men, Herbert went to serve the penalty, but decided to take a seat in Minnesota State's penalty box. He was directed to the correct penalty bench, and UMD killed the penalty. It would be MSU's only power play of the game.

Connolly launched some obscene passes to spring linemates Keegan Flaherty and Mike Seidel, but the three were pretty tightly-checked throughout the game. As the game wore on, MSU did a better job on Oleksuk's line, but they couldn't contain the speedy Bulldogs all night.

Lamb's second goal of the game -- which I'm convinced hit the stick of Maverick forward Matt Leitner -- gave UMD the lead for good in the third period, and the Bulldogs withstood a furious MSU rally in the final minute-plus. Wade Bergman's 160-foot shot iced it with five seconds left.

It was a good playoff hockey game, and a good win for UMD, one that temporarily moved the Bulldogs to first in the Pairwise (when all the games of the night were done, UMD had settled into second, behind Boston College). A win on Saturday would move UMD into the WCHA Final Five for a fourth straight season. It would also put UMD in a good position for nothing worse than a top-two NCAA regional seed, no matter how next weekend plays out around the country.

UMD ground out this win in a way. It wasn't at its best in the second period, from the goalie out. MSU's first goal came on a bad rebound allowed by Kenny Reiter, and the second came from a bad-angle shot that trickled through. Those are the kinds of goals everyone allows once in a while, but one of Reiter's strong points is that he rarely lets it happen twice in a month, much less in a game.

Obviously, he'll be working to avoid those errors, but if you remember, Reiter gave up a softie in the Frozen Four last year, but was still one of UMD's best players throughout the NCAA Tournament. It's not exactly cause for alarm.


Elsewhere in the WCHA, the road teams in the Mountain time zone were the only ones to succeed on Friday.

Wisconsin got a third-period goal from Sean Little to beat Denver 1-0. In Colorado Springs, it was Michigan Tech outshooting Colorado College 29-17 in a 3-1 win.

Home teams won the other games. Minnesota held off Alaska-Anchorage 2-1, North Dakota beat Bemidji State 4-1, and St. Cloud State got the other shutout and most lopsided win, beating Nebraska Omaha 4-0.

The series all continue Saturday.

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