Friday, January 24, 2014

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Grind Out Much-Needed Win in Overtime Thriller

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- As I told Minnesota State sports information guru Paul Allan, it wasn't the crispest game ever played, but it sure was entertaining.

It also was a huge win for UMD, as the Bulldogs used timely goals from special teams units to defeat Minnesota State 5-4 in overtime at XCel Energy Center. The win advances UMD into the championship game of the inaugural North Star College Cup Saturday night. The reward? A third meeting this season against No. 1 Minnesota. Surely, the Gophers will be looking to avenge a 6-2 loss to UMD the Sunday before Thanksgiving at Mariucci Arena. The Bulldogs struck for four power play goals and a shortie in that win.

Minnesota won the second semifinal 4-1 over St. Cloud State to advance.

UMD started strong, especially on defense. The Mavericks had just one shot through the first ten-plus minutes of the game. UMD didn't do a whole lot, either, but generated a few chances and got the game's first goal. MSU freshman goalie Cole Huggins whipped a puck up the right wing boards, where it was held at the point by UMD sophomore defenseman Andy Welinski. With Kyle Osterberg providing a screen, Welinski's slapper eluded Huggins, running the blue-liner's point streak to eight games in a row.

The Mavericks got a bleeder to tie it up, when Jonny McInnis' shot from the right corner hit UMD goalie Aaron Crandall and trickled in. It was only MSU's second shot of the game.

UMD had to rally twice, trailing 2-1 after one and then 4-3 in the third on a short-handed goal by Zach Lehrke. It wasn't Crandall's best game, though also not his worst. MSU scored on McInnis' goofy corner shot, and then got a PPG in the second on a weird bounce behind Crandall. It was a puck that someone for UMD should have corralled before it became dangerous, but still took a good effort play by J.P. LaFontaine to get it (barely) over the goal line.

(Call it bad puck luck if you want. You might be on to something, as UMD has seen its share of good puck luck.)

The Bulldogs can be better defensively than this. But there are a lot of positives.

For starters, they found a way to win. Additionally, UMD controlled puck possession in a game where it lost 46 of 72 faceoffs. Also, UMD got the power play going with two goals, scored a short-handed goal, and shook off an outstanding special teams effort from one of the best combined special teams groups in college hockey. Going even (3-3) against those guys is no small feat. Just ask Ferris State.

Frankly, I'm not sure I've ever seen a team own the puck like UMD did while only winning 36 percent of faceoffs. Now, it's worth noting that I ride the faceoff train a lot, but this group is rendering that statistic meaningless. Think about Friday's game. How many times did MSU win a draw -- often clean -- only to watch UMD control the puck within five seconds? It didn't work both ways. When UMD wins faceoffs, UMD owns the puck. From a puck-possession standpoint, this Bulldogs team is strong, and will only get stronger.

It was good to see that power play going, and the overtime power play was as good as I've seen UMD execute on the man advantage since before break. They were smart, poised, and got bodies and pucks down low. As Pat Micheletti said after the game, power play is all about creating odd-man situations. UMD did that down low, then took advantage of it for that winning goal.

In that overtime, Alex Iafallo just keeps finding the puck in scoring areas. And what a play by Tony Cameranesi and Austin Farley (it appeared Dominic Toninato was in there, too) to get the puck across to Iafallo for the winner. Toninato, Iafallo, and Adam Krause have been UMD's most consistently effective line as of late. Krause is one of those guys who is playing with more and more confidence in the offensive zone, and Iafallo can beat just about anyone on the ice with his speed. That guy has won UMD more races in the last three weekends than I could possibly count, just by using his wheels.

Net presence was key for the Bulldogs, and it will continue in the championship game against Minnesota. The Gophers did a great job of limiting second-chance opportunities against St. Cloud State, and UMD has to find a way to get to Adam Wilcox and make his life difficult on Saturday. He's a very good goalie, but even the best goalies can be rendered average by taking their eyes away.

The Gophers are a great college hockey team. They're the most talented team in the West, and when they get the kind of goaltending they've been getting from Wilcox, they're virtually unbeatable. In fact, Minnesota hasn't lost since that last meeting against UMD. It will take a great performance to knock Minnesota off again. UMD is fully capable, but it's much easier said than done.

******

Minnesota did indeed play great team defense in that second semifinal. A St. Cloud State team that drives the net well was very limited in second-chance opportunities. Wilcox is really good as is, but when all he has to do is make first saves, he only becomes a better goalie.

Hudson Fasching is a beast. The kid is already phenomenal, especially with his board play and his tenacity. He just doesn't lose battles. There are a lot of bigger forwards in Division I who routinely lose battles to smaller players. Fasching doesn't lose them to players of any size. He gave UMD fits in November on the big ice, and I have to think that when you stick him in an NHL rink, his reach and strength are only going to become more of a factor, not less.

Another Gopher forward who has really been impressive is Seth Ambroz. It seemed his development was plateauing in juniors, but he has stepped it up big-time since arriving in Dinkytown. He has good hands for a big forward, and he's also getting better at using his size to his advantage. Some guys (like Fasching) have it come to them so easily, it seems. It's been cool to watch Ambroz get better as he's faced Division I competition over his time at Minnesota.

For UMD, I think the line of Toninato, Iafallo, and Krause will again be huge. Don't discount the way Toninato is playing, while Iafallo scores all the big goals and gets all the attention. I thought Caleb Herbert's line was a little off on Friday, but they still were pretty good, and they could be well-positioned to have a big game.

It's easy to look at Minnesota's speed and depth and forget that UMD has speed and depth, too. I think it could be argued that the November split saw UMD get the better of Minnesota over most of the 120 minutes played. Saturday will be a different animal, but I don't think there's any question that UMD knows what it has to do in order to win the North Star College Cup. It's a matter of executing the plan when the lights go on.

******

Much will be made of the smallish attendance for Friday's session. Announced crowd was over 14,300, which isn't bad, but at no point did it appear that there were nearly that many in attendance. Word was that some 13,000 tickets were sold in advance for the semifinal games, but the crowd was nowhere near that. Some weather moved through the Cities Friday afternoon/evening, which could have scared a few people off and hurt the walkup, but what I talked about earlier in the week is clearly true. This event has to grow. It probably will as long as it's marketed properly.

Remember the old adage: Rome wasn't built in a day.

What's undeniable is that the players were into this, and the fans who showed up were into this. That's a start, though it might not be at the level some wanted to see it at.

Hopefully, more people will buy in for a UMD-Minnesota final on Saturday night. If the Saturday presale is anywhere close to what Friday's announced attendance was, a good walkup should get the building much closer to full. Either way, it should be a good atmosphere at the X.

Also, remember this, as pointed out by a UMD staffer who is much smarter than I am (not that I'm setting a high bar): The XCel Energy Center is the ultimate hockey facility. If there's hockey being played there, it is surely being run well and presented well by the game operations folks. That's what they do. Now, don't ask me if they can stage a Lady Gaga show or something like that. I just know they do a damn good job with hockey.

Props, too, to FSN for a piece on UMD hockey in the Friday pregame that I was told by more than one person was really cool. I get a little busy around that time, as you might understand.

******

While UMD plays non-conference this weekend for the final time this season, there were two NCHC series, both in Colorado.

In Denver, North Dakota handed the Pioneers a 4-2 loss in front of a ton of UND fans at Denver's building. UND has a huge alumni base in Colorado, and Denver's hilarious attempt to restrict ticket sales to DU fans blew up badly here. They had to rescind their flawed policy for the series, and UND fans infiltrated Magness Arena in huge numbers. They left happy, thanks to a two-goal first period and a strong defensive team game that made the job of Clarke Saunders much easier.

In Colorado Springs, it was last-place (no longer) Colorado College beating seventh-place (and now back in last) Miami 4-1. The Tigers struck for three in the first, and the RedHawks just never found a way to answer that early surge. A late Miami goal ruined a shutout bid for Josh Thorimbert, who finished with 29 saves.

******

By the way, I'll be on Beyond The Pond Saturday at 10:35am to talk about the Bulldogs and the North Star College Cup. The show, hosted by Brandon Mileski and the aforementioned Pat Micheletti, is heard on KFAN 100.3 FM in the Twin Cities, along with their statewide network. That network includes The Fan 1490 in Duluth. You can also listen online at kfan.com or mobile via the iHeartRadio app.

1 comment:

Eric Burton said...

It's called a DVR Bruce. :)