Opportunistic North Dakota scored on three straight power plays, chased UMD goalie Matt McNeely, and stomped the lackluster Bulldogs Saturday at a sold-out Amsoil Arena.
The loss was a fourth straight for UMD, with all four coming to the two teams -- North Dakota and St. Cloud State -- that are tied for the lead and collide this weekend for first place in the NCHC.
Saturday did not start well. UND got the game's first seven shots on goal over the opening 3:38, and Mitch MacMillan found the back of the net with the seventh of those shots to make it 1-0. Consecutive goals by Kyle Osterberg and Caleb Herbert -- Osterberg's off a neutral-zone steal and Herbert's off the rush -- made it 2-1 UMD, but it was a hollow lead.
UMD was turning the puck over at an alarming rate, especially in its own zone. No one was immune, and those turnovers were giving UND -- already a strong puck possession team -- plenty of chances to make UMD chase the biscuit.
I can assure you no one on the UMD side was happy with the events of the weekend, events that led to zero points and a whole lot of quiet in the home building. However, it's been almost 40 hours as of this writing, and it's time to give credit where it's due.
North Dakota is good. Really good.
Watching UND dismantle Miami the previous weekend, the consensus -- even among some North Dakota people I talked to -- was that Miami just didn't play, especially on Saturday. Defense and goaltending were not at a requisite Division I level, and the RedHawks were not a worthy opponent that weekend.
However, that same Miami team bit St. Cloud State on Friday in a 4-3 upset win, and North Dakota shoving UMD aside with relative ease should show everyone that the story here is North Dakota.
Ran into UND coach Dave Hakstol after Saturday's game. Basically told him I was hoping to see them at Target Center. He acted like he was worried about his team getting there, and the thing is Hakstol is legitimately concerned about it. Like he said, anyone in this league can beat anyone else. It's usually a cliche meant to keep a team on its toes. But last-place Miami beat first-place St. Cloud State, and the seventh-place team in the league -- Colorado College -- has won three straight and just swept its longtime rival Denver, officially doubling their win total on the season to six.
Hakstol is right, and his attitude keeps his team going. UND hounds the puck, gets in opponents' faces, and Hakstol probably has three or four future NHL defensemen on his roster at the moment. With the progress Paul LaDue has made back there, and the continued growth of Jordan Schmaltz, UND seriously challenges what I said earlier in the season about Denver's blue line. UND might have the deepest group of defensemen in the league, not DU has I had previously asserted. They were that impressive.
That strength allows for a few things. Hakstol can forecheck harder with his forwards, knowing that it's hard to beat his defensemen on the rush. He can activate his defensemen in the offensive zone, because they're smart enough to sense the holes and crash down without hurting coverage if UND somehow loses the puck.
And if Zane Gothberg keeps playing at this level, UND might have all the pieces necessary for a long NCAA run.
A title is the only thing Hakstol has been missing since he took over at UND. Some fans of that program measure its success solely by national championships, and no number of regular-season wins will satisfy them. Until Hakstol wins a national title, he will probably be underappreciated by an extremely vocal section of UND fans. It's wrong, but it's also not going to change the way he approaches his business or coaches his kids.
So where does UMD go from here?
Back to work. It has to be that simple.
Miami awaits Friday and Saturday, and there won't be any sympathy for UMD in Oxford. The RedHawks have high-end skill up front, and their speed will test UMD's defense often this weekend.
UMD has no time to feel sorry for itself. None. Starting Monday, the Bulldogs have to find themselves and put the pieces together while this season can still be saved. And make no mistake: It can be saved.
Win three of four, improve playoff position and maybe get home ice, then take care of business in that first round. If that happens, UMD should be on track to make the NCAAs. And if it doesn't happen, let us not speak of the PWR until January 2015.
I think UMD has been exposed in the back. The Bulldogs have been great about protecting goalies from rebound goals and scramble plays, but they have been beaten more consistently in front of the net over the last four games. It's not a good trend, because UND and St. Cloud State do have a lot of strength up front, but on one scramble play this past weekend, UMD wasn't beaten by strength or luck, but instead by Rocco Grimaldi, who is neither big nor strong. He's smart and skilled, and simply beat his man to the crease to jam home a loose puck.
Goaltending needs to improve, but I'd also like to see our defense get back to the way it had been playing earlier in the season. Combine the two, and things should turn around.
Puck possession is huge, though, and UMD just didn't have it enough to make a big impact on Saturday. I didn't think puck possession was in the 'Dogs' favor on Friday, either, even though shots were 33-21 UMD.
UMD has bounced back on multiple occasions this season, but this is easily the most adversity this team has faced. Friday is a huge night.