Much has been made of UMD's streak of eight straight games scoring a power play goal to start the season. It's significant, because as head coach Scott Sandelin notes, "it's really hard to score" five on five in today's college hockey world. Those power play goals can make a huge difference, and UMD has a Division I-high 12 in eight games.
But that's just a small part of the Bulldogs' special teams successes. UMD is tied with North Dakota for the Division I lead in short-handed goals (five). Dominic Toninato has a pair of those, with others coming from Tony Cameranesi, Karson Kuhlman, and Andy Welinski.
(That's 17 special teams goals, more than two per game and the highest total of any Division I team so far.)
Welinski's happened in Saturday's 4-3 win over Miami. On that play, Justin Crandall sprung a two-on-one by taking a hit from Miami's Louie Belpedio in order to make a pass to Kyle Osterberg. When Belpedio -- the only defenseman on that power play unit for the RedHawks -- stepped up on Crandall, it left forward Alex Wideman to defend Osterberg and Welinski. Osterberg fed a pass to Welinski for a one-timer that got through the Miami goalie.
"I knew they'd be a little aggressive there," Crandall said. "I saw Kyle coming and he yelled for it, so he made it a pretty easy chip for me.
"We knew with Miami that they had four forwards on the power play. Obviously, the first thing is to get the puck out of the zone, but if you get it in control and you can make a smart decision, and you have the chance to go two on one with a forward and you've got to take the odds."
A penalty kill that rarely even posed an offensive threat a couple years ago suddenly can boast being one of the scariest in college hockey.
Crandall, a regular on the kill basically since his arrival on campus, says there hasn't really been a schematic change toward aggressiveness.
"We've got a lot of skill on our penalty kill," he said this week. "Guys who are really good skaters who can get up the ice. I think it starts with a good foundation in our own zone, being in the right lanes and making good decisions. It's not something that we've really talked about, but I think it's from hard work and making good decisions."
Sandelin credits assistant coach Jason Herter for the work he's done running UMD's penalty kill, which is sitting at 83 percent through eight games, with eight goals allowed in 47 chances. Throwing in the five shorties, UMD is just minus-three on its opponents' power plays in eight games, which virtually any coach will take (plus-eleven with 12 power play goals scored and a single short-handed goal allowed, so plus-eight overall on special teams).
"He's (Herter) talked a number of times about looking for those opportunities," Sandelin said. "I think some of it's a little bit of luck, blocking shots, pucks bouncing. I think we can still be better, but a lot of it's being in the right spot, and a little bit of timing. It's a nice thing to see, and we hope it can continue."
Crandall has nothing but good things to say about Kuhlman, a freshman who played high school hockey at Cloquet/Esko/Carlton and has become possibly the top killer on this team.
"He's just a great kid," Crandall told me. "He was on the power play, but now he's accepted his role on the penalty kill. He's stepped up, especially in the absence of Adam (Krause, senior captain who is out with a broken wrist). He works hard, he's in the right position. It doesn't hurt that he's really fast, but he's a smart player who gets in the right lanes."
It doesn't hurt to have high-skill players like Kuhlman, Alex Iafallo, Dominic Toninato, and occasionally Cal Decowski or Tony Cameranesi killing penalties. But like Crandall said, it doesn't do any good if a player isn't in the right place and doing the right thing. Even watching guys like Kuhlman in practice, it's clear they're taking well to what Herter is teaching them. They keep their sticks active, disrupting passing and shooting lanes.
It's probably not a stretch to say that working with these killers makes the power play sharper, which may very well be contributing to its success over the first near-quarter of the season.
Both units will get a big test in St. Cloud this weekend. More to come Thursday on that big two-game set. It'll be as good a matchup of .500 teams as you'll find. Heh.