Monday, November 10, 2014

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Sweep Way to Top of NCHC

It's early yet, and it could be temporary with a non-conference series coming up, but it's also nice to see UMD in first place in the NCHC standings.

Even better? It comes after the Bulldogs picked up a sweep in St. Cloud for the first time in nearly 15 years.

UMD finished off that sweep with a 3-1 win Saturday at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. The Bulldogs took a nice crowd largely out of the affair in the early going with strong offensive zone work and an early goal from sophomore Dominic Toninato. UMD added an Austin Farley goal before the first period ended, and it outshot the seemingly desperate home team 15-5.

Could have had more, but sophomore goalie Charlie Lindgren outplayed his pedestrian numbers (save percentage was under .900 coming in) and kept SCSU alive while it struggled offensively.

On Friday, I felt UMD freshman goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo helped his team swipe three points. In Saturday's game, Kaskisuo was sharp as a tack, but there was no need for him to help anyone steal points. UMD earned them Saturday by outplaying its in-state adversary.

The Bulldogs were stout defensively, winning battles and limiting scoring chances. They did a better job occupying shooting lanes and keeping the SCSU offense at bay. They had issues throughout the game with forward Joey Benik, but he was going at a high level on Saturday, scored a great power-play goal, and was robbed by the goalpost after a superb short-handed effort.

Kaskisuo robbed Huskies sniper Jonny Brodzinski with a pad save during a third-period power play chance, but that was probably as close as Brodzinski got to scoring in this game. UMD checked him well, especially five-on-five. In fact, it was Andy Welinski stripping the puck from Brodzinski that set UMD up with the rush that led to Farley's first-period goal. That goal proved to be Saturday's game-winner.

(Of course, your humble and idiotic correspondent thought UMD would need at least one more goal to secure victory. Sometimes, you should just forget he is saying words.)

Welinski has been great so far, posting four goals, even points, and a plus-ten in ten games. Yeah, plus/minus is overrated, but this is a developing trend. The junior defenseman is playing the best we've seen him play at UMD, and the Bulldogs are easily three-deep with quality defensemen when you look at how Derik Johnson and Carson Soucy are playing. Sophomore Willie Raskob and junior Willie Corrin have had ups and downs, but both are still regulars in the lineup and are taking some key minutes.

They all made Kaskisuo's life easier Saturday. So did freshman forward Karson Kuhlman. The former Cloquet/Esko/Carlton Lumberjack won't get credit for anything more than a mundane blocked shot, but Kuhlman made the save of the night on a scramble play in front of the UMD net during the third period. Kaskisuo was off to the left when the puck squirted free and became available for one-time Duluth Marshall Hilltopper Judd Peterson in the slot. The freshman fired a quick wrister, but it hit Kuhlman in the back as he laid in the net hoping to block the shot.

Eventually, the Bulldogs got the clear, and SCSU never seriously threatened after that. Lindgren was pulled and UMD took its timeout off an icing with 1:10 left. Off that faceoff, Alex Iafallo won possession and headed up the rink, eventually crossing the Huskies blue line and feeding Justin Crandall for a tap-in to seal the win.

It had been since 1999 that UMD swept in St. Cloud, but it continues a recent trend. Going back to January, UMD is now 8-2 in its last ten road NCHC games, with sweeps at Omaha, Western Michigan, Miami, and now St. Cloud. The only losses were the two at SCSU last February.

Saturday's win leaves UMD three points clear of Miami and six ahead of Omaha, North Dakota, and Denver in the NCHC standings. In fairness, Miami and Denver each have two games in hand on UMD, while UND and UNO have four. But UMD is in first place, and the Bulldogs continue to be a very strong team away from home. With improved play at home, it looks like UMD will be a dangerous opponent this winter.


UMD steps out of conference this weekend for what should be a great two-game series against No. 1 Minnesota.

(As of this writing, the meaningless human polls aren't out yet, but I think it's safe to assume Minnesota will stay atop those rankings.)

The Gophers beat UMD 4-3 at the Ice Breaker on Oct. 10, riding early goals by Sam Warning and Kyle Rau, both of whom beat Kaskisuo on breakaways (Rau's was more of a partial break) before the freshman had even had a chance to put his pads on yet.

Outside of that, UMD outshot the Gophers and largely deserved a better fate. Adam Wilcox was outstanding in goal, and the Bulldogs never fully overcame the early hole they dug for themselves.

Now, Minnesota faces a more steady UMD defense and a more confident Kaskisuo. In fact, the Finn has a .930 save percentage in six league games, bringing his overall save percentage to a pretty solid .923. UMD is at a .918 team save percentage through ten games after posting matching .896 team save percentages the last two seasons. The strong goaltending has made the Bulldogs a good closing team. UMD has outscored opponents 13-5 in the third period this season.

The Bulldogs are playing well enough in all phases that they have to like their chances for a split this weekend, at the minimum. And that's saying something, because the Gophers are very strong and also playing at a very high level right now. In fact, Minnesota hasn't lost at Mariucci Arena in 17 games, going back to November 24 of last year, when it lost 6-2 to, you guessed it, UMD.

That's one streak the Bulldogs wouldn't mind ending on Friday.

1 comment:

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