Thursday, November 20, 2014

Piping-Hot Teams Collide in Omaha

INTERSTATE 35, Minn. -- Don't worry. My wife's driving.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin knows what his team has to do this weekend, as he faces mentor Dean Blais and Omaha at CenturyLink Center.

"We've got to go in there and make sure we do the things we need to do, and we're not living off last weekend."

Surely, UMD's players understand where the veteran coach is coming from. It won't get much better -- not from a standpoint of opponent, quality of game, or atmosphere -- than it was on Saturday at home. It was there that a record crowd witnessed one of the biggest wins UMD has ever posted in the building, 2-1 over then-No. 1 Minnesota to finish a weekend home-and-home sweep.

"It was great," Sandelin said of the charged-up home building. "It's fun when you go out for warmup, and that student section is full. You can feel that electricity. It was nice that we could keep them in it early by scoring. It's a fun place when it's like that. I know the guys feed off that, too."

Sophomore forward Dominic Toninato of Duluth called the weekend "an absolute blast."

"It was a big weekend for us, taking down the number one team," he said.

Now, UMD has to avoid a letdown as it heads south.

(Admittedly, that's quite the liberal use of the word, because UNO is white-hot, having gone unbeaten in six. This is a really good hockey team UMD is facing this weekend. However, UNO struggles to fill its home building, which seats 17,000 or so. The atmosphere isn't all that great. It won't be as bad as the Ice Breaker was, but it won't be nearly as good as the last two weekends were, either. That's what UMD has to be careful with. No big crowds to feed off of this weekend, so they'll have to feed off each other.)

For the Bulldogs, a five-game winning streak hasn't solved every problem that's popped up, but they've done a good job killing off a few demons.

"Our keys have been we've had good starts, and we've made those work," Sandelin said this week. "I think our guys have competed hard and I think our effort's been good. The other part of that is we've been disciplined.

"It's a combination. Defense is everybody. It starts in goal, and Kaz (Kasimir Kaskisuo) has been outstanding for us. He gives us a chance every night. I thought our guys did a good job."

"I don't think we've done too much," Toninato said when asked how the team so quickly turned around poor starts to games, subpar Friday performances, and discipline issues. "I think it's just mental preparation before the game. I think guys are more ready to go from the drop of the puck. Guys are moving their feet, competing hard, and trying to stay out of the box."

UMD will face a very young but high-end Omaha squad. The Mavericks played seven freshmen in their last game, a win at Ohio State Nov. 8. UNO is 6-1-1, hasn't lost since falling 4-2 to Minnesota State Oct. 11, and -- by the way -- hasn't played a home game since that date, either. Dean Blais' young pups have ripped off a six-game unbeaten streak away from CenturyLink Center.

Among those young pups: Last year's Minnesota Mr. Hockey, Avery Peterson of Grand Rapids. In that Ohio State sweep, Peterson scored three times and had a five-point weekend for NCHC Rookie of the Week honors. The Minnesota Wild draft pick played some in the USHL around his high school season, but Peterson is showing that kids don't have to skip years of high school hockey in order to make the jump to college as "true" freshmen. It isn't for everyone, but there's no need for a universal rule on the bit.

Also in Blais' impressive freshman class is Duluth's Jake Randolph. The son of longtime East coach Mike Randolph spent two years in junior hockey with the Omaha Lancers after graduating from East and helping Toninato and linemate Trevor Olson become the most dynamic forward line in the state. After a 44-point debut season with the Lancers, Jake Randolph broke out big-time last year, with 26 goals and 86 points in 60 games.

"Jake's a great player and does very special things," Toninato said of his former Duluth East linemate. "He has great vision on the ice and can protect the puck well. He's making those assists like he did here."

(In case you're wondering, Olson is at North Dakota, where he has played in eight games as a freshman and is still awaiting his first collegiate point. Olson struggled through injuries during his USHL run, playing in just 21 games for Sioux City last season. He had 71 points in 84 USHL games over two seasons. He's a really physical player who will be a solid player at UND once the scoring comes for him, which it will eventually. Until it does, he may bounce in and out of the lineup. Even with that in mind, it's pretty cool to see all three playing at the Division I level. They were other-worldly players at Duluth East.)

Watching that Ohio State series, Blais really is fearless about employing his freshmen in tough situations. There were multiple instances where three freshmen -- Randolph, Tyler Vesel, and Luc Snuggerud in one impressive sequence -- were on a single penalty-kill unit. These guys can play. Snuggerud is already a very good defenseman, with a goal and three points in eight games. With the late departure of Nick Seeler, who eventually transferred to Minnesota, Snuggerud has gotten a great chance to make an impact early, and he appears prepared to take full advantage.

In goal, it's been all about Ryan Massa so far. He's 5-0-1 with a .953 save percentage, 45 points above his career total of .908. He's playing with high confidence, and he's getting some help from his friends, too.

"Massa's been outstanding," Sandelin said, "they haven't given up a lot of goals. They block a lot of shots. They get a lot of sticks in and disrupt a lot of plays."

Blocked shots and sticks in passing lanes are two hallmarks of this UNO defense. UMD has to put a priority on getting pucks to the net and making sure bodies are going to the front, too. Maybe a weekend of trying to solve Adam Wilcox will help the Bulldogs. He was clearly on his game, and UMD did the things it had to do: Created rebounds, got people to the net, tipped shots, and outnumbered Minnesota down low.

Oh, and the Bulldogs need to play with discipline. This UNO power play is hitting at just 16 percent, but there's a lot of skill, with guys like Dominic Zombo, Austin Ortega, and a returning-from-injury Jake Guentzel.

Toninato knows this.

"Omaha's got a pretty good power play, so discipline. Almost like a broken record."

He laughed, but he wasn't joking. Don't play with fire. UMD is likely a deeper team when you look at the forward lines and defensive groups. Like Massa, Kaskisuo is giving his team a chance to win every game it plays. Yes, UMD's power play has been clicking, but a special teams game allows UNO to dodge one of its biggest deficits when you look at this head-to-head matchup, and that's depth.

Good starts and good discipline could lead the way for UMD to have another good weekend.

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