Down 2-0 after one period Saturday, then 3-1 after two, UMD found a way back in Houghton against Michigan Tech. From the time Dominic Toninato scored to make it a 3-2 game until Mike Neville's game-winning goal with 18.4 seconds left for Tech, the Bulldogs outshot the home side 13-4. The forecheck was cranked up, the forwards were flying, and UMD looked like a team poised to steal another game.
Toninato's 13th goal of the season got UMD started, and Austyn Young followed up a Willie Raskob point shot for his third of the year to tie the game.
(Toninato had three goals on the weekend, while Austin Farley chipped in two. Both guys have a nose for the net and can be counted on to make plays when things might not be going all that well around them.)
The way the game started, there's no question UMD was fortunate to be even at that point.
Michigan Tech was putting heat on the Bulldogs early, and it paid off on a Tyler Heinonen goal at 3:33 of the first. Less than 90 seconds later, a bizarre play in the crease led to an Alex Gillies goal that made it 2-0. That goal ended Kasimir Kaskisuo's 15th straight start very early. On came Matt McNeely for his first action since Oct. 17.
While Kaskisuo has been great this season, Saturday wasn't a good start for him. Both goals were preventable, both on his part and on the guys in front of him, and I think Scott Sandelin's decision to pull the goalie was twofold. He wasn't playing well, and UMD was in for a long 55 minutes if it didn't improve some things in its own zone.
The Bulldogs still had problems away from the puck, including lax clearing attempts that helped lead to Tech's goal that made it 3-1 in the second period. But nothing was as glaring as the mistake that led to Neville's winning goal, where UMD just lost coverage and let him get down the right wing and cut toward the net unchecked.
It was something Sandelin eluded to a bit in our pregame conversation.
"We got away from some things, especially in the third period (Friday)," he said. "Part of that comes from not moving your feet and not engaging."
Sandelin went on to explain that it can be difficult to defend well on a consistent basis when a team has the puck a lot at the other end of the rink.
He's a prophet, because he unknowingly laid out the blueprint for Michigan Tech to win the game. The Bulldogs had the puck almost constantly after Young's goal, and when Tech got it, UMD was not sharp in its own zone. This time, the Bulldogs paid for it with a loss.
It's break time. This team is 12-6. Don't dwell on how Saturday's game ended. It sucked, but it's not like UMD lost to a crap team. Michigan Tech is legitimately good, and this is a huge win for the Huskies. A series split was probably justified, as each team took turns being the better team on the ice. They were fun games to watch and it would be great if the two teams met again in 2015.
12-6 is solid. UMD has played ten different teams this season. All but one (Colorado College) was ranked when the Bulldogs played them. Only one other (Notre Dame) isn't ranked as of last week.
There are warts, and we'll discuss some of them during the time off, but UMD is unquestionably a national contender.
Health becomes a huge key now. Counting the exhibition games at Lakehead the weekend after New Year's Day, UMD plays 20 games in ten weekends before the NCHC playoffs start March 13. Looking way ahead in the future, the Bulldogs won't have a weekend off until either 1) the season ends, or 2) the week before the Frozen Four, whichever comes first (and I know which one of these I want to come first). UMD simply doesn't have the luxury to rest for a week here or there and get guys healthy. Now, either the team stays healthy, or the depth gets a big-time test, like it did in November.
The penalty kill took a good step last weekend -- going six-for-six after a bit of a mini-slump. That and the power play need to gain consistency as the season wears on. Kaskisuo is the bell cow in net, undoubtedly, so he must show progress and be ready for a grind after Christmas.
(By the way, read this piece from College Hockey News' Ryan Lambert, talking about how often college teams should be playing their No. 1 goalies. Ice time should not be an issue for Kas going forward. Just need to do a better job in front of him.)
Just don't let Saturday cloud your judgment. The Bulldogs are in position to make serious noise come March and (hopefully) April.
This will be the last post for at least a few days. At some point before the Jan. 9 return to NCHC play, I'll post my midseason All-NCHC team and have some other thoughts on the halfway mark of the season.
I'll be in Thunder Bay for the exhibition games, but I don't know that there will be a ton of posts about those. And I'm off for some time in between now and then.
If you don't visit the blog again before 2015, thanks for supporting the blog, our broadcasts, and the UMD hockey program. Have a Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season.