Thursday, January 08, 2015

Potent North Dakota Blue Line Leads Top-Ranked Team in Country

Polls don't matter. We get it.

But the polls say North Dakota is the top dog right now. At 13-4-2, UND is not off to its typical slow start that fires up the message boards with "Fire Hakstol" hot takes. Well, since that 5-1 clunker in the season opener against Bemidji State, that is. Maybe that was everyone's chance to get it all out?

(In fact, this is the best start UND has had under coach Dave Hakstol.)

Anyway, that's our adversary this weekend. And it wouldn't take a poll for someone to figure out North Dakota is good. A balanced offense and strong defense lead the way for UND, which is just two points back of the first-place tie between UMD and Miami.

Let's focus on the right things. This is not the time to talk about the fact that UND has non-conference games played against the likes of Wisconsin (2-11-1), Lake Superior State (4-17-1), Air Force (5-13-3), and Bemidji State (5-10-3). Don't bring that up. It doesn't matter.

Instead, let's look at what North Dakota has done in building a 6-3-1-0 record in NCHC play.

UND swept Colorado College 3-1 and 7-2. UMD swept Colorado College 3-2 and 7-2.
UND split with Miami, losing 3-2 and winning 4-1. UMD split with Miami, losing 3-2* and winning 4-3.
UND split with Denver, losing 4-1 and winning 3-1. UMD split with Denver, losing 3-1 and winning 6-1.
UND split with St. Cloud, losing 3-1 and winning 3-2. UMD swept St. Cloud State, winning 3-2 and 3-1.
UND tied Omaha 2-2 and won 3-2. UMD split with Omaha, winning 3-2 and losing 4-1.

Closely matched if you look at common opponents, I'd say.

North Dakota is an interesing matchup for this Bulldog team. UND was activating defensemen into the offensive play before doing so was chic in college hockey. Now, Denver does it well, Miami does it well, and they're far from the only ones.

Make no mistake: North Dakota does it better than just about anyone. After leading the nation in points from the blue line last year, UND is third this season, with 15 goals and 50 points from defensemen. UMass-Lowell has 19 goals and 64 points, while Minnesota State has gotten 13 goals and 53 points from defensemen. For perspective, UMD -- which has gotten much improved offense from its blue line this season -- ranks in a tie for 24th nationally with ten goals and 35 points from the "D."

"I think it's a real credit to (assistant coach) Brad Berry, and the way he works with and develops our individual defensemen," Hakstol said this week. "Probably as importantly as that, (he works with) our D-corps as a whole."

Hakstol said that work extends back to recruiting, where Berry is very specific about the kinds of players he is looking to recruit for North Dakota's blue line. From there, it's nose to the proverbial grindstone when it comes to developing them.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin likes how his team has played against strong defensive teams like Denver and Miami, and he has a pretty good idea what to expect out of North Dakota.

"The key is not a lot of puck watching," Sandelin said. "If we're standing around watching, those guys are going to be a big part of their offensive push. We've seen it before. It seems to be the way things are going. It does create problems if you're not aware of it and not paying attention."

Hakstol said he doesn't think he has a superstar on the blue line, but junior Jordan Schmaltz is sure close to that billing. The Verona, Wisc., native has three goals and 14 points in 19 games, and continues to play a very steady brand of hockey from the back line. He and UMD's Andy Welinski are arguably the two best defensemen in the NCHC right now (though Denver has Joey LaLeggia and Miami Matthew Caito, and both guys are playing very well right now). Guys like Paul LaDue and Nick Mattson aren't afraid to jump up in the offensive plays for Hakstol, but he's right in that they don't have an attention-commanding player atop the defensive line charts like they have in the past with players like Derek Forbort and Dillon Simpson. Instead, there's a balance from spots 1-6 that rivals anyone in the country, even a team like Denver with some real high-end guys back there.

As much as UMD has to mind itself against North Dakota's active and aggressive defensemen, Hakstol knows his guys have to be aware of one of UMD's greatest assets.

"Number one thing that comes to mind is pace," he told me this week. "The pace of play that they play at throughout the lineup both with and without the puck is very impressive.

"The playmaking ability of their forward group is very impressive, and that couples with the pace of play that they have. I've always respected Scott's teams without the puck. They play very well. Their gaps are good. I don't see a lot of holes in their group. It should make for one hell of a series. I feel like this is the best team that we've played against all year."

The stakes are high for this early January tilt. Sandelin noted a couple times at his media availability Wednesday that UMD is a point ahead of UND in the NCHC standings, and the goal is to be ahead of UND when the weekend ends. Obviously, the North Dakotans have other ideas.


UMD sophomore forward Dominic Toninato has already faced one Duluth East linemate this season (Jake Randolph with Omaha in November).

He won't get the chance to play against a second until March, at least.

North Dakota freshman Trevor Olson, another former Greyhound star, is out indefinitely after being diagnosed this week with mono. He has three goals in a bottom-six role over 15 games, and he's drawn the attention of his coach.

"He was really growing and developing his role," Hakstol said. "Another big-body, straight-line type of player. Probably would surprise people with the amount of plays he can make and the hockey sense he has.

"We watched him a lot as a young player coming out of high school. As he growed and matured in the USHL, he played with good players all the time. He was not only a guy there to police things and be the physical player and take care of his teammates, but he was also the guy who could go make plays with good players. At playoff time, he could elevate his game and impact the game.

"He's another guy that leads by keeping things loose. We're gonna miss him."

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