In November, UMD tussled with St. Cloud State at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. The Bulldogs swept the series with 3-2 (overtime) and 3-1 wins that accentuated the way the first half of the season went for the Huskies.
"We're a completely different team now," SCSU coach Bob Motzko said. "Our offense was darn neaer anemic the first half of the year."
Uncharacteristically, St. Cloud State scored one or two goals in half (eight) of its 16 games over the first half of the season. SCSU went 0-7-1 in those games, and 6-2 when scoring three or more goals.
In the second half of the season, the pattern has continued. St. Cloud State is 0-4 when scoring one or two goals, and 6-0 when scoring three or more goals. Over the last four games, the Huskies have ripped off 22 goals. In there is a 7-0 win over Western Michigan and a sweep of Colorado College where the Huskies outscored CC 13-1. The power play is eight for 23 in those four games.
Small sample size, yes, but Motzko hopes the run has given his team some confidence.
"The biggest thing is we like our team. I think that's the best compliment I have for our guys. Even though our record is not where it's been the last couple years, we like our team."
A big part of the recent surge has been the play of scoring forward Jonny Brodzinski. Motzko moved Brodzinski to center after the UMD series in November, and it seems to have sparked both Brodzinski and the offense as a whole. The junior is up to 17 goals this season, including ten on what's become a lethal power play.
That top power play unit -- Brodzinski, Joey Benik, freshman Patrick Russell, Kalle Kossila, and Andrew Prochno -- is as good as it gets. You can't just defend Brodzinski, which makes him so much more dangerous. It reminds me of Nic Dowd with SCSU last year, and Ben Hanowski before that. Even in a year like this, where the Huskies aren't blessed with great scoring depth, they have enough superb goal scorers that a guy like Brodzinski can get loose, even when other teams have to know St. Cloud is trying its damndest to set him up for a shot.
Dowd was the same way. The Huskies had so much talent on that top power play unit that it was -- shockingly -- easy to forget that Dowd was out there. Next thing you know, the goalie's picking the puck out of the back of the net.
Want to focus on Brodzinski? Fine. Benik has nine goals and 24 points, Russell has eight goals (five on the power play) and 20 points, Kossila has 32 goals in his SCSU career and is at 20 points on the season, and after a slow start, Prochno is rounding into form as one of the better two-way defensemen in the NCHC.
Today's lesson? Stay out of the box.
"We have to be disciplined," junior defenseman Willie Corrin said this week. "When we stay out of the box, our four lines go."
Those four lines might end up looking a lot like they did Saturday, when fourth-line center Jared Thomas moved up to the top line and replaced sophomore Dominic Toninato, who was out with an injury suffered Friday night.
The challenge these next four weeks becomes greater with Toninato being dinged up. I know Dom has irked a few UMD fans with some undisciplined play this year, and his faceoff acumen absolutely needs to improve (Thomas won ten of 13 draws Saturday against NMU). But Toninato is UMD's biggest and most consistently physical center, and he's not this team's leading goal-scorer by accident. Against teams like Miami and Western Michigan, both of which UMD has to deal with on the road where the opposing coach can choose line matchups, Toninato will be extremely valuable to the Bulldogs' cause.
It's that way every weekend, but it's vitally important that UMD get him healthy now so he can play later. If that means he has to miss these games, the onus is probably on Thomas -- at least initially -- to deal with Brodzinski's line.
The best part about Saturday wasn't necessarily how Thomas played. It was how his "promotion" to the top line didn't adversely affect anyone else. As we mentioned before, if you look at UMD's line chart for Saturday night, at least one player on each line and in each defensive pairing picked up a point. Charlie Sampair scored his first goal of the season, Tony Cameranesi's line combined on a goal, Justin Crandall scored short-handed, Adam Krause had a huge night, Nick McCormack picked up a point, and the offensive balance was fantastic.
Corrin believes UMD has a stronger team five-on-five. St. Cloud State doesn't take a lot of penalties, so UMD has to be equally or more disciplined. We can't afford to put SCSU on the man advantage a bunch this weekend.
(And, to be perfectly blunt, it's not like our power play is lighting it up at the moment. A five-on-five game with very few penalties either way probably benefits the Bulldogs.)
If UMD is going to go on the power play and succeed, it's likely the Bulldogs will have to beat an aggressive penalty kill. SCSU isn't going to sit back like it sometimes does on the big sheet. Watching back one of the Denver games, the Huskies did a great job pressuring the Pioneers and taking away their clean zone entries. I know DU swept that series, but SCSU did a lot of good things defensively. The Huskies struggled to generate great scoring chances, but a lot of teams struggle to do that against DU.
I expect these games to be played with pace, and while I believe UMD has a stronger team five-on-five, the Bulldogs have to beat improving goalie Charlie Lindgren and probably have to make things happen at even strength, given the struggles on the power play and the fact St. Cloud just doesn't take many penalties (UMD is 12th in Division I in penalty minutes taken, while SCSU is 53rd).
It's the first of what should be four really good, intense weekend series to finish the regular season for UMD. If the Bulldogs don't stumble badly, they'll have an NCAA bid sewn up before the league tournament begins March 13.