Thursday, October 22, 2015

Avoiding Letdown Key for UMD in South Bend

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Let there be no doubt, UMD fans. The players and coaches heard you loud and clear Saturday night.

"It was fricken awesome," said junior center Dominic Toninato.

Head coach Scott Sandelin talked multiple times this week about how great the crowd was Saturday. The record gathering of 7,569 at Amsoil Arena saw UMD topple Minnesota 3-0. Not only did it finish off a weekend sweep of the archrival Gophers, but it also clinched a sixth straight win over Minnesota, something UMD has never done before.

Now, however, a different challenge awaits the Bulldogs as they prepare for a weekend non-conference series against Notre Dame.

How do you avoid a letdown?

You can talk all you want about the importance of every game, as Sandelin did when I asked him about a letdown. Of course, he also admitted that was a great question, because no one truly knows if it'll happen until the players hit the ice Friday and Saturday at the b-e-a-utiful Compton Family Ice Arena on campus.

Reality is that every game is really important. The six NCHC teams that made the NCAA Tournament last spring had a combined non-conference record of 42-17-4, and that isn't an accident. UMD went 8-4 out of conference last year, and that success played as big a role in the team being locked into the NCAA Tournament entering the conference playoffs despite a meh fifth-place finish in league.

"It's big, it's huge for the PairWise. I know it's early, but every game counts," Toninato said.

He's right. Something I've preached -- probably to the point people are sick of hearing it -- is that I believe these non-conference games almost carry more weight than league games do. UMD doesn't play teams like Providence, Boston College, Boston University, and other top Eastern schools. A good way to flip close comparisons toward UMD would be for the Bulldogs to do well the next two weekends, playing Hockey East opponents Notre Dame and UMass-Lowell. Do well in these series, then hopefully the Irish and RiverHawks pick off some quality opponents themselves (they will). Come selection time, it will benefit UMD. Lose these games, and the chance exists the Bulldogs will lose comparisons to other top Hockey East teams because of it.

So, back to the original question: How do you avoid a letdown? Notre Dame draws well here, averaging nearly 4,500 a game last year. There should be a good atmosphere.

But these aren't the Gophers. And this arena won't be jumping like the home rink was Saturday.

"We have to stick to our game," Toninato said. "We have to compete. We have to win those 50/50 puck battles. We have to be disciplined."

Usually, when a team goes on the road and faces a tough opponent (which Notre Dame undeniably is), it's not a bad thing to get out of the first period scoreless. Obviously, you want to score and have the lead, but 0-0 isn't the end of the world. As an example, I felt UMD took the best punch Minnesota had in the first period at Mariucci Arena last Friday. 0-0 game, and UMD led in shots. That isn't bad.

In a game like this one on Friday, I'd look for something good to happen for the visitors early. Could be a goal, but it could also be a big hit, a big save, or a successful penalty kill. Could be something even less significant than that. Just enough to galvanize the bench a bit and get guys emotionally into what's in front of them.

If UMD comes out Friday and, as Toninato said, wins races and/or battles, and maintains its discipline early, it could very well be a good night, and a good weekend.


I've never formally met Mario Lucia. Talked to him briefly at a press conference before the Ice Breaker last year, and enjoyed listening to him address reporters.

But I like him.

Lucia is one of six seniors on the Notre Dame roster. However, no one would have batted an eye if he wasn't one of them. Lucia could have turned pro after last season, and signed with the Minnesota Wild (drafted in 2011). Instead of taking his 49 goals and accepting paychecks, Lucia came back.

Edina's Steven Fogarty, who had a hat trick in Notre Dame's 7-4 season-opening win over Penn State last Friday, is the Irish captain for a second straight year. But Lucia is the biggest name and probably the top player. He entered the season with 86 career points, 40 more than fellow senior Sam Herr, who was the next highest career scorer, and 43 more than Fogarty.

Lucia showed some real maturity in explaining his decision to the South Bend Tribune earlier this month.
“It came down to: What’s the best opportunity? I could have gone and played in the minors for the whole year. The Minnesota Wild have a great team this year. They only have a couple new guys who made their roster.

“Coming back here, being a leader, playing an important role – I wouldn’t know what my role would be there. I felt (coming back) was best for my development.”
Obviously, we want two wins this weekend. But I see parallels between Lucia and UMD captain Andy Welinski, who is back because he wants to become a better player and lead his team to a championships. These stories are good for college hockey, and they're better stories if Lucia (and Welinski, for that matter) go on to succeed in pro hockey after spending four years in college.


Fogarty, Lucia, and Herr are the leaders of an interesting Notre Dame team. The Irish have six seniors, many of whom have been impactful players. Despite that experience, Notre Dame is the fifth-youngest team in Division I, according to College Hockey, Inc. The Irish six freshmen and nine sophomores, and their average age is just a shade under 21. Only Boston College, Boston University, Michigan, and Wisconsin are younger.

There's talent. Lucia isn't over 50 career goals by accident. Blueliners Jordan Gross and Dennis Gilbert can make some noise, as can Andy Ryan, who had two goals last Friday at Penn State. Sophomore goalie Cal Peterson had his struggles last weekend, especially in the Saturday loss, but he was good in earning the No. 1 job as a freshman.

Notre Dame has developed a reputation of being a more defensive-oriented team over the years, but this group appears more able to open things up. Jeff Jackson is a heck of a hockey coach, and he'll adapt to the talent on hand and do what fits best.

"They do some things that could cause you some problems if you aren't aware of what's going on," Sandelin said this week. I do see Notre Dame being more aggressive offensively as I watch back the Penn State games. We'll see how that develops this weekend. I see UMD being the faster team, so if the feet are moving and UMD is smart with the puck, opportunity should present itself to make plays.


If you're inclined to listen to the radio, thanks as always. 4:30 Central time pregame Friday, 5pm Saturday.

If you're more of a TV type, Friday's game is on the American Sports Network and will be available on NESN Plus and CSN Chicago Plus, for those who have access to regional sports networks. Saturday will be televised nationally on NBC Sports Network and streamed on NBC Sports Live Extra.


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