Monday, October 19, 2015

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Sweep Overmatched Gophers

No single stat probably shows the shifting of tides in the Minnesota-UMD men's hockey rivalry than this:

Before Scott Sandelin arrived at UMD in 2000, the Bulldogs were 56-111-11 against Minnesota, a pretty terrible .346 winning percentage.

After Saturday's 3-0 win over the Gophers, UMD is 23-23-6 against their longtime I-35 rivals under Sandelin. That'd be .500, and a vast improvement over previous years.

Included in that are the two longest winning streaks UMD has ever had against Minnesota. The current six-game run is a record. It broke the old mark of five, set by the Bulldogs between 2003 and 2004.

So not only is Sandelin now .500 against UMD's biggest rival (sorry, St. Cloud State and North Dakota), but his teams are responsible for the two longest winning streaks against Minnesota in program history.

Sandelin will tell you it's not about him, and he's not wrong. But the players he's recruited and the style he coaches have combined to make UMD more consistently competitive against the Gophers than they've ever been before.

Saturday was another masterful performance, as the Bulldogs outshot the Gophers 17-2 (!) over the first 20 minutes of a 3-0 win. Now, this Minnesota team does not have the look of a serious national contender (yet). The Gophers are too young in key spots, especially center, to make a lot of noise when you look at the level of talent and experience that others possess.

Doesn't matter. UMD needed to see its best players step up. Check. UMD needed to play more consistently. Check. UMD needed its penalty kill to rise up. Check.


Two things really stood out to me on the wekend. Sandelin made it abundantly clear he wanted to see more out of his best players. He wasn't going to identify them, but outside of the first period, Dominic Toninato had a rough game against Bemidji, and Tony Cameranesi's line had its struggles.

Both lines were outstanding in both games against Minnesota. Toninato scored twice, including one of the better individual efforts you'll ever see to clinch Friday's win 32 seconds after Minnesota had cut a 2-0 lead in half. The UMD junior scored on this third shot. He simply followed the initial shot to the net and found himself in position for a rebound. Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn fought that off, but Toninato's third shot found the net from a sharp angle to give UMD a 3-1 lead.

FS North analyst Ben Clymer said it was an example of why Toninato has a chance to play in the NHL, and he talked about the leadership you see from a player when he does something like that in a time of need. To me, it's a sign of something everyone involved with the team has talked about. Leadership doesn't just come from captains. In fact, as Austin Farley told me last week, guys who don't wear letters will step up -- both in the room and on the ice -- and show that leadership and make the team better by doing it.

Toninato's wicked wrister got UMD on the board first Saturday, a great shot into a tight spot over Schierhorn's shoulder that cranked the crowd up to another level. It wasn't as early as his opening minute goal last year at home against Minnesota, but it had the same effect on the crowd and the bench.

Karson Kuhlman was great Saturday, Jared Thomas was strong all weekend, and the Bulldogs saw the kind of effort that will take them places. I still want to see this team bear down more on its scoring chances, but no question the weekend was a huge positive and a giant step in the right direction.

Defensively, I have no complaints. Andy Welinski is off to a great start. Neal Pionk was better Friday than he was Saturday, but I expected him to struggle a little going from big ice to small. You can still see his poise, even when he might not be playing his best. Carson Soucy came off suspension Saturday and was superb. I thought Willie Corrin had a nice weekend, and Nick McCormack played well in Soucy's spot Friday. The blue line is deep and talented, and I'm excited to watch the group develop.

So UMD's best players were their best players. And the penalty kill was great all weekend. Going eight for eight against the high-end skill the Gophers possess is a superb start to the season. The kill has allowed 26 shots in three games and 12 power plays, but not many of them have been of the "Grade-A" variety. When they have been great chances, Kaskisuo has shut the door (like on Hudson Fasching and Justin Kloos in the second period Saturday, preserving the 3-0 lead).

Penalty killing, goaltending, and top-flight players stepping up. Sounds like a formula for long-term success.


Now, the challenge may be to avoid a letdown. Notre Dame will host UMD Friday and Saturday at the beautiful Compton Family Ice Arena. The Fighting Irish are off a .500 season, but loaded with more experience this year. I'll talk to coach Jeff Jackson later this week, but I have to think he was about ready to throw a party when Mario Lucia decided to come back for his senior year.

Notre Dame is experienced, but did have to replace leading scorers Vince Hinostroza (left early for pro hockey) and Robbie Russo (graduated). Lucia and captain Steven Fogarty -- both Minnesota kids (eight Minnesota kids on the roster, including four from Edina) -- had four points each in a split against Penn State over the weekend.

Lucia is especially talented and dangerous, but Fogarty is an underrated player who will have a big season. Should be a very good test for the Bulldogs, who aren't lacking in experience or depth.

After freshmen Billy Exell and Parker Mackay made their debuts against Minnesota, forward Blake Young is the only skater who hasn't gotten in a game yet. I'd expect that to happen this weekend, and I'd also be surprised if senior goalie Matt McNeely didn't get a game in before conference play starts in Omaha Nov. 6.

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