"I think UMD is very similar to where we were a year ago," Motzko said, referring to an SCSU team that was 6-9-1 at Christmas break and sat at 10-13-1 after a loss to Western Michigan on Jan. 24. From there, the Huskies ripped off a 9-5 run to end the season and make the NCAA Tournament. Included in that was a win in Duluth over UMD Feb. 14 (the Huskies' only win in four games against the Bulldogs last season), followed by a pair of sweeps of eventual Frozen Four qualifier Omaha (one of those came in Omaha in the NCHC quarterfinals).
Once in the tournament last year, Duluth native Judd Peterson scored in overtime as St. Cloud State beat Michigan Tech in the first round before falling to North Dakota in the West Regional final.
"Last year, we were an afterthought," Motzko added. "The second half of the season, things came together.
"I think this is a critical weekend. They (UMD) were picked first, and they're not out of the hunt. Depth-wise, throughout their lineup, they're as strong as any team in the country. We're quietly watching them get back on top where everyone expected them to be."
At 8-7-4, there's no doubt UMD is close. The Bulldogs have shown signs of brilliance throughout the season. A four-game winning streak saw UMD score 24 goals and pick up four blowout wins. But it was followed by back-to-back shutout losses to Cam Johnson and North Dakota, which served to take some air out of the building right before break.
Last week's four-point journey to Ohio (1-1 tie Friday, 5-2 win Saturday) might have represented UMD's best defensive performance this season. While the five-goal effort Saturday may have piqued some folks' interest, I was most intrigued by the play of the blue line. Not only were UMD's defensemen jumping into the play and doing a very good job getting pucks through lanes down low or to the net, but UMD held Miami to 40 shots in two games, including just 15 on Saturday (and six total in the second and third periods).
"I think the guys got rewarded for continuing to play the right way and sticking with it," assistant coach Brett Larson said. "They didn't get individual or selfish. They kept playing a team game, and they were rewarded."
"In the third period (Saturday), they (Miami) had the puck a little more, and we didn't give them a lot," head coach Scott Sandelin said. "The better you are defensively, if you score a goal or two, you have a chance to win a game. Our job is to make sure we limit their chances and where those chances are coming from. We still need to take care of the puck more."
We know UMD has capable goaltending with Kasimir Kaskisuo (.923 save percentage, 1.85 goals against). Throw in this kind of defensive play, and UMD might be able to get on a run.
"We have to stick with it," freshman defenseman Neal Pionk said this week. "We've had a few bumps in the road, but for the most part, I think we're playing pretty well. We just have to bear down around the net and those bounces will come our way."
This weekend, the Bulldogs do indeed have to deal with St. Cloud State. The Huskies are 17-5, yes, but are off a 5-2 loss to Colorado College on Saturday. Peterson, a former Hilltopper, has 19 points in 19 games. Another former Minnesota high school star, Joey Benik, is two points away from 100 for his career. St. Cloud's scoring chart is topped by four seniors -- Kalle Kossila, David Morley, Jimmy Murray, and Ethan Prow, possibly the most underappreciated defenseman in the country.
Motzko on Prow: "We've watched him mature into one of the real high-end defensmen at our level. Great character."
Oh, and while I get Prow is a more offensive-minded defenseman, he has played 18 games and has yet to take a penalty. This isn't a guy playing eight to ten minutes a night and avoiding the penalty box. It's a 30-minute-per-game defenseman doing it. I'm impressed, and you should be, too.
(If you're a St. Cloud State fan reading this, I apologize in advance if this turns out to be a jinx.)
This is a fantastic matchup of two similar teams. Yes, the numbers show St. Cloud is way ahead of UMD in record, league points, PairWise, and offense. But the teams play a similar style, and it's one UMD typically plays pretty well against.
"They're playing really well," Larson said. "Two very skilled, fast teams, that like to play a speed game with a lot of tempo. They can make plays. They get good goaltending. Their power play is hot, so discipline will be a big key. I like the matchup."
"They've got a 29 percent power play," Sandelin added. "They're built around their power play. They've got a ton of skill. They're a puck possession team, we're a puck possession team. It's managing the puck and not giving them easy chances. You have to respect some of their guys and play tight on them."
UMD's discipline -- outside of defenseman Willie Raskob's ten-minute misconduct in Friday's tie at Miami -- has been fine lately. The Bulldogs posted double-digit penalty minutes in five of their first seven games. UMD has kept that number to the single digits in eight of 12 games since, and only once since the opener Oct. 10 has UMD taken more than 20 penalty minutes in a game.
(UMD is mid-pack nationally in penalty minutes taken per game at 11.3.)
Former Grand Rapids star Avery Peterson -- Minnesota Mr. Hockey in 2014 -- is skating with UMD. The Omaha transfer won't be eligible until next January, but he can practice with the team now that the semester break has ended. Peterson is enrolled at UMD for the spring semester.
Asked about Peterson, Sandelin said he fills a need in the program.
"We lost a kid through a decommitment that would be in our program down the road," Sandelin said, citing the recent decommitment of Eden Prairie forward Michael Graham, who will go to Notre Dame instead. Graham would presumably have been a part of UMD's freshman class next season.
"He's (Peterson) a big body who can shoot the puck," Sandelin added. "He's played college hockey. He had success in our league. We're looking for good things. It's a huge need for us. Unfortunately, he has to wait a year to play."
Peterson is seeking a hardship waiver from the NCAA that would allow him to gain an extra year of eligibility, basically getting his sophomore season back. If that is granted, Peterson has two and a half years at UMD. Otherwise, the Wild draft pick will be able to play a year and a half for the Bulldogs.
Sandelin said he didn't know how long it would take to hear back on that application, which is being handled by UMD's compliance office.