Friday, February 05, 2016

Impact Freshmen Help Keep UMD Afloat

Heading into the season with eight seniors and two highly-touted freshmen, UMD coach Scott Sandelin was clear what he thought expectations were of the latter.

For forward Adam Johnson of Hibbing and defenseman Neal Pionk of Hermantown, it wasn't going to be enough to come in and make the adjustment to college hockey. They were put in roles that showed the coaching staff expected them to be impact players.

For both, it's fair to say there have been ups and downs, but there's no question they've made an impact. Johnson has contributed on the power play from the start of the season, and while he only has ten points as we get ready for this weekend's series between the Bulldogs and Colorado College, his speed and smarts are obvious virtually every time he hops the boards.

Pionk has been a top-pair defenseman for a large part of his freshman season, playing both on his off-side and his natural right side with senior captain Andy Welinski, who is also right-handed but plays on the left side with Pionk nowadays.

"Maybe we were too stupid to try that earlier in the year," Sandelin quipped a few weeks ago when asked about having Welinski on the left side of that pairing after Pionk played that side earlier in the season. "I talked to Andy about playing the off side. I think he really enjoys it. I know I did when I played. I think it's good for him, not only for us, but it's good for him down the road to learn that."

When asked if he had a preference, Pionk said he'd "go right side for now," but he said he'll play where he's told.

"You see the ice differently from the left side," Pionk added. "On the right side, you're more fluid going up the ice. There are benefits to both sides."

With two goals and ten points in 25 games, Pionk has shown no real signs of slowing down. He's playing big minutes and largely playing them well. It's a great thing for his development, and for UMD's future, as Pionk figures to be a top defenseman in this program for a long time to come.

Along the way, though, a third guy has emerged for UMD as a freshman who can be counted on in big spots. Parker Mackay came to UMD from the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Spruce Grove Saints, where he was a captain last year. Mackay doesn't have the local ties Johnson and Pionk do, nor did he commit years ago like they did. Compared to those two, Mackay was a late addition to the 2015-16 class, and he's shown himself to be a very worthy addition.

"He's extremely competitive," Sandelin said. "He's done a really good job for us. He cares, and he works extremely hard. He's getting better because he wants to."

Sandelin relayed a story from Friday's loss to Northern Michigan, saying Mackay was one of the first players off the ice when the game ended, and he was practically in tears.

"That was one you don't want to lose," Mackay said this week of a game where UMD held a 3-2 lead in the third period before NMU rallied to win on a late power-play goal. "It's frustrating throwing games like that away late in the season."

Mackay was injured at the end of the first period Friday, taking a puck to the neck while blocking a shot. Sandelin saluted his freshman, saying "That's the sacrifice you make as a teammate," while Mackay told me he got lucky.

"It hit me flat instead of spiraling," he said.

He didn't miss a shift.

Saturday, UMD jumped all over Northern Michigan with three goals in the first, including two in the first four minutes. Mackay had the second of those, his fourth goal of the season. Early in his UMD career, Mackay has the look of a player who can play on any line and in any situation.

He singled out senior Cal Decowski's leadership in helping him adjust to the college game: "He's a guy that leads by example, working hard on and off the ice. He doesn't take shortcuts. Always staying positive, always has the right things to say. It's been good to follow him."

When you look at the UMD roster, it's littered with guys who could make really good captains in future seasons (assuming they don't leave early, obviously). I'm talking about guys like Carson Soucy, Dominic Toninato, Karson Kuhlman, Kyle Osterberg, Pionk, and definitely Mackay. There's no questions UMD not only recruits high-end talent, but Bulldog coaches are searching for the right kind of character to mesh and develop into leaders for the team in their upperclass years.

It's a huge development for a UMD team that has seen so many experienced players struggle offensively. We don't need to keep harping on those problems, but it's clear a lot of veterans haven't produced the way they have in the past or the way they were expected to this season. Getting impact from a guy like Mackay has gone a long way toward keeping this team in the NCAA Tournament race (very much alive) and in the race for home ice in the NCHC playoffs.


Colorado College visits this weekend. UMD won 5-0 and 6-0 in Colorado Springs Nov. 20-21, but look at some of these numbers:

Colorado College was 0-12 after UMD won those games, and the Tigers fell to 0-13 the following Friday by losing to Air Force. Since then, the Tigers are 6-6-1, and they've swept Miami, won at St. Cloud State, tied at North Dakota (a game they trailed 4-0 in the first period), and beaten Omaha at home.

CC was outscored 53-18 over those first 13 games, but a much more respectable 43-39 over the 13 games since. Not earth-shattering, but certainly a lot better than the start of the season.

"They've beaten some good teams," Mackay said of the Tigers since the Bulldogs were there in November.

"Their power play is getting better and has produced," Sandelin said, "and their goalie (Jacob Nehama) has played outstanding for them. They're a team that poses a different set of challenges. This is a much, much improved team."

UMD better be careful. The Bulldogs got lucky the first time around, in that they played Colorado College at a great time. That team had zero confidence, and it was obvious. As soon as UMD scored in each game, it was basically over for the night. The Tigers offered very little pushback. Things are so much different now that this team was not phased at all by falling behind 4-0 in the first period at North Dakota. That wouldn't have been the case in November.

If UMD gets positive results this weekend, it will have earned them.

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