Monday, February 29, 2016

Monday Musings: Sweep Puts UMD in Better Position

Not sure you could have scripted a better weekend for UMD hockey. Both the men and women swept their road series, with the men likely staying alive for an NCAA at-large bid while the women kept their season alive in the WCHA playoffs.

(Great weekend for UMD junior Lara Stalder -- a goal and two assists Friday and one and one Saturday including the overtime game-winning goal -- and for senior goalie Kayla Black, who stopped 79 of 81 Bemidji State shots. The reward? No. 1 seed Wisconsin in a semifinal on Saturday afternoon. UMD needs to win Saturday and again Sunday to get the automatic bid. No at-large shot for the Bulldogs this year.)

The men needed wins. It wasn't just about the NCAA Tournament. We've beaten the horse beyond recognition this season. UMD was playing good hockey for the most part, but couldn't catch a break, and the Bulldogs were running out of time to turn things around.

Two wins in St. Cloud might not mean things are turned around, but it's as good a sign as anything we've seen since the Minnesota series in October, if we've seen those signs at all.

It's not about the PairWise, instead about what's between the ears.

Assistant coach Jason Herter bluntly said last week that he's "run out of speeches" for the team. So the timing of this is certainly good.

How did it happen? Well, I'm glad you asked.


On Friday night, UMD started its top line -- Dominic Toninato centering Alex Iafallo and Adam Johnson -- and St. Cloud State opted to go with its second line, centered by David Morley. 39 seconds later, UMD led 1-0 on a rebound goal by Johnson.

For much of the remainder of the weekend, Toninato's line was matched against Kalle Kossila's top line of SCSU. I thought Toninato's group did a fantastic job when given that opportunity. And they played a lot of minutes, part of the reason for the matchup.

(Dom got destroyed in the faceoff circle this past weekend, but the line still did a good job defensively. Also, Toninato's line was probably the best on the team at pushing the puck out of the defensive zone. Despite big minutes against top SCSU players, they were rarely hemmed in for an extended period of time, and they were much more efficient than others on the weekend when given chances to clear pucks, even it meant taking an icing.)

That's not the only way UMD won. Far from it.

No matter who was on the ice, the Bulldogs played a smart, competitive, committed defensive game on Saturday, after admittedly being a bit too loose in Friday's win and getting bailed out by goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo (career high 49 saves Friday). UMD kept SCSU's prime scoring chances to a minimum on Saturday, keeping Kaskisuo clean for the most part and allowing him to see the puck.

(The Huskies' power play goal was an exception to this rule, but it was about the only exception.)

And it's hard to lose when you never trail (0:00 in 120:00 against St. Cloud State) and are rarely tied (29:00 of 120:00). That leaves UMD with a lead for 91 of 120 minutes in a weekend series, and that's okay.

(It's actually better than that.)

Karson Kuhlman had a huge weekend with three goals -- including the eventual winner Saturday on a great tip -- and an assist. The UMD defense was outstanding, especially Andy Welinski and Neal Pionk, who played big minutes against all of SCSU's top guys and acquitted themselves very well.

Defense is a five-man bit, but every blue-liner in the lineup made a big play at some point on the weekend, and when you have that and not many mistakes at the other end, you're not going to lose a lot of hockey games.


One weekend remains in the regular season, as UMD battles Miami this weekend in Duluth. The teams are tied at 31 points, but UMD holds the tiebreaker edge. That means UMD needs to just split the series somehow to get home ice. And it's more than likely the Bulldogs will play Miami again the following weekend, unless the UMD-Miami series ends in a sweep and Omaha sweeps Denver (unlikely, I'd say).

UMD took four points at Miami in January, tying 1-1 (losing in three-on-three) before winning 5-2. The Bulldogs only tallied once all weekend, however, against red-hot RedHawks goalie Jay Williams, who won twice over the weekend against Colorado College to continue his strong play as of late. Williams has allowed two or fewer goals in ten of his last 14 starts, including back-to-back shutouts of the Tigers over the weekend.

It's just another goaltending code for UMD to crack in a league full of very good goalies.

(Think about it: Half the NCHC's goalies are up for the Mike Richter Award, and none of them are Williams, who has started 12 straight games since Ryan McKay got the start in the Saturday game against UMD and faltered.)

It'll be an interesting weekend for sure, largely because it's another in a series of better-win games for UMD that sets up an absolute must-win the following weekend, likely against the same team and quite possibly in the same building.

If UMD can win twice this weekend and get by whoever (Miami or UNO) in the first round of the NCHC playoffs the following weekend, it might not need to win the NCHC title to make the NCAAs. That's what this SCSU series may very well have provided UMD: Margin for error.

That and some much needed confidence. I know it's a tacky word to some, but seeing rewards for hard work means something when you've seen as few this year as UMD has. Now, we get to see if there is any carry-over to another huge weekend.

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