Monday, March 14, 2016

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Extend Season With Sixth Straight Win

We talked Saturday about the importance of the first goal in Game 2 against Miami. Usually, it's something we gloss over, because it's always important but we don't want anyone to think the first goal means the game is over.

36 seconds into the game, Miami was handed a great chance to pick up that first goal. It could have meant life for a team stunned after allowing three third-period goals to fall 5-4 on Friday. Karson Kuhlman, who is among other things one of UMD's best penalty killers, took a penalty himself for kneeing.

But instead of the RedHawks striking first, it was UMD getting a short-handed goal to liven up the building and send Miami reeling. Kyle Osterberg won a puck battle on the left-wing boards and was off to the races, beating goalie Jay Williams five-hole for a 1-0 lead only 91 seconds into the game.

Miami never really got its footing back, as UMD used two more special teams goals to build a lead and win 3-1 to advance in the NCHC playoffs for the first time. The Bulldogs head to Target Center, and we'll talk more about that coming up.

Saturday was definitely one of those weird games you see over the course of a 36-game season. UMD got the early lead and then really did a good job defensively, keeping Miami at bay and keeping the RedHawks from sustaining pressure in the offensive zone. Once Osterberg scored and Welinski added to the lead, it was more about protecting the UMD net than it was about attacking the Miami goal.

In fact, after averaging 27.8 even-strength shots on goal through 35 games, UMD posted all of eight on Saturday.

Eight. In 60 minutes of hockey.

UMD had 19 total shots, eight on the power play and three short-handed. The Bulldogs, frankly, didn't need to risk giving up possessions by throwing pucks toward Williams like mad men. They had a 2-0 lead through one, and it became 3-0 on Tony Cameranesi's shortie in the second period. That was plenty good enough.

It led to one of the stranger games of the season, with Miami unable to penetrate UMD's defense and goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo, and UMD unwilling to take unnecessary chances offensively that could let Miami get some life back in its game.

In a season where the power play struggled mightily at times, the Bulldogs started the playoffs hot. Facing the No. 2 penalty kill in college hockey, UMD scored three power play goals in 11 chances on the weekend (27 percent) against a kill that was clicking at over 92 percent entering the weekend. UMD is the only team to hit Miami for more than one power play goal in a game (two on Friday), and that number could have been three. Adam Johnson's third-period goal Friday that cut Miami's lead to 4-3 came with Miami forward Kevin Morris standing at the door of his team's penalty box. His minor penalty had just expired, the door was opened, but he didn't even get to step out of the box until after Johnson wired a shot by Williams. It's an even-strength goal officially, but you get my point.

Kaskisuo looked a little off Friday, especially in the first 40 minutes. He made a massive stop on an Anthony Louis short-handed break right before that Johnson goal, and he was back to his sharp self in limited duty on Saturday. Miami didn't throw much at him, and didn't score until UMD got a bit greedy and got burned on a late two-on-one rush. Kaskisuo did make a great save on a three-on-two in the first period, but his read to come out hard and challenge defenseman Matthew Caito was probably better than the actual save was. He saw that the other two players were covered and charged after the player who wasn't.


The NCHC Frozen Faceoff is next for UMD. The Bulldogs face top-seeded North Dakota Friday at 4pm (Denver vs St. Cloud State at 7:30). The league has North Dakota in the early game as a means of "protecting the top seed," as commissioner Josh Fenton noted in a statement Monday morning.

“After considering many factors, including the student-athletes, the fans and television, the conference has decided to place an emphasis on bracket integrity with the announcement of game times for Friday’s semifinals. Being the top seed in this year’s tournament, North Dakota expressed their desire to play in the first semifinal on March 18. Our membership has indicated it is important to protect the top seed, which was earned throughout the regular season. I expect our membership to have further discussion on this topic in the future.“

I believe in protecting the top seed, so for competitive reasons, this schedule makes a ton of sense. Unfortunately for the league, it will hurt the conference at the box office, especially on Friday. The teams playing early Friday will have about three hours more of rest heading into their Saturday games. Especially for the team that loses Friday, this is an advantage with the third-place game scheduled for 3:30pm.

I do think the league has to talk about this arrangement. CBS can't be at all pleased about the biggest draw in the tournament playing in the early game. And while I appreciate the fact the NCHC isn't being run by television interests, having UND in the early game is also going to do some damage to ticket sales. Let's hope it isn't significant damage.

As for the game, well, UMD is 0-4 against North Dakota this season, with two goals scored on 139 total shots against UND goalie Cam Johnson. If the Bulldogs can't break that hex, nothing else will matter.

But even if UMD gets a few by Johnson, it will have to again deal with that dangerous CBS line (Brock Boeser appears to be elevating his game, by the way) and the improved balance across UND's lines. The Bulldogs did a great job defensively at The Ralph, and it will need more of that Friday.

For those wondering about PairWise, UMD is 13th, and you can see in this graph what the probable final rankings are for UMD depending on this weekend's results. Long answer: There are ways UMD can make the NCAA Tournament without winning a game this weekend. One win makes it likely that UMD will qualify, but it is far from guaranteed. Two wins could be enough to lift the Bulldogs off the fourth seed line and into one of the top 12 positions.

Short answer: #JustWinBaby.

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