Monday, March 21, 2016

Monday Musings: UMD Returns to NCAA Tournament

In 16 years under head coach Scott Sandelin, the UMD men's hockey program has achieved things unheard of in school history. A national title (2011), four straight 20-win seasons, and now a fifth NCAA Tournament in a span of eight years. It's also UMD's fourth NCAA bid in six seasons, as the Bulldogs continue to build a consistent winner in a hyper-competitive Division I world.

This year's trip may be a bit more special than others, only because of how it was achieved.

11-14-5 after being swept in Grand Forks by North Dakota, UMD was far off the NCAA bubble, to the point that the Bulldogs weren't in the at-large conversation, outside of the great Jim Dahl basically saying they weren't dead yet.

From there, UMD ripped off seven straight wins, including a two-game sweep at St. Cloud State and an NCHC Frozen Faceoff win over North Dakota. Those wins, coupled with a schedule ranked by KRACH as the toughest in the country, were enough to lift UMD into the final available at-large spot for the NCAAs.

(This isn't new. UMD was No. 2 in schedule strength in 2014-15, per KRACH. Previous years show the Bulldogs also coming in second in 2013-14, so the NCHC has been kind to UMD's strength of schedule.)

SCSU got the money -- and the glitzy trophy -- Saturday night, beating UMD 3-1 in the NCHC title game behind two goals by freshman Mikey Eyssimont. By then, however, the Bulldogs were locked into the tournament, allowed that final at-large spot after Michigan beat Minnesota 5-3 in the Big Ten title game.

(By the way, juniors Dominic Toninato -- two goals in Friday's win -- and Willie Raskob -- three assists on the weekend -- were named to the All-Tournament Team.)

"We've had a really good run here," Sandelin said Sunday. "I'm really proud of our guys for staying the course."

Obviously, that record after the UND sweep looked bleak, but as I wrote at the time, UMD just hadn't played poorly enough to justify that mark. Senior Andy "Oh Captain My Captain" Welinski said the belief in the room never waned.

"I saw us going in the right direction," he said. "It's been a long month and a half, but the guys have really gotten done what we needed to get to this point."

UMD's reward for a great finish? The defending champs.

Providence is 27-6-4 after falling in triple overtime to UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals Friday. The Friars were in a similar position to UMD a year ago. Providence was knocked out of its league tournament, however, and had to watch helplessly as the weekend finished up to see where it landed in the final PairWise. When the smoke cleared, it was Minnesota's win over Michigan in the Big Ten title game that allowed the Friars to claim the last at-large spot. If Michigan had won, the Wolverines would have stolen PC's bid.

Turned out OK for Nate Leaman's team, I'd say, as Providence beat Miami, Denver, Omaha, and then Hockey East rival Boston Eichelversity in the title game.

Now, UMD tries to turn the tables on the Friars, who spent nearly the entire season among the nation's top-ranked teams and earned a No. 1 regional seed in Worcester at the Northeast Regional. This is a very good Providence club, keyed by a nine-man senior class. PC's top four scorers -- Mark Jankowski, Trevor Mingoia, Nick Saracino, and Brandon Tanev -- are all seniors with 558 combined games with the program. The four have 55 goals and 137 points between them, led by Jankowski with 15 goals and 40 points. Star goalie Jon Gillies left early for the pros after the Friars won it all last year, taking a .930 save percentage with him. No big deal. Junior Nick Ellis took over this year, posting a .935 save percentage entering the NCAA Tournament. Ellis isn't the prototypical 6-4 goalie that we're seeing nowadays, but instead he's a 6-1 goalie who is capable of looking like a guy who stands 6-6 at times with what little room it seems opponents have to shoot.

For those fans wondering, Friday's 3:30pm (Central) regional semifinal will not be televised live. ESPN has all rights to the tournament, and in the latest incarnation of the NCAA's TV package with the network, there was a compromise. In exchange for the rights to exclusive broadcasts through its cable channels and brilliant WatchESPN app, ESPN allowed for more live clearances through its networks than it had prior.

What am I saying? Well, not every game airs live on television. Of the four games Friday, three will be on ESPNU, starting with North Dakota and Northeastern from the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati. The UMD-Providence game will not be, instead relegated to online access via ESPN3 and the WatchESPN program. If you have the ESPN app and access to WatchESPN programming through your cable/satellite provider, you're gold. Just log in and you can watch on many devices (as an example, I set up our XBox One at home so my wife and son can watch).

I'll be busy this week trying to jam ten pounds of birdseed into a five-pound bag before leave Duluth, presumably Wednesday afternoon. Once in Worcester, look for plenty of preview content on the regional. Barring major news, you'll hear from me on Twitter constantly but next on the blog from Worcester later this week.

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