Through the final six games of the regular season, UMD became a strong and resolute defensive team with one of the better goalies around in Kasimir Kaskisuo.
Friday night, that resolve was tested. Kaskisuo had his first off-ish night in a long time, and UMD found itself down two goals to Miami after 40 minutes. The Bulldogs made some mistakes in their own zone and paid for them, and Kaskisuo gave up a couple of goals that were uncharacteristic of the way he played in the second half.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a 1-0 series lead for the visitors.
Kaskisuo may have struggled through 40 minutes, but he made an absolutely massive stop on Anthony Louis' short-handed breakaway in the third period. UMD went right back up the rink and Adam Johnson made a great move to set up a top-shelf shot that made it a 4-3 Miami lead. That two-goal swing would prove significant, as UMD got a tying power-play goal from Neal Pionk and then a four-on-four goal from Carson Soucy not 90 seconds later to win 5-4.
So in a game where the goalie was possibly not at his very best, he still manages to make arguably the biggest play of the night. We'll take it.
UMD started strong, outshooting Miami 6-0 before the RedHawks made Kaskisuo do anything. One of those was a great tip by Austyn Young on a high-slot shot by Cal Decowski to give the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead. Miami leveled before the first period ended on a sharp-angle shot by Zach LaValle that Kaskisuo probably didn't feel great about letting in.
The RedHawks led 2-1 when Andy Welinski snapped a shot home from the offensive blue line on a UMD power play. It didn't stay 2-2 for long, as Louis got free for a breakaway on some bad coverage by UMD. It was probably the worst "shift after a goal" UMD's had in months, and Miami led 3-2. Louie Belpedio buried a long power play shot to make it 4-2 after two, and there were grumbles in the press box about UMD pulling Kaskisuo for Matt McNeely.
I'll ask head coach Scott Sandelin about his thought process Saturday pregame, but I can tell you what I think it is.
That was a weird game. While some of the goals were uncharacteristic of Kaskisuo, so were the mistakes that helped lead to them. UMD was just a bit too sloppy, and needed to regain some detail in its game. If anything in that third period, those details were refined, UMD played much more like it did in the first period, and things turned around, at least partially as a result of that.
It might not have been a good optic to have some of those pucks go in, but there's no question the 4-2 deficit was a team problem, and Sandelin was clearly smart to stick with the man who got them where they are.
(He's been effusive in his praise for the sophomore, who had a .959 save percentage in his previous six starts before Friday. Kaskisuo has come up huge for UMD this season. In the ten games since a 4-3 loss at Northern Michigan Jan. 29, which was the last time Kaskisuo allowed four in a game, UMD had given up just 15 goals. The fact UMD was "only" 7-3 in those games was hardly anything negative toward Kaskisuo.)
This comeback, though, is one of those moments. All the negative things that have happened this season, and guys kept sticking with the process. Sounds corny, but their rewards have been coming in recent games, and Friday was a prime example. Four of the five UMD goals were long-ish shots, with Johnson's being the shortest of the four (Welinski and Pionk scored from the blue line, and Soucy from the high slot). This wasn't hard work and traffic to the net, necessarily. These were absolute snipes on plays where UMD's players didn't have a ton of room to shoot but still made something happen.
There are things to clean up. UMD can't have the number of turnovers it had Friday. It has to have better goaltending. It can't give up three power play chances in one period to a group like this.
A few factoids:
It's UMD's first win when allowing four goals in a game since Feb. 28, 2014, at Miami (5-4 win).
It's UMD's first win when trailing by two after two periods since Nov. 21, 2014 at Omaha (trailed 2-0, won 3-2).
It's UMD's first home win when trailing by two after two periods since Oct. 18, 2008, vs. Western Michigan (trailed 3-1, won 6-5 in OT). That one was so long ago that Jeff Blashill, former head man at Western and now head coach of the Detroit Red Wings, wasn't even hired at WMU yet. And Andy Murray was but a twinkle in someone's eye there.
Oh, and it is the first time Miami has allowed more than one power play goal in a game this season.
(UMD got two, and Johnson's goal came with the Miami door open but Kevin Morris still standing in the box. He wasn't on the ice, even if the official stats insist he was.)
UMD stays at 13th in the PairWise, and I tend to believe even another sweep won't help the Bulldogs move up much. It'll take at least two more wins (one more this weekend and one next week at Target Center) for UMD to feel really good about its NCAA chances.
But the fact that this team still has realistic NCAA chances is by itself significant.
Saturday will be interesting. Playoff games are always emotional, but now the RedHawks, with a slew of seniors, will be fighting to play another day. Buy some tickets and come watch this one in person, or join us on the network starting at 6:30. It'll be fun. At least we hope it is.
(By the way, all four home teams won Friday. St. Cloud State needed overtime to beat Western Michigan 4-3 on a Patrick Newell winner, Denver nearly blew a 3-0 lead before beating Omaha 5-2, and North Dakota blasted Colorado College 7-1.)