Saturday, March 05, 2016

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Blitz Miami, Clinch Home Ice for NCHC First Round

Remember the movie "Major League," when Jake Taylor distracts the Oakland hitter and induces a pop-up, allowing Rick Vaughn to complete his first major-league win after Roger Dorn tanked a grounder that would have been the last out? Lou Brown turns to his bench coach and utters nine words that are completely appropriate for the moment.

It certainly is coming together for UMD. And in a season where things went south a couple different times, the Bulldogs have definitely picked a good time to find that extra one percent.

Five different UMD players found the back of the net Friday night, and UMD blew by Miami 5-0 at Amsoil Arena to clinch home ice for a first round series in the NCHC playoffs next weekend. Against Miami.

Possibly more impressive than outscoring foes 11-2 in a three-game winning streak, UMD has continued to play the game from its own zone out. There were a couple times Friday where the Bulldogs tried to get fancy on breakouts, and got hemmed in their own zone as a result, but UMD kept working, and Kasimir Kaskisuo made some massive stops among his 20 on the night. Kaskisuo also picked up an assist on Karson Kuhlman's third-period goal, the first point of the season for the sophomore goalie, and the third of his career.

Possibly even more impressive is how UMD shook off another controversial call that went the way of the adversary. Willie Raskob appeared to have scored a great power play goal to stake his team to a 3-0 lead in the second period. Officials ruled that Austin Farley interfered with the goalie with his stick. While there may have been contact, it didn't appear to be enough to overturn the call on the ice, but alas it was. Instead of pouting about it, the Bulldogs went back to work in the offensive zone, drew a penalty a couple minutes later, and had legitimately taken a 3-0 lead on Neal Pionk's power play goal in the final minute of the second period.

By no means am I saying this team was immature at any point, but it was really good to see the quick and positive response. I'd say the same thing about the events of two Fridays ago in Grand Forks. At no point did I think it was adversely affecting UMD's game the next night, and it would have been really easy to get down after losing on an overtime penalty shot like that.

Now, these negative events -- UMD hit two crossbars, a goalpost, had what should probably have been a good goal disallowed, and watched Miami goalie Jay Williams rob Jared Thomas blind on a great first-period chance -- get blown off. It's just another positive step.

Bad shifts get blown off, too. UMD had a couple of them, one early in the second period not long after Brenden Kotyk gave his team a 2-0 lead with his second goal in three games. The Bulldogs tried to get a bit cute on a breakout and got pinned for a while. After an icing, UMD won a faceoff and worked it up the rink the right way.

In the second and third periods, Miami attempted 18 shots, nine in each stanza. In the third, the RedHawks were the ones constantly hemmed in their own zone, unable to generate enough possession or complete enough passes to create offensive chances or even get the puck to the red line for a dump-in and change.

After the halfway mark of the period, Miami coach Enrico Blasi chose to change goalies at a stoppage, putting freshman Evan McCarthy in for the senior Williams, who allowed three goals on 22 shots faced but honestly had a better night than the stats show. He made a great save on Thomas in the first, and another off a Kuhlman deflection in the third period. It's easy to see why he's been the goalie of choice in the second half, with a .929 save percentage since Jan. 1 before Friday's game. McCarthy made just three saves on five shots, beaten by Kuhlman on a great shot and Kyle Osterberg on a net drive from the right corner.

Blasi appeared pretty upset with what he was seeing late in the third period, and whether we're reading too much into his body language and facial expressions on the bench or not, you can bet Miami will be better in the rematch on Saturday. UMD was never really in a perilous position in the conference standings, but Miami was hovering in the sixth- and seventh-place spots for a while. Since the break, the RedHawks have gone from battling Western Michigan and Colorado College for standings position to getting back in the mix for home ice in the first round. They got back in the mix for a reason, and it's in part because Blasi is a hell of a coach who knows what buttons to push to get the most out of his team. Miami has seen some tough losses this season, including one in North Dakota where it almost stole a game (sound familiar?), so we know the RedHawks can play with anyone.

Blasi talked with me this week about how it was getting more consistency out of his largely young group. The skill is there, no doubt. Freshmen Jack Roslovic and Josh Melnick are going to be very good players, and senior captain Sean Kuraly has developed into a pro-style forward who I think is capable of making it at the next level. They'll all be better in the Saturday game.

To add to it, Saturday's game is far from meaningless for both teams. Miami dropped to 22nd in the PairWise rankings with the Friday loss, but it could get back into the teens by splitting the series, while also dropping UMD farther from the at-large bubble line. The teams meet again next week regardless, but UMD really needs this one to finish off a sweep. The St. Cloud sweep did, I believe, give this team some margin for error, but this isn't the time to test that theory.

Also, I'm probably preaching to the choir, but arrive early if you have tickets for Saturday so you can catch the pregame Senior Night ceremony.

One more thing: I'll be on Beyond The Pond on KFAN FM 100.3 and its statewide network (92.1 The Fan in Duluth) with Brandon Mileski and Nate Miller at 10:40.

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