Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hunter Miska, Neal Pionk Leave UMD Early

Disappointing, exciting, but not terribly surprised.

I think those terms all apply in their own way, amid news in the last 48 hours that two cornerstone players for UMD are leaving the program early for pro hockey.

It's disappointing in a sense when players leave early, from multiple selfish standpoints. Obviously, it stands to hurt the team going forward, and frankly I'm going to miss being around all the players who depart the program.

Of course, it's also exciting. These guys have a chance to make it in the pros, and that's always fun to see happen. 

And in the case of freshman goalie Hunter Miska and sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk, both of whom have announced their intention to turn pro, it isn't surprising UMD lost both. I wrote about it last week, strongly intimating they might go.

Miska signed Saturday with the Arizona Coyotes, where he joins an organization struggling in terms of goalies at all levels. With just four under contract beyond this season, Miska (he turns 22 in July) will have a chance to make an immediate impact.

An older freshman when he arrived, I was never convinced he'd be a four-year guy. But as the season wore on, and Miska practically carried this team at times, it was clear he had a chance to go pro. When Michigan Tech freshman goalie Angus Redmond signed with the Anaheim Ducks last month, it only increased my fears Miska would be the program's first one-and-done player since Justin Faulk in 2010-11.

(Keep in mind, older freshmen especially are risking a lot by staying in school when there are viable offers to go pro. Their window to make it in the pros is much shorter than younger guys in the same situation.)

Sophomores Nick Deery and Hunter Shepard combined to play five games in 2016-17, with Deery starting twice and Shepard once. Their numbers were pretty solid (Deery was  .934 and Shepard a .922), and head coach Scott Sandelin -- who was clearly prepared for these players to leave -- spoke last week about his confidence in both. UMD will bring in another goalie to compete for a job. There are some accomplished junior goalies who are uncommitted, so I'm interested to see who they're able to get. Even on short notice, the Bulldogs have a chance to add a pretty solid goalie for the 2017-18 season and hopefully beyond.

With three freshmen goalies on the roster, UMD had none committed for future years. While it might look like a scramble drill at this point, they know where to look and it shouldn't be a drawn-out process.

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Pionk, meanwhile, confirmed Monday his decision to leave UMD and head to pro hockey. A free agent, Pionk's destination isn't yet known, but making his decision now opens the door for him to visit NHL franchises on their dime, instead of having to pay his own way for such trips if he didn't make the decision beforehand.

(It's a path J.T. Brown followed when he left after the 2011-12 season and eventually signed with Tampa Bay.)

The Hermantown native is a good-skating, right-shot defenseman with tremendous poise and the ability to take over games. He should attract plenty of interest from NHL teams. Money-wise, there won't be a lot of difference in the offers he gets (there are maximums on these deals and bonuses), so Pionk will be allowed to make a decision based on the fit, system, and perhaps most importantly, his path to the NHL.

Matt Wellens indicated the possibility that defenseman commits Dylan Samberg or Hunter Lellig could come in early. Both are draft eligible this summer for the first time. If the UMD coaches don't want to bring one of them in a year earlier than planned, look for them to recruit a player to fill Pionk's spot on the roster. But with him gone, Nick Wolff (37 games, 2-10-12) and Jarod Hilderman (11 games, 0-1-1) are the only players back with any real notable experience from the 2016-17 season. Nick McCormack only played four games, has 24 games played in three years, and has yet to show he's a viable option for significant minutes. Will Campion got in just one game, and it was in October.

Who's coming in? Two Andersons -- Mikey and Matt -- and a Perunovich (Scott). Mikey Anderson is Joey's brother, while Matt is not related. Expect both Andersons to eat a lot of the missing minutes. Perunovich might be a bit more of a developmental prospect early, but once he settles in, his vision and puck-moving ability will be highly-valued, especially on the power play.

With Pionk's departure, UMD is probably short at least one player. Would assume they want eight defensemen to start the season. If Samberg or Lellig don't come in early, I would expect UMD to recruit another player to fill the void. Time will tell what direction UMD decides to go.

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Will there be other departures? It doesn't appear so. Joey Anderson, Adam Johnson, and Riley Tufte, likely the biggest "flight risks" among the remaining returnees, have all confirmed their intention to return to school.

It leaves UMD with what appears to be a formidable offensive group that might be a bit leaky in the back end while the young guys get acclimated. It also prioritizes the already-important work that these players do on their own over the summer. Everyone will need to report in great shape and prepared to learn the Bulldog way when the leaves (which will come in soon, I promise) start to change colors.

Check out @BruceCiskie on Twitter for more discussion. Enjoy the NHL playoffs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2016-17 Unquestioned Success for UMD

For UMD players, it's certainly fine to be sad over not being able to bring a national championship back from Chicago. Seven seniors saw their careers come to an end Saturday night, and they may have had the sads even if UMD had won the game. It's the end of a great era for all of them, a time of their lives they won't soon forget.

But with time comes perspective. Looking back, there can be no doubt that UMD had a great season, one of the best in program history. The Bulldogs played 42 games and lost all of seven, five of the seven coming by one goal. The young players grew up in a hurry, hardened by playing in a mind-blowing 19 one-goal games (14-5) to go along with seven ties. And four of the games UMD won by two saw gaps widened by empty-net goals at the end. That would be 30 of 42 games decided by zero or one goals, or that were one-goal games in the final minute and change before UMD tacked on an empty-netter.

That's a lot of meat-grinder games. It was great to have such a focused group of seniors, but how valuable was this experience for UMD's younger players, the guys who will have to carry the water going forward?

Asked if his program will miss the pure talent, the little things (penalty killers, shot blockers, etc.), or leadership of this senior class, head coach Scott Sandelin hedged a bit.

"All of them," he quipped. "Certainly, the leadership, the mindset those guys had really carried over to our team. They were really driven to come back and be successful. I think they were really instrumental in that. Their play spoke for itself."

Think about it. Seven losses in 42 games, with 30 of the 42 games being in the neighborhood of "spine-tingling". It was a special season with a special group, one that will be unquestionably missed. Now, the hope is the seeds are sown for future senior classes to carry on the success brought by the last few groups.

UMD has seen some good captains over the years, and clearly these seven learned from guys like Adam Krause and Andy Welinski before them. Dominic Toninato did a great job setting the tone for the group and being one of the team's most consistent players on the ice. That's what captains do. Lead by example in all areas, be vocal when necessary. It's probably too easy, but I expect another local product -- Karson Kuhlman -- to captain next season. He was already captain material before he started at UMD, but the value of playing for great captains over his three years will be realized next season.

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We don't know yet what will happen with a number of UMD seniors, or if the program will lose any underclassmen early to the pros.

Defenseman Carson Soucy signed with the Minnesota Wild and could make his pro debut for AHL Iowa as soon as Thursday. Toninato was drafted by Toronto, but is not in a hurry to sign, so that one will probably wait until after the season ends. Free agent forward Alex Iafallo should pick his organization sometime soon. Defenseman Dan Molenaar is retiring from hockey, and other senior players are going to wait until later in the spring or this summer before deciding on their futures.

As for any early departures, Sandelin's message to the media Wednesday was basically "wait and see". It's believed the two major risks are defenseman Neal Pionk and goalie Hunter Miska. Pionk reportedly has garnered a lot of interest from NHL organizations. There's no doubt that teams will look at Miska, who came in as a 21-year-old freshman and earned a spot among the finalists for the Mike Richter Award, won by Denver's Tanner Jaillet. We've already seen Michigan Tech freshman Angus Redmond turn pro after one year, and it isn't crazy to suggest Miska could be gone.

Sandelin noted his belief in backups Nick Deery and Hunter Shepard, both of whom have three years of eligibility remaining. However, it stands to reason the coaches would scour the junior ranks for another goalie who could come in and compete for a job if Miska leaves.

UMD has signed defensemen Mikey Anderson (Joey's brother), Matt Anderson (no relation), and Scott Perunovich (Hibbing kid), along with forward Nick Swaney, who played a second year for USHL Waterloo this season and has been outstanding. He should be ready for a top-six role early in the season, if not at the outset.

Sandelin didn't want to speculate on even the number of recruits he wants to bring in for 2017-18, but that doesn't stop us from trying. 😃

On the blue line, they lose four unless Pionk goes early. If they lose Pionk, they have four back and signed three, so worst case it stands to reason UMD would want to find one more defenseman. I don't know the odds of commit Hunter Lellig coming in 2017, I think he's more likely to play next season in the USHL.

Up front, the Bulldogs lose three players and don't expect to lose anyone early. Swaney is signed, and Peter Krieger will be eligible next season after transferring from Alaska-Fairbanks and sitting out a season. If the ideal number is 15 forwards, UMD will need two more to fill the roster.

Des Moines (USHL) forward Kobe Roth of Warroad and Cloquet native Koby Bender, another USHL forward, could also sign for 2017-18. Roth had a solid season for Des Moines, while Bender has been so-so in Muskegon (production hasn't been great, but he's also not a front-line guy for a playoff team). Both are 1997 birth years. I would presume we'd see at least one and maybe both in for 2017-18 to fill out the class.

As far as filling the lines, a first look could lead you to something like this for a depth chart:

Tufte - Johnson - Anderson (Joey)
Krieger - Swaney - Kuhlman
Young - Peterson - Mackay
Recruit - Thomas - Exell
Miller - Spurrell - Recruit

Wolff - Pionk
Anderson (Mikey) - Perunovich
Anderson (Matt) - Hilderman
McCormack - Campion

If Pionk leaves, UMD is left with just Hilderman and Campion as right-handed defensemen, assuming no one else is brought in. That could be a concern coupled with the youth back there.

******

The full schedule will be released eventually, but this is what we know:

Oct. 1 Alberta (exhibition)
Oct. 6 Minnesota (IceBreaker at Amsoil Arena)
Oct. 7 Union/ Michigan Tech (IceBreaker at Amsoil Arena)
Oct. 13-14 Bemidji State home/home (not sure the order)
Oct. 20-21 Merrimack
Oct. 27-28 at Maine
Nov. 3-4 at St. Cloud State
Nov. 10-11 Western Michigan
Nov. 17-18 at Miami
Dec. 1-2 Denver
Dec. 8-9 at Omaha
Dec. 29-30 (guessing on dates) at Ledyard Classic (hosted by Dartmouth, with Yale and New Hampshire)
Jan. 12-13 at Colorado College
Jan. 19-20 North Dakota
Jan. 26-27 St. Cloud State
Feb. 2-3 at Denver
Feb. 16-17 Miami
Feb. 23-24 at Western Michigan
Mar. 2-3 Omaha

UMD will also play a home and home with Minnesota State, a Saturday night in Duluth in one half of the season, and a Tuesday in Mankato during the other half.

******

Thanks to all the UMD players and staff and administration for another great sports season. Your help is never unnoticed and always appreciated.

I'll be around here and there with news and updates. Around that, enjoy the spring and summer. Don't forget to join us next season back on KDAL (610AM and 103.9FM) for UMD hockey. Download the KDAL app to get a head start and be ready for the launch of UMD football Aug. 31.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Game 42: UMD vs Denver (NCAA Championship)

CHICAGO -- Here we go. One game left in the college hockey season, and it belongs to the NCHC. UMD and Denver collide at United Center for the national championship. The teams met Dec. 9-10 in Denver, with the Pioneers winning 4-3 before UMD took the rematch 3-1 in what was probably the best-played series of the regular season for the Bulldogs (in terms of their play and the quality of the competition).

Game preview
Great senior classes collide
Harvard recap

6:30 montage on 92.1 The Fan. Stream it here (it should be active by 6pm). Hope you all enjoy it, wherever you are.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Anderson
Osterberg - Johnson - Kuhlman
Tufte - Peterson - Mackay
Young - Thomas - Exell

Pionk - Kotyk
Soucy - Raskob
Wolff - Molenaar

Miska - Shepard - Deery

DU
Lukosevicius - Gambrell - Terry
McLellan - Borgstrom - Finlay
Janssen - Marcinew - O'Connor
Romig - Ritt - Staub

Butcher - Plant
Hammond - Davies
Hillman - VanVoorhis

Jaillet - Cowley

Frozen Four: UMD, Denver Seniors Earn One More Ride

CHICAGO -- Both combatants in Saturday's NCAA title game at United Center boast seven-man senior classes.

While every one of those players took a different path to this game, those seniors are a large reason both the UMD Bulldogs and Denver Pioneers have found themselves playing for the ultimate prize in college hockey.

On the UMD side, while each senior has made a large impact on this team, the main water-carriers have been captain Dominic Toninato and longtime linemate (going back to their time in juniors with Fargo) Alex Iafallo.

"Number one, they had a lot of success together in Fargo," head coach Scott Sandelin said Friday. "So when you're bringing them both in at the same time, I'm not going to screw that up, you just keep playing them together. And at times I've thought is one helping the other or hurting the other, maybe they're too comfortable, and we've tried that, as you've seen moving Al maybe to a different line.

"But we always seem to go back to those two because of their chemistry. And I think they love playing together. I think they both complement each other very well. So been pretty easy. And we've just had to find a right winger for those guys.

"But if you look at them, again, I've said this a number of times, they've been awesome for us this year. I think they've both had great years. I think they both have played at a very high level consistently."

Toninato set up Joey Anderson's first-period goal in Thursday's semifinal win over Harvard with an offensive zone faceoff win. Then Iafallo tipped a pass from Willie Raskob with 26.6 seconds left to lift UMD to another in a series of one-goal wins.

(Iafallo, by the way, was named a First Team West Region All American by the American Hockey Coaches Association Friday. He was previously named first-team All NCHC and hit 50 points for the season and scored his 20th goal of the season for the winner Thursday.)

"It's a pretty surreal feeling," Kotyk said of getting to the championship game. "We've all had different paths. But I think we've come together as a team. Everybody brings something a little different to the table."

Kotyk is the oldest player on the team at 25, older than people who are here covering the tournament. He arrived at St. Scholastica as an older freshman, then transferred to UMD after one season. That meant sitting out the 2013-14 season and getting three years of eligibility after that, hence the age gap.

"I think we've got guys who bought into their roles," Raskob said, "and I think that's been the difference this year, is everyone's accepted the role they have on the team and, yeah, it's been incredible and so amazing and so surreal, and just taking everything in and enjoying the moment."

Raskob has been pretty consistently a top-four defenseman for UMD since his arrival from Shattuck-St. Mary's by way of his hometown of Hastings. Raskob's informal nickname, Mr. March, might need to be expanded to add April. In 18 postseason games in his career, Raskob has six goals, 12 points, and a plus-eight that leads all active UMD players.

For most of his career, Raskob has been paired with Carson Soucy. When the latter went down with a lower-body injury March 3 against Western Michigan and couldn't play in the NCAA West Regional two weeks ago in Fargo, Raskob did everything he could -- including scoring the overtime winner against Ohio State -- to make sure his partner got to play in the Frozen Four.

"That's huge," Soucy said. "It shows how close our team has been. That's what it takes to get here, you have to want to do it for the guy sitting next to you."

UMD's punching bag, so to speak, has been forward Kyle Osterberg. Along with posting strong offensive numbers this season (12 goals, 23 points, three game-winners), Osterberg has been a fixture on the penalty kill throughout his career, and he has been good at drawing both penalties and the ire of his adversaries.

Not many things have made me happier in my 12 years doing this than watching Dan Molenaar have the season he had. The senior and former state champion at Eden Prairie has been snakebit by injuries and illness during his UMD career, but has put it all together this year to become a steady influence on the blue line. The only game Molenaar has missed was the opener against Michigan Tech (healthy scratch).

True to his form, Molenaar was a class act when asked about his emotions heading into the championship game.

"I want to give credit to the guys who aren't in the lineup," Molenaar said. "The last couple of years in the regionals and stuff I was out. I know how hard that is. But they've just been exceptional teammates. And I think that's a reflection of the character in our room, and I think it speaks volumes to the program that so many people laid the foundation to build. And it's just a blast to be here with these guys and, yeah, there's no other way we want to end it."

The task Saturday is formidable, against a Denver team that has a similar senior class that's on a mission to complete the journey that fell short last year, when the Pioneers lost a national semifinal to eventual champion North Dakota.

DU is captained by Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, who eschewed the potential start of his professional career for one more year in college. He has led the charge for a group of older Pioneers who have spoken openly about their singular goal for this season.

"Well, you know, we've been here last year, and obviously we lost in the semifinal," said forward Emil Romig. "And it was pretty crushing for a lot of us. And so with you speaking to being on a mission, I mean, we've been working to get back here all year long. Ever since we lost, we wanted to do whatever we can to get back here, and we've worked really hard to accomplish that. And being back here definitely feels great. But, I mean, you know, we've got to finish it off."

Butcher could choose free agency this summer over signing with the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him. However, he told NHL Network Friday after winning the Hobey his "sole focus" is Saturday's game against UMD.

It's the spot this group has worked all season to get to, and they refuse to be denied now.

Sound familiar?

Friday, April 07, 2017

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Aim for Second National Championship

CHICAGO -- Before Thursday's national semifinal against Harvard at United Center, I asked UMD coach Scott Sandelin, working his third Frozen Four at UMD, how to balance a group of players in their first Frozen Four enjoying the moment with the do-or-die mentality it takes to win at this level.

"You don't get out of your routine," he said. "You can't take the excitement away. It's hard to get to this point. It's still a hockey game. You have to go in there and everyone has to trust what you've done all year, have confidence, and go play. This is not a time of year to throw in a bunch of new stuff. Hopefully, our guys play our best games of the year."

On the UMD roster, there isn't one player who has been through this before. Sure, you have coaches with ring cred. Captain Dominic Toninato's father, Jim, was on two UMD Frozen Four teams in the 1980s. Freshman forward Joey Anderson has played in some highly-charged environments with U.S. national teams, most notably the World Junior team that won gold in Canada barely three months ago.

And as we've discussed at length on this here blog, there doesn't seem to be anything that phases this UMD team. No deficit too large, no challenge too difficult. These guys know what lies in front of them Saturday night.

"We know they're very skilled hockey team," senior defenseman Brenden Kotyk said. "They've got Will Butcher back there and (Henrik) Borgström and (Dylan) Gambrell. (Troy) Terry. They're all exceptional hockey players.

"So I just don't think we have to quit what we're doing right now, we've just got to keep playing defense on those guys especially and be real hard on them. I think that will be key to us."

"We know they pose a big challenge in some ways because of how they play and their offensive ability and puck possession ability, and I think they defend very well, too," Sandelin said.

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Denver is a classic example of a team that's more than the sum of its parts. Borgström jumps off the page, and off the screen when you watch him play. He's that kind of player. DU coach Jim Montgomery has talked at length about the offensive ability Borgström has, but this week was asked about what area he's seen his star freshman improve most in. He didn't hesitate.

"He's played without the puck," Montgomery said. "When he wants to, he can be dominant on all 200 feet of the ice. It's just a question of whether he wants his motor to go."

Sandelin was asked about defending the Finnish star, who didn't play in the Dec. 9-10 series between these teams in Denver because of illness.

"You're going to give up some things," Sandelin said. "But you just gotta be aware and you gotta take as much time and space away, just like any good player. You do your best.

"Sometimes you've got to respect those guys a little bit, because if you're too aggressive, they can make you look really stupid. So you've got to be a little bit smart with angles and different things. Reminds me about playing against Jack Eichel a couple of years ago. Just because they have a little more length versus the shorter guys, but they're hard to defend."

Gambrell is a highly-talented offensive player. Terry is another one. Jarid Lukosevicius not only has the best name in college hockey, but he might be the most underrated player on this team. Lukosevicius leads this stacked roster with 147 shots on goal. He's not bashful about firing from anywhere, and with the shot he possesses, he shouldn't be.

On the blue line, Butcher (seven goals, 37 points) just won the Hobey Baker Award (well deserved, by the way), and he's joined by emerging freshman Michael Davies, underrated puck-mover Adam Plant, and big junior Tariq Hammond, who scored off a beautifully-executed odd-man rush in the semifinal thumping of Notre Dame.

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A reporter asked Sandelin about trying to slow down Denver, which is almost undoubtedly the fastest team in the country (all due respect to UMD, because I think the Bulldogs are fast, but UMD is a heavier version of Denver, capable of playing with a lot of pace but probably not quite DU's).

Sandelin: "When you look at -- if you look at, number one, just forechecking, their D -- they're very -- they don't have maybe the biggest guy. Hammond is a bigger player, but they've got some great skill and shiftiness. You've got to be careful. You can try and play really aggressive in their face, but they support the puck so well and those guys are pretty elusive that you've got to certainly play above the puck. Be aggressive when you can be.

"But just defensively you've got to be tight. And you're going to have to weather some storms. They're going to play in the offensive zone and they transition well, but in the offensive zone, they possess the puck, they move, they get five men involved in the attack, and obviously they've got some great guys to finish around the net.

"And they're a very good small-area team, and their D add to that with their involvement. So sometimes you're going to have defensemen at the blue line, our defensemen, just sometimes how they move around.

"And there's got to be a lot of communication. Like I said, we've seen them play. We've played against them. So that helps. And we've seen a lot of teams play that way, so that helps.

"But I just think one of the things they do really well is not just on their forecheck, but their end zone forecheck. They're probably one of the best puck pursuit teams that get above you and they don't give you room, and they make it very difficult to make clean plays or plays because they recover above the puck and they pursue the puck so well."

Montgomery called the rivalry between the two "fiercely respectful", and he was effusive in his praise of the Bulldogs Friday, especially the top line of Toninato, Alex Iafallo, and Anderson.

"They're a great college line. And I think maybe the best line in the country. And I think you've just got to know when they're out there and match their intensity.

"Their intensity, I think, fuels that team. And I think the third player that fuels that team with intensity is (Neal) Pionk on the back end.

... "I know how good -- we all know how good and talented Duluth is. They're a mentally tough team. They're hard in all three zones. They don't give you an inch. And we know that. You're going to have to go out and earn it. That's why I think it's going to be a great game (Saturday) night."

The only matchup we saw with these two teams was that aforementioned December weekend in Denver. The Pioneers won 4-3 Friday, then UMD won 3-1 Saturday. Sandelin quipped again Friday that he felt his team played better in the game it lost than the one it won, an opinion he shared with me after the series ended while we were traveling home.

The Friday game was as good a pace as you'll see in a college hockey game, and UMD held its own quite nicely, even playing its first game in 19 days and doing it at altitude.

Players on both teams talked about the respect the teams have for one another.

"It's always physical against those guys," DU senior Emil Romig said, "but obviously we really respect each other. This year we've been, you know, switching off in the No. 1 and No. 2 spot basically all year long. So basically there's a lot of respect.

"They're big, they're strong. They skate well, and it's always been tough. So I think it's going to be a great game."

"That weekend was a lot of fun as a player," Pioneers forward Colin Staub said. "It was back-and-forth hockey. It was a lot of speed. It was pretty physical, and like it was the time Duluth was the No. 1 team in the country and it was 1 versus 2 that weekend and there was a lot of hype going into it and it was a lot of fun for players."

Toninato deemed it the "ultimate rubber match. We've been one and two all year, so this is for all the marbles. We need to play the best full 60 minutes we have all year."

"They have good forwards who will make plays. We have to play our game," senior defenseman Carson Soucy, who played Thursday for the first time in eight games, said.

******

I look at this matchup, and the first thing that needs to be understood is these teams' paths to this point were different. By no means am I trying to discount Michigan Tech, Penn State, or Notre Dame, or claim that UMD had a more difficult route to the title game.

They're different enough teams that the differences matter, if that makes sense. Denver is a full-on pace team. The veteran presence the Pioneers get from guys like Butcher allows them to grind on teams when it's called on, but it's not their preferred style. They want to get out and skate. They're lethal in transition, very hard to forecheck effectively against, and don't take a lot of penalties.

Denver might want to push the pace Saturday night, but look for UMD to play a similar game as Thursday against Harvard, where the Bulldogs are content to use their grinding forecheck to wear down its foe and create scoring chances. One observer compared UMD's forecheck to, well I'll just let you read it because it's more fun that way.



Frankly, it's not the craziest thing Mike Eidelbes has ever tweeted. Not even close. In fact, I'd say it's accurate. No one in the country -- with all due respect to North Dakota -- forechecks as well as UMD. Outside of maybe Denver. But that's where there are stark differences in the teams these two have faced in this run.

UMD was challenged by an Ohio State team that frustrated it by coming at the Bulldogs in waves, especially once down a couple goals in the third period. Against Boston University, UMD played a much stronger defensive game and found a way to get the winner in overtime. But make no mistake, they were different games. The Bulldogs found a defensive posture in the BU game and were not going to let the Terriers destroy them with their speed and skill up the rink.

Harvard was very much the same. UMD had to take that first-period punch when Harvard just got too many chances on the power play. But the Bulldogs were not going to be an easy bunch to beat five-on-five. Until the end, when Harvard's goalie was pulled, UMD did a good job keeping the Crimson's good chances to a minimum (the somewhat-subjective "Grade-A Scoring Chances" chart, which is kept at the Frozen Four, gives Harvard five at even-strength before the flurry after Iafallo's winner; by comparison, UMD had seven).

By no means do I think UMD wants to slow the game down. That's not a pace UMD is good at playing, as we saw a few times this season. And there's a difference between playing a good pace game and a run-and-gun game, which is more Denver's style. UMD hits hard and attacks fast, and the Bulldogs can use their high-pressure defensive style (we hope) to limit Denver's looks and great chances while also forcing the kinds of mistakes other teams have struggled to force.

******

Much will be made of the first-ever all-NCHC final. Trust me, it's significant.

In fact, it says more about the relative strength of this conference than anything else you'll ever see in a 16-team, single-elimination hockey tournament. Everyone likes to (erroneously) tie the strength of these leagues to member schools' success in piling up national championships. But this has been the NCHC's season in many other ways.

1. Its top two teams, UMD and Denver, were the top two teams in the country by any respected metric for basically the entire season.

2. Imagine if Western Michigan were healthy down the stretch, had earned a one seed, and if North Dakota had fallen to a four. The real possibility of an all-NCHC Frozen Four existed, and it wouldn't have taken a lot of result-twisting the final weekend to make it happen.

3. For the second straight year, NCHC members were dominant in non-conference play. In fact, every NCHC member school beat at least one NCAA team from outside the conference. Yes, even Colorado College (Cornell) and Miami (Providence and Ohio State). And you wonder why coaches of the league's top teams have so much respect for the league their teams play in.

4. And if you're one of those who thinks a league's strength is actually related to the number of national championships it wins, the NCHC is about to win a second straight. And I'll guarantee you one of its teams will be among the top favorites to win in 2018.

Montgomery said it best after his team flummoxed Notre Dame Thursday night. Asked why he thought his team could jump on the Irish with their pace, he said "Because outside the NCHC, what I've seen the last two years is we're able to jump on people. That's not going to happen Saturday night. It's an NCHC opponent.

"NCHC opponents, two best teams consistently throughout the year in the NCHC, it's going to be a barn burner and a great show for college hockey."

******

If you're back in Duluth, there are a number of watch parties that UMD is promoting for Saturday night's game. Duluth parties are being held at Tavern on the Hill, Grandma's Sports Garden, Dubh Linn Irish Brew Pub, Sneakers Bar and Grill, Green Mill, and Kirby Student Center.

Also, the Black Woods in Two Harbors is hosting a party, as is Palmer's Tavern in Hibbing (the hometown of UMD coach Sandelin and sophomore forward Adam Johnson). There are also parties being held in such locales as Dallas, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, and Seattle. The UMD Alumni Relations Office has a full list here.

ESPN has the game with John Buccigross, Barry Melrose, and Quint Kessenich.

Obviously, we'd love if you listened to the radio broadcast. 92.1 The Fan in the Duluth area, or a FREE stream that works on desktop or mobile here. We start with what I think is a cool montage at 6:30, so join us for that. Pregame interviews with UMD seniors Toninato and Soucy, who have been such great kids to get to know the last four years. We chat with old friend and UMD alum Jess Myers, who is attending his 25th Frozen Four, after the first period, and Zach Schneider of KBJR joins us after the second to lend his perspective to this wonderful week we've spent in Chicago.

And we'll have plenty of time for thank yous and salutes, but this experience has been great so far. Different in a lot of ways from 2011, when we were in familiar territory in a city we all knew pretty well. Making the trek to a new city (at least for me) has been fun. For someone like me who's usually pretty intimidated by big cities, it's been fun to settle in and actually start to feel somewhat comfortable. Only one thing can make it better, and we'll find out soon enough if that's in the cards.

Friday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Iafallo's Late Goal Pushes UMD to National Championship Game

CHICAGO -- This is old hat for UMD.

Over this 20-game stretch that has seen the Bulldogs go 16-1-3, this team has won five times in overtime, four other games by one goal, and three of those four one-goal wins have come with the winning goal inside the last 1:21 of regulation.

That's nine hair-raising wins among the last 16, and while the announcer's heart rate is in the 175 range during these games, I swear this team has a collective resting heart rate of around 22. Nothing seems to phase them.

That, by the way, is the ultimate compliment for a hockey team. I'm not sure I've ever been around one quite like this. And while I'm sure they could be rattled by something, I have no desire at this point to find out.

Alex Iafallo tipped a Willie Raskob pass through the legs of Harvard goalie Merrick Madsen with 26.6 seconds left, lifting UMD past the Crimson 2-1 and into the national championship game for the third time in program history. In the first-ever all-NCHC final, UMD will battle Denver for the title Saturday night at United Center.

"It was a good pass by Joey (Anderson, who passed the puck to Raskob)," Iafallo said. "We kept it in there at the blue line. And that was pretty much the key to the goal. And Raskob made a good play. We do it in practice all the time. So simple things like that, getting the puck to the net. Just had to shovel it in."

Iafallo did something UMD has done so many times this season. He got inside position on a defender and drove the net hard. And, yes, it's something they work on regularly in practice.

"It appeared we had a couple opportunities to get the puck out and we get trapped I think with three guys on the boards," Harvard coach Ted Donato said.

So how does UMD do this all the time?

"I just think that we're a really composed team," Anderson, who posted his fourth straight two-point game, said. "I think as the game wears on, we play a really good style that allows us to maintain our game, and we're able to finish chances when we get them. And that's been the way we've done it lately."

"We've got our experience," head coach Scott Sandelin said. "We've got our senior group. They've been through, they've won a lot of games, they've been in some big games. But I think just the way our year has gone, maybe getting some confidence, winning some of those games earlier in the year and throughout the year."

It's been a year where the Bulldogs' mettle has been tested multiple times. In 41 games, UMD has fallen behind at least 1-0 19 times, nearly half the games. Thursday's win after trailing 1-0 moved the Bulldogs to a record of 12-4-3 when allowing the game's first goal.

(For additional perspective, UMD's adversary Saturday, No. 1 Denver, is 8-7-3 when conceding the ice-breaker goal in a game.)

"I think pretty much every bit of ice was hard to get out there," Donato said. "I give Minnesota Duluth a lot of credit for that. I thought neither team really had a lot of zone time. I think both teams had some good chances."

Sandelin agreed that the two teams fought hard for every inch of ice.

"I thought our first period, I thought we had maybe the edge in that. I thought the second period they were really good. I thought they won a lot of puck battles. I thought they controlled a lot of the O zone time especially down low.

"They played their game well. The third period I thought they had more rush plays, where I thought we maybe had a little better O zone time than we did in the second period."

******

The game wasn't over. There were still 26.6 seconds left after Iafallo scored. Donato took his timeout, pulled Madsen, and Harvard won a couple faceoffs to set up as dramatic a sequence as you'll see anywhere, in any sport.

The Crimson got a couple offensive zone looks after Anderson barely missed a bouncing puck near the UMD blue line for a potential clear. Two Harvard shots drew iron, with UMD freshman defenseman Nick Wolff getting a piece of one of them.

"It’s nerve-wracking but yeah, the puck was on the right side and they crossed it over to the middle," Wolff said. "Right when he shot it my first thought was go down, and it hit the top of my knee, and hit the cross bar and out. If it had been one inch lower it would've gone bar down. We were very fortunate it stayed out."

"We had opportunities to score there at the end, hit a couple of posts," Harvard co-captain Alexander Kerfoot said. "We took it to them. And just wasn't meant to be."

The second Harvard shot, taken by Luke Esposito, bounced back towards the high slot, where Anderson cleared it to center and touched off another UMD celebration.

"That was definitely the longest 30 seconds of my life," senior captain Dominic Toninato said. "I mean, they had some good chances and we were fortunate. So, we got one more game for a national championship."

UMD goalie Hunter Miska (39 saves) was asked if he got a piece of either great Harvard chance.

"I think Wolff said he got a piece with his knee. Yeah, it's all good tonight."

(That's Miska in a nutshell, in case you were wondering.)

******

Per Nate Wells (@gopherstate) on Twitter, this is the first time since the NCAA Tournament went to a 16-team format that the No. 1 and No. 2 teams will meet for the national championship. Never has it been more fitting than it is this year.

Back in February, College Hockey News' Joe Meloni wrote:
So often in recent years, the field has given us an open tournament. Seeding suggested some favorites, of course, and any number of variables can change an outcome on a given night. However, both Denver and Minnesota-Duluth have proven they are capable of overcoming these variables and recovering quickly. Moreover, their play will assure them the least difficult paths through the NCAA tournament.
... Upsets may happen, of course, but whether it's a regular-season title, the NCHC playoffs or the NCAA tournament, Denver and UMD are about to begin a memorable race that ends on April 8 at the United Center in Chicago.
He wasn't the only one. ESPN play by play guy John Buccigross was pretty blunt from the outset of 2017 that UMD and Denver had separated themselves from the pack. It was a take that was out there, but these two teams had to get through what has been for years a meat-grinder of a tournament that gobbles top seeds like breakfast.

More to come later, with a UMD-Denver preview on the way. Should be a great game. 6:30 pregame Saturday on 92.1 The Fan or free around the world by clicking here.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Game 41: Harvard vs UMD (NCAA Frozen Four Semifinal)

CHICAGO -- For the fifth time in program history, the UMD men's hockey team is at the NCAA Frozen Four. This time, the Bulldogs are where the tournament bracket expected them to be, if inanimate objects could expect things.

UMD is the No. 2 overall seed in a tournament that saw the top three overall seeds get to Chicago. For an event full of parity for so many years, it's an interesting turn.

This semifinal matchup with Harvard features a lot of cool storylines. The best? UMD senior Carson Soucy is back in the lineup after missing seven games with a lower-body injury. There was a point in time where it wasn't certain he could have played again, even at this stage of the season. That Soucy was able to work his way back to health, and his teammates rallied around him to an extent like they did, says a lot about this group.

What does it change? With the emergence of Nick Wolff and continued stellar play of Neal Pionk (and let's not forget Willie Raskob's continued penchant for playing his best hockey when the ads at a rink are covered by NCAA signage), UMD's coaches have more choices for who to throw on the ice for clutch situations. The six as they're laid out -- with all due respect to seniors Brenden Kotyk and Dan Molenaar, who unquestionably are also a part of why UMD is here -- don't have to be that way the whole game.

If a particular situation calls for physicality, Soucy, Pionk, Kotyk, and Wolff are all options. If you need to move the puck, get Raskob, Molenaar, and/or even Pionk out there. Wolff has really taken steps as an offensive player, too. Kotyk will still be used on the penalty kill, where his stick and shot-blocking prowess are large factors.

Should be a fun game. Hope you enjoy the broadcast.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Anderson
Osterberg - Johnson - Kuhlman
Tufte - Peterson - Mackay
Young - Thomas - Exell

Pionk - Kotyk
Soucy - Raskob
Wolff - Hilderman

Miska - Shepard - Deery

Harvard
Donato - Kerfoot - Zerter-Gossage
Esposito - Malone - Moy
Zielonka - Horton - Krusko
Tringale - Pelton-Byce - Floodstrand

Sherman - Marino
Olson - Fox
Dombrovskiy - Anderson

Madsen - Gornet - Lee

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Frozen Four: Johnson, Donato Present Challenges for Defenses

CHICAGO -- We already discussed some of the basic similarities that we'll see in the first national semifinal Friday night, when UMD battles Harvard.

As mentioned in that post, both teams have dynamic sophomore forwards, capable of scoring from almost literally anywhere.

For UMD, it's Hibbing native Adam Johnson. Senior Alex Iafallo has the team lead in goals with 19, but Johnson has scored some massive goals -- and some impressive ones -- this season. Case in point, his overtime winner in the NCAA West Regional final against Boston University.



Mentioned it at the time, but what an impressive play by Johnson, who naturally downplayed it to an extent.

“I took a one-timer and the shot got blocked," he said that night. "I was fortunate enough to get it back on the wall and I saw an opening. I just tried to fake a shot and get that guy to bite and shoot it by him. I found the corner and it was a good feeling.”

It's the kind of play Johnson has become quite adept at making. His shot -- and his ability to get that shot through to goaltenders -- has been a factor for UMD all season.

And when in doubt, Johnson has proven he has enough skill to score from behind the goal line, a trick he's successfully pulled off at least three times this season.

"Really quick feet," Iafallo said of his sometimes-linemate. "Very agile. He makes a lot of juice. Very good hands. He's been great for us. Especially on that power play, the last goal in overtime. Just simple things like that. He's very good at it."

It isn't so simple. Boston University coach David Quinn gave Iafallo credit on that play at first, for keeping the puck in the offensive zone with a strong pinch after BU won the faceoff and captain Doyle Somerby wrapped the puck around the wall. But Johnson's play -- firing the initial shot off Somerby, realizing he was stunned, and taking the puck right back at him -- was outstanding. UMD coach Scott Sandelin has preached a shoot-first mentality on the power play, and as of late the Bulldogs have turned a corner in that area.

Starting Feb. 3, UMD scored at least once on the man advantage over eight straight games. Since then, over 14 games total, the power play is 15-for-63 for a 23.8 percent clip that has lifted UMD's season total to an even 20 percent. Not the best season UMD has ever had on the power play, but it's gotten better and more productive and, more importantly, more dangerous. Johnson plays a huge role in that. With him and fellow sophomore Neal Pionk up top, teams have to respect the point shot, allowing more room to maneuver down low for guys like Iafallo, Dominic Toninato, and Joey Anderson.

Harvard sophomore Ryan Donato was a more highly-touted prospect heading into college, but he does a lot of the things Johnson does for UMD. The second-round pick of the Boston Bruins is the son of head coach Ted Donato, a former NHLer himself. Ryan Donato has a lethal shot, one that he's used to post a Crimson-leading (tied with senior Tyler Moy) 21 goals this season.

He can fly, an asset Johnson shares, and one Donato used to knife through the Air Force defense for a huge goal in the regional final win March 25. He also has a lethal shot and, like Johnson, can score from practically anywhere. He scored four goals against Union Feb. 10 and has 25 points in 23 games since the calendar flipped to 2017.

Overall, Sandelin is impressed with what Harvard brings to the table in this national semifinal.

"I think they're very balanced," he said. "Obviously, they've got some very talented forwards up front. Their top two lines especially. There's a lot of skill, a lot of deception. They're a puck-possession team. I've been impressed with their poise and composure."

That skill leads to a dangerous Harvard transition game, one that UMD can't feed into, not with turnovers and not with other mistakes, like slow or poorly-timed shift changes.

"Watching the tape," Sandelin said Wednesday, "I think a couple of their opponents had bad line changes, which led to some goals off rushes. We've got to have good rush coverage, making sure we're doing little things like that, making sure we're not changing at the wrong times. Those are mistakes that we just can't catch up."

******

The second game pits two old friends against one another. Denver coach Jim Montgomery got his start in this profession when he took a gig as a volunteer assistant at Notre Dame, working for Jeff Jackson.

Now, with Montgomery in his fourth year at DU, their paths cross on the sport's biggest stage.

"He's a great young coach," Jackson said of Montgomery. "He's got a great future ahead of him. He's got all the right aspects to being a great coach. I'm proud of him. I'm happy for him."

"For me, I'm happy," Montgomery said. "I think it shows that our relationship is special and that I learned from a great coach because he's here again for the sixth or seventh time in his career, and I've managed to get back here for the second year in a row.

"So whatever he taught me, I've been able to apply, and I think both teams play with a lot -- I guess the same way, and we don't beat ourselves, and we're hard to play against."

Jackson won three titles at Lake Superior State, but is seeking the first in Notre Dame history. Denver has seven titles, but none since 2005, when George Gwozdecky was still at the helm.

Frozen Four: Bulldogs, Harvard Share Similarities

CHICAGO -- You don't always know what you're going to see when you face an unfamiliar foe on a stage like the NCAA Frozen Four.

Thursday, UMD will see an unfamiliar opponent, yes, in Crimson-hot Harvard (16 straight wins, 17-0-1 last 18 games). The teams haven't met since the 1995-96 season (a UMD non-conference sweep backstopped by current Bulldog volunteer assistant coach Brant Nicklin). They haven't played in the postseason since UMD swept Harvard in a two-game, total-goals series in 1985. The two only have one common opponent this season (Boston University, which UMD beat to get to the Frozen Four, and Harvard split two games with).

But the Bulldogs aren't unfamiliar with Harvard's style, and they sure aren't strangers to a team being carried by great seniors and high-end young skill.

The Crimson might have Tyler Moy, Sean Malone, and Alexander Kerfoot up front, but UMD has Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo. Harvard has dynamic skill on the blue line with Adam Fox, but UMD has stud sophomore Neal Pionk. Ryan Donato might attract a lot of attention for Harvard adversaries, but so does Adam Johnson for Bulldog opponents. And while Merrick Madsen might tower over Hunter Miska in terms of height, both have been a huge reason for their respective teams getting to this point.

"The style they play, we've seen some of that," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "They do have some similarities to teams we've played. So that's good, as far as going up against that.

"Again, it's a very solid team that you've got to play a very, very -- hopefully minimize the mistakes, especially with pucks, and certainly, again, hopefully continue to do what we've done and capitalize on our opportunities, because I think we've done a good job of that this year when we get them."

Crimson coach Ted Donato, who was part of the last Harvard Frozen Four team in 1989, feels similarly.

"I think they have some size and strength and defensive prowess," he said, "kind of like Cornell at times, and certainly up front I think they have some play makers, and they have some size and strength as well. I think their goaltender is playing as well as anybody in the country."

I leave the direct comparisons to coaches whenever possible, but watching this Harvard team it's hard to not be impressed. Donato has three lines that can really go, and while Fox is their most dynamic defenseman, there's no question guys like Wiley Sherman and John Marino can bring it, too. Madsen is just a force in net. He's 6-5 and plays as positionally sound as anyone I've seen this season. The Crimson do a very good job of blocking shots, but they also clear lanes so Madsen can see shooters and square up to them.

Before the Boston University game, I chatted with Sandelin about trying to beat a big goalie in BU freshman Jake Oettinger.

"He's going to stop everything he sees cleanly," Sandelin said. "We've got to create some second, third opportunities. We've got to get him moving. Get some moving screens and get pucks there to maybe get him opened up a bit. He just takes up so much of the net."

Asked about beating Madsen, Sandelin offered this:

"First of all, let's get pucks to the net. Again, you've got to attack. We've got to get inside, you know. I think anybody will say that to try and score, but they do a great job defending. They block a lot of shots. They really do a good job inside the dots. So they don't make it easy. When you have those opportunities, you've got to try and get pucks to the net, take pucks to the net, and if you do have shot opportunities, not a lot of them are going to get through because they do a good job blocking shots too. So you might have to look at other ways."

******

Is this just another game?

I would say, in an ideal world, all these players are able to treat this as such while also enjoying and savoring the moment they're in. Only four of 60 teams get to be here (thanks, Cap'n Obvious), and it's a special opportunity for all these coaches and players.

"This is a great opportunity, and every time you get here, you feel pretty lucky to be in the position that we're in," Sandelin said.

Miska talked about how tall the United Center is ("That's him," Sandelin quipped about his sometimes-eccentric star freshman goalie). But while it might have been momentarily weird to be in such a big building, Miska isn't about to do anything out of the ordinary to get ready for this national semifinal game.

"I'm going to treat it like any other game," Miska said. "I'm not going to change what I do on a daily basis. Just going to go do my daily routine and play my game."

Harvard players concurred.

"I think we're trying to treat it like any other game," Kerfoot said. "It's really exciting to be here at the (Frozen) Four. It's our goal all year long. Especially us three being seniors, it's pretty exciting just to end our college careers here.

"I think, if we get too caught up in everything else, we won't be as focused on our game. So we're just trying to treat this like any other weekend."

"We've played in really big games this year with the Beanpot and ECAC tournament and things like that," Malone added. "I think we could use our experience there and know that we have to come out playing our game hard right away."

(And look at what Harvard did to Boston University in the Beanpot championship game. Beat the Terriers 6-3, outshot them 46-17, including 18-2 in the first period. BU coach David Quinn said his team was "fighting an uphill battle" all night, even when it briefly had a 2-1 lead in the second period.)

While none of these players can draw on Frozen Four experience, there's other big-game experience out there. As an example, there's Harvard's win in the Beanpot, its first Beanpot title in 24 years. UMD won its first conference playoff title since 2009 and its first-ever North Star College Cup title. And individual players with national team experience can draw on that, too.

"You have to take the crowd out of it," UMD freshman Joey Anderson said. "You have to calm down and stick to the game, make sure there aren't too many ups and downs. Keep an even keel."

Ted Donato, however, knows this isn't just another hockey game.

"This is certainly a different game," he said. "I think you can always try to -- in your mind, just think of it as a different game. It's not just another game. But mentally, they're preparing as if it's another big game that they're playing."

Friday, March 31, 2017

Frozen Four: Bulldogs Return to Glory

It doesn't always work out this way.

For every Justin Fontaine, who returned to UMD for a chance at a national championship that didn't elude him, there's a Jimmy Vesey, who returned to Harvard, won the Hobey Baker, but whose team couldn't get out of the first round last year.

For every Carson Soucy, who returned to UMD this year for a chance at redemption in the NCAA regionals after two years of heartbreaking losses in the round of eight, there's a Joey LaLeggia, a pure superstar in college who played out his four years at Denver but fell short of the Frozen Four as a senior.

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

It's one thing to have a group like the one UMD has. Players like Soucy, captain Dominic Toninato, and linemate Alex Iafallo could very easily have turned pro after last season. They had good college careers, but no one would have batted an eye if they gave up their last year for the chance to play for real money and take steps toward the NHL.

"They came back for a reason," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said recently. Actually, he's said it at least three times that I remember.

"For us as coaches," he told me in February, "the fun part is watching those guys grow and mature. They're all leaders for us. They play big time roles for us. They've been very successful. They set examples on and off the rink by working hard and being good teammates. They've helped continue the culture we've tried to have here."

That word. Culture.

Such a meaningful term in sports. In this case, it's what Sandelin and his staff have worked to achieve for 17 years. When impactful seniors, great players, and great leaders leave the program, there are bodies waiting to fill those roles. At UMD, this hasn't always been the case, but now you're seeing it develop.

Yes, the Bulldogs lose Soucy, Toninato, and Iafallo, along with Willie Raskob, Brenden Kotyk, Dan Molenaar, and Kyle Osterberg. All seven are having perhaps their best seasons at UMD, for a variety of reasons. Toninato and Iafallo continue to be top 200-foot players while being as productive as ever. Soucy was having a good offensive season before being injured. Raskob has stepped up big-time since Soucy was lost, and Kotyk has shaken off a late-season injury to be a continued shot-blocking fixture. Molenaar is finally healthy after a snakebit career to this point. Osterberg has stayed healthy while producing big goals and drawing key penalties at key times.

It's an impact not often made at UMD, but a look at the top of the NCHC shows two top programs nationally -- Denver and North Dakota -- that reload without rebuilding on a seemingly annual basis. It's a good roadmap for the future of the Bulldogs.

While they will leave a hell of a leadership void when they're done, UMD is hoping to have built a culture where others step in. Guys like Karson Kuhlman, Avery Peterson, Jared Thomas, Parker Mackay, Adam Johnson, Neal Pionk, and eventually Nick Wolff will be expected to help fill that void. And, again, they're all capable in their own way. 

With what UMD loses once this awesome season ends, the Bulldogs will unquestionably need everyone who stays to pull some of that weight. Next year's team will be younger, with some high-end skill on the way. The mix will be different, for sure, but the goals will be unchanged.

******

Soucy is in an interesting spot. He's missed seven games with an injury, but has not been ruled out for the Frozen Four semifinal Thursday against Harvard in Chicago. While he's done what he can as a cheerleader and perhaps a behind-the-scenes coach of sorts, helping Wolff and fellow freshman Jarod Hilderman on the blue line, he's itching to play.

"It's not easy," Soucy said. "You focus on what you can do to help the team. Stay positive, give a little advice here and there. Our whole D-corps played big minutes against skilled teams. Not always easy to watch, but fun to see us win."

Soucy was watching Saturday's regional final with the other UMD scratches when Johnson netted the game-winner on a power play at 1:57 of overtime.

"If you would have videotaped our reaction, it would have been pretty funny," he said. "It was pretty quick, chairs going back, we got a big hug, then sprinted downstairs. You could see our guys' emotion, because we worked all year to get to this spot.

"Getting over that hump, that game we've lost the last two years. It's going to be fun to play, if I can, and I think our team's excited for it."

Sandelin wouldn't elaborate on Soucy's status Wednesday after telling media Tuesday that he remains "week to week". Soucy did practice Wednesday after being able to skate with the team last week in Fargo, but there's simply no definitive word on whether there's a chance he plays Thursday against the Crimson.

Remember, this is a lower-body injury, so Soucy wasn't skating for some time. He has to not only get his body back in "hockey shape" and be sure he's okay to take contact, but there's a conditioning element involved, too.

******

Team and staff (and your humble correspondent) fly to Chicago Tuesday. Media activities at United Center Wednesday. Semifinals Thursday. Join us on 92.1 The Fan if you can. #ListenToTheRadio 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Sunday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Turn Tables on Boston University, Advance to Frozen Four

FARGO, N.D. -- There was no secret regarding the bitterness UMD felt in 2015, after an Evan Rodrigues goal with one second left in a power play off a very controversial call against Andy Welinski lifted Boston University to the Frozen Four.

A few days after that season ended, perhaps too soon, UMD coach Scott Sandelin was still fuming about the call against Welinski, who would captain the Bulldogs to another NCAA appearance last season.

"I've had a lot of great teams," Sandelin said at the time. "It's not even about winning. We've had some great kids. This group was pretty special. Unfortunately, they almost got to where they wanted to go. That's the part that's hard for a coach, when you see that. It was a fun group to work with. They worked hard. They cared about each other.

"Like I've said, some things you can't control. I kind of feel like that last game kind of got taken out of our hands. I don't like that, because I think it cheats the kids a little bit. They're the ones that people come to watch. You just want them to play and decide a game. That's the unfortunate thing, that's the thing that probably stings the most. Whether that sounds like whining, I really don't care. Because the bottom line is that for four of those guys, they can't play again.

"Sorry, I went off the deep end a little."

So to say this is a sweet victory for UMD is probably an understatement.

Adam Johnson's wrist shot at 1:57 of overtime got by Boston University goalie Jake Oettinger, and UMD beat BU 3-2 to advance to the NCAA Frozen Four, April 6 and 8 in Chicago.

Johnson picked up the rebound after his initial one-time attempt at the right point was blocked off the boards by BU captain Doyle Somerby.



Watch the video. Johnson smacks Somerby with a hard one-timer, then calmly picks the puck up off the boards and goes right on the attack. He makes a little juke move, enough to get Somerby out of the way to create the shooting lane, and there was no mistake on that shot. The whole thing started when Alex Iafallo pinched to keep a hard-around from Somerby in the zone.

“I took a one-timer and the shot got blocked," Johnson said. "I was fortunate enough to get it back on the wall and I saw an opening. I just tried to fake a shot and get that guy to bite and shoot it by him. I found the corner and it was a good feeling.”

"What a great play by them," Boston University coach David Quinn said. "They make an unbelievable play to keep the puck in, we win the draw and Doyle does a great job firing around, and [Iafallo] made an unbelievable play to keep the puck in and Doyle makes a great block and was a little bit staggered and they smelled blood and they took advantage of it.

"That's what great teams do and that's why they're going to the Frozen Four, they've been doing that all year long and you have to give them a lot of credit."

It's the kind of play Johnson has increasingly shown the ability to make, and it's what has helped make this power play so dangerous in the second half of the season.

Certainly this has the potential to be an X-factor for UMD in Chicago, that and the again-emerging penalty kill. Against a highly-skilled BU power play, UMD did the job on two chances, pulling off a perfect weekend in Fargo against two potent man-advantage teams.

Discipline played a role, with only six power plays condeded in two games, but the Bulldogs' special teams are dialed in at the right time of the season.

******

For UMD's seven-man senior class, this has to be awfully sweet. After two years of agonizing regional final losses to Boston teams, the Bulldogs are headed back to the premier event in college hockey.

“Absolutely incredible," Iafallo said. "It’s the reason why we came back. Just proud of the guys for sacrificing their bodies. The last two years we came short and this year we didn’t, so it feels absolutely phenomenal.”

There's little doubt Iafallo and captain Dominic Toninato, among others, have saved their best for last.

Iafallo had two more points Saturday to run his point streak to 13, a career high (7-15-22). He has exactly two points in each of the last seven games (5-9-14).

"I’m more excited for our team, our program and our seven seniors that have kind of gone through tough defeats in this regional final," Sandelin said. "To have the opportunity to get to Chicago, to get to the Frozen Four and keep playing is pretty exciting for all of us."

And as Sandelin himself noted Saturday night, he isn't easily excited. Can tell he's pumped about this. As he should be, and surely he isn't alone.

******

Talking to Sandelin before the game, one of his goals was to not have freshman goalie Hunter Miska end up making a half-dozen highlight reel saves again. Goal: Realized.

Miska made a great stop on BU's Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, lifting his pad to rob the Terriers star center blind on a BU power play. Other than that, he didn't have to do much more than his job. Defensively, it was a much more composed and structured performance from UMD, which did a great job limiting a dangerous team in transition and keeping star freshman Clayton Keller in check. Keller scored in the first period. That came after a pinch by freshman Jarod Hilderman at the offensive blue line, and Keller was able to get around Joey Anderson before scoring on a nice backhand.

Once that happened, UMD did a great job defensively. It might have been a bit boring to watch at times, but with the Bulldogs still missing senior Carson Soucy, they made sure the area in front of Miska was taken care of, first and foremost. It was probably UMD's strongest defensive game in a while, especially considering the quality of the adversary.

******

Miska headed up the All-Tournament Team, and was named the MVP of the regional. Joining him on the team were senior defenseman Willie Raskob, along with Iafallo and Anderson up front. Rounding out the All-Tournament team were Keller and BU sophomore defenseman Charlie McAvoy.

******

UMD will face Harvard in the national semifinals April 6 in Chicago. The Crimson, seeded third overall, beat Air Force 3-2 Saturday in Providence to claim the East Regional. Two more spots will be filled Sunday, as Penn State battles Denver in Cincinnati, and Notre Dame faces UMass-Lowell in Manchester.

******

Thanks to KBJR sports guy Zach Schneider for driving on this trip. Was a good time with him and News Tribune scribe Matt Wellens. It's never easy to drive through the middle of nowhere.

Might scuttle the regular Monday blog, but will be back later in the week. Follow the Twitter @BruceCiskie for whatever I post there.

UMD Advances to Frozen Four

FARGO, N.D. -- More to come, but Adam Johnson's power play goal at 1:57 of overtime propelled UMD to the NCAA Frozen Four, 3-2 over Boston University Saturday night.

Highlights available below. Thanks to everyone who tuned in.


Game 40: Boston University vs UMD (NCAA West Regional Final)

FARGO, N.D. -- This is a chance at redemption for UMD. Sort of.

Two years ago, UMD lost a controversial Northeast Regional final to Boston University in Manchester, then had to watch the Terriers celebrate a Frozen Four berth with their fans. The Bulldogs' older players haven't forgotten that moment. Neither has the announcer. Might have been some cuss words on the ride back to the hotel. I know, shame on me.

Now, the sides meet again, this time again for a spot in the Frozen Four. BU still has some holdovers from that 2014-15 team that was so good, namely big defenseman and captain Doyle Somerby, top line forward Nick Roberto, and defenseman John MacLeod.

But the bulk of this Terriers team is young, and man have they come along. Up front, freshmen Patrick Harper, Clayton Keller, and Kiefer Bellows are joined by sophomores Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Bobo Carpenter. The blue line is an active one, keyed by sophomore and Bruins first-rounder Charlie McAvoy, who scored the winner against North Dakota on Friday. Junior Brandon Hickey, a Flames draft pick, blocked 17 shots against UND. Yes, 17. In one game.

And I have yet to mention 18-year-old freshman goalie Jake Oettinger. In an era where the majority of college hockey freshman goalies are 19-to-21 years old, Oettinger is in straight out of the National Team Development Program and has a .929 save percentage in 34 games. He made 56 saves on 59 shots in the regional semifinal win over North Dakota, a game where UND attempted an absurd 145 shots.

This team blocks shots, will be a beast to play against between the dots, and has true difference makers in Keller and McAvoy.

Of course, UMD has looked a team on a mission, and while it wasn't great in Friday's win over Ohio State, winning is all that matters at this point in the season.

"You don't always win playing your best game," coach Scott Sandelin said after the overtime drama. "To me, it's about advancing, and learning to get better. That's what this group has done all year. We've got to be a better hockey team to continue to advance."

No changes for UMD. Still no Carson Soucy (lower body). He misses his seventh straight game. UMD had to grind it out Friday, but it is 6-0 without the big senior.

So let's do this, boys. Chicago for the winner.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Anderson
Osterberg - Johnson - Mackay
Tufte - Peterson - Kuhlman
Young - Thomas - Exell

Pionk - Kotyk
Raskob - Hilderman
Wolff - Molenaar

Miska - Shepard - Deery

BU
Keller - Forsbacka Karlsson - Harper
Greenway - Carpenter - Roberto
Bellows - Cloonan - Phelps
Kelley - Curry - Chabot

Somerby - McAvoy
Hickey - Fabbro
Krys - MacLeod

Oettinger - LaCouvee

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Survive With Miska, Advance With Raskob Overtime Winner

FARGO, N.D. -- Survive and advance.

That's the basic mantra this time of year. It isn't always going to be pretty, a team isn't always going to have its A-level stuff. But the team that is able to survive and advance won't care it didn't have its A-level stuff.

Such was the case Friday night in Fargo. On an incredible night at the NCAA West Regional, UMD took the best punch Ohio State could possibly offer, survived thanks to an incredible performance from freshman goalie Hunter Miska, and got the last shot. Senior defenseman Willie Raskob's one-time blast from the right circle eluded OSU goalie Matt Tomkins and gave the Bulldogs a 3-2 overtime win over the Buckeyes.



This wasn't the best night UMD could have envisioned. Up 2-0 heading into the third, the Bulldogs squandered a power play and almost immediately started playing the game on their heels.

"I don’t know if anything really changed with us, I want to give them credit," UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said. "They came out and I thought they were making a pretty strong push even in the second period. They have a good team."

"We gave the momentum away there," Raskob said. "I think the talk was more making sure we have the coverage coming back, obviously, those two goals was just guys finding slots in open areas, we’ve got to get better at that tomorrow."

The Buckeyes have some strong forwards up front, led by Mason Jobst and David Gust, who can play for anyone, quite frankly. Gust was especially difficult to handle, especially at even-strength, for UMD in this game. He forced Miska to make a handful of spectacular saves, including a how-the-hell-did-he-do-that number with the paddle of his stick in overtime.

"I felt really good tonight," Miska said. "My team played really good in front of me allowing me to see the first puck and make the save and make my rebounds in the corners so they didn’t get another opportunity."

I'm not sure I'd concur that Miska's team played "really good", but I do see his point. The Bulldogs and Miska were victimized a few times this year by shots from distance that no one blocked and Miska couldn't see to stop. That didn't happen on Friday.

But ...

Sandelin: "I didn’t think our coverage was very good. Certainly, that was evident by some of the saves our goaltender had to make but I think you have to give credit where credit is due. They came hard and I think once they got the first one they took another step up and kept coming and we were kind of on our heels. But, that’s why you have great goaltending. It was kind of one of those games where we were just kind of really grinding out, nothing was really clicking. We had very few spurts here and there and they were making a very strong push but Hunter was the difference, no question."

That's on point.

To think, one week ago, there were legitimate questions about how Miska would play when the lights got brighter, both in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and here at the regional. He's emphatically answered those questions with two of his best games of the season.

"We were just trying to have net-front presence and try to get pucks to the net and as you can see from some of those replay, you can't ask for better chances than what we had," Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. "He (Miska) just flat out made some unbelievable saves."

UMD has some things to clean up, as Sandelin mentioned. They had some garish turnovers in the defensive zone, especially in the third period as Ohio State started feeling it, so to speak. I almost didn't recognize the team that finished the third period and started overtime. It was as if "weather the storm" became the game plan.

But the Bulldogs started to piece some better shifts together close to the midway mark of overtime. Specifically, Adam Johnson walked a couple Buckeye defenders for a scoring chance that Tomkins had to make a good save on. Then came the one-minute break so the ice crew could come out and scrape the playing surface. After another quality save by Miska on Gust, Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik requested a review to assure the puck didn't cross the goal line (it didn't). That short delay allowed UMD to come back with its top line for a defensive zone faceoff. As rough a night as it was for UMD on faceoffs, Dominic Toninato won the draw, and the once the puck got back in the OSU zone, it never left.

Nick Wolff created a high to low scoring chance for Joey Anderson that rang the iron. After that. Alex Iafallo circled around the back of the goal and found Raskob in the right circle for a one-timer that Tomkins didn't have a chance on. I'm not sure -- and this isn't a rip -- that I've seen Raskob shoot a puck that hard in four years. That thing was labeled.

When everything looked bleak, UMD found a way. That's what great teams do.

We'd all prefer a 4-1 win. They can't all be like that.

******

The win moves UMD into the regional final Saturday at 5pm against Boston University. The Terriers got by host North Dakota 4-3 on a Charlie McAvoy goal in the second overtime. At first glance, BU's young top-end talent -- highlighted by McAvoy and Clayton Keller -- really flashes. Those are difference-maker players, and David Quinn has done a great job coaching those types of players in his short career at Boston (see: "Eichel, Jack").

Gotta get packed for checkout at the hotel, so just a reminder. 4:30pm pregame on 92.1 The Fan. Listen live online here. Should be a great game, hopefully UMD ends a two-year run of losing in regional finals. Enjoy what should be a great day of college hockey around the country.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Game 39: Ohio State vs UMD (NCAA West Regional Semifinal)

FARGO, N.D. -- You don't need me to tell you what's at stake.

One of the messages from the UMD coaching staff to its players this week was pretty simple. This weekend, you're not guaranteed a second game. You have to go earn it.

UMD hasn't lost a first round game in its last seven NCAA trips. There's some luck involved there, to be blunt, as the Bulldogs have survived some games where its opponent could argue it was better (see: "2009, Princeton"). It happens. To win four "loser out" games in this kind of tournament, there will need to be some fortune along the way at some point.

What will also be interesting as the day evolves is to see how many North Dakota fans are willing to stick around for the second game.

For UMD, senior defenseman Carson Soucy (lower body) remains out. No surprise, though there was at least a positive sign for the public to see Thursday when Soucy skated. I'm not at every practice, but it's the first time I've seen him skate since he was injured March 3.

Ohio State is missing big-minute defensemen Josh Healey (suspension) and Drew Brevig (injury), both seniors.

For those wondering, ECAC officials for this game. Peter Feola and Chip McDonald referee, Ryan Knapp and Jim Briggs work the lines.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Iafallo - Toninato - Anderson
Osterberg - Johnson - Mackay
Tufte - Peterson - Kuhlman
Young - Thomas - Exell

Pionk - Kotyk
Raskob - Hilderman
Wolff - Molenaar

Miska - Shepard - Deery

OSU
Stork - Jobst - Schilkey
Miller - Joshua - Gust
Wiitala - Weis - Laczynski
Fidler - Kearney - Lampasso

Joyaux - Miller
Moser - Parran
Larocque - Myer

Tomkins - Frey - Davis

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Steve Rohlik Faces Old Assistant, Team

FARGO, N.D. -- One of the first things Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik mentioned when asked about his ties to Duluth this week was the fact his three kids were born there, while he worked for UMD as an assistant to head coach Scott Sandelin.

"It's a huge part of my life," Rohlik said this week. "I enjoyed my ten years there. I'll have it forever."

Unquestionably, it's a place Rohlik is still fond of, but he hopes to be on the right side of the scoreboard Friday, when his Buckeyes face UMD in the first round of the NCAA West Regional at Scheels Arena.

Asked if the college hockey world has ever felt smaller to him, Rohlik laughed and pointed out "hockey is a small world.

"Certainly, this is a little different. I wouldn't be sitting up here without the opportunity Scott gave me. To help me grow and develop as a coach, a tremendous opportunity."

Rohlik took over for good friend Mark Osiecki, who had recruited Rohlik to join him at Ohio State when he got the head job after the 2009-2010 season. When he got the head job, he needed to fill his old job as associate coach, and in came Brett Larson. The then-former UMD assistant had been working with Sioux City of the USHL, cutting his teeth as a head coach and general manager in juniors.

"First and foremost, he's a guy that cares," Rohlik said of Larson. "He's a soldier in the room. I think every guy in our room that he's coached or recruited can tell you that. When you have a guy on your staff like that, players believe. It's contagious."

Larson, at the minimum, had a hand in recruiting much of Ohio State's current roster, while coaching all the upperclassmen for a couple years. He told KBJR this week there might be "butterflies and the strange feelings," but once the puck drops, it's "just another hockey game."

The fact it's a playoff game of the "Win or go home" variety, that probably helps shake some of the feels away.

(Another UMD tie: Rohlik needed to replace Larson when the latter left to return to UMD, and in came Mark Strobel, who was with Rohlik on Sandelin's first coaching staff at UMD in 2000 and left the program in 2002.)

"I'm excited for them," Sandelin said of Rohlik and Strobel. "They're good coaches and doing a great job."

In his fourth season with Ohio State, Rohlik has seen a breakthrough. The Buckeyes are plus-seven in wins this year, going from 14 to 21, improving from eight to 11 wins in Big Ten play. A big reason for the Buckeyes' presence in the national tournament for the first time since 2009? A 10-2-5 non-conference record in the regular season that included losses only to Robert Morris and Miami. Ohio State opened the season by beating Denver at the Ice Breaker in Denver, then tied NCAA-bound Air Force in the championship (lost in a shootout, but the game counted as a tie). Going 4-3-1 combined against the other Big Ten teams -- Minnesota and Ohio State -- that made the tournament doesn't hurt much.

"It's a surreal moment, very humbling," Rohlik said of getting into the tournament for the first time as a head coach.

Saturday, Ohio State needed Penn State to win the Big Ten title in order to get in.

"When we lost the game (in the semifinals to Wisconsin), we didn't know if our season was over or not," Rohlik said. "When that goal (Penn State won in double overtime), what a feeling. We earned the spot. We won 21 games. We deserve to be here."

(UMD went through the same thing a year ago, only a little different way it played out. The Bulldogs were behind 2-1 to St. Cloud State in the NCHC title game when Michigan closed out a Big Ten tournament title win over Minnesota. That Wolverines win officially clinched UMD's NCAA bid, and thankfully so, since the Huskies ended up beating the Bulldogs that night 3-1. And no one on the UMD side was about to apologize for how it got in the national tournament, nor should they have been. Same for Ohio State. The Buckeyes needn't apologize to anyone for getting in.)

And what a way to get back in for Rohlik. His first tournament game will be against a head coach who helped get his career in college hockey going, and an assistant who was a big part of the build that's paying off for Ohio State now.

UMD's Focus Strong as NCAA Tournament Begins

FARGO, N.D. -- Over the course of a 38-game journey to this point, UMD has not faced what it faces this weekend.

Even in the NCHC Tournament the last two weekends, the Bulldogs knew they would be playing two games on a weekend, no matter how the first one went.

Not the case now.

The only way you play again is if you win.

The Bulldogs' resiliency (© Dan Myers of the Wild) and veteran presence -- along with the steady play of freshman goalie Hunter Miska -- has propelled this team to a No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are a No. 1 regional seed for the first time ever, and will play Ohio State Friday evening in Fargo in the first round. The winner plays either Boston University or North Dakota for the regional championship Saturday.

"Our seniors that came up a game short the last two years of getting to the next step," head coach Scott Sandelin said this week, "I think it's been in their minds. I think they came back for a reason. Absolutely, it's been a goal (to get back)."

If you're looking for a reason this team is so vastly improved from even a year ago, when it had to scratch and claw its way to the national tournament, look no further than that experience.

"You rely on your experience, you rely on your leaders," Sandelin said. "These guys have played in a lot of games, been in a lot of situations. They want more, they came back to try to get it, and they're in a position to do that."

The Bulldogs boast a seven-man senior class that's certainly been a big part of this, but don't forget UMD also has two juniors -- Karson Kuhlman and Jared Thomas -- that sit over 100 games in a UMD uniform. And all these juniors and seniors -- save for Avery Peterson, who didn't join the team until January 2016 -- have been around for a couple great runs that fell one goal short of the Frozen Four.

Add to it this: Every UMD player, outside of Miska and the rest of the freshmen, has been around for an NCAA Tournament run. Peterson was part of the Omaha Mavericks' first-ever trip to the Frozen Four in 2015.

There will be plenty of time to look back and appreciate what's happened here, but there's no question the 2016-17 senior class has helped shape a new culture for Bulldog hockey.

"To come here and find success with a group of guys, be a part of it, is a great accomplishment," senior defenseman Willie Raskob said. "Something I'll take great pride in when we leave here."

"It's been awesome," senior captain Dominic Toninato said. "Our senior class has been tremendous. Being able to grow with them has been awesome. The team as a whole has been great. It's good for the whole program, and the whole city of Duluth."

This has been a mentally tough UMD team all season, too. UMD has conceded the first goal 17 times in 38 games, including in Saturday's crazy NCHC championship game against West Regional host North Dakota. UMD is 10-4-3 when allowing the first goal. To add some perspective, Ohio State is 2-7-4 when the adversary scores first, and even ever-dangerous North Dakota is 9-10-1.

Look at some of the games UMD has won or tied when trailing. Tied UMass-Lowell when down three goals at one point, trailed St. Cloud State 3-1 in both games in St. Cloud and won them both 5-3, fell behind to Minnesota and SCSU at the North Star College Cup and managed to win both games. Oh, and who can forget the Friday game at North Dakota? Gave up the first goal in a hostile building, had two goals disallowed in the first period, had a UND goal count that shouldn't have, and still won convincingly.

Throw in Saturday's game that's hard to describe with actual words, and you have a tough squad that isn't easily phased.

******

Standing in the Bulldogs' way Friday will be a hungry Ohio State team that lacks that experience. Well, at least among the players.

"We tried to prepare them the same way this week," fourth-year head coach Steve Rohlik said this week. "Part of the experience is enjoying it for the first time. We have a lot of guys who are excited and anxious. Our group's going to be ready."

Rohlik and assistant Mark Strobel were both successful players at Wisconsin, with Rohlik a two-year captain and national champion. Strobel played in the NCAA Tournament each year of his Badgers career. This is old hat for them.

Players can't gain NCAA experience -- duh -- without playing in the tournament first. But these guys are adults. The idea of Ohio State being victimized by "wide eyes in the bright lights" is patently ridiculous. The Buckeyes earned their way here, and this is a dangerous offensive team.

Ohio State has a top line that can go, keyed by sophomore Mason Jobst (55 points) -- who lived a mile from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway growing up and still became a really good hockey player (he says growing up there "had a huge impact on my life, kind of formed who I am" -- and seniors Nick Schilkey and David Gust (41 points each, Schilkey has 27 goals). The Buckeyes rode a 32-plus percent power play to an average of nearly four goals per game this season.

"It's huge for our team now, the alumni who have worked hard to get this program where it is," Schilkey said of Ohio State getting back in the tournament. "Getting rewarded with being able to come here is awesome. We're really excited to be here, we feel like we deserve it. It means a lot."

"They play a pace game, score goals, and we like to play the same way," Sandelin said. "Hopefully it's an up and down game."

"We got to be ready to go from the start," Toninato said.

Rohlik conceded there aren't a lot of weaknesses with his adversary Friday, but wasn't about to concede the game.

"They still have to win the game," he said. "We'll be focused and ready to empty the tank (Friday)."

******

For UMD, senior defenseman Carson Soucy (lower body) practiced here Thursday. He didn't take part in team drills, but did plenty of work on his own, including some time at one end of the ice with Sandelin, working on skating, transitions, passing, and puck-handling. Sandelin said "probably not" when asked if Soucy would play this weekend, and went on to repeat the "week to week" timeline we've heard since the week after he was injured in Kalamazoo.

But the Bulldogs are otherwise healthy, with everyone available to play.

The same can't be said for Ohio State.

The Buckeyes will play Friday's game without two top defensemen, seniors Josh Healey and Drew Brevig. Healey picked up a two-game suspension from the Big Ten Conference after his third game misconduct of the season, a contact to the head major he took late in Friday's Big Ten semifinal loss to Wisconsin. Brevig has an injury suffered in the win over Michigan State the day before and did not play against the Badgers.

Rohlik talked up his depth players, noting how hard they've worked and practiced throughout the season, but Healey is the leading scorer among OSU defensemen and Brevig one of the top players in terms of ice time. These aren't insignificant losses, and we'll see if UMD can exploit some things back there Friday. If not, it will be a long evening for the regional top seeds.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Monday Musings: High-Intensity NCHC Title Game Goes UMD's Way; Bulldogs Book Trip to Fargo

You've undoubtedly heard it.

"Hard to beat a team (insert a number) times in a row during a season."

It's true. Just look at Saturday night, where UMD tried to beat North Dakota for a fifth time in five meetings this season (sixth time overall). It was anything but easy.

In an intense, emotional, penalty-filled game, the Bulldogs used a late five-on-three goal from Joey Anderson to beat UND 4-3 and claim their first conference tournament championship since 2009. It's the second conference title for UMD under Scott Sandelin, and now the Bulldogs head to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in seven years. It's the first time ever that any UMD team in any sport has made the national tournament five out of seven years.

Actually, calling it "intense", "emotional", and "penalty-filled" is probably understating it. This was as crazy a game as I've seen in a long time. There were more combined penalty minutes in the Colorado College game Feb. 18, but this game had a level of intensity that one never got to. Saturday was an example of two rivals fighting for something valuable, and it was the kind of night that would be difficult to duplicate.

Unless the teams play again ... with a spot in the Frozen Four on the line. In Fargo. But I digress.

The fact UMD found a way to win this game Saturday night is an unrelenting positive in a season full of them. It was far from a perfect performance, with North Dakota doing a fantastic job of putting the Bulldogs on their heels early, with the help of some sketchy penalty calls. But UMD was frustrated, as evidenced by sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk taking a five-minute major for charging UND goalie Cam Johnson during a short-handed rush.

(Frankly, wouldn't have been mad if Pionk had been tossed for it, but right before the hit, it looks like he loses his balance a bit, as if he were trying to stop and couldn't. Weird sequence looking at the clip, and it was probably enough to keep him in the game.)

After UMD killed the major (had already gone down 1-0 on a Brock Boeser power play goal, so that was a gigantic kill) and the first period ended, Pionk appeared to be speared by UND's Cole Smith. No call came, but UMD captain Dominic Toninato was irate after the period ended (justifiably so), and UMD carried that emotion into the start of the second period.

Toninato, Riley Tufte, and Adam Johnson scored goals 58 seconds apart in the second, and just like that UMD had a 3-1 lead. It took two more long five-on-three UND power plays -- one in the second and one late in the third -- for the Fighting Hawks to level the score on goals by Tyson Jost and Trevor Olson. That set up Anderson's goal, which came after back to back UND penalties gave the Bulldogs their first five-on-three of the game.

******

Deep down, I can't imagine either coach was pleased with the penalty minutes his team took in this game. But a deeper dive into the numbers shows that there may have been some mitigating factors involved.

First off, we need to throw out the coincidental penalties and operate under the assumption all those minutes were earned. That will take away 20 of the game's 57 minutes. Of the 37 remaining minutes that were assessed, I don't think any reasonable argument can be made against the following calls:

Pionk's major for charging (5)
Olson's roughing penalty in the second (2)
Jared Thomas' minor for tripping in the second (2)
Rhett Gardner slashing minor in the second (2)
Riley Tufte's penalty for interference late in the second (2)
Johnny Simonson high sticking penalty in the third (2)

That leaves 22 of 37 minutes that were either questionable or not-very-good calls, including the last two on UMD that gave UND the late five-on-three it tied the game with, and the last two on UND that gave UMD the five-on-three it won the game with.

This isn't to completely absolve the players of responsibility for their role in Saturday's various fiascoes. There is no excuse for Pionk blasting Cam Johnson like he did. Similarly, no excuse for Smith spearing Pionk. Gardner and Simonson for UND took silly, unnecessary penalties. This stuff happens, especially when a game is played at the level and intensity this one was. Emotions are bound to run high.

But referees Todd Anderson and Geno Binda have to be considered culpable. More than once, they rewarded both teams for clear embellishment and set a bad tone for the game. I don't know the last time I saw a college hockey game -- especially in the postseason -- where there were four five-on-three power plays. And three of the four were more than a minute in scheduled length. It was too much, and I stand by what I said on the air and on Twitter during the game: It took away from the game. That's unfortunate.

However, it's worth noting that they weren't working the conference championship game by accident. They earned that throughout the season, and that fact shouldn't be forgotten in everyone's consternation over how this game played out.

******

Many UMD players should be applauded for their efforts on Saturday. Toninato was a leader in every sense, getting the first goal and on multiple occasions trying to stand up for his teammates. Alex Iafallo not only has points in 11 straight games, but he has ten points in the last five. Anderson has re-emerged after his production slipped after returning from the World Juniors. He has six points in his last five games after being held off the board for five straight.

Osterberg blocked five of the 26 shots UMD got a piece of in Saturday's game. Brenden Kotyk blocked shots and was physical. Hunter Miska made a few brilliant saves in goal and had a fantastic weekend, erasing any questions about his ability to step up and play well in big games as a freshman.

(There were legit questions about Miska in a big-game environment, something CBS Sports Network analyst and brilliant mind Dave Starman referenced on Beyond The Pond Saturday. He answered those questions Saturday night, and did so emphatically.)

Tufte made a few plays, including getting by Christian Wolanin and steaming down the right wing before sniping a shot home to give UMD the lead in the second period. He was a beast at times in Friday's game, too, and it's just fun to watch him show more and more signs of his development.

More than anything, these guys stuck up for one another when necessary and stuck with the game. There were a lot of opportunities to be discouraged and wonder if this was UMD's night. Instead of that, they stayed with what they wanted to do, and as Toninato said Sunday after the selection show, "controlled what we could control."

"Lot of emotions in those games," Sandelin said. "We've played North Dakota a lot. I thought the kill (late in the first after the Pionk major) was outstanding. To get out of that period the way it was going being down one, I was pretty excited for our guys. We finally had a good second period.

"It was an interesting game for sure. Lots of ups and downs."

Plenty to be excited about, as UMD won a couple games playoff-style. By any means necessary.

******

Now, it's back to North Dakota. UMD is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA West Regional, and will play Ohio State Friday at 5:30.

The Buckeyes can fill the net, led by sophomore Mason Jobst (19 goals, 55 points) and senior Nick Schilkey (27 goals, 41 points). Ohio State averages 3.97 goals per game, but also concedes 2.98 per game.  The power play hits at 32.5 percent, including over 38 percent in Big Ten play.

tOSU is coached by former UMD assistant Steve Rohlik, who was with the Bulldogs from 2000-2010 and recruited many of the players UMD won a national championship with in 2011. Brett Larson was a part of the Ohio State staff before returning to UMD two years ago when Derek Plante stepped down.

"I've seen them a little bit," Sandelin said. "I know they have the ability to score goals and play a real pace game. We've got to keep doing the things we're good at."

Lots of talk about UMD and North Dakota meeting again in the regional final, which could certainly happen, but Ohio State and Boston University will have something to say about that first.

We'll be traveling to Fargo on Thursday morning. Expect content from the team press conferences that day at Scheels Arena. Full game preview coming as well.