Monday, January 30, 2017

Monday Musings: UMD Wins Final North Star College Cup

Lots of important notes out of UMD's North Star College Cup championship Saturday night in St. Paul.

For starters, UMD does indeed claim the beautiful wooden trophy in the event's final season. It's the second of the five trophies -- joining the blue ox trophy won in Bemidji Dec. 17 -- the Bulldogs want to get their hands on this season (NCHC regular season and playoff championships and the NCAA title are the others).

UMD's 2-1 win over St. Cloud State improved the Bulldogs to 4-1 this year against the Huskies. UMD is also now 9-3-3 when the adversary scores first, 10-1-2 away from Duluth, 5-2-3 when trailing after the first period, 4-3-4 when behind after two periods, 7-4 in one-goal games, and 13-5 in games decided by one or two goals.

Kyle Osterberg's overtime goal also lifted the Bulldogs to a season-high fifth straight win.

Guess that three-game winless run out of the holiday break is forgotten about now, eh?

Osterberg got the initial chance on his scoring play, with a long shot off the rush that SCSU goalie Jeff Smith was able to steer aside, but the puck remained in play and Osterberg got to it first. He whipped a perfect pass out to the opposite point, where sophomore Neal Pionk didn't waste much time getting it back to the net. Osterberg had gone around the back of the goal and camped out at the left post, perfect position for the rebound.

(This is courtesy of @UMDhockeygifs, and we couldn't be more grateful.)

It wasn't always pretty. UMD struggled in the first period, and SCSU had more than a few shifts where it controlled the puck in the Bulldogs' end of the ice for a long time. But the Bulldogs blocked 18 shots (four by Jared Thomas, whose goal-scoring struggles are old news, but he was in front of the line Saturday, willing to risk injury to get in the way of shots; and Jimmy Schuldt isn't exactly Ryan Suter when it comes to shooting the puck), and in both games of this tournament, UMD did a great job keeping the adversary away from goalie Hunter Miska.

That isn't to say Miska didn't play well, or that he didn't earn MVP honors for the weekend. 66 saves on 69 shots will do that for someone. But his weekend could have been a lot more difficult than it was had UMD not been so dedicated to blocking shots and keeping the opponent on the perimeter.

It's hard to get a feel for the intensity of a game when you're way up in the press box like we were this weekend, but it didn't seem as if the pace was that of the Minnesota game Friday. This would normally benefit St. Cloud State, and the Huskies did a good job through 38 minutes. But UMD started to get going late in the second period, and really made life difficult for Smith in the third. Alex Iafallo jammed one home 42 seconds into the third to tie the score, and that top line with Iafallo, Dominic Toninato, and Adam Johnson started grinding down the Huskies in the third.

From there, UMD really controlled the overtime, with Smith denying Johnson on a partial breakaway early before UMD finally broke through for the winning goal.


Our friend Matt Wellens wrote a quality column in Monday's Duluth News Tribune, hopefully putting the end of this tournament to bed. Here's a snippet.
College hockey fans in Minnesota should feel disappointed and betrayed because the North Star College Cup is dead. The State of Hockey no longer has its own tournament to celebrate the college game, as they do in Michigan (Great Lakes Invitational) or Boston (Beanpot).
And you — the fans — are wrongfully being blamed for this tournament's demise.
Now, I know the attendance numbers weren't great, especially when you compare them to what the NHL's Minnesota Wild draw at Xcel Energy Center (19,008 average so far this year) or the records that the Minnesota State High School Hockey League boys state hockey tournament sets every year (22,224 last year for a Friday evening session featuring two Class AA semifinals) in St. Paul.
This year's North Star College Cup was the lowest in four years, drawing a two-day total of only 23,265. The first tournament drew 28,906 in 2014 — and those are just the announced attendance figures. The truth is, there were a lot fewer butts in the seats.
But what do you expect out of a tournament that's just four years old? It needs time to grow, especially since four of the five participants don't get to take part every year. Only the host Golden Gophers participated in all four tournaments.
I would echo much of what Matt wrote. And I never meant to come across as blaming the fans, so please tell me y'all didn't take my writings last week that way.

There's plenty of blame to go around here. As I said on Twitter Saturday, I'm very disappointed that no effort was made to play this tournament a different weekend.

SCSU's Bob Motzko suggested Christmas, but I like Scott Sandelin's Thanksgiving idea the more I think about it. High school hockey really hasn't started yet, and there aren't a lot of youth hockey events played that weekend because it's so early in the season. You have a lot less competition for people, even when you factor in Thanksgiving holiday travel.

I know college hockey interest tends to be a bit lower in the early part of the season, but if we're trying to build a special event, it might involve thinking outside the box.

Further, keep in mind that Minnesota made this event part of its season ticket packages. There's some grumbling that it would have left over 11,000 tickets to sell by the other schools, but it simply isn't realistic to place this tournament on season ticket packages, especially for UMD and Bemidji State. You're looking at four hours of drive time to get from Bemidji to XCel Energy Center, two and a half from Duluth. There's a good chance you love college hockey if you're reading this, and that's appreciated, but the 4,500 season ticket holders UMD has are not going to be happy if they're plunking down an extra $60 for season tickets so they can pay to attend the North Star College Cup if they have no intention of going.

Hopefully this is the last of me on this topic. For now.


UMD returns home and to NCHC play Friday and Saturday against Omaha. The Mavericks are off a sweep at the hands of Denver. Omaha kicked away a 2-0 lead in a 5-3 loss Friday, and the Mavericks were out of it early Saturday as DU won 5-0. UNO is still fifth in the league, very much alive for home ice and the NCAA Tournament, and you can expect a desperate visitor on Friday night.

UMD wasn't at its sharpest in its four-game homestand out of holiday break, but this has been an improved home team the last couple years and I would expect that to continue down the stretch.

Omaha's power play is still at 25 percent on the season, so the Bulldogs have to do a better job of avoiding penalties this weekend than it did in Omaha, where the Mavericks scored six power-play goals (and none at even strength).

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