We talked during the week about UMD's lack of intensity and/or emotion in last week's series against Colorado College. If it was going to be an issue Friday, St. Cloud State shocked the Bulldogs into the game early when sophomore defenseman Will Borgen decked UMD sophomore Adam Johnson near the SCSU blue line. It was a clean hit all the way, but Johnson seemed jarred initially by it. He stayed in the game.
Unquestionably, UMD's intensity was better, and the Bulldogs played late in the game with a sense of urgency that was somewhat lacking last weekend as well. If you take the long view, these are good things, but they didn't lead to a better result, as UMD fell 2-1 for the second straight game. It's UMD's fourth one-goal loss out of five losses this season. More on that in a bit.
World Juniors gold medalist Jack Ahcan scored both goals for the Huskies, who started the second half of the season 1-3 and were swept at Miami last weekend. Freshman goalie Jeff Smith made 41 saves and made many of them look easy. Maybe they were, and UMD absolutely needs to do a better job of getting to the net. The Bulldogs scored eight goals in St. Cloud that weren't empty-net tallies. Of those, the Bulldogs got half of them by going to the net and either creating traffic or finding rebounds. UMD's only goal Friday -- the first of Riley Tufte's Bulldog career -- came from doing the same darn thing.
Smith kept himself in good position and made himself big by playing at the top of his crease. UMD did a number of good things in this game, but did not do nearly well enough making the goalie move laterally or make him sag deeper into the crease. For much of the night, UMD shot like a team that doesn't have a lot of confidence, putting pucks right in Smith's midsection.
Part of this is SCSU's defensive corps, which will be elite if its key pieces -- Ahcan, Borgen, Jimmy Schuldt, and Dennis Cholowski -- stay together (Schuldt should be a big-time free agent target for NHL teams once the season ends, Borgen is drafted by Buffalo, and Cholowski is a first-round pick by Detroit). Any team that wants to get to the dirty areas against these guys will have a hell of a challenge. They're good positionally, skate well, and are good with the puck. UMD is a forecheck team, and that forecheck struggled to get going on Friday.
One guy SCSU couldn't stop on Friday was Tufte. In his 17th college game, Tufte finally got his first goal. It won't be his last.
I've been a staunch defender of Tufte's from the start. Yes, you could argue he should have played a year in Fargo. He decided junior hockey wasn't for him, and I can't be mad at that. He showed up in Duluth ready to work and eager to learn.
I don't care that the scoreline shows 1-1-2 in 17 games, which no one should be impressed by. As head coach Scott Sandelin says, they look beyond production when evaluating the players, and when you look beyond Tufte's production, you see development. Look no further than how Tufte played Friday versus how Tufte played the first time the Bulldogs met St. Cloud.
The Friday game in St. Cloud was probably the worst game Tufte's had. He struggled on the wall, losing races and battles, and was guilty of a couple garish turnovers. He rebounded and played better in the Saturday game, and he's been progressing steadily ever since.
This time around, Tufte was winning those wall battles, getting to the net, and creating havoc. That's how he scored, and he had a couple near-goals before that happened. There's no doubt Tufte's earning more ice time, probably earning more power play time (the power play really struggled on Friday), and he's getting better day by day.
Ultimately, that's all you can ask of a player. Improve every day. Tufte is, and he's showed these last three games that he will be an X-factor for UMD in the second half. He has been bumped to the top six, and I'd expect him to stay there.
But Johnson has to be more consistent. He needs to want the puck on his stick and he needs to get his feet going when he has it. I'm not sure moving him back to wing is the answer, because I do like him playing in the middle where he can be more of a factor, but when he isn't going at his peak he struggles as a center.
Thomas hasn't scored since October 2015, a span of too many games to count. He's had some really good moments in there. As an example, I liked his game last Friday against Colorado College. He was good on draws, moved the puck well, was fine defensively, and was probably UMD's most consistent physical forward in that game.
Against St. Cloud State, he had a couple garish turnovers in the defensive zone that nearly led to Huskies goals, and he wasn't strong on a power play that was largely ineffective in five chances (four, really, since the officials saw fit to wipe out a UMD power play with a terrible goalie interference call on Neal Pionk).
Thomas had been UMD's most consistent faceoff man in the first part of the season. Over the first 14 games, he was only under 50 percent on draws three times. In the seven games since, it's happened five times. He's 39-for-84 in the circle since the first break, which came after the Omaha series ended Nov. 19.
Scoring goals can only get you so far as a player. I'd argue Thomas has been fairly effective this season, even though it's clear his confidence has been shaken a bit by this scoring slump. He's found goalposts and missed the net on golden opportunities this season, and I can't help but feel for someone who has shown themselves perfectly capable but appears to be absolutely snakebit in front of the net. But if he isn't going to score, he has to do other important things -- i.e. win faceoffs, get to the net, be effective defensively -- well. Hopefully he can get back to that and cement his spot in this lineup as a result.
The sky is not falling. UMD has lost five of 21 games this season. Four of them (FOUR!) have been by one goal. Games only get tighter in the second half of the season, so the Bulldogs have to be more effective around the net to be successful.
After a "hot" start in one-goal games, UMD is now 4-4 in those situations this season. Yes, there have been some other games where UMD got empty-net goals to widen the final margin, but we've talked about this before. A great record in one-goal games indicates some fortune. UMD had it early, not so much as of late.
The power play has to get going. UMD has 17 power play goals on 158 power play shots, a 10.5 shooting percentage that is only one point higher than its overall shooting percentage of 9.5 this season. To contrast, UMD's opponents have a shooting percentage of 13.8 on the power play, 9.1 overall.
The power play had been okay, even when not scoring. The game-by-game stats I keep show that it was generating opportunities, and outside of consistently scoring goals the power play was passing the eye test. It was not effective on Friday.
Elsewhere in the NCHC, Miami put up five third period goals to beat North Dakota 6-3 in Grand Forks. Anthony Louis, Carson Meyer, Karch Bachman, Ryan Siroky, and Louie Belpedio struck for the RedHawks, with Bachman's goal giving Miami a 4-3 lead and chasing UND starting goalie Cam Johnson. Matej Tomek took over and allowed two more goals on five shots. Ryan Larkin made 30 saves in goal for Miami, which has quietly won five in a row.
Fredrik Tiffels scored the winning goal on a five-minute Western Michigan power play, and the Broncos went on to take down No. 1 Denver 3-0 in Kalamazoo. Ben Blacker got the shutout for WMU, while Chris Dienes and Sheldon Dries tallied empty-net goals.
In Colorado Springs, Tyler Vesel scored twice, Jake Randolph had two assists, and Omaha beat Colorado College 5-2. Vesel scored his power play goals after Brandon Makara gave CC a 1-0 lead in the first period. After tough weekend at home against North Dakota where the Fighting Hawks scored 16 goals, UNO got a sound night from goalie Kris Oldham, who made 26 saves.
Maddie Rooney, who has been a rock in goal for UMD, made 15 of her 28 saves in the third period. UMD led in shots 35-30, and picked up its first win over Minnesota in exactly five years (last one was Jan. 13, 2012). The teams play again at 3pm Saturday.