Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bulldogs, North Dakota Set For Showdown in Grand Forks

For the UMD Bulldogs, Oct. 28-29 is going to be a highlight of the season, no matter how the season turns out.

More notably at the moment, you can bet North Dakota hasn't forgotten.

"We didn't play that great that series in Duluth," North Dakota sophomore forward Joel Janatuinen said this week. "They kinda gave it to us."

UMD won the Friday game 5-2, taking a 3-0 lead in the second period before UND rallied with two late goals to pull within one. The visitors went into the locker room after 40 minutes with momentum, but it was Neal Pionk giving UMD a much-needed insurance goal on the power play in the third period before Alex Iafallo completed a hat trick by hitting the empty net late.

On Saturday, North Dakota held UMD to two first-period shots, but head coach Scott Sandelin said he didn't mind how his team was playing at that point. UMD got two short-handed and one power-play goal in the second period for a 3-0 lead, and played well defensively in the third to preserve a shutout for freshman goalie Hunter Miska.

It was surely a long ride back home for the Fighting Hawks, and one they haven't forgotten.

"They swept us, so I definitely remember that," UND defenseman Tucker Poolman said.

"You remember the feeling you had when we got on the bus," second-year North Dakota coach Brad Berry said this week.

UMD has been on the other side of this a few times. The Bulldogs know what to expect this weekend.

"You look at a program like North Dakota, they don't get swept often," UMD senior defenseman Willie Raskob told me this week. "There's no doubt they'll come ready to play. They've been playing better hockey since we played them, too."

Sandelin -- who picked up his 300th win at UMD on Saturday -- was more pointed in looking ahead to this series.

"They're a different team," he said of UND. "A team right now that's playing extremely well. They've been scoring a lot of goals, and if you're not prepared to play in that building, you're going to be in the same situation.

"They're always hard on pucks, strong in puck battles and body position. They play physical. If we think we can turn it on and off, we're not going to fare very well. We have to be mentally prepared to go in there and fight for every inch on the rink. If we're not in that mindset, I'm not sure what the weekend's going to be."

There's no doubt Sandelin wants to see better starts out of his team. The Bulldogs haven't been habitually giving up the first goal, but instead it's more than that. The bench boss is looking for his team to start a game on its toes, forcing the issue and getting in opponents' faces. That'll be especially necessary this weekend, and for the record it would have been even if UMD hadn't swept this team earlier in the season.


Berry is quick to note, as he should, that this isn't the same UND team that the Bulldogs beat twice in October.

"I think we were going through a time where things were going well," he said of that series, "but we didn't run into a team like (UMD) that was experienced and has a lot of good players and depth in the lineup. We learned a lot from that weekend, we needed to get better. I firmly believe we have gotten better."

Even when handed a chance to make an excuse on a silver platter, Berry refuses to, but I will, at least to an extent.

North Dakota's best player, sophomore forward Brock Boeser, missed time in the first half of the season due to wrist issues, and he eventually would miss the World Junior Championship because of surgery on that wrist. It was a problem that flared up sometime before the UND-UMD series in Duluth, and one that got worse the more he tried to play through it. UND shut him down around Thanksgiving and he had surgery in December.

Without Boeser, North Dakota struggled at times, splitting series with Michigan State and Western Michigan, but the Fighting Hawks went to New York and beat Boston College 4-2 at Madison Square Garden and went into their holiday break 9-6-3.

Without Boeser and star freshman Tyson Jost, a first round pick to Colorado last summer, UND went to Union and won a huge non-conference game 3-1 on New Year's Eve, then swept Omaha by outscoring the Mavs 16-4 over two games in Omaha.

Last week, there was a hiccup, as UND kicked away a 3-1 lead by allowing five third-period goals in a 6-3 loss to Miami. Berry pulled starting goalie Cam Johnson after the third of those five goals, but Matej Tomek allowed two goals on five shots to finish the game. On Saturday, UND cut its shots allowed in half (30 to 15) and won 3-1.

"The last 25 minutes, the game got away from us a little bit," Berry said. "Made a couple adjustments, personnel and structure, and our guys came out hard. We left something on the table as a group Friday, and wanted to rectify that Saturday."

How has this team survived the injuries and offseason departures? Next man up, that's how.

Shane Gersich scored nine goals and had 11 points in 37 games as a freshman. In 23 games this year, he's blown those numbers out of the water, as Gersich leads UND with 16 goals and 30 points.

"He's been real good," Berry said of Gersich. "He works hard in the weight room, skates extra, does extra skill work. He's just a hockey player who wants to get better.

"Last year, we had a few seniors, had Nick Schmaltz and Drake Caggiula in prominent roles. He (Gersich) saw there was opportunity there, and he grabbed it."


On the UMD side, I already mentioned freshman Riley Tufte could be an X-factor in the second half of the season. Add another.

Like Tufte, but for different reasons, junior Avery Peterson didn't contribute statistically to this team's first-half success. The two went into the break with a combined zero points, as Tufte worked to figure things out and Peterson waited out his transfer eligibility.

But Peterson has made an impact in a short amount of time. In five games, Peterson has two goals and an assist, and while he didn't factor into the scoring on Kyle Osterberg's overtime winning goal Saturday night, he decisively won the faceoff that set the play up.

Peterson played wing on Friday, then was moved back to the middle on Saturday, and it was a moved that absolutely paid off for the Bulldogs.

"I liked him a lot better in the middle of the rink," Sandelin said. "Won a key faceoff at the end. I think he's much better in the middle of the rink. He's big, he's strong. I love the intensity that he plays with. I think he brought a lot of energy."

Bet on Peterson staying at center for a while. He's legitimately the Bulldogs' second-best option in the middle behind Dominic Toninato, especially if he (Peterson) plays like he did on Saturday. He had a monster game and it's exciting to see if he can build on that this weekend in Grand Forks.


This is a huge opportunity for UMD. The Bulldogs lead Denver by three points in the NCHC, and North Dakota sits nine points back in third.

(Denver, by the way, is at St. Cloud State for what should be a great series.)

Remember, the Bulldogs are out of league play two of three weekends after this series (North Star Cup next week, then a home set with Omaha, followed by the only bye of the second half of the season). This is where the lost home points against SCSU and Colorado College could hurt.

If you're a "win the league" person, you've become a huge St. Cloud State fan. And Omaha. Each of those teams plays Denver four times before season's end. SCSU makes a return trip to Colorado Feb. 24-25. And remember, Denver doesn't play UMD or North Dakota again, and just finished up with Western Michigan for the season.

UMD makes this moot by just winning games, of course, but Denver has two games in hand, so remember, the Bulldogs already need help to win the league. Every game UMD loses increases the amount of help required. And I can promise you this group wants to win a league championship. The ultimate goal comes in Chicago in April, of course, but don't think anyone is poo-pooing a league title here. It's important.

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