Thursday, February 23, 2017

Bulldogs Celebrate Impactful Senior Class, Face Improving Miami Team in Final Home Series

UMD's seven-man senior class isn't about to complain about this not actually being their Amsoil Arena swan song.

That said, the traditional Senior Night celebration Friday will be an emotional one.

Forwards Alex Iafallo, Kyle Osterberg, and captain Dominic Toninato, along with defensemen Brenden Kotyk, Dan Molenaar, Willie Raskob, and Carson Soucy have combined to play in 856 games for UMD. They bring 156 goals (led by Toninato's 47) and 385 career points (Iafallo has 102) into this weekend's series against Miami, but that doesn't even begin to tell the story of their impact on the program.

"For us as coaches," longtime head coach Scott Sandelin said this week, "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."

All seven have been big parts of this season, which will be the third straight for them that ends in the NCAA Tournament. This year's seniors are the first for UMD since 1984-85 to lead the team to three straight national tournament bids.

The group is led by a local captain, Toninato, who might not be producing big offensive numbers but is having one of his best years for UMD. He's second (to Karson Kuhlman) in blocked shots among UMD forwards. He's vastly improved in the faceoff circle at .503 for the season (he credits teammate Jared Thomas for helping him with his technique). And as conference play has heated up, so has his production. Eight of his nine goals and 16 of his 19 points have come in 20 NCHC games.

That he's the captain of his hometown college team makes it all the better for him.

"I honestly couldn't ask for anything better right now," he said last week. "We have some more goals that we want to accomplish, but as of right now I couldn't ask for a better year."

UMD's senior class has shepherded the program through the transition from the 2011-12 senior class led by Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly. That class finished with a four-year record of 95-40-19 (.679 winning percentage). This group is at 75-53-18 (.575), but one of Sandelin's long-term goals was to see this program become an every-year tournament contender. UMD will make its third straight NCAA tourney for the first time in 32 years, so I'd say they've done a lot to help accomplish the proverbial mission.


As expected, Sandelin was asked about the Saturday tie against Colorado College during his Wednesday media session. As expected, he took up for his team a bit, but was able to avoid any direct criticism of the officials.

I wrote a bit about this on Monday. Anyone who listened Saturday knows what I think of what happened on the ice. But at the same time, UMD took penalties that were out of character for this group. Dustups behind the play, unnecessary contact penalties, stuff like that ... stuff UMD has largely avoided all season.

"The curse was the first period," Sandelin said. "Maybe we thought things would be easy, but we couldn't get the third (goal). I think some frustration set in, and those things built over the game.

"We had a couple calls that, for me, were going on the whole game. But I can specifically look at three or four penalties on our team that were very unnecessary. We had a good discussion this week. I think our guys learned a lesson."

The Bulldogs are now second in the NCHC at 13-plus penalty minutes per game. Only Western Michigan has more. But a deeper dive shows UMD has only faced 141 power plays this season, 22 fewer than Western Michigan and fourth-most in the NCHC (Miami, Colorado College, and Omaha have also had more penalty kill attempts than UMD).

(In conference play only, UMD leads with 14.9 penalty minutes per game -- Western is at 13.3 -- but its 96 penalty kills faced is eight fewer than Western Michigan. The point? The uptick in penalty minutes is due to an uptick in major penalties, which usually come complete with a game misconduct that counts for ten minutes toward a team's total.)

The Bulldogs need to play with more discipline, yes, but they're not out of control or anything extreme like that.


Miami visits this weekend for the teams' only scheduled meeting this season. Coach Rico Blasi talked in September about getting his team to do things "the right way" on a more consistent basis and restoring the strong culture his program had for years prior.

"When you don't do things the right way for an entire season, karma is a you know what," he said at NCHC Media Day. "For me, it's about going back to your culture and doing things the right way. If you play the game the right way, you'll get the bounces."

Blasi probably picked a good time to talk about big-picture things like restoring the Miami culture. His team is insanely young this year, with 14 freshmen and six sophomores. One of the three seniors, Anthony Louis, is one of the nation's more underrated players. He leads the RedHawks with 13 goals and 33 points, has developed into a player who Blasi can rely on in all situations, and he is one of just three active NCHC players -- Iafallo and Omaha's Austin Ortega are the others -- with 100-plus career points.

Also formidable is sophomore power forward Kiefer Sherwood, who has 11 goals and 30 points and is over a point per game in NCHC play. Sherwood continues to grow into his six-foot frame, but he's tough to defend when going to the net and he's not afraid of the tough areas. He's a good player, as is sophomore Josh Melnick, who's a little smaller and a lot shiftier. Like Toninato for UMD, Melnick has stepped up his production in conference play, with eight of his nine goals coming against NCHC rivals.

In goal, Miami has used freshman Ryan Larkin for all but two games in goal. He carries a 2.68 goals against and .913 save percentage. Like the team, which was swept at home by Denver last weekend, he has experienced some ups and downs. After playing very well in St. Cloud -- despite the Huskies sweeping the series -- he gave up nine goals (one empty-netter) on 69 shots against Denver.

6:30 pregames both Thursday and Friday on 92.1 The Fan. UMD has already clinched home ice, but these six points are vital for the Bulldogs to stay alive in the NCHC title race. Also be a #GOHUSKIESWOOOOO type of weekend for UMD, as fans should be rooting for St. Cloud State at Denver, no matter how weird it might be to do that.

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