Thursday, February 02, 2017

Bulldogs Seek Improved Defensive Play as Omaha Visits; Women Prep for Huge Home Weekend

For UMD, a five-game winning streak does not mean it's time to rest on the proverbial laurels.

If anything, head coach Scott Sandelin is prodding his team for more.

He sees a team that needs to be better at the start of games. He believes the penalty kill might be too reliant on the play of freshman goalie Hunter Miska. Surely, he'd like his team to get to the net more effectively. Like virtually every coach out there, he is in search of more consistency from his group.

This weekend's series against Omaha will test the Bulldogs in a couple of these areas. Primarily, as we saw in Omaha before Thanksgiving, the UMD penalty kill is on notice this week.

The Mavericks' power play has slipped only a bit, from 30 percent when the Bulldogs visited Baxter Arena in November down to around 25 now. It went 1-for-9 against Denver last weekend as the Pioneers swept the two-game series. But it's still dangerous, and UMD will need to account for it after Omaha struck for six (!) power play goals in the November series.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin didn't think his killers did a terrible job in that series. "Just some detail things," he said again this week. However, he was more pointed when discussing the kill's performances as of late.

"I think our penalty kill, we've kind of looked at it, has been masked a bit by good goaltending. We got away from things, working on them this week, and that'll hopefully make us better down the stretch. I think we're getting away from some of the detail things. We can't just strictly rely on Hunter's goaltending to pull us through."

The Bulldog sweep in Omaha featured some great work up front in the Friday game, as UMD scored five even-strength goals and also tallied on its only power play to offset UNO's four power play markers in a 6-4 win. UMD added two more special teams goals (power play and short handed) in a 3-2 win Saturday.

At even strength Friday, UMD outshot the Mavericks 30-13, which makes the 7-1 Omaha advantage in power plays difficult to explain, but it's been nearly three months so you can let it go, Bruce.

Omaha's veteran presence makes this a dangerous team. Justin Parizek, Austin Ortega, Tyler Vesel, David Pope, and Jake Randolph are all producing up front, and Luc Snuggerud is one of the NCHC's better offensive players from the blue line. Its team save percentage is up to .900 now, led by sophomore Evan Weninger (.910). Freshman Kris Oldham struggled early and is up to .895. They split the starts last weekend, so we'll see how Dean Blais uses them this week.


Blais talked this week about getting pressure on UMD's defensemen. It's doable, but it's easier said than done.

Just ask Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who was effusive in his praise for the Bulldogs' blue-line depth before Friday's matchup at the North Star College Cup.

"They're very good defensively," Lucia said. "When's the last time you saw four senior defensemen in anyone's lineup?

"They're tenacious on pucks. I look back at the last number of years, we just haven't been able to do anything offensively against them."

But UMD has shown some vulnerability in its own zone. The Bulldogs have allowed an average of 23 1/2 even strength shots per game over their last six games after giving up just 19 per game over the first 20. As Sandelin eluded to this week, maybe there's almost too much confidence in Miska, who's certainly earned that with his play. That said, UMD will be better served this weekend if it can do what it did in the Friday game at Omaha and really take the game to the Mavericks.


Should be an emotional weekend for UMD junior Avery Peterson. The Grand Rapids native will suit up against his former team for the first time. Peterson transferred to UMD after a year and a half with the Mavericks.

"It'll be interesting for sure," Peterson said. "It'll be fun to see them again.

"I still stay in touch with a few of them."

His freshman year was solid, with 11 goals and 21 points in 39 games as Omaha advanced to its first ever Frozen Four. But Peterson only had one assist in 14 games last season before he decided to transfer, and he quickly landed at UMD.

“I had a good freshman year, put up some points, and we had a good team,” Peterson told me in December. “Sophomore year, I knew I just wasn’t in the right place, and I knew I had to make a change."

It didn't take long for Peterson to make an impact with the Bulldogs once he debuted Dec. 17 against Bemidji State. He has four goals and six points in nine games, including a pair of multi-point outings. And you can give Peterson some credit for the emergence of freshman Riley Tufte as a scoring threat. The two have a lot of chemistry, as evidenced by Peterson's breakaway goal last Friday against Minnesota.

Peterson still keeps in touch with his old teammates from Omaha. He talked in December about making a lot of friends there, but it isn't lost on everyone how much happier Peterson seems now that he's a Bulldog.

When I chatted with CBS Sports Network analyst Dave Starman in Grand Forks, he referenced how much better Peterson has been playing this season and opined at least part of that was that he was more comfortable in Duluth than he was in Omaha.

Peterson eluded to that in December.

“Nothing against Omaha," he said then, "but the coaching staff here does such a tremendous job with skill development, the vibe in the locker room, just the overall feeling here is so positive.”


The UMD women's hockey team can secure its first 20-win season under coach Maura Crowell this weekend as it hosts North Dakota. The Bulldogs can also stay very much alive in the WCHA title race, and take another step towards securing their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2011.

UMD (18-4-4, 15-4-3 WCHA) has already sewn up home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, which will begin Feb. 23.

(The UMD men already play a Thursday-Friday series that week against Miami, and the women's playoff series will end up being scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Sunday if necessary, because of high school hockey playoffs going on all day that Saturday at Amsoil Arena.)

The Bulldogs have six games left in the regular season, and trail first-place Wisconsin by ten points. More realistically, I suppose, Minnesota is one point ahead in second place.

In case you're wondering, Wisconsin is at Bemidji State this weekend before hosting UMD and traveling to Minnesota to finish the regular season. The Gophers are at Minnesota State this week, then host North Dakota. UMD gets UND this week, then the Wisconsin trip before finishing the regular season at home against St. Cloud State.

For UMD to catch Wisconsin, it needs to sweep the Badgers next week in Madison, then gain at least four points on them in the other four games. Since Minnesota should be competitive with Wisconsin, it isn't unrealistic to suggest the Bulldogs could catch UW if they can get those six points next Saturday and Sunday.

Anyway, matters at hand. FOCUS, Bruce.

UMD won and tied in Grand Forks in November, but North Dakota is vastly improved as of late. The Fighting Hawks played tough at Wisconsin (two one-goal losses) and got five points against Bemidji State last week to clinch the final home-ice spot for the first round of the playoffs. It's a great goaltending matchup, with UMD's Maddie Rooney (.940 save percentage) up against UND's Lexie Shaw (.934).

More importantly, UMD is trying to pack the place on Saturday afternoon. It's the annual Cram The Am. $1 tickets are available now, and fans can get in free by bringing either a non-perishable food donation or by showing their ticket to Saturday's UMD men's game. It's a great opportunity to see some good hockey, and get a first-hand look at this UMD women's team, which is a lot of fun to watch and has certainly earned your support this season.

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