When you look at the standings, however, you'll see it doesn't matter if it was pretty or not. They all count the same, and Adam Johnson's late power-play goal gave UMD a 2-1 win over Colorado College Friday night.
The win run's UMD's unbeaten streak to eight. It also improves UMD to 11-1-2 away from Duluth this season, an .857 winning percentage that leads the country. The Bulldogs also stay within one point of Denver for the top spot in the NCHC, as the Pioneers won at Miami 5-2.
As I said at the top, this wasn't in any way a beautiful game. Under third-year coach Mike Haviland, Colorado College is playing a much more disciplined defensive style. Part of that is out of necessity, as Haviland found a pretty bare cupboard upon his arrival in this fair city and needed to do some quick recruiting just to fill his roster. The 2016-17 roster features 31 players, but only six seniors, and only three of the six play regularly.
Haviland is steadfast in his belief the program is making progress. Freshman goalie Alex Leclerc has benefitted from more consistent play in front of him and has put together a solid season. The Tigers struggle mightily to score goals, but Leclerc and Haviland's defensive system -- when played well -- keep this team in games.
"It's a tough thing to rebuild," Haviland told me Friday. "It doesn't happen overnight, especially when you have to play (No.) 2 and then (No.) 1 every other weekend. There's not a lot of letup in this conference. We're starting to get some guys down the road. It's not pro hockey. It takes three, four, five years to really start to see the (benefits) of the recruiting wars you have to get into."
Haviland also noted that CC's starting goalie has been a freshman in each of his three years on the job. Last year, it was Jacob Nehama, who has been injured most of this year. Before that, Chase Perry was tabbed as the guy before he lost the job to sophomore Tyler Marble, who hadn't played a college game before that season.
Do I expect the Tigers to be trying to grind down opponents five years from now? I don't know. But they are now, and it continues to be a good test for UMD, which finds it more difficult to play its preferred style of hockey against Colorado College.
There were a couple segments of Friday where it looked like UMD was getting a little frustrated. But give the visitors credit. Even when nothing was really going all that well, the Bulldogs didn't sacrifice defensive structure or posture while trying to create offense. UMD used stretch plays to try to open things up a bit. There were a couple times the Bulldogs eschewed a controlled breakout and flew a wing up the rink, and it worked for one Joey Anderson breakaway and should have worked a second time, but he couldn't control the outlet pass.
That was an issue a couple different times during the game. UMD missed out on good rush opportunities when players couldn't keep control of the puck or fanned on shots or passes. Scott Sandelin referenced it postgame with Matt Wellens, using the term "moxie", which works pretty well.
“I thought we could have done a little bit better job with a little more poise or moxie with the shots,” Sandelin said. “We fired some with our head down right into them, but they clawed and got up. They are good at blocking shots.
“We just have to do a little bit better job, but you know what? I don’t care. I don’t worry about how many shots you’re getting because I’d rather have the puck and make them defend. Hopefully we can do more of that and when you do that, maybe things will open up.”
By the way, CC's power play goal in the first period broke a couple long streaks. Freshman goalie Hunter Miska's scoreless run stopped at exactly 97 minutes. Also, UMD hadn't allowed a goal in the Broadmoor World Arena since the 2013-14 season, and its overall scoreless streak in that building ended at 156 minutes, 56 seconds. Three goalies -- Aaron Crandall, Kasimir Kaskisuo, and Miska -- contributed to that stretch for UMD.
The turning point of the game came at the 1:48 mark of the third period, when UMD junior Karson Kuhlman was given a five-minute major for boarding good friend and Tigers sophomore Westin Michaud. Live action, it looked like textbook boarding, though the major may have been an overreaction to Michaud being banged up and having to leave the game. The only replay I saw was basically live action from the main TV camera, and did nothing to change that opinion. However, based on the reaction I saw on Twitter, the slow-motion replays on CBS Sports Network -- which did the game Friday -- showed very little contact between the two at all.
I still have not seen these replays and can't comment further.
What I can comment on was it was one of UMD's better penalty kills of the season. CC had three shots over the five minutes, all from far away by defenseman Teemu Kivihalme, none of them a very serious threat to get by Miska, who was strong again when he had to be but didn't have to be spectacular, something Sandelin referenced before the game as he implored his team to play a stronger game defensively.
"Overall, we've been a little loose defensively," Sandelin said before Friday's tilt. "Structurally, we need to make sure we're doing the things we need to and helping each other out. We don't want Hunter to have to be great every game. I want him to be comfortable and just play his game and not feel like he's got to win games."
For at least one night, Sandelin got his wish, and that major penalty kill was a huge example of it. Senior Kyle Osterberg hustled to loose pucks and killed precious time. The kill structure was good, keeping things to the outside, and CC didn't have any way to get the puck to the middle of the rink, as UMD defended the slot wonderfully. The Tigers also couldn't get pucks through to Miska, and when they did, he was all over them.
From the point Kuhlman was released from the box to the end of the game, with 13:12 left in the third period, the Tigers had just two shots on goal, both of them in quick succession right after the penalty ended. CC had no shots for the last 12-plus minutes of the game. Better yet for UMD, the Tigers only attempted three shots, two wide and one blocked, both after UMD had taken the lead on Johnson's power-play goal.
Another example of the in-game improvement Friday:
After a good start in the faceoff circle, things went south for UMD in the second period. Colorado College won 16 of 21 second-period draws, including a couple key offensive-zone faceoffs that forced UMD to retreat when it should have been attacking.
But UMD turned the tables in the third, winning 12 of 17 faceoffs and forcing Colorado College to defend.
I don't care how good a team is on the defensive side of the game. When you're consistently forcing them to play defense, it's a good recipe to wear down the adversary, which is how mistakes happen. Then you can be in good position to take advantage of the lapses in coverage brought on by fatigue.
UMD did a much better job of attacking the Tigers Friday than it did in the previous series in Duluth. Players showed more willingness to go to the tough areas, even if they didn't make plays when there. The next step in this rematch Saturday is to make those quick plays that can lead to more offense. UMD left a few good scoring chances on the table Friday, chances that the Bulldogs have typically been pretty good at bearing down on. I'll take my chances with that kind of performance over the long haul.
I asked the Twitter people for questions. Here are a few.
Peter Sandelin (@sand0393): Why does college hockey/NCHC struggle with such inconsistency on the 5 minute major call? Ex: Kuhlman. Its such a game-changer.
Got a lot of tweets on the Kuhlman major. I can't comment on it, as mentioned above, because I didn't see the decisive replay angle.
But I can make a comparison to a play that happened in the NHL Thursday night. Wild forward Nino Niederreiter was assessed a major penalty for interference after what appeared at first glance to be a dirty hit on Dallas Stars forward and model Patrick Sharp. Just look at the animation in this article. Looks terrible, right?
But what that piece of animation doesn't show is that Niederreiter was clipped and knocked off balance by Dallas' Radek Faksa and had no time to avoid the contact on Sharp, who had no chance to avoid Niederreiter.
Until officials are allowed to look at video replay on a hit like this -- and possibly Kuhlman's as well -- you're going to continue to see these vast inconsistencies on calls. And let's call it like it is. Officials see a hit like this out of the corner of their eye because it's far enough away from the puck, and they are human beings who see a dangerous play and try to construct how it really happened. Sometimes, they aren't going to be right. All the more reason to allow video replay of the hit.
Look at the replay of that hit by Niederreiter, and it's a minor penalty (by the rule the NCAA uses in the postseason, a penalty must be called in order for it to be reviewed). It's unfathomable to me that officials are still not allowed to look at these plays. And it's not their fault. They don't make the rules.
Kendal (@KendalKillian): I hate this kind of logic normally, but are we sure we as UMD fans want the #1 seed and another date with this CC club?
Probably not. 😄
I get it. This isn't an easy style to play against, and it can be hard on the eyes for fans. But you're kidding yourselves if you think Colorado College is the only team out there that tries to lock teams down defensively.
I mean, Bemidji State, anyone? And if the season ended today, the Beavers would be UMD's first round opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
Cornell, UMass-Lowell, and Providence are other teams currently in the field that can make life a living hell for a team like UMD.
My point? The Bulldogs have to beat this style when it matters most. The more experience they get against it, the better.
(I admit it: I joked privately about this during the game Friday. But UMD isn't throwing the league title to avoid Colorado College in the first round. I can promise you that.)
Eric Burton (@goon48): still want to go to Fargo?
I'm happy to travel to whatever regional UMD is assigned to play in. Good luck sucking me into that trap.
Pat Micheletti (@patmick2626): Who is the best team in the country?
I believe both John Buccigross -- who calls the Frozen Four for ESPN -- and College Hockey News' Joe Meloni have both opined this, so it's not an original thought.
Having only seen Boston University and Harvard on TV makes this tough, but I think UMD and Denver have separated themselves a little bit from everyone else.
Who's better between UMD and Denver? Good luck getting me to answer that. I just hope the Bulldogs get to play DU two more times to find out (NCHC and NCAA tourneys).
Kjestine (@kjestine15): do you think a slower paced game with lots of whistles, like the 1st last night is better for our opponents or us?
Not sure it matters a ton, but it probably leans toward the adversary. This UMD team is pretty good at playing with patience and discipline and taking what is given to it. As long as that continues, I don't see it being a huge issue when teams try to slow the game down. Obviously, it does create some close games, which can be problematic in the NCAAs, which of course are a one-game out. But I'm willing to take my chances with this team.
Thanks to everyone for the questions.
Elsewhere in the NCHC, Denver got three late goals to get by Miami 5-2. Will Butcher started the rally with the winner after Miami scored twice early in the third to rally from 2-0 down for a tie. Dylan Gambrell scored twice for DU.
In Kalamazoo, Sheldon Dries broke a 2-2 tie with just under seven minutes to play, and Western Michigan went on to beat North Dakota 4-2. Ben Blacker made 32 saves for the Broncos, who opened up a four-point lead on idle St. Cloud State for third place in the conference.
The updated NCHC standings, followed by the max points for each team, are listed below.
Western Michigan 32
St. Cloud State 28
North Dakota 26
Colorado College 11
Western Michigan 47
North Dakota 41
St. Cloud State 40
Colorado College 26
Also Friday, the UMD women got goals from Katie McGovern and Sydney Brodt in a 2-1 win over St. Cloud State at Amsoil Arena. UMD honors its senior class after Saturday's 4pm game against the Huskies. UMD will more than likely finish third in the WCHA (needs to beat SCSU and have Wisconsin sweep Minnesota in Minneapolis to move to second), which means a home series against the sixth-place team starting Thursday. That sixth-place team will be either Bemidji State, Ohio State, or St. Cloud State, depending on how the rest of the weekend goes. Too many scenarios to try to lay everything out.