Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bulldogs Guaranteed Two-Game Weekend for Final Time This Season, Facing Western Michigan at NCHC Frozen Faceoff

Last year, this weekend brought a lot of pressure for the UMD men's hockey team. The Bulldogs knew they had to win at least once at last year's NCHC Frozen Faceoff to be in good position for an NCAA bid.

This year, UMD could win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and not help its place in the PairWise. The Bulldogs, as I wrote Wednesday, will finish first, second, or third in the final rankings, and will be a No. 1 regional seed next weekend.

(Officially rooting for three NCHC teams to finish in the top four, with North Dakota as a No. 4 regional seed, setting up the possibility of an all-NCHC Frozen Four that the NCAA committee can't stop from happening even if it wanted to.)

First things first, UMD gets another rematch against a recent opponent Friday at Target Center, with a semifinal game against Western Michigan. Fifth meeting of the season between these two top-five PWR teams, and the Broncos have to be seething a bit after UMD ruined Senior Night in Kalamazoo with a 6-3 win March 4.

It'll be the final weekend where teams are guaranteed two games. Starting with regionals next weekend, it's one and done until you either lose a game or hoist the big trophy in Chicago.

Broncos coach Andy Murray, who is in his second Frozen Faceoff but first since the league's inaugural year of 2013-14, knows what his group is up against. He said the preparation doesn't change at all when facing a very familiar opponent.

"We prepare for every league opponent the same way," Murray said this week. "It's all based on what we want to get done in a game, not necessarily adjusting to what the other team does."

The Broncos won eight games last year, including a 1-15-2 finish to the season. Murray has lauded his older players and all the returnees for helping change the culture in the room and improve the commitment level of everyone.

"This is a real special group of seniors we've got," he said. "The group of upperclassmen, first and foremost they're quality people, great students, and they do things right. They were not happy with what happened here last year. They had a taste of what it was like to be in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff their freshman year, and they're glad to be back."

"Last year was definitely a learning lesson," three-year captain Sheldon Dries said. "It was really the mentality of every guy on the team, coming here with a new attitude. Proving something not only to ourselves, but Western Michigan as a whole and the community of Kalamazoo."

On getting back to Minneapolis, Dries said it "means a lot, not just to the seniors but to the whole team."

In recent years, Western Michigan had a reputation of being a team that could clog up the middle of the ice and play strong in its own zone, but didn't have the offensive firepower to back that up.

Now, that's changed. Remarkably.

Not only can Western play strong in the defensive zone, but it's as good a transition team as any out there. Look at the Broncos against UMD in Kalamazoo, where they scored eight goals (five Friday, three Saturday) with a goalie in the net. Of the eight, six of them came off the rush, three in each game.

"In the last series we had, there were a lot of goals scored," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "They're a team that plays with a lot of pace. They present some challenges defensively for us. I think we've been a pretty good team (defensively) all year, just need to tighten up a few things. The Saturday game there I think we did a much better job. You don't want to get in a lot of 5-4 games, if it happens it happens, as long as you come out on top."


I wrote about Nick Wolff in my Monday blog, discussing his continually-improving play that culminated in his first collegiate goal in Saturday's win over Miami.

Sandelin: "I think him and Danny (Molenaar) have been a really good pair together. I think for him, he's grown through the year. He's gained confidence. He's a little more comfortable with the puck. I think he's had a pretty consistent year for a freshman. He's been one of our pleasant surprises from the start of the year until now. He brings an element that's nice. He brings an edge, he's physical, he competes hard every shift. But he has good hands, he's made a lot of little plays coming out of the zone that maybe go unnoticed, but we notice them."

Call me a jinx all you want, but I noted that he has not taken a major penalty this season. For a bigger, physical defenseman to come in as a freshman and avoid even getting slapped with a head contact major for a big hit that looks worse live than it probably is on replay says a lot about how smart he is and how he plays the game. Wolff has played 31 games. It's not an accident anymore. He knows what he's doing.

"The penalty he took (last weekend), I wouldn't change that," Sandelin said. "He's an imposing guy, he's hard to play against. There's guys in our league who've played against him in high school hockey and junior hockey and they know that. It's been fun to watch him grow through the year, a big part of our D-corps."

With Carson Soucy (lower body) ruled out for the weekend, Wolff, Molenaar, and company will again be asked to carry a bigger share of the workload. They've shown they're capable, and managing those minutes should be at least a little easier in games like this, where UMD is the designated home team and has choice of matchups.

Of course, UMD also possesses some matchup nightmares up front. Adam Johnson was really good in the series in Kalamazoo. After getting knocked around to the tune of a minus-12 aggregate, the line of Dominic Toninato, Alex Iafallo, and Joey Anderson were very sharp in the Saturday game out there. When the teams met in Duluth back in November, Sandelin didn't shy away from matching Toninato's line with Dries' line for the Broncos. Murray really didn't in Kalamazoo, either. I anticipate we'll see a lot of that on Friday as well. Strength vs strength. Whoever's strength plays better has the upper hand.


The winner of this semifinal game moves into Saturday's championship and will be facing a team on a winning streak. The question is how long will that winning streak be?

The second semifinal pits North Dakota -- winner of four in a row -- against top-ranked and top-seeded Denver, which enters on a 13-game winning streak. UND's 2016-17 season has some parallels to UMD's 2015-16 campaign, where a seven-game streak late got the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament. UND needs a win to cement a bid in the tournament, and could actually get as high as seventh overall with a two-win weekend.

Denver is a top three overall team, no matter what, but the Pioneers are chasing a second NCHC playoff title as the NCAAs approach. Good luck dealing with this team, which has high-end skill up front, depth, and a top defenseman in Will Butcher (only NCHC player to make the Hobey Baker top ten finalists) who can play big minutes.

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