Friday, March 31, 2017

Frozen Four: Bulldogs Return to Glory

It doesn't always work out this way.

For every Justin Fontaine, who returned to UMD for a chance at a national championship that didn't elude him, there's a Jimmy Vesey, who returned to Harvard, won the Hobey Baker, but whose team couldn't get out of the first round last year.

For every Carson Soucy, who returned to UMD this year for a chance at redemption in the NCAA regionals after two years of heartbreaking losses in the round of eight, there's a Joey LaLeggia, a pure superstar in college who played out his four years at Denver but fell short of the Frozen Four as a senior.

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

It's one thing to have a group like the one UMD has. Players like Soucy, captain Dominic Toninato, and linemate Alex Iafallo could very easily have turned pro after last season. They had good college careers, but no one would have batted an eye if they gave up their last year for the chance to play for real money and take steps toward the NHL.

"They came back for a reason," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said recently. Actually, he's said it at least three times that I remember.

"For us as coaches," he told me in February, "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."

That word. Culture.

Such a meaningful term in sports. In this case, it's what Sandelin and his staff have worked to achieve for 17 years. When impactful seniors, great players, and great leaders leave the program, there are bodies waiting to fill those roles. At UMD, this hasn't always been the case, but now you're seeing it develop.

Yes, the Bulldogs lose Soucy, Toninato, and Iafallo, along with Willie Raskob, Brenden Kotyk, Dan Molenaar, and Kyle Osterberg. All seven are having perhaps their best seasons at UMD, for a variety of reasons. Toninato and Iafallo continue to be top 200-foot players while being as productive as ever. Soucy was having a good offensive season before being injured. Raskob has stepped up big-time since Soucy was lost, and Kotyk has shaken off a late-season injury to be a continued shot-blocking fixture. Molenaar is finally healthy after a snakebit career to this point. Osterberg has stayed healthy while producing big goals and drawing key penalties at key times.

It's an impact not often made at UMD, but a look at the top of the NCHC shows two top programs nationally -- Denver and North Dakota -- that reload without rebuilding on a seemingly annual basis. It's a good roadmap for the future of the Bulldogs.

While they will leave a hell of a leadership void when they're done, UMD is hoping to have built a culture where others step in. Guys like Karson Kuhlman, Avery Peterson, Jared Thomas, Parker Mackay, Adam Johnson, Neal Pionk, and eventually Nick Wolff will be expected to help fill that void. And, again, they're all capable in their own way. 

With what UMD loses once this awesome season ends, the Bulldogs will unquestionably need everyone who stays to pull some of that weight. Next year's team will be younger, with some high-end skill on the way. The mix will be different, for sure, but the goals will be unchanged.


Soucy is in an interesting spot. He's missed seven games with an injury, but has not been ruled out for the Frozen Four semifinal Thursday against Harvard in Chicago. While he's done what he can as a cheerleader and perhaps a behind-the-scenes coach of sorts, helping Wolff and fellow freshman Jarod Hilderman on the blue line, he's itching to play.

"It's not easy," Soucy said. "You focus on what you can do to help the team. Stay positive, give a little advice here and there. Our whole D-corps played big minutes against skilled teams. Not always easy to watch, but fun to see us win."

Soucy was watching Saturday's regional final with the other UMD scratches when Johnson netted the game-winner on a power play at 1:57 of overtime.

"If you would have videotaped our reaction, it would have been pretty funny," he said. "It was pretty quick, chairs going back, we got a big hug, then sprinted downstairs. You could see our guys' emotion, because we worked all year to get to this spot.

"Getting over that hump, that game we've lost the last two years. It's going to be fun to play, if I can, and I think our team's excited for it."

Sandelin wouldn't elaborate on Soucy's status Wednesday after telling media Tuesday that he remains "week to week". Soucy did practice Wednesday after being able to skate with the team last week in Fargo, but there's simply no definitive word on whether there's a chance he plays Thursday against the Crimson.

Remember, this is a lower-body injury, so Soucy wasn't skating for some time. He has to not only get his body back in "hockey shape" and be sure he's okay to take contact, but there's a conditioning element involved, too.


Team and staff (and your humble correspondent) fly to Chicago Tuesday. Media activities at United Center Wednesday. Semifinals Thursday. Join us on 92.1 The Fan if you can. #ListenToTheRadio 

No comments: