"Hard to beat a team (insert a number) times in a row during a season."
It's true. Just look at Saturday night, where UMD tried to beat North Dakota for a fifth time in five meetings this season (sixth time overall). It was anything but easy.
In an intense, emotional, penalty-filled game, the Bulldogs used a late five-on-three goal from Joey Anderson to beat UND 4-3 and claim their first conference tournament championship since 2009. It's the second conference title for UMD under Scott Sandelin, and now the Bulldogs head to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in seven years. It's the first time ever that any UMD team in any sport has made the national tournament five out of seven years.
Actually, calling it "intense", "emotional", and "penalty-filled" is probably understating it. This was as crazy a game as I've seen in a long time. There were more combined penalty minutes in the Colorado College game Feb. 18, but this game had a level of intensity that one never got to. Saturday was an example of two rivals fighting for something valuable, and it was the kind of night that would be difficult to duplicate.
Unless the teams play again ... with a spot in the Frozen Four on the line. In Fargo. But I digress.
The fact UMD found a way to win this game Saturday night is an unrelenting positive in a season full of them. It was far from a perfect performance, with North Dakota doing a fantastic job of putting the Bulldogs on their heels early, with the help of some sketchy penalty calls. But UMD was frustrated, as evidenced by sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk taking a five-minute major for charging UND goalie Cam Johnson during a short-handed rush.
(Frankly, wouldn't have been mad if Pionk had been tossed for it, but right before the hit, it looks like he loses his balance a bit, as if he were trying to stop and couldn't. Weird sequence looking at the clip, and it was probably enough to keep him in the game.)
After UMD killed the major (had already gone down 1-0 on a Brock Boeser power play goal, so that was a gigantic kill) and the first period ended, Pionk appeared to be speared by UND's Cole Smith. No call came, but UMD captain Dominic Toninato was irate after the period ended (justifiably so), and UMD carried that emotion into the start of the second period.
Toninato, Riley Tufte, and Adam Johnson scored goals 58 seconds apart in the second, and just like that UMD had a 3-1 lead. It took two more long five-on-three UND power plays -- one in the second and one late in the third -- for the Fighting Hawks to level the score on goals by Tyson Jost and Trevor Olson. That set up Anderson's goal, which came after back to back UND penalties gave the Bulldogs their first five-on-three of the game.
Deep down, I can't imagine either coach was pleased with the penalty minutes his team took in this game. But a deeper dive into the numbers shows that there may have been some mitigating factors involved.
First off, we need to throw out the coincidental penalties and operate under the assumption all those minutes were earned. That will take away 20 of the game's 57 minutes. Of the 37 remaining minutes that were assessed, I don't think any reasonable argument can be made against the following calls:
Pionk's major for charging (5)
Olson's roughing penalty in the second (2)
Jared Thomas' minor for tripping in the second (2)
Rhett Gardner slashing minor in the second (2)
Riley Tufte's penalty for interference late in the second (2)
Johnny Simonson high sticking penalty in the third (2)
That leaves 22 of 37 minutes that were either questionable or not-very-good calls, including the last two on UMD that gave UND the late five-on-three it tied the game with, and the last two on UND that gave UMD the five-on-three it won the game with.
This isn't to completely absolve the players of responsibility for their role in Saturday's various fiascoes. There is no excuse for Pionk blasting Cam Johnson like he did. Similarly, no excuse for Smith spearing Pionk. Gardner and Simonson for UND took silly, unnecessary penalties. This stuff happens, especially when a game is played at the level and intensity this one was. Emotions are bound to run high.
But referees Todd Anderson and Geno Binda have to be considered culpable. More than once, they rewarded both teams for clear embellishment and set a bad tone for the game. I don't know the last time I saw a college hockey game -- especially in the postseason -- where there were four five-on-three power plays. And three of the four were more than a minute in scheduled length. It was too much, and I stand by what I said on the air and on Twitter during the game: It took away from the game. That's unfortunate.
However, it's worth noting that they weren't working the conference championship game by accident. They earned that throughout the season, and that fact shouldn't be forgotten in everyone's consternation over how this game played out.
Many UMD players should be applauded for their efforts on Saturday. Toninato was a leader in every sense, getting the first goal and on multiple occasions trying to stand up for his teammates. Alex Iafallo not only has points in 11 straight games, but he has ten points in the last five. Anderson has re-emerged after his production slipped after returning from the World Juniors. He has six points in his last five games after being held off the board for five straight.
Osterberg blocked five of the 26 shots UMD got a piece of in Saturday's game. Brenden Kotyk blocked shots and was physical. Hunter Miska made a few brilliant saves in goal and had a fantastic weekend, erasing any questions about his ability to step up and play well in big games as a freshman.
(There were legit questions about Miska in a big-game environment, something CBS Sports Network analyst and brilliant mind Dave Starman referenced on Beyond The Pond Saturday. He answered those questions Saturday night, and did so emphatically.)
Tufte made a few plays, including getting by Christian Wolanin and steaming down the right wing before sniping a shot home to give UMD the lead in the second period. He was a beast at times in Friday's game, too, and it's just fun to watch him show more and more signs of his development.
More than anything, these guys stuck up for one another when necessary and stuck with the game. There were a lot of opportunities to be discouraged and wonder if this was UMD's night. Instead of that, they stayed with what they wanted to do, and as Toninato said Sunday after the selection show, "controlled what we could control."
"Lot of emotions in those games," Sandelin said. "We've played North Dakota a lot. I thought the kill (late in the first after the Pionk major) was outstanding. To get out of that period the way it was going being down one, I was pretty excited for our guys. We finally had a good second period.
"It was an interesting game for sure. Lots of ups and downs."
Plenty to be excited about, as UMD won a couple games playoff-style. By any means necessary.
Now, it's back to North Dakota. UMD is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA West Regional, and will play Ohio State Friday at 5:30.
The Buckeyes can fill the net, led by sophomore Mason Jobst (19 goals, 55 points) and senior Nick Schilkey (27 goals, 41 points). Ohio State averages 3.97 goals per game, but also concedes 2.98 per game. The power play hits at 32.5 percent, including over 38 percent in Big Ten play.
tOSU is coached by former UMD assistant Steve Rohlik, who was with the Bulldogs from 2000-2010 and recruited many of the players UMD won a national championship with in 2011. Brett Larson was a part of the Ohio State staff before returning to UMD two years ago when Derek Plante stepped down.
"I've seen them a little bit," Sandelin said. "I know they have the ability to score goals and play a real pace game. We've got to keep doing the things we're good at."
Lots of talk about UMD and North Dakota meeting again in the regional final, which could certainly happen, but Ohio State and Boston University will have something to say about that first.
We'll be traveling to Fargo on Thursday morning. Expect content from the team press conferences that day at Scheels Arena. Full game preview coming as well.