Monday, March 06, 2017

Monday Musings: Split With Western Michigan Sets UMD Up For Postseason

Much better, more composed performance from UMD in Saturday's 6-3 win over Western Michigan in Kalamazoo. That they did it without big-minute defenseman Carson Soucy is a gigantic bonus, in my view.

There wasn't a long list of players who played well in Friday's game. UMD was guilty of missed coverages and not doing enough to get to the net front and disrupt WMU goalie Ben Blacker. Saturday's tone was set in the first period, when the Bulldogs were getting outshot in the early going but not letting anyone get second chances in Hunter Miska's kitchen. Then, the first Western Michigan penalty of the game ended up in the back of the Broncos' net when a shooting mentality and net drive led to Jared Thomas' first goal in 70 games, going back to Oct. 17, 2015.

A couple minutes later, Western captain Sheldon Dries took an undisciplined penalty and ended up in the box for six seconds. Why six seconds? Because Adam Johnson walked the blue line, found a lane, and scored off a Joey Anderson tip (yes, we know Johnson got official credit, but both he and Anderson said after the game it was tipped). It was a perfect example of a player up high finding a way to get a puck through to give UMD a scoring chance.

This time of year, you have to score that way.

You also have to, at this time of the season, deal with pushback from the team that trails. Down 2-0, Western Michigan didn't lay down. The Broncos leveled by the midway point of the second, and kept pushing to take the lead before UMD got a break late in the period. Blacker came out to play a dump-in and turned it over to Karson Kuhlman on the right wing. Kuhlman whipped the puck toward the net as Blacker hustled back to the crease. He stopped Kuhlman's shot, but Adam Johnson poked it by him as he kept sliding back out of the crease, and the puck crossed the line before the mass of bodies took the net off.

UMD seized the momentum, getting an Avery Peterson goal early in the third before Anderson made a great individual effort off the wall and ripped a shot by Blacker to chase him from the game.

The win is UMD's 21st of the season and it keeps the Bulldogs safely in the second spot of the PairWise rankings. UMD finishes NCHC play in second place after Denver swept Omaha over the weekend.

(Like I said last week, UMD didn't lose this conference title. Denver won it, going on a tear here down the stretch and looking every bit the national championship contender we believe them to be.)


UMD had to shake some adversity. Soucy was injured late in Friday's loss when he got tangled with Western forward Griffen Molino. Nothing malicious in any way, but Soucy fell awkwardly after Molino collided low trying to get in front of a shot. He hobbled off the ice and didn't return, and didn't dress Saturday. As for prognosis and the like, we should know more in the early part of the week. Keep the fingers crossed for good news.

Without him, UMD went with freshman Jarod Hilderman and mixed up pairings. We saw a lot of Neal Pionk with Willie Raskob, and they were very good. It was one of Raskob's best games in a while, and Pionk was his usual self. If Soucy is gone for any length of time, these are the two I expect the Bulldogs to ride. Both are capable of handling big minutes and can be dynamic players moving the puck. Pionk's shot is a game-changer.

Dan Molenaar and Brenden Kotyk also saw a lot of minutes Saturday and did quite well. Kotyk had an assist and blocked shots like normal. Molenaar played in his 33rd straight game -- a great accomplishment for a guy who had been so snakebit by injury and illness in his UMD career -- and continued his stretch of very consistent work on the blue line.

UMD also played without forward Riley Tufte (illness), who was sick on and off during the day and ruled out after the team got the rink pregame Saturday. Tufte told me at the airport Sunday he was already feeling better, so hopefully he's a full go this week for Miami. Same for forward Kyle Osterberg, who left late in the first with an upper-body injury after a check to the head. He did not return, but hopefully recovers in time to go this week.


Next up for UMD is the only weekend of playoffs that can't end its season. The Bulldogs will host Miami in a first-round NCHC playoff series starting Friday at 7. Same Miami team that gave UMD fits two weeks ago, but one swept last week at home by North Dakota.

The RedHawks need to win the league tournament to move on, and UMD wants to build off what it accomplished in a strong effort on Saturday.

Also, the UMD women and WCHA Tournament MVP Maddie Rooney host Minnesota Saturday afternoon. We'll have all the hockey this weekend on the radio, and preview stuff coming on the blog so watch for that.

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