Monday, March 13, 2017

Monday Musings: UMD Rallies Late, Sweeps Miami, Advances to NCHC Frozen Faceoff

UMD started strong in Saturday's Game 2 against Miami, and appeared poised to blow the RedHawks out of the building in the first period. Shots were 10-0 about halfway through the first, 16-4 for the period, but UMD only led 1-0 on an early Brenden Kotyk goal.

We've seen this script play out a few times through the season. UMD couldn't find another goal, and Miami was very much in the game heading into the second period.

Freshman Nick Wolff's first collegiate goal gave UMD a 2-0 lead in the second, but the inability to find another goal during the first-period surge came back to haunt the home team. Miami got a power play goal to cut the lead in half. Then early in the third, the RedHawks scored goals 1:52 apart for a 3-2 lead that seemed to stun those in attendance.

But like it has all season, the Bulldogs found a way back. Jared Thomas scored for the second time in three games, a sharp-angle shot that seemed to trickle in off the pad of Miami goalie Chase Munroe to tie the game 3-3 with 6:35 to play. Barely two minutes later, Alex Iafallo put a world-class inside-out move on Miami defenseman Grant Hutton before wiring a wrist shot by Munroe for the eventual game-winning goal. Captain Dominic Toninato added a late empty-netter to seal the deal in a 5-3 win that sends UMD back to Target Center for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

(Iafallo, by the way, takes his second nine-game point streak of the season into the NCHC Frozen Faceoff this coming weekend. He's over 40 points on the season now, and when UMD needed them most, both he and Toninato were stellar this past weekend. If that continues, this team will be very hard for anyone to handle.)

You don't get to 23-6-7 and the second spot in the national rankings (PairWise at least) without figuring a way around a few bumps along the way. Nothing is smooth, not even for what almost appears to be a juggernaut in Denver. UMD has overcome slow starts, big deficits, and now an injury to top defenseman Carson Soucy to keep winning.

Soucy, by the way, got cornered by Matt Wellens during Saturday's game.

Good news, for sure. UMD used Adam Johnson on defense Friday, and even though Scott Sandelin wouldn't rule out that look in the future, he was playing forward by the third period and played it the whole game Saturday. His line with Kyle Osterberg and Parker Mackay combined for three assists and a plus-five in the game. Jarod Hilderman played on defense, but appeared to be a bit limited in terms of minutes and situations.

Basically playing five defensemen and spotting Hilderman is something UMD can manage at this point, maybe on a game-by-game basis depending on the opponent. I thought Hilderman was quite good in the Saturday game at Western Michigan, so maybe he plays in Friday's semifinal against the Broncos and we'll see what happens on Saturday? Early speculation, as we have the whole week to look at that.


Perhaps one of the reasons for Johnson being shifted back up front: The play of Wolff. As I said on the air Saturday, one of the joys of seeing every game UMD plays is you can see the young guys make incremental progress each weekend.

And Wolff is absolutely progressing. He's earning more ice time, which makes it tough to justify trying to assimilate Johnson to what's a new position for him at this level.

If you hadn't watched much of UMD in February, you might have missed the jump Wolff has taken in terms of his level of play. He scored his first goal on Saturday as part of a three-point night, but Wolff was also active with team-high six shots on goal and had a plus-four rating. For a guy who's been pretty steadily improving in the defensive zone, Saturday's game was an offensive breakout.

Wolff has shown his physical side more than a few times this season, and for a freshman, he's done a really good job making big hits without taking penalties for being too aggressive. That he hasn't taken a major this season -- while being unafraid to play a physical game -- is saying something, especially when you consider current UMD defensemen Soucy, Willie Raskob, and Neal Pionk all took at least one major penalty as a freshman.

Speaking of Raskob and Pionk, Wolff's emergence also takes more pressure off them, and it indirectly takes some heat off Soucy, who doesn't have to feel the need to rush back in the lineup before he's ready to do so.


Western Michigan is next up for the Bulldogs, Friday at 4pm in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinals. The Broncos needed overtime of a third game to take down Omaha 2-1 on a Michael Rebry game-winning goal.

(The NCHC has set a precedent of letting the top seed express its preference for which semifinal it plays in, and commissioner Josh Fenton said Monday Denver wanted to play in the late game. There's certainly something to be said for keeping the players' routines, and most DU Friday games started at 7:30pm local time. But there's a benefit to being in the early game, because wonky game times are fairly commonplace in the NCAAs, and it's a chance to get the body clocks tuned for the odd 4pm game start that isn't so odd in the national tournament.)

Freshman Ben Blacker was outstanding all weekend for Western, allowing just five goals on 98 shots, including one on 37 in Sunday's series-deciding game.

The teams split four games in the regular season, with Western Michigan winning the Friday games (4-3 in Duluth, then 7-4 in Kalamazoo) before the Bulldogs rallied to take Saturday affairs (2-0 and 6-3).

UMD struggled against Western Michigan's top players, most notably Colt Conrad, Sheldon Dries, and Griffen Molino, and especially in Kalamazoo. This time around, UMD will be the designated home team and able to exercise some control over matchups. Barring injuries or a Soucy return, I would anticipate the same lineup Friday against Western as we saw Saturday against Miami.

In terms of PairWise, UMD remains second, and if you use the predictor tool of your choice for the upcoming weekend, you'll probably find any final seeding between 1-3 is realistic. Lots of different ways to get UMD to any of those spots, not really any ways to get UMD to any spot below the third overall seed.


A final note of thanks and congratulations to the UMD women's hockey team on a great season. It came to end Saturday with a 1-0 loss to Minnesota in the NCAA quarterfinals. For five seniors -- forwards Ashleigh Brykaliuk, Demi Crossman, Katie McGovern, and Lara Stalder, along with defenseman Sidney Morin -- and junior Maria Lindh (graduating), it was the final game in a UMD jersey.

They laid everything on the line and have nothing to hang their heads about from a superb effort that fell just a goal short.

Brykaliuk and Stalder, per assistant coach Laura Bellamy, deserve kudos as well for facing the media after the game. NCAA-mandated press conferences are a killer to watch when the losing team participates after having their heart ripped out, no matter the sport. Bellamy noted that Brykaliuk and Stalder were given the option to skip out and let other players take the questions of assembled media. Instead, they composed themselves as best they could and did what great leaders do.

Coaches talk all the time about culture. When you have a new staff take over, it's about building a culture the way they want to build it. A big reason Maura Crowell's second season ended in the NCAA Tournament is the culture created in the room, starting with the graduating class. Brykaliuk and Morin were great captains, and all the seniors were fantastic leaders. Thanks to the work they've done, UMD is quickly on the verge of a changed culture, one that expects greatness. For the young players, it was their first taste of big-time, high-level hockey. They'll come back in the fall craving more, and that's exactly what Crowell and her staff want. It's what's worked for so many great programs -- men's and women's, all sports -- over the years.

It's also how Minnesota has remained as good as it's been for so long. Lee Stecklein didn't arrive at Minnesota with national championship rings. She learned how to win from players who won, and now she's passing those lessons down as she wraps up her Minnesota career seeking an unprecedented fourth national title. Someday, that will be how it works at UMD, and it started -- at least in this go-round -- with players like Brykaliuk, Morin, and Stalder. We salute them on their way out, and wish them nothing but the best going forward.

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