Thursday, March 09, 2017

Playoffs Begin For UMD With Familiar Opponent

Last year, UMD hosted Miami for the regular season finale. After taking a sweep at the hands of a desperate Bulldog team, the RedHawks took a charter plane back home, only to hop on a bus and make the long journey to Duluth four days later for a playoff series.

This year, Miami was just in Duluth two weeks ago. Now, we get to find out what lessons the Bulldogs learned from that Thursday-Friday series.

"I thought against them, especially the Friday game, we didn't manage the puck very well," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said this week of a 4-3 win and 3-3 tie (three-on-three loss) Feb. 23-24. "Just going back, when we got up, we couldn't find a way to score the third goal. Got to be tighter (defensively). They're a hard team to defend. They move laterally a lot. We've got to defend a lot better."

"This is a new time, so whatever you saw two weeks ago will be thrown out the window," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. "When you play this time of year, everything will be a little more intense, more magnified."

It's playoff hockey now.

"You have to compete, make sure you're winning your battles," Blasi said before his team made the trek to Duluth. "This is a team (UMD) that's going to work hard, their second effort's really good. You have to pay attention to details."

His team did a good job in those areas two weeks ago. Not so much last week. After a 5-2 loss to North Dakota Saturday in which his team was outshot 27-11 in front of a sellout crowd on Senior Night, Blasi simply said the RedHawks "weren't good enough."

"North Dakota took it to us right from the beginning," he noted.

These are certainly familiar adversaries at this point. This weekend will mark their ninth, tenth, and maybe eleventh meetings in the last 14 months and change. If they don't know each other well by now, they never will.

UMD got four points in that sole regular season meeting two weeks ago, but the prevailing thought was the Bulldogs left two points on the table. Now, to be fully realistic, no one was beating out Denver for the league title, but UMD didn't do a good enough job over six games against the seventh- and eighth-place teams (the Bulldogs went 2-1-3 against Miami and Colorado College) to stay alive in the race for the Penrose Cup.

What has to change? For starters, the Bulldogs need to bear down when they have a chance to put a team away.

Look at Saturday against Western Michigan. The Broncos aren't going to quit on any game at this point, but UMD was up 2-0 late in the first and on a power play. Score, and it's a 3-0 game after one with all three goals coming in the final five minutes. The game might not be over, but it's as close as it can be at the end of the first period. Instead, UMD takes a late penalty, a Western power play starts in the second period, and the Broncos score on a great shot by Matheson Iacopelli to get back in the game.

Later, in a 2-2 game, UMD gets a crazy goal off a scramble in front of the Western Michigan net with four seconds left in the second. Then Avery Peterson and Joey Anderson in the first seven minutes of the third to turn 3-2 into 5-2, and for the most part, the game is over at that point.

That next goal can make a big difference. In both games against Miami two weeks ago, the Bulldogs failed to get that next goal, whether it be for a one- or two-goal lead. The RedHawks made UMD pay both nights, in the Thursday game making UMD get that late power-play goal from Peterson to secure the win, then Friday getting two points with a late tally in regulation and a three-on-three goal.

Miami scored two goals off rushes in the Thursday game, then three off shots from up high Friday, plays where defenders didn't do a good job tracking guys or blocking shots before Hunter Miska had to deal with them. That's another area Sandelin wants his team to clean up, and plenty of time in practice was devoted to it this week.

Miami won't lay down. Blasi is one of the top coaches in the country, and he knows his young team has shown significant progress over the course of the season. With captain Louie Belpedio out (knee injury suffered Feb. 18 against Denver), the RedHawks are thinner on defense, but that was the case in the earlier visit. UMD needs to contain guys like Anthony Louis and Kiefer Sherwood better than they did two weeks ago. Do that, be better about consistently attacking the RedHawks blue line, and take care of the defensive zone, and the Bulldogs will be well on their way to Target Center next weekend.


Sandelin and the staff were pleased as punch with Saturday's game. No, it wasn't a perfect performance, but they really liked how the players responded to some real adversity.

As if losing 7-4 Friday wasn't bad enough, senior defenseman Carson Soucy was lost to a lower-body injury late in the third period. He didn't play Saturday and will not play this weekend. In addition, UMD lost forward Kyle Osterberg to an upper-body injury in the first period (he didn't return but is good to go this weekend), and it was already missing freshman Riley Tufte (virus, good to go this weekend).

Instead, a number of other guys stepped to the forefront. Jared Thomas scored his first goal since October 2015. Jarod Hilderman was solid in his third game since Oct. 15. Willie Raskob and Neal Pionk were dynamic at times. Brenden Kotyk, I thought, had a really good game. Avery Peterson was strong. Joey Anderson scored two goals (just his second and third in the last 15 games).

We don't how long Soucy will be absent, but what was witnessed on Saturday was a huge positive sign. Once again, this veteran team responded well to roadblocks being thrown out in front of them.

"The win to me was a huge one for a number of reasons," Sandelin said. "It was one of those times where you find out a little bit about your team. I thought our guys pulled together and played a strong game. It shows our depth, our resiliency, and the character of our team."


In addition to the NCHC awards that came out Wednesday (if you didn't read, Alex Iafallo first team All-NCHC, Neal Pionk and Hunter Miska second team), Miska Thursday morning was named a semi-finalist for the Mike Richter Award, given to the top goalie in Division I. Miska is 20-5-4 with a 2.14 goals against and .921 save percentage entering the playoffs.

The rest of the group of ten is: Michael Bitzer, Bemidji State; Parker Gahagen, Army; Kyle Hayton, St. Lawrence; Tanner Jaillet, Denver; Merrick Madsen, Harvard; Jake Oettinger, Boston University; Cal Petersen, Notre Dame; Shane Starrett, Air Force; Charles Williams, Canisius.

Five finalists will be named March 23, with the winner announced at the Frozen Four April 7.

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