Friday, March 17, 2017

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: UMD Rides Defensive Improvement, Opportunism to Second Straight NCHC Title Game

MINNEAPOLIS -- Not going to lie. UMD giving Western Michigan a five-on-three at the 2:24 mark of the first period seemed like a bad omen. Instead, it was a bit of a tone-setter.

The UMD penalty kill was spot-on Friday, and a stellar third period effort helped carry UMD to a 5-2 win over Western Michigan in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinals at Target Center. UMD will play North Dakota, a 1-0 winner over Denver, in Saturday's 7:30pm championship game.

Western had a goal disallowed in the second period, but ended up getting one that counted 1:09 later to tie the game 2-2. The Broncos earned that tying goal, as they had been able to bottle up UMD on a couple of occasions and generate scoring chances with numbers down low. UMD didn't do a great job covering guys, and Colt Conrad buried a rebound by Hunter Miska to draw the game even on one of those occasions.

But the Bulldogs tightened up after that, as did Miska. Alex Iafallo scored a beauty of a goal late in the second period that eventually gave UMD the lead for good. After Parker Mackay capitalized on a great play by Adam Johnson to make it 4-2 in the third, Miska held his ground against a hard-charging Broncos team, which got a four-on-three power play in the final three minutes of regulation and turned it into a five-on-three by pulling goalie Ben Blacker. Miska stopped Western goal-scoring specialist Matheson Iacopelli twice, including once on a really well set up one timer.

"It wasn't probably the prettiest game for either team," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "We stayed with it. Hard-fought game, which was what we expected.

"I think their second goal work our bench up for sure. Thought we played better towards the end of the period. Gotta get better in second periods. Didn't think our start was very good."

(Give Western credit, by the way. Andy Murray held three-year captain Sheldon Dries and stud freshman Wade Allison out with injuries. I'm not sure how badly Allison was injured crashing into the end boards in Game 3 against Omaha Sunday, but he was stretchered off and briefly hospitalized before returning to the arena. Either way, the Broncos were short-handed Friday and gave UMD everything it could handle for two periods and then some. This is a really good team that is fixing to do some damage in the NCAA Tournament, possibly as a one-seed if it can win the third-place game Saturday afternoon against Denver.)

Sandelin compared this game to the Saturday game in Kalamazoo on March 4. In that game, UMD kicked away a 2-0 second-period lead, only to get a goal from Johnson with 4.4 seconds left off a mad scramble in front of the WMU net. The momentum carried over into the third, and UMD ended up winning convincingly.

In this game, Iafallo got his goal with 3:49 left in the second, but there's no question there was some residual into the third period.

I thought UMD's defensive effort in the third was as good as we've seen in a while. Miska, yes, had to make some saves, but he was sharper and there weren't any glaringly blown coverages in front of him. The Broncos were coming after UMD, but couldn't get any super chances. The Mackay goal and a Jared Thomas length-of-the-ice empty netter iced the win for the Bulldogs.

The third period was what Sandelin has been looking for. A composed, defense-first effort. UMD didn't generate many chances, but capitalized on the Mackay goal, which was a thing of beauty by Johnson to set up. He waited out a sliding defender, walked back toward the front, bided his time, and sent a cross-crease pass to Mackay for a tap in after Blacker committed to Johnson. Brilliant play and a great goal.

"Didn't really have much," Johnson said of the play. "Just tried to wait, and Parker got to the net."


It's cliche, but coaches talk about a team's best players being its best players in crunch time.

Let there be no doubt that UMD's top line -- Dominic Toninato, Iafallo, and Joey Anderson -- were good again, and Johnson, centering the second line, was brilliant with three assists, including the dazzler to Mackay.

Again, the six-man defensive corps managed without Carson Soucy, who will not play this weekend (week to week, so we don't know what the plan is beyond this week). Jarod Hilderman's blocked shot set up Kyle Osterberg's goal late in the first, Hilderman's first point in these colors. Neal Pionk was a freaking beast, with an assist, three blocked shots, and a plus-three.

Iafallo has points in ten straight (6-10-16), goals in four straight. Toninato has goals in three straight and is 8-5-13 in the last 11 games. Johnson now is 6-7-13 in the last ten games. Mackay had his first two-point game since the season opener and now has six points in the last six games.

Osterberg's goal snapped a ten-game drought, but he now has four points in the last two games.

Production is coming from all over the place, and there couldn't be a better time than this for it to happen. UMD's last five games: 5, 5, 5, 6, and 4 goals. Not going to lose a lot this time of year when you average five goals per game.


UMD will face North Dakota for a fifth time this season in Saturday's championship game. The Bulldogs dominated the regular season series, going 4-0 with two shutouts and outscoring North Dakota 17-5.

I will guaran-damn-tee you Saturday won't be nearly as easy as an average score of 4.25-1.25 might suggest. UND is grinding teams down right now, impressively shutting down a potent Denver team Friday night at Target Center. Cam Johnson is playing well in goal, though Denver had a hard time really getting to him on Friday. Remember, as good as UND looked defensively in the semifinal, this game gave up five to St. Cloud State just this past Saturday. It is not an impenetrable defensive group. No one is, for that matter.

This will be a meat-grinder of a game, though. Mark my words. UMD will need to bring the proverbial lunch pails, because North Dakota is going to make the Bulldogs earn every inch of ice throughout the rink if Friday is any indication. The Fighting Hawks -- yes, it's still weird, sorry -- have won five straight games to put themselves back in the NCAA Tournament. Now they're coming for their first NCHC playoff title. And so are the Bulldogs. Someone's hoisting that thing for the first time Saturday, and I know who I want to see do it.


The dream of an All-NCHC Frozen Four may have died Friday night. North Dakota's win makes it difficult (I couldn't do it) to get UND to a No. 4 regional seed, which I figured was the only way to guarantee the possibility of the four NCHC teams in the tourney being assigned different regionals.

Maybe the committee ends up making that happen, but I don't see it as likely. I believe an NCHC team -- either UMD or Denver -- will join North Dakota in Fargo.

I'll likely jump back on Saturday morning and update PairWise scenarios, but I'm too tired right now to wrap my head around any of that.

We hit the air Saturday at 7pm on 92.1 The Fan. Join us for what should be a fun championship game. Looking forward to it.

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