Friday, March 03, 2017

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Western Michigan Ends UMD's Unbeaten Streak, NCHC Title Hopes

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- After a 7-4 UMD loss to Western Michigan Friday night, thoughts -- naturally -- turned to Mike Yeo. And, no, not because son Kyler and Hill-Murray are heading back to the state tournament.

Back in 2015, the Minnesota Wild beat the St. Louis Blues in a first round Stanley Cup Playoff series. Leading the series 2-1, the Wild hosted Game 4 and were summarily waxed 6-1. So, naturally, Minnesota went into St. Louis and won Game 5 before clinching the series in Game 6.

After the series, then-head coach Mike Yeo appeared on KFAN with Paul Allen and was asked if that Game 4 loss might have been a blessing in disguise because it helped re-focus the team. Yeo didn't hesitate to agree.

"I think it's better to get your butt kicked in a game like that than to not be up to your game and just fall short," Yeo said. "It was a good, stiff reminder that's not good enough, that's not our level."

For a couple weeks now, UMD coaches have been imploring their players to be better, especially in the neutral and defensive zones. But as the team continued to rack up not-losses and ran its unbeaten streak to 11, was the message really getting through?

I'd like to think -- to be perfectly honest -- a veteran team like this wouldn't have any trouble understanding what's in front of it. However, if it can happen and be necessary in the NHL, why should a band of college kids be exempt?

With that in mind, was Friday the "stiff reminder" Yeo was talking about with his now-former team? Only time will tell, but there's little doubt that Friday wasn't good enough, and it can't be sugar-coated around a result that saw UMD get points. Instead, Western Michigan took it to the Bulldogs, putting five goals by UMD goaltenders, including four on just eight shots against freshman Hunter Miska before he was yanked. Classmate Hunter Shepard stopped 12 of 13, and the worthless empty net made no saves on two shots.

There was a lot not to like from UMD. Not the first game like this as of late, and now that the Penrose Cup has been won by Denver, we'll see some things change for UMD.

Poor coverage from the faceoff dots down helped stake the Broncos to a 2-0 lead after one. Sheldon Dries and Hugh McGing scored on different rebound plays. Dries got free for a quick slot shot that Miska made a good save on, but the rebound somehow bounced back to Dries, who was still open in the slot and this time made no mistake. On that play, UMD had defenders in the area, but Dries got in between Joey Anderson and Alex Iafallo, and the latter let Dries go after the first shot and wasn't ready for the puck to bounce back to him. Both Iafallo and Willie Raskob were in position to stop that shot from happening, but somehow Dries kept his stick free in a tight space and got a puck by Miska because the goalie had no chance to see it.

On the second, Hugh McGing drove the net from the goal line and threw in a rebound off a Griffen Molino shot for a power play goal. The killers did a good job, outside of McGing charging by Raskob to get to the puck, which can't happen.

The third goal featured a puck dumped to the right-wing side of the UMD zone. Instead of chasing the loose puck, Avery Peterson let Luke Bafia get there first. Watching the video, the only thing I can imagine is Peterson didn't see Bafia and was letting Riley Tufte get to it, but I don't know. It looks really bad on video, and while Miska should have stopped Bafia's shot, it's hard to be too mad at the freshman goalie when the shot never should have happened to start with.

I could do this all night. But I don't want to. You get the point. There were mistakes made on pretty much every Western Michigan goal that came with a goalie in the net, and even one of the empty-net goals featured a lost battle that just can't happen when a team has an extra skater on the ice. Maybe some messages will get through more effectively after a game like this that ends in a lopsided defeat than they were after wins and ties.

Miska wasn't great but had little help. The top line of Dominic Toninato, Iafallo, and Anderson was a combined minus-12 with one point and seven shots. I thought pretty much the entire defensive corps struggled, outside of Dan Molenaar and Nick Wolff, both of whom I thought were okay. Peterson and Adam Johnson won a combined eight of 27 faceoffs. The power play was a trainwreck.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

This isn't to take away from the Broncos. They played very well. Dries and Molino are as advertised, not that I expected anything different. Western deserved everything it got on this night.

So did UMD.


The third period was, well, interesting. Karson Kuhlman's power play goal cut the lead to 5-2 early. UMD had a couple power plays after that but couldn't cash in, but Sandelin pulled Shepard with 4:13 to go. Western, however, won a faceoff and scored quickly into the empty net to make it 6-2.

UMD then responded with goals by Brenden Kotyk and Adam Johnson 26 seconds apart to cut the lead to 6-4. And 11 seconds after Johnson's goal, UMD was back on the power play.

It didn't score, and Dries capped a hat trick with an empty-netter in the final minute.

The power play struggled against WMU's pressure. It's been a longstanding theme for UMD to have difficulty scoring against aggressive penalty kills. Effective, aggressive kills force the power play guys to make quick decisions, and make them under pressure. UMD just wasn't decisive enough on this night, leading to tie-ups and battles on the wall, and the Bulldogs weren't able to win them often enough.

There were opportunities for UMD to claw back in, but the Bulldogs never got there. Power play struggles were a large reason for it.


If you'll indulge me, there was a topic that came up Friday that I thought merited a mention. Bemidji State hosted Northern Michigan to kick off the WCHA playoffs, and even though every BSU game this season was televised, this weekend's are not.

Read more from the Bemidji Pioneer.
(BSU athletic director Tracy) Dill cited attendance and revenue concerns as reasons for the playoff broadcast decision.
"We appreciate everything Lakeland does for BSU," Dill said. "The broadcast is really good. The difference for us is, for first-round games in the WCHA, if we are in a position where we host, you have to guarantee the league $25,000 for the first round. Semifinals is the same and I think the championship is $15,000 or something. So we have to be able to sell tickets."
Dill went down the road that televised games hurt attendance. In 2017.

And maybe he's right if you take the narrow view. Maybe Bemidji doesn't draw 2,904 paid for the series opener if it's on TV. But let's take a real-world look at this.

People go to games for an experience. That experience can't be fulfilled on television. Trust me. I rarely get to Wild games, but went to two during UMD's February bye. As much as I struggle with big crowds of people sometimes, how could any hockey fan not want to go to a Wild game in person? What a great experience, and with all due respect to Anthony LaPanta and Mike Greenlay and Michael Russo and Audra Martin and Wes Walz and whoever else, TV and social media can't touch what you get when you're in the building.

My point, and I promise I have one, is people who want that experience aren't going to give it up because the game is on television. If a particular team -- especially a successful one like Bemidji State -- isn't drawing enough fans compared to what it thinks it should, it should be looking in the mirror, not at a TV. If anything, television helps a team become more visible in its community, which should help attendance. Because, again, you can't get the stadium experience watching on television.

Ask the Chicago Blackhawks, who once blacked out home games from being televised, and in a shocking development, saw attendance -- which was already terrible -- get worse. The owner died, his son took over, put the games back on TV, and even before the team was relevant again, attendance was back on the rise.

Amazing, a team is visible and people want to attend its games. What a concept.


Denver beat Omaha 4-2 to clinch the NCHC title on the strength of two third period goals by Henrik Borgstrom and a three-point night from Troy Terry. North Dakota got a short-handed goal from Duluth native Trevor Olson late in the second and won at Miami 3-2. Finally, St. Cloud State scored the last four goals in a 5-2 home win over Colorado College.

On the last night of the regular season, spots four through six in the final standings are up for grabs. Right now, North Dakota has the last home ice spot with 32 points, St. Cloud State is one point back at 31, and Omaha is sixth with 29. Lots of scenarios in play, but UND is definitely in the driver's seat to be at home next weekend.

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