Thursday, March 23, 2017

UMD's Focus Strong as NCAA Tournament Begins

FARGO, N.D. -- Over the course of a 38-game journey to this point, UMD has not faced what it faces this weekend.

Even in the NCHC Tournament the last two weekends, the Bulldogs knew they would be playing two games on a weekend, no matter how the first one went.

Not the case now.

The only way you play again is if you win.

The Bulldogs' resiliency (© Dan Myers of the Wild) and veteran presence -- along with the steady play of freshman goalie Hunter Miska -- has propelled this team to a No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are a No. 1 regional seed for the first time ever, and will play Ohio State Friday evening in Fargo in the first round. The winner plays either Boston University or North Dakota for the regional championship Saturday.

"Our seniors that came up a game short the last two years of getting to the next step," head coach Scott Sandelin said this week, "I think it's been in their minds. I think they came back for a reason. Absolutely, it's been a goal (to get back)."

If you're looking for a reason this team is so vastly improved from even a year ago, when it had to scratch and claw its way to the national tournament, look no further than that experience.

"You rely on your experience, you rely on your leaders," Sandelin said. "These guys have played in a lot of games, been in a lot of situations. They want more, they came back to try to get it, and they're in a position to do that."

The Bulldogs boast a seven-man senior class that's certainly been a big part of this, but don't forget UMD also has two juniors -- Karson Kuhlman and Jared Thomas -- that sit over 100 games in a UMD uniform. And all these juniors and seniors -- save for Avery Peterson, who didn't join the team until January 2016 -- have been around for a couple great runs that fell one goal short of the Frozen Four.

Add to it this: Every UMD player, outside of Miska and the rest of the freshmen, has been around for an NCAA Tournament run. Peterson was part of the Omaha Mavericks' first-ever trip to the Frozen Four in 2015.

There will be plenty of time to look back and appreciate what's happened here, but there's no question the 2016-17 senior class has helped shape a new culture for Bulldog hockey.

"To come here and find success with a group of guys, be a part of it, is a great accomplishment," senior defenseman Willie Raskob said. "Something I'll take great pride in when we leave here."

"It's been awesome," senior captain Dominic Toninato said. "Our senior class has been tremendous. Being able to grow with them has been awesome. The team as a whole has been great. It's good for the whole program, and the whole city of Duluth."

This has been a mentally tough UMD team all season, too. UMD has conceded the first goal 17 times in 38 games, including in Saturday's crazy NCHC championship game against West Regional host North Dakota. UMD is 10-4-3 when allowing the first goal. To add some perspective, Ohio State is 2-7-4 when the adversary scores first, and even ever-dangerous North Dakota is 9-10-1.

Look at some of the games UMD has won or tied when trailing. Tied UMass-Lowell when down three goals at one point, trailed St. Cloud State 3-1 in both games in St. Cloud and won them both 5-3, fell behind to Minnesota and SCSU at the North Star College Cup and managed to win both games. Oh, and who can forget the Friday game at North Dakota? Gave up the first goal in a hostile building, had two goals disallowed in the first period, had a UND goal count that shouldn't have, and still won convincingly.

Throw in Saturday's game that's hard to describe with actual words, and you have a tough squad that isn't easily phased.


Standing in the Bulldogs' way Friday will be a hungry Ohio State team that lacks that experience. Well, at least among the players.

"We tried to prepare them the same way this week," fourth-year head coach Steve Rohlik said this week. "Part of the experience is enjoying it for the first time. We have a lot of guys who are excited and anxious. Our group's going to be ready."

Rohlik and assistant Mark Strobel were both successful players at Wisconsin, with Rohlik a two-year captain and national champion. Strobel played in the NCAA Tournament each year of his Badgers career. This is old hat for them.

Players can't gain NCAA experience -- duh -- without playing in the tournament first. But these guys are adults. The idea of Ohio State being victimized by "wide eyes in the bright lights" is patently ridiculous. The Buckeyes earned their way here, and this is a dangerous offensive team.

Ohio State has a top line that can go, keyed by sophomore Mason Jobst (55 points) -- who lived a mile from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway growing up and still became a really good hockey player (he says growing up there "had a huge impact on my life, kind of formed who I am" -- and seniors Nick Schilkey and David Gust (41 points each, Schilkey has 27 goals). The Buckeyes rode a 32-plus percent power play to an average of nearly four goals per game this season.

"It's huge for our team now, the alumni who have worked hard to get this program where it is," Schilkey said of Ohio State getting back in the tournament. "Getting rewarded with being able to come here is awesome. We're really excited to be here, we feel like we deserve it. It means a lot."

"They play a pace game, score goals, and we like to play the same way," Sandelin said. "Hopefully it's an up and down game."

"We got to be ready to go from the start," Toninato said.

Rohlik conceded there aren't a lot of weaknesses with his adversary Friday, but wasn't about to concede the game.

"They still have to win the game," he said. "We'll be focused and ready to empty the tank (Friday)."


For UMD, senior defenseman Carson Soucy (lower body) practiced here Thursday. He didn't take part in team drills, but did plenty of work on his own, including some time at one end of the ice with Sandelin, working on skating, transitions, passing, and puck-handling. Sandelin said "probably not" when asked if Soucy would play this weekend, and went on to repeat the "week to week" timeline we've heard since the week after he was injured in Kalamazoo.

But the Bulldogs are otherwise healthy, with everyone available to play.

The same can't be said for Ohio State.

The Buckeyes will play Friday's game without two top defensemen, seniors Josh Healey and Drew Brevig. Healey picked up a two-game suspension from the Big Ten Conference after his third game misconduct of the season, a contact to the head major he took late in Friday's Big Ten semifinal loss to Wisconsin. Brevig has an injury suffered in the win over Michigan State the day before and did not play against the Badgers.

Rohlik talked up his depth players, noting how hard they've worked and practiced throughout the season, but Healey is the leading scorer among OSU defensemen and Brevig one of the top players in terms of ice time. These aren't insignificant losses, and we'll see if UMD can exploit some things back there Friday. If not, it will be a long evening for the regional top seeds.

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