Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Frozen Four: Johnson, Donato Present Challenges for Defenses

CHICAGO -- We already discussed some of the basic similarities that we'll see in the first national semifinal Friday night, when UMD battles Harvard.

As mentioned in that post, both teams have dynamic sophomore forwards, capable of scoring from almost literally anywhere.

For UMD, it's Hibbing native Adam Johnson. Senior Alex Iafallo has the team lead in goals with 19, but Johnson has scored some massive goals -- and some impressive ones -- this season. Case in point, his overtime winner in the NCAA West Regional final against Boston University.

Mentioned it at the time, but what an impressive play by Johnson, who naturally downplayed it to an extent.

“I took a one-timer and the shot got blocked," he said that night. "I was fortunate enough to get it back on the wall and I saw an opening. I just tried to fake a shot and get that guy to bite and shoot it by him. I found the corner and it was a good feeling.”

It's the kind of play Johnson has become quite adept at making. His shot -- and his ability to get that shot through to goaltenders -- has been a factor for UMD all season.

And when in doubt, Johnson has proven he has enough skill to score from behind the goal line, a trick he's successfully pulled off at least three times this season.

"Really quick feet," Iafallo said of his sometimes-linemate. "Very agile. He makes a lot of juice. Very good hands. He's been great for us. Especially on that power play, the last goal in overtime. Just simple things like that. He's very good at it."

It isn't so simple. Boston University coach David Quinn gave Iafallo credit on that play at first, for keeping the puck in the offensive zone with a strong pinch after BU won the faceoff and captain Doyle Somerby wrapped the puck around the wall. But Johnson's play -- firing the initial shot off Somerby, realizing he was stunned, and taking the puck right back at him -- was outstanding. UMD coach Scott Sandelin has preached a shoot-first mentality on the power play, and as of late the Bulldogs have turned a corner in that area.

Starting Feb. 3, UMD scored at least once on the man advantage over eight straight games. Since then, over 14 games total, the power play is 15-for-63 for a 23.8 percent clip that has lifted UMD's season total to an even 20 percent. Not the best season UMD has ever had on the power play, but it's gotten better and more productive and, more importantly, more dangerous. Johnson plays a huge role in that. With him and fellow sophomore Neal Pionk up top, teams have to respect the point shot, allowing more room to maneuver down low for guys like Iafallo, Dominic Toninato, and Joey Anderson.

Harvard sophomore Ryan Donato was a more highly-touted prospect heading into college, but he does a lot of the things Johnson does for UMD. The second-round pick of the Boston Bruins is the son of head coach Ted Donato, a former NHLer himself. Ryan Donato has a lethal shot, one that he's used to post a Crimson-leading (tied with senior Tyler Moy) 21 goals this season.

He can fly, an asset Johnson shares, and one Donato used to knife through the Air Force defense for a huge goal in the regional final win March 25. He also has a lethal shot and, like Johnson, can score from practically anywhere. He scored four goals against Union Feb. 10 and has 25 points in 23 games since the calendar flipped to 2017.

Overall, Sandelin is impressed with what Harvard brings to the table in this national semifinal.

"I think they're very balanced," he said. "Obviously, they've got some very talented forwards up front. Their top two lines especially. There's a lot of skill, a lot of deception. They're a puck-possession team. I've been impressed with their poise and composure."

That skill leads to a dangerous Harvard transition game, one that UMD can't feed into, not with turnovers and not with other mistakes, like slow or poorly-timed shift changes.

"Watching the tape," Sandelin said Wednesday, "I think a couple of their opponents had bad line changes, which led to some goals off rushes. We've got to have good rush coverage, making sure we're doing little things like that, making sure we're not changing at the wrong times. Those are mistakes that we just can't catch up."


The second game pits two old friends against one another. Denver coach Jim Montgomery got his start in this profession when he took a gig as a volunteer assistant at Notre Dame, working for Jeff Jackson.

Now, with Montgomery in his fourth year at DU, their paths cross on the sport's biggest stage.

"He's a great young coach," Jackson said of Montgomery. "He's got a great future ahead of him. He's got all the right aspects to being a great coach. I'm proud of him. I'm happy for him."

"For me, I'm happy," Montgomery said. "I think it shows that our relationship is special and that I learned from a great coach because he's here again for the sixth or seventh time in his career, and I've managed to get back here for the second year in a row.

"So whatever he taught me, I've been able to apply, and I think both teams play with a lot -- I guess the same way, and we don't beat ourselves, and we're hard to play against."

Jackson won three titles at Lake Superior State, but is seeking the first in Notre Dame history. Denver has seven titles, but none since 2005, when George Gwozdecky was still at the helm.

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