Friday, April 07, 2017

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Aim for Second National Championship

CHICAGO -- Before Thursday's national semifinal against Harvard at United Center, I asked UMD coach Scott Sandelin, working his third Frozen Four at UMD, how to balance a group of players in their first Frozen Four enjoying the moment with the do-or-die mentality it takes to win at this level.

"You don't get out of your routine," he said. "You can't take the excitement away. It's hard to get to this point. It's still a hockey game. You have to go in there and everyone has to trust what you've done all year, have confidence, and go play. This is not a time of year to throw in a bunch of new stuff. Hopefully, our guys play our best games of the year."

On the UMD roster, there isn't one player who has been through this before. Sure, you have coaches with ring cred. Captain Dominic Toninato's father, Jim, was on two UMD Frozen Four teams in the 1980s. Freshman forward Joey Anderson has played in some highly-charged environments with U.S. national teams, most notably the World Junior team that won gold in Canada barely three months ago.

And as we've discussed at length on this here blog, there doesn't seem to be anything that phases this UMD team. No deficit too large, no challenge too difficult. These guys know what lies in front of them Saturday night.

"We know they're very skilled hockey team," senior defenseman Brenden Kotyk said. "They've got Will Butcher back there and (Henrik) Borgström and (Dylan) Gambrell. (Troy) Terry. They're all exceptional hockey players.

"So I just don't think we have to quit what we're doing right now, we've just got to keep playing defense on those guys especially and be real hard on them. I think that will be key to us."

"We know they pose a big challenge in some ways because of how they play and their offensive ability and puck possession ability, and I think they defend very well, too," Sandelin said.


Denver is a classic example of a team that's more than the sum of its parts. Borgström jumps off the page, and off the screen when you watch him play. He's that kind of player. DU coach Jim Montgomery has talked at length about the offensive ability Borgström has, but this week was asked about what area he's seen his star freshman improve most in. He didn't hesitate.

"He's played without the puck," Montgomery said. "When he wants to, he can be dominant on all 200 feet of the ice. It's just a question of whether he wants his motor to go."

Sandelin was asked about defending the Finnish star, who didn't play in the Dec. 9-10 series between these teams in Denver because of illness.

"You're going to give up some things," Sandelin said. "But you just gotta be aware and you gotta take as much time and space away, just like any good player. You do your best.

"Sometimes you've got to respect those guys a little bit, because if you're too aggressive, they can make you look really stupid. So you've got to be a little bit smart with angles and different things. Reminds me about playing against Jack Eichel a couple of years ago. Just because they have a little more length versus the shorter guys, but they're hard to defend."

Gambrell is a highly-talented offensive player. Terry is another one. Jarid Lukosevicius not only has the best name in college hockey, but he might be the most underrated player on this team. Lukosevicius leads this stacked roster with 147 shots on goal. He's not bashful about firing from anywhere, and with the shot he possesses, he shouldn't be.

On the blue line, Butcher (seven goals, 37 points) just won the Hobey Baker Award (well deserved, by the way), and he's joined by emerging freshman Michael Davies, underrated puck-mover Adam Plant, and big junior Tariq Hammond, who scored off a beautifully-executed odd-man rush in the semifinal thumping of Notre Dame.


A reporter asked Sandelin about trying to slow down Denver, which is almost undoubtedly the fastest team in the country (all due respect to UMD, because I think the Bulldogs are fast, but UMD is a heavier version of Denver, capable of playing with a lot of pace but probably not quite DU's).

Sandelin: "When you look at -- if you look at, number one, just forechecking, their D -- they're very -- they don't have maybe the biggest guy. Hammond is a bigger player, but they've got some great skill and shiftiness. You've got to be careful. You can try and play really aggressive in their face, but they support the puck so well and those guys are pretty elusive that you've got to certainly play above the puck. Be aggressive when you can be.

"But just defensively you've got to be tight. And you're going to have to weather some storms. They're going to play in the offensive zone and they transition well, but in the offensive zone, they possess the puck, they move, they get five men involved in the attack, and obviously they've got some great guys to finish around the net.

"And they're a very good small-area team, and their D add to that with their involvement. So sometimes you're going to have defensemen at the blue line, our defensemen, just sometimes how they move around.

"And there's got to be a lot of communication. Like I said, we've seen them play. We've played against them. So that helps. And we've seen a lot of teams play that way, so that helps.

"But I just think one of the things they do really well is not just on their forecheck, but their end zone forecheck. They're probably one of the best puck pursuit teams that get above you and they don't give you room, and they make it very difficult to make clean plays or plays because they recover above the puck and they pursue the puck so well."

Montgomery called the rivalry between the two "fiercely respectful", and he was effusive in his praise of the Bulldogs Friday, especially the top line of Toninato, Alex Iafallo, and Anderson.

"They're a great college line. And I think maybe the best line in the country. And I think you've just got to know when they're out there and match their intensity.

"Their intensity, I think, fuels that team. And I think the third player that fuels that team with intensity is (Neal) Pionk on the back end.

... "I know how good -- we all know how good and talented Duluth is. They're a mentally tough team. They're hard in all three zones. They don't give you an inch. And we know that. You're going to have to go out and earn it. That's why I think it's going to be a great game (Saturday) night."

The only matchup we saw with these two teams was that aforementioned December weekend in Denver. The Pioneers won 4-3 Friday, then UMD won 3-1 Saturday. Sandelin quipped again Friday that he felt his team played better in the game it lost than the one it won, an opinion he shared with me after the series ended while we were traveling home.

The Friday game was as good a pace as you'll see in a college hockey game, and UMD held its own quite nicely, even playing its first game in 19 days and doing it at altitude.

Players on both teams talked about the respect the teams have for one another.

"It's always physical against those guys," DU senior Emil Romig said, "but obviously we really respect each other. This year we've been, you know, switching off in the No. 1 and No. 2 spot basically all year long. So basically there's a lot of respect.

"They're big, they're strong. They skate well, and it's always been tough. So I think it's going to be a great game."

"That weekend was a lot of fun as a player," Pioneers forward Colin Staub said. "It was back-and-forth hockey. It was a lot of speed. It was pretty physical, and like it was the time Duluth was the No. 1 team in the country and it was 1 versus 2 that weekend and there was a lot of hype going into it and it was a lot of fun for players."

Toninato deemed it the "ultimate rubber match. We've been one and two all year, so this is for all the marbles. We need to play the best full 60 minutes we have all year."

"They have good forwards who will make plays. We have to play our game," senior defenseman Carson Soucy, who played Thursday for the first time in eight games, said.


I look at this matchup, and the first thing that needs to be understood is these teams' paths to this point were different. By no means am I trying to discount Michigan Tech, Penn State, or Notre Dame, or claim that UMD had a more difficult route to the title game.

They're different enough teams that the differences matter, if that makes sense. Denver is a full-on pace team. The veteran presence the Pioneers get from guys like Butcher allows them to grind on teams when it's called on, but it's not their preferred style. They want to get out and skate. They're lethal in transition, very hard to forecheck effectively against, and don't take a lot of penalties.

Denver might want to push the pace Saturday night, but look for UMD to play a similar game as Thursday against Harvard, where the Bulldogs are content to use their grinding forecheck to wear down its foe and create scoring chances. One observer compared UMD's forecheck to, well I'll just let you read it because it's more fun that way.

Frankly, it's not the craziest thing Mike Eidelbes has ever tweeted. Not even close. In fact, I'd say it's accurate. No one in the country -- with all due respect to North Dakota -- forechecks as well as UMD. Outside of maybe Denver. But that's where there are stark differences in the teams these two have faced in this run.

UMD was challenged by an Ohio State team that frustrated it by coming at the Bulldogs in waves, especially once down a couple goals in the third period. Against Boston University, UMD played a much stronger defensive game and found a way to get the winner in overtime. But make no mistake, they were different games. The Bulldogs found a defensive posture in the BU game and were not going to let the Terriers destroy them with their speed and skill up the rink.

Harvard was very much the same. UMD had to take that first-period punch when Harvard just got too many chances on the power play. But the Bulldogs were not going to be an easy bunch to beat five-on-five. Until the end, when Harvard's goalie was pulled, UMD did a good job keeping the Crimson's good chances to a minimum (the somewhat-subjective "Grade-A Scoring Chances" chart, which is kept at the Frozen Four, gives Harvard five at even-strength before the flurry after Iafallo's winner; by comparison, UMD had seven).

By no means do I think UMD wants to slow the game down. That's not a pace UMD is good at playing, as we saw a few times this season. And there's a difference between playing a good pace game and a run-and-gun game, which is more Denver's style. UMD hits hard and attacks fast, and the Bulldogs can use their high-pressure defensive style (we hope) to limit Denver's looks and great chances while also forcing the kinds of mistakes other teams have struggled to force.


Much will be made of the first-ever all-NCHC final. Trust me, it's significant.

In fact, it says more about the relative strength of this conference than anything else you'll ever see in a 16-team, single-elimination hockey tournament. Everyone likes to (erroneously) tie the strength of these leagues to member schools' success in piling up national championships. But this has been the NCHC's season in many other ways.

1. Its top two teams, UMD and Denver, were the top two teams in the country by any respected metric for basically the entire season.

2. Imagine if Western Michigan were healthy down the stretch, had earned a one seed, and if North Dakota had fallen to a four. The real possibility of an all-NCHC Frozen Four existed, and it wouldn't have taken a lot of result-twisting the final weekend to make it happen.

3. For the second straight year, NCHC members were dominant in non-conference play. In fact, every NCHC member school beat at least one NCAA team from outside the conference. Yes, even Colorado College (Cornell) and Miami (Providence and Ohio State). And you wonder why coaches of the league's top teams have so much respect for the league their teams play in.

4. And if you're one of those who thinks a league's strength is actually related to the number of national championships it wins, the NCHC is about to win a second straight. And I'll guarantee you one of its teams will be among the top favorites to win in 2018.

Montgomery said it best after his team flummoxed Notre Dame Thursday night. Asked why he thought his team could jump on the Irish with their pace, he said "Because outside the NCHC, what I've seen the last two years is we're able to jump on people. That's not going to happen Saturday night. It's an NCHC opponent.

"NCHC opponents, two best teams consistently throughout the year in the NCHC, it's going to be a barn burner and a great show for college hockey."


If you're back in Duluth, there are a number of watch parties that UMD is promoting for Saturday night's game. Duluth parties are being held at Tavern on the Hill, Grandma's Sports Garden, Dubh Linn Irish Brew Pub, Sneakers Bar and Grill, Green Mill, and Kirby Student Center.

Also, the Black Woods in Two Harbors is hosting a party, as is Palmer's Tavern in Hibbing (the hometown of UMD coach Sandelin and sophomore forward Adam Johnson). There are also parties being held in such locales as Dallas, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, and Seattle. The UMD Alumni Relations Office has a full list here.

ESPN has the game with John Buccigross, Barry Melrose, and Quint Kessenich.

Obviously, we'd love if you listened to the radio broadcast. 92.1 The Fan in the Duluth area, or a FREE stream that works on desktop or mobile here. We start with what I think is a cool montage at 6:30, so join us for that. Pregame interviews with UMD seniors Toninato and Soucy, who have been such great kids to get to know the last four years. We chat with old friend and UMD alum Jess Myers, who is attending his 25th Frozen Four, after the first period, and Zach Schneider of KBJR joins us after the second to lend his perspective to this wonderful week we've spent in Chicago.

And we'll have plenty of time for thank yous and salutes, but this experience has been great so far. Different in a lot of ways from 2011, when we were in familiar territory in a city we all knew pretty well. Making the trek to a new city (at least for me) has been fun. For someone like me who's usually pretty intimidated by big cities, it's been fun to settle in and actually start to feel somewhat comfortable. Only one thing can make it better, and we'll find out soon enough if that's in the cards.

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