The University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs’ playoff run came to an abrupt end on Saturday night, as a 3-2 lead entering the 3rd period slipped away, leading to a first-round sweep at the hands of Western Michigan. I have no real direct ties to the UMD program, save some loyalty to the numerous Duluth East players who make their way up the hill for college, but they do offer convenient high-level hockey for a Duluthian, and I end up at a number of games every year, including the season-ending loss this time around.
The result wasn’t a terrible tragedy for UMD. It was an improvement over last year. They were an incredibly young team still building up a new core to replace the one that won them a national championship three years ago; the regular season had its highlights, and a .500 record in the nation’s most balanced conference and against one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules is no great shame. The way it ended does leave a sour taste, though, as they were swept at home despite dominating long stretches of both playoff games.
The Bulldogs had one of the deepest stables of forwards in the NCAA this past season, as they showed when they had no trouble skating with powers like Minnesota and St. Cloud State. In fact, they may have suffered from an overload of quality forwards, with few who stood far above the rest. After a stellar freshman years, Tony Cameranesi and Austin Farley didn’t score quite as much, and there was much mixing and matching on two of the top three lines, which were interchangeable by the end of the year. Taking the place of the two sophomores as the lead producers were juniors Justin Crandall and Caleb Herbert, while Kyle Osterberg, the first of three big-time freshman forwards, impressed with his energy and knack for finding the back of the net.
By February, the one stable line all season long had emerged as the best: the line anchored by freshmen Dom Toninato and Alex Iafallo. They shut down other teams’ top lines and generated plenty of zone time, though in the end, they could have scored a little more; a more dynamic offensive player than Adam Krause might have been a more sensible third member for that line. To be fair, that could have come at the expense of some defense, and would have made the line noticeably younger, but while I respect Scott Sandelin’s principle of having each line feature two players with good chemistry together, the third guy needs to have a logical role within the scheme. The fourth line seemed under-utilized at times, too; it generated good chances when it did see the ice, but Sandelin usually leaned on three, and that sometimes seemed to hurt them late in games. The end result was a team that possessed the puck and moved it as well as anyone in the nation, but the chemistry for the finishing touch wasn’t always there. With another quality crop of forwards coming in next season, Sandelin and company will face a continued balancing act as they try to find ideal roles for everyone.
The struggle to finish can be especially troubling when a team’s defense isn’t stellar. Again, this isn’t a scathing critique; it was a young team, and there will be mistakes as players learn on the fly and the coaching staff tries to figure out exactly what it has. The team only has one complete, two-way defenseman right now: sophomore Andy Welinski, who was strong, but perhaps didn’t progress quite as much as one might have expected after his hype coming in and a strong freshman campaign. Freshmen Carson Soucy, Willie Raskob, and Dan Molenaar should get there, as all three had some flashes and some eminently forgettable moments this season. When at its best, the defensive corps was quite dynamic, though it could do with an added dose of beef. Despite the unfortunate de-commitment of Blake Heinrich, they have a few players coming in over the next couple of years who should correct that imbalance.
When a team outshoots its opponent 37-11, it’s easy to scapegoat the goalie, but often, he isn’t the culprit, and that was the case with Aaron Crandall on Saturday night against WMU. The goals were all the products of power plays or odd-man rushes, and the game-winner was a combination of the two. It’s a frustrating refrain that Duluth East fans will also know all too well: the team dominates play for long stretches, only to see a defenseman pinch too far in or backchecker play without quite enough zeal, and all of the sudden, the other team has a rush going the other direction, and generates a better scoring chance than anything the team had in several minutes of offensive zone possession. Part of the trouble there is youth and inexperience, which UMD will simply have to outgrow, but such fundamentals are the sort of thing a college-level team should be able to anticipate and protect against. Still, the point here is that UMD’s style of hockey can unfairly burden goalies and skew their stats, and Crandall had some big games for the Bulldogs this past season. He is the only graduating senior who will be a loss of any great size.
One other trend this season deserves a mention: the Bulldogs were bad at home, going an ugly 5-10-3 at Amsoil Arena. Of course much of the blame falls on the players and coaches there, but the fans ought to share a chunk of the blame as well. UMD had the 7th-highest attendance of any team in the nation, but you wouldn’t have known it most nights, as tickets sold far exceeded the number of seats filled, and those bright yellow empty seats were pretty conspicuous. The student section had good numbers but usually had to be coaxed to life by the scoreboard; there was very little in the way of creativity or rowdiness. The rest of the fan base does little to pick up the slack. (The crowd had to be practically dragged to its feet late in the season finale, as a few fans tried to coax a little energy into a team fighting for its playoff life.) Duluth is a great hockey market, and anyone who’s been to a 7AA section final knows just how loud Amsoil can get when it has some fiery fans in the arena. With so many seats right on top of the ice, the place should be rocking in big games, and one of the most intimidating arenas in the nation. But I’ve been to Badger games at a cavernous, half-empty Kohl Center with far more energy. The atmosphere at most Bulldog games seemed like a dinner party, with everyone chatting politely and perhaps offering up some musing commentary on the action out on the ice. It’s disappointing.
At any rate, the season was a step in the right direction for the Bulldogs, and if they build on some of these foundations, the future certainly looks bright.