October Hockey Notes: Northern Power

18 Oct

It’s not often one can glance up at the TV in a bar and see a kid he used to bump into in the hallway skating across the ice, but it happened to me this past weekend. Former Duluth East defenseman Derek Forbort made his NHL debut on Friday night, as he registered one shot in 11 minutes of ice time for the Los Angeles Kings in their overtime win over the Wild. Forbort is the sixth ex-Hound to appear in the big show, though he may soon have company in the form of a couple of UMD Bulldogs. It wasn’t the smoothest road to the show for Forbort—most of the other players drafted around him in the 2010 draft made their debuts years ago—but make it he has, and it was just one of a few highlights this past weekend for those of us with our roots in the North.

The NHL have been under way for a couple of weeks now, but the first major college series of the year, an early season home-and-home between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, ushered in the hockey season more properly. The two-game series revealed two teams in decidedly different places, and while the end result wasn’t an overwhelming surprise, the gulf between the two squads was the lingering takeaway. Minnesota Duluth’s 3-1 and 3-0 wins gave them six in a row over Minnesota dating back to last season, their greatest run of dominance over their southern rivals in school history.

The Bulldogs return a veteran core from a team that narrowly missed the Frozen Four a year ago, and after slipping up in their opener at Bemidji State, they looked the part against the Gophers. Two three-goal nights may not seem overwhelming, but their relentless pressure in the offensive zone had them in control for most of the series. It was offense-as-defense at its finest, with gaudy shot counts over the first four periods. Dom Toninato, ever a powerful presence, scored twice on the weekend; freshman Adam Johnson seamlessly slid into the Bulldog top line with Toninato and Alex Iafallo. All four lines were humming along, and the Bulldogs simply owned the neutral zone.

The Friday night performance was even more impressive considering the absence of the suspended Carson Soucy, whose tracer in the Saturday game—with some help from a Karson Kuhlman tip—gave the Bulldogs their second goal. The giant, physical defenseman is an imposing force, and he and Andy Welinski make for a dominating one-two blueline punch. One of the Bulldogs’ most apparent weaknesses this season is a lack of defensive depth, but after some rocky moments early in the first game, the greener UMD defensemen all settled in and had solid series. The difference in comfort of the new arrivals was one of the distinct differences between the Bulldogs and Gophers all weekend long. It’s Frozen Four or bust in Duluth this year.

For their part, the Gophers came out with good energy in the opening ten minutes of both games, pushing the pace and forcing some quality saves out of Kasimir Kaskisuo. Other than that, they only showed life once down 3-0 in the second game. Their two returning stars, Hudson Fasching and Justin Kloos, disappeared for stretches of the first game, at times trying to do too much on their own. Taylor Cammarata, the poster child for the Gophers’ lack of fight a year ago, looked more willing to go into corners, but is ill-equipped to do much once there. Brent Gates Jr. got the lone goal of the weekend, while Tommy Novak was probably the most consistently useful of the freshmen.

This isn’t wildly unexpected. These Gophers are young, and looking to recover from a veteran-laden season that went all wrong. Even so, teams lose as much as they do year to year and get by just fine. They’ve scored just once in three games, and the whole clearly does not match the sum of the parts. There is too much talent here to languish in a cellar. The effort of some of the forwards gets the most flak, but I’ll point to a number of sophomore and junior defensemen who have yet to live up to the hype: they are far too soft in their own zone, and the fluid puck movement that should be the Gophers’ staple has degenerated into blind outlet passes. Add in a coaching staff that doesn’t seem willing to adapt a system to the team they have, and there is a recipe for ugliness. Yes, it’s still early. But they need to turn things around before Big Ten play starts, or the whispers about Don Lucia will grow louder.

On the high school side of things, there’s less than a month until practice opens, and the Elite League is deep into its second half. So far, the league has been owned by Team North, a squad that has just three schools—Grand Rapids, Hermantown, and Duluth East—accounting for the vast majority of its players. With Bemidji looking strong as well, this could be a banner year for the North. East’s Luke Dow and Ash Altmann are flashing their offensive talent and are the top two forwards, though the team’s leading scorer is the sublimely silky Scott Perunovich, a Hibbing defenseman and future Bulldog. He and Hermantown’s Wyatt Aamodt make for a defensive pair no other Elite League team can match.

Future Gopher Casey Mittelstadt is the Metro area’s finest player, though he relinquished the league scoring lead to Breck’s Chase Ellingson while off playing for the national team this past weekend. Team Northeast is Stillwater-heavy, but their two big guns are Luke Notermann of Blaine and Will Garin of Holy Family. Team Southwest, home to the Edina and Prior Lake contingents, has lined the cellar so far, and the Great Plains group shows flashes. Mittelstadt joins the returning Lakeville North crew along with some Hill-Murray boys in leading team Southeast; they’re locked in a battle for second in the standings with Northwest, whose scoring beyond Ellingson is probably the league’s most balanced. They also boast its top goalie to date, Alex Schilling of Wayzata.

The last few weeks of the Elite League will provide a few more clues as I go about readying the preseason AA rankings. I’ve started to comb over team lists in my spare time, and I’ve put a few rough orders on to paper. They’ll be out in less than a month. Yes, Minnesota, hockey season is finally here.

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