Tag Archives: gophers

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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Blaising New Paths: NCAA Hockey Regional Roundup

29 Mar

While the rest of the nation watches a sport involving endless fouls and approximately twenty-six timeouts per team in the final two minutes, sixteen universities are playing their way down to their own national championship. It’s the most fickle of tournaments, the NCAA Frozen Four, where top teams go down with regularity, the games played in obscure arenas in all corners of the nation. Four Minnesota schools made the final sixteen this year, but none survived the opening weekend, and the Frozen Four comes down to two longtime favorites, North Dakota and Boston University, and two upstarts, Providence and Nebraska-Omaha.

The most intriguing opening-round matchup took place in Manchester, New Hampshire, where a pair of old rivals, now in separate conferences, went at it for a fifth time this season. There was no drama this time around: Minnesota-Duluth blitzed Minnesota with three first period goals and cruised to a 4-1 win. After a decent open from the Gophers, the Bulldogs poured it on in the second half of the opening frame, unleashing an endless wave of cycles and aggressive pinches, barely letting the opposition out of the zone. They attacked the Gophers where they were weakest, in the corners and along the boards, and cruised once they had the early lead.

It’s hard to spin this Gopher season as anything but a disappointment, and they gave us hockey fans a quality soap opera. A team that returned nearly everyone from last season’s runners-up looked decidedly pedestrian after a 7-1 start, making the tournament largely by virtue of an astonishingly bad Big Ten. There were occasional flashes of their potential, but these Gophers were sloppy on defense and got lackadaisical effort from many of their forwards, leaving goalie Adam Wilcox overexposed. They were routinely outworked and overpowered by teams showing any sense of discipline or sustained pressure, and whatever might have fed into it—players with one foot in the pros, players thinking it would be easy after last season, a here-we-go-again mentality, or those whispers about locker room disputes behind closed doors—there was no fix for a glaring problem.

Naturally, scrutiny will fall on Don Lucia, though his defenders also point out his many successes in recent years; there’s only so much a coach can do to make his players care. His in-game adjustments do indeed usually leave something to be desired, though there it’s also better not to over-coach when one has the more talented team on the ice, as Lucia almost always does. He is not the root of the U of M’s problems, though his stoic demeanor may not be the solution, either. Coaches don’t stay on the job for long tenures without making some adjustments, whether on the ice or off, and this coming year will be a telling one for Lucia’s future. On the ice there were plenty of scapegoats, from reckless Mike Reilly rushes to Taylor Cammarata shying away from contact, but no matter who stays or goes, the Gophers will have the pieces to make another run, and they need to reconnect with that inner fire.

UMD had little time to bask in the big win, as Boston University and their magic man, Jack Eichel, awaited in the regional final. The Bulldogs shut down Eichel, but linemate Evan Rodrigues stole the show with a pair of goals, the second a game-winning power play snipe on which he showed superb patience. That power play came on a fairly soft call, and the Bulldogs were unlucky on a possible game-tying goal in the final minute, when the referees signaled no goal and there was not enough video evidence to overturn it, despite the strong likelihood that the puck was underneath Matt O’Connor’s pads in the net. One can hardly blame the Bulldogs for feeling robbed, but they had their chances, gave up a soft early goal, and were fortunate to sneak in their second tally. It was a strong season for a top ten team, but they weren’t quite on an elite level just yet. If everyone returns they should be a force once again next season, though the Gophers are a clear reminder that these opportunities can be fleeting.

Minnesota State-Mankato came in the surprise top seed in the tournament, though it was a tenuous title. Sure enough, the Mavericks folded under the bright lights of Compton Arena in South Bend, though the Rochester Institute of Technology’s game-winner was even more controversial than anything in the UMD-BU game, with the MSU defender checked into the goaltender by an RIT forward. It’s the first win by a #16 over a #1 in the current tournament format, and while perhaps not quite as monumental as Holy Cross over Minnesota some years back, it was a memorable upset. St. Cloud State, meanwhile, provided some of the best drama of the opening round, winning their Husky war with Michigan Tech with a tying goal from Jonny Brodzinski in the final minute of the 3rd and overtime winner from Duluth native Judd Peterson.

The Huskies’ downfall, however, came at the hands of conference foe North Dakota, which dispatched of them in a methodical 4-1 effort, a scoreline identical to their first-round win against Quinnipiac. The Artists Formerly Known as the Sioux have played with the poise of champions, but they’ll be leaving the friendly confines of Fargo to collide with the other remaining one-seed, Boston University, in Boston in two weeks. The winner of that one will be the odds-on favorite for the crown, as they’ve been the two best power conference teams all season. The right results in the semis could set up a delicious final: Dave Hakstol’s North Dakota versus his old mentor, Dean Blais, the UNO coach whose two titles with the then-Sioux still leave Hak in the shadows. Blais’ squad is the easy rooting choice for Minnesotans, with their veteran coach and bevy of local talent: Jake Guentzel, Justin Parizek, Tanner Lane, Tyler Vesel, Avery Peterson, Luc Snuggerud, and, yes, Jake Randolph, who scored the game-winner in the regional final. Blais’ Minnesota recruiting pipeline has brought a program to new heights, and success should only deepen that connection.

The NCHC, meanwhile, has done exactly what it needed to do in its early years, putting two teams into the Frozen Four this year, with several more coming ever so close. The conference is here to stay, and offers unending displays of great hockey. There’s no good way to spin this year for the Big Ten, but it can only get better from here: Wisconsin was historically bad, Michigan was off, and none of the others really stepped up. Given its resource advantages, this conference will rise, sooner or later. The WCHA put a pair of strong teams into the Tournament, but both bowed out in the first round, making it hard to frame an easy narrative. There is definite promise there, though I still think the WCHA needs to do something big in the next few years lest its schools start to slide further down in the NCAA pecking order.

The four remaining teams now get a week of rest so that we can properly bask in John Calipari’s sleaze, and then go at it next Thursday in Boston.  That gives me time to find some UNO gear in the meantime.

Puck Drop 2014-2015

10 Oct

Hockey season is officially underway, and the Minnesota Wild has Minnesotans salivating with their performance on Thursday night. The 5-0 demolition of defending division champ Colorado was the most thorough performance imaginable, with the whole team looking like a well-oiled machine. This was the cycle as an art form, and pure puck possession hockey at its highest level. The top line of Zach Parisé, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Pominville led the charge with a big night, but every line was in on the act. Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter both scored from the blue line, showing just how seamlessly fluid the Wild was. There should be no need for Suter to log absurd ice times this season now that the second defensive pair is a bit more mature, and Spurgeon offers a second legitimate offensive threat from the point. The penalty kill, a serious weakness last season, was more active and thoroughly neutralized the Colorado power play. This is the way hockey is meant to be played.

It would be a mistake to get too high off one game, and this version of the Avalanche was probably far from their best. While they’re unlikely to repeat their surprise run to the top of the Central from a year ago, they’ll still be a tough team in an incredibly tough division. If the Wild really is anywhere near as good as they looked on Thursday night, it may not be a stretch to say that three of the five best teams in the NHL—Chicago and St. Louis being the other two—are all in the same division. The future of Minnesota professional hockey has perhaps never looked so bright.

Friday saw the start of the NCAA hockey season with a game between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, an enticing opening matchup that was made much less enticing by a 1:00 start time at an arena in Indiana with 54 people in it. The top-ranked Gophers return nearly everyone from last season’s national runner-up squad, and they looked very much the team to beat in the first five minutes of the game, poaching a pair of goals off bad UMD turnovers. After that it was a relatively flat game until a 3rd period UMD comeback made things interesting. The early lead had set the tone, with UMD trying to walk that awkward line between mounting a comeback and not exposing their weakness in back any more than it already was, and the Gophers largely content to sit back and rely on the transition game. Unlike the Wild game, this one definitely looked like a season-opener, with rust and sloppiness among the major themes.

The stars of the game were the two top-line centers, Kyle Rau and Dom Toninato. Rau had a hand in three of the four Gopher goals and was his usual antagonistic self all afternoon, winning battles all over the ice. While there’s a lot of talent around him, this is clearly Rau’s team. He, Sam Warning, and Hudson Fasching make for a lethal top unit. When the secondary scoring comes–and it will–this team will be very hard to stop.

Toninato, meanwhile, looks poised for a breakout year. He didn’t get quite as much attention as some of UMD’s other freshmen forwards last season, largely due to a lower point total, but he did a lot of things that don’t show up on the scoresheet with his strong defense, penalty-killing, faceoff wins, and presence in front of the net. Now, the Duluth East alum looks ready to become a force for the Bulldogs. (All 3 UMD goals were by former Greyhounds.) To really maximize the offensive potential that he and linemate Alex Iafallo bring to the table, they may want to move a playmaking forward to the top line in place of Adam Krause, whose grinding abilities may help out one of the lower lines that were occasionally caught too deep.

The Gophers may be #1, but there is work to be done. Two of their lines were largely invisible over the course of the game, and the defense had a few lapses as well. They also looked to be coasting some after grabbing the early lead, and the midseason energy wasn’t quite there yet. There’s no reason to suspect that they’re not the best team in the nation after this win, but the gap is probably not a large one. Don Lucia has a lot of bodies to sort through as he works out his lower lines and third defensive pair, so it may take a while before they really look championship caliber. With the length of the college hockey season, that’s no big issue.

UMD got better as the game went along, generating the majority of the zone time. That’s important, given their freshman goaltender and somewhat spotty defense; even the veteran defenders had some forgettable moments on Friday afternoon. Despite the loss, it was largely an encouraging performance from the Bulldogs, who enter the season one spot out of the USCHO preseason rankings. As they work things out over the course of a long season, it’s easy to see them moving up the ladder.

We’re a month away from the start of high school practices, and the Elite League season is nearing its end. While there’s usually some sort of October surprise to throw things off, I’ve started scratching out some early thoughts on preseason rankings, and will have plenty more work to do before they come out in about 5 weeks. Start the countdown…

NCAA Frozen Four: The State of the Union Is Strong

13 Apr

NCAA hockey crowned a new champion on Saturday night, and this time around it truly was a new one. Union College, the pride of Schenectady, New York, ousted the University of Minnesota, 7-4. The Dutchmen had one NHL draft pick to the Gophers’ fourteen, and their entire school could fit in a large U of M lecture hall. Even so, it wasn’t much of an upset: Union hadn’t lost a game since January, and had dispatched of another co-favorite, Boston College, in the semis. By the end, there was no doubt who deserved the crown.

As the old Nanne-ism goes, the team that controls the blue line wins the championship, and that was most certainly the case on Saturday night. The man of the hour was that lone Union draft pick, Shayne Gostisbehere, who was an absurd +7 on the night, and could do no wrong; even when he seemed to make an ill-advised pinch, the puck bounced his way. At a tournament in Philadelphia, the Flyers’ draft pick put on a show for his future employers, ruling all 200 feet of the ice sheet. Though it was a bit wobbly in front of its own net–eight goals is an awful lot to give up in a Frozen Four–the entire Dutchman defense was mobile and moved the puck well, with Mat Bodie and Sebastian Gringas also flashing into the fray on the offensive end. They supported each other well, and were rarely fooled by the dekes and pretty passing pulled out by the Gophers’ skill players. Their involvement left opposing defensemen in uncharted territory, and the mistakes followed from there.

Add in a prolific top line and just enough depth to sustain pressure across the board, and Union was just flat-out fun to watch play. So often, championships by less-heralded teams involve great goaltending and narrow survival, but Union did it the opposite way, taking it to the opposition with reckless abandon. They beat arguably the top two programs in the nation in back-to-back games, and their aggressive, up-tempo play is a reminder of how enjoyable hockey can be when puck movement takes priority. Herb Brooks would have been proud.

Being a good northern Minnesota boy, though, my favorite game of the three (all excellent) Frozen Four games was the North Dakota-Minnesota semifinal. While the Union games were fun because anything was possible, the collision between the longtime rivals just dripped with tension and anxiety, with the knowledge that just one little mistake could make all the difference. Yes, it was tentative at times, but the drama, slow build-up, and patient prodding in that sort of game all have their own alluring rhythm. The game-winning goal with 0.6 seconds to go was a study in little details, from the initial face-off win by Kyle Rau to North Dakota’s lackadaisical backchecking to Rau’s pass to onrushing defenseman Justin Holl. Rau and Holl twice faced off in Section 6AA championship games back in high school, but on Thursday night, the old rivals combined to launch their team to title game.

The Gopher defense was sharp against North Dakota, but it was their undoing against Union. Too often they seemed caught in no-man’s land, managing to give the Union defense clean shooting lanes while also failing to clear out the forwards in front of the net. For all the talent on the Gophers, their inexperience showed at times, and they weren’t nearly physical enough to slow down the Dutchmen. Goaltender Adam Wilcox was hung out to dry, and though the Gophers twice battled back to within one, they didn’t quite have the firepower to overwhelm Union in an up-tempo game. Give some of their young guns a few more years and they might get there, but in 2014, experience won out over touted youth.

One Minnesota veteran deserves credit for his effort throughout: Kyle Rau. As a Duluth East alumnus, I’ll never forgive him for 2011, but three years removed from that absurd double-ricochet, triple-overtime game-winner in the state title game, I’ll concede this: there is no player in the nation with more panache. He is a lippy, chippy instigator, always right at the center of the action, and he does all the little things right, from faceoff dominance to diligent defense. The Gopher captain was the heart and soul of his team, and if he returns for his senior year, the Gophers’ offensive depth will be second to none.

The loss is a bittersweet end to the Gopher season. Sure, they lost a lot off last season’s squad, and were a very young group. But they were also among the preseason favorites, and were the top-ranked team for most of the regular season. Pending a couple of possible early departures for the pro ranks, they don’t lose much that can’t be replaced, and should be loaded for another run next season. Still, college hockey is among the least predictable sports, and this program hasn’t been lacking in talent over the past ten years, which did not yield a single appearance in the title game. They may yet rue this wasted opportunity. It’s not easy being the Gophers; even though they attract as much front-line talent as anyone, the perpetual threat of early departure keeps them from ever building a Union-like group of seniors, with players always keeping one eye on their next career move. With the likes of Rau, Taylor Cammarata, and Justin Kloos—small players who don’t project quite as well to higher levels—Don Lucia may have finally found a recruiting strategy that lets him build off the previous year’s results, instead of perpetual reloading with yet another class of talented youngsters. Time will tell.

For now, though, the moment belongs to Union. This college hockey season was dominated by talk of realignment, with the giant Big Ten schools splitting off and forming their own conference with a big TV deal, while the rest of the western teams settled into new tiers based on their size and influence. It may yet prove the beginning of the end for some of the sport’s smaller programs, but in the short term, the parity is phenomenal, with a second straight title for the allegedly lowly Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Union’s win cuts against my own cynicism over the direction of the NCAA, which the results in the other major sports did little to assuage. Hockey is different. Here, a team with zero athletic scholarships can still win it all over the big-time powerhouses with enough experience, pluck, and Gostisbehere. It’s a reminder of what college sports were meant to be back in the golden age of amateurism, if that ever really existed. It’s hard to say just how much the landscape might change in a world of money-chasing conferences and unionized (small-u union) players and an unending rush to develop for the next level, but for the time being, college hockey is one of the nation’s best-kept sports secrets. May God continue to bless it.