October Hockey Notes: Northern Power

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.

Blaising New Paths: NCAA Hockey Regional Roundup

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.

NCAA Frozen Four: The State of the Union Is Strong

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.

UMD Hockey 2013-2014 Post-Mortem

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.