CHICAGO — Entering the Frozen Four, Minnesota Duluth ranks ninth nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
As Scott Sandelin prepares to bring his team to the Frozen Four for the first time since winning the 2011 national championship, the Bulldogs know minimizing Harvard’s high-powered offense will be imperative to success.
The Crimson score 4.14 goals per game, tops in the country, and have a well balanced attack that starts with a group of blue liners that can move the puck and transition quickly from defense to offense.
Whether it’s Adam Fox’s vision and ability to think the game one step ahead or the Crimson’s speedy top two lines, the Bulldogs defense will have to be ready to defend quickly. UMD will key in on limiting the time and space Harvard has with the puck.
“We want to be tighter and not give teams so much time in space. When you give teams time in space, they can make it hurt and score some goals,” explained UMD senior center Dom Toninato.
Talking to each other and making sure they know what their teammates are doing in the defensive zone will be a major factor in eliminating Harvard’s opportunities.
“I think that's the biggest thing, is we took away the time in space, and there's a lot more communication back there which helps on switches and who's got who. We got to stay focused and keep playing that hard defense because, obviously, Harvard is really skilled offensive team,” Toninato concluded.
Besides the obvious of keeping the other team off the board, sound team defense can lead to offense going the other way and energy on the bench.
“It gives us a lot of momentum. Just a simple blocked shot, getting the puck out to us. It just gives us that chance to score a goal or make good plays. We're going to need it tomorrow,” said senior left wing Alex Iafallo.
Harvard has been one of the best teams in the country all season long at maintaining puck possession and generating chances. Having the puck and getting shots on goal obviously minimizes the other team’s ability to counter-attack and score at the other end.
“They’ve got some very talented forwards up front. There is a lot of skill and a lot of deception,” said Sandelin. “Obviously, their best lines, their top two lines really play very well together and play well off each other in small areas.”
Harvard lost a lot of firepower after last season with Jimmy Vesey, now with the New York Rangers, and Kyle Criscuolo graduating, but the addition of two puck-moving defensemen have made a world of difference in terms of creating offense.
“They're quick. They transition well. They don't give up the puck. They make plays. Their defense gets involved, especially guys like Fox, who's a tremendous player back there. He’s very elusive, smart,” Sandelin commented.
While it will be impossible to complete shutdown Harvard’s transition and offensive zone attack, the best defense is a good offense. If UMD can transition well and hold on to the puck for long stretches, it can act as a deterrent to Harvard’s attack going the other way.
“It's minimizing. It's managing your puck. Certainly, turnovers are going to be critical. Mistakes are always big at this time. It could come down to little things. Bad line changes,” Sandelin said.
Minnesota Duluth has arguably the best defenseman in the Frozen Four in undrafted free agent Neal Pionk. The sophomore has seven goals and 26 assists and will be highly coveted by NHL teams when UMD’s run is over. He and seniors Willie Raskob and Carson Soucy, whose status is up in the air due to injury, are the big names on the Bulldogs blue line.
While the Bulldogs boast four defensemen on the blue line, they are a little greener in the crease. Freshman Hunter Miska has been forced to take on the bulk of the workload this season after Kasimir Kaskisuo left early to sign a pro contract after last season.
Miska, one of 16 Minnesotans on the team, has a .919 save percentage entering Thursday’s game. He’s an older freshman whose maturity and experience in junior hockey has prepared him well for the spotlight.
“He wanted to make sure he was prepared by playing three years of junior plus the development team,” Sandelin explained. “I think he has a great demeanor. He played on some good teams, too, so he's been in big games.”
Miska was once a highly regarded goaltending prospect who played for the U.S. NTDP. His physical tools in the crease remind his coach of a former Bulldog, Alex Stalock, who now plays in the Minnesota Wild organization.
“I knew I had someone who reminded me a lot of Alex Stalock, the way he kind of played. He has a little more unique style. He's very athletic, very competitive,” said Sandelin.
The ultimate test will come a little after 5 p.m. CT Thursday when the puck drops and Harvard’s pace comes flying down the sheet.