The stakes were high for both teams heading into tonight's series finale on the penultimate weekend of the NCHC regular season between St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota. St. Cloud State needed a victory to have any hope of winning a regular season conference title next weekend. Minnesota Duluth needed a victory to keep pace with Miami for the final home ice playoff spot in the NCHC playoffs and to keep their hopes of getting back to a .500 record and possibly earning an NCAA tournament at-large bid alive. But in a very even game, it was the Bulldogs that prevailed with a 2-1 victory thanks to a stellar defensive effort that held St. Cloud State's potent offense at bay.
After the two teams played a scoreless, and rather disjointed, first period, Dominic Toninato opened the scoring for the Bulldogs at 8:21 of the second period. The Bulldogs appeared to earn their first power play of the game at 7:51 of the period when David Morley was whistled for a boarding penalty. But after the whistle, Minnesota Duluth's Carson Soucy retaliated against Morley, creating a 4-on-4 situation. Duluth may not have had the man advantage, but the extra ice gave Toninato all the space he needed to circle into the slot with the puck and fire a wrist shot underneath the blocker of St. Cloud State goalie Charlie Lindgren for the first goal of the game.
The Bulldogs extended their lead with what would turn out to be the game-winning goal when Karson Kuhlman was able to get a stick on a Willie Raskob knee-high wrist shot and deflect it past Lindgren.
The Huskies would draw within one late in the second period when Patrick Russell finished off a power play goal at 17:47, but the Huskies were unable to find the equalizer in the third period.
Minnesota Duluth kept pace with Miami, who finished off a sweep of Colorado College tonight, for the fourth and final home ice playoff spot. Those two teams will meet next weekend in Duluth, with the winner of that series hosting the loser the following weekend in the NCHC playoffs.
St. Cloud State's loss, combined with red hot Denver finishing off a sweep of Western Michigan, means the Huskies are now tied with Denver for second place in the NCHC. The loss clinched a share of the NCHC regular season title for North Dakota, and any combination of one point by North Dakota next weekend, or one point lost by St. Cloud State would clinch an outright title for the Fighting Hawks.
Notes and Thoughts:
-This game had the feel of a playoff game early. Both teams came out looking like they were trying to play at 100mph. Unfortunately, that made for some very sloppy hockey with a lot of missed passes and both teams slapping the puck around a lot. There wasn't a lot of flow, and that seemed to play to the advantage of the Bulldogs against a Husky team that lives off their high skill.
-I can't say enough about the Bulldogs defensive effort tonight. I haven't seen a team be able to shut down St. Cloud State in the offensive zone the way they did tonight all season. The Huskies are usually deadly when they can get the puck deep in the zone and establish possession. But they struggled all night to get their cycle working because the Bulldog D stayed very disciplined and gave them very little space. Some of that could be chalked up to St. Cloud State not being as sharp as they normally are, but even that, can be attributed to the Bulldog defense speeding them up a little bit and forcing them out of their comfort zone. Special credit goes to the top D pairing of Welinski-Pionk, who kept St. Cloud State's top line quiet most of the game.
-All told, I still really like this UMD team, and still wouldn't be shocked if they found a way to sneak into the NCAA Tournament.(Update: Bulldogs are 15th in the Pairwise, and one game within having the required .500 record at 13-14-5 overall)
Scoring has been an issue all year, and it looked like that might be the case again tonight after the Bulldogs whiffed on a Grade-A chance and put another shot off the cross bar in the first period. But they got a bounce on Kuhlman's goal, and that was all they needed tonight. Nobody is going outskate and play the Bulldogs. If they can get a little offense going, this is still a really, really dangerous team.
-A strong game from Kasimir Kaskisuo in net too. He showed great anticipation getting across his crease the few times St. Cloud State was able to move the puck across the front of the UMD net and made some very tough saves look very easy.
-The Huskies suddenly find themselves in a bit of a precarious position after the surprising sweep. They went from fighting it out with North Dakota for first place in the league, to know worrying about falling to Denver stealing second place next weekend. Even with Omaha currently falling off a cliff, hosting Western Michigan feels a lot better than hosting Omaha in the first round would.
In the big picture, the Huskies fell behind North Dakota in the Pairwise. The general theory is that the higher seeded team will be the one placed in the St. Paul regional, and history shows lack of travel in the NCAA Tournament is a HUGE benefit. There's also the possibility that they slip into the second seed band and end up in St. Paul against North Dakota. I'm not sure if that's worse than potentially playing any other number one seed though.
-A great crowd of 5531 here in St. Cloud tonight. The building wasn't quite packed, but was as full as I've seen it in a long time. A combination of a local opponent, the late season title race, beer sales(I think we survived without any horrific incidents), and Senior Night for a very good senior class, made for an excellent atmosphere.
Shots on goal: SCSU: 8-10-8-26 UMD: 10-8-9-27
Even strength shot attempts: SCSU: 19-8-15-42(49.5%) UMD: 20-9-14-43(50.5%)
Prime scoring area attempts: SCSU: 2-3-3-8 UMD: 9-6-5-20
What do the numbers tell us?
Possession may have been even, but the Bulldogs defense did a tremendous job of holding St. Cloud State to the perimeter, making for a relatively easy night for Kasimir Kaskisuo. Eight attempts in the prime scoring area is a decent number for a single period; absolutely horrendous for an entire game.
8:21 Dominic Toninato from Alex Iafallo and Neal Pion(4-on-4) 1-0 Minesota Duluth
Toninato circled into the slot from behind the net and circled into the slot where he fired a heavy wrister that beat Lindgren to the blocker side.
15:44 Karson Kuhlman from Willie Raskob and Tony Cameranesi 2-0 Minnesota Duluth
Raskob took a wrist shot from the right point and Kuhlman made a knee-high deflection at the hash marks that found its' way into the back of the net.
17:47 Patrick Russell from Mikey Eyssimont and Joey Benik (power play) 2-1 Minnesota Duluth
Benik fired a cross-crease towards Eysimmont. Eyssimont couldn't handle the pass in his feet, but was able to deflect it back to Russell in the low slot and Russell had a wide open net to shoot at as the UMD defense was scrambling.