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The UMD men’s and women’s hockey teams got into their new season in earnest last weekend at AMSOIL Arena, both showing the potential to make this another exciting season for Northland fans. While the men had to settle for a distasteful split against Ohio State in their nonconference opening series, the UMD women stunned the women’s hockey universe with a sweep against highly regarded and heavily favored Wisconsin.
The Bulldog women’t team had gotten off to a shaky start, losing an uncharacteristic sweep against Ohio State in their opening WCHA series the previous weekend, and despite struggling with injuries, that lost weekend against the Buckeyes seemed to indicate that this might be the first noncompetitive season in UMD women’s hockey history.
We should have known better.
Wisconsin came to AMSOIL ranked No. 4 in the nation and considered the prime favorite to challenge Minnesota in the WCHA and for national honors. The Badgers had lost some top guns, but still had Brianna Decker, the Patty Kazmaier Award winner, and goaltender Alex Rigsby.
Against the Badgers, UMD would send a young and rebuilding team onto the ice, with Kayla Black, a freshman, in goal. Black had been the victim against Ohio State, and had looked good enough, but without any indication of potential stardom. The Blyth, Ontario, netminder soon changed that impression.
“We had seen Kayla look great when we recruited her, but that was against high school players,” said UMD coach Shannon Miller. “She wasn’t facing Brianna Decker.”
Following up the Ohio State sweep, Miller went back to the basics with her Bulldogs and convinced them that they’d have to simplify their game, focus specifically on defense every shift, and everywhere on the rink. “For the entire game, we had to play defense first,” said Miller, “whether forechecking or backchecking, I stressed that we had to follow a game plan of getting the puck out of our end and deep into their end. We knew what we were up against, so we had to play to our strength, which was defense first.”
There’s an interesting theory about an oddity in hockey that sets it apart from other sports: The harder you focus on scoring goals, the more goals you give up; the harder you focus on defense, the more goals you create. It’s interesting, but when teams focus on defense, they tend to get good control of the puck, break out of their zone cleanly, and wind up with rushes to the other end. When trying hard to score, meanwhile, they tend to gamble, lose the puck, and wind up allowing the other team to be on the attack.
That theory couldn’t have been exemplified better than by the Bulldogs. In the first game, Brianna Gillanders was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce when Rigsby misplayed the puck behind her net and when it popped out front, Gillanders had an open net at 1:34 of the first period. Once ahead, UMD played with great resourcefulness, despite being outshot 12-5 in the first period and 12-7 in the second. The game stayed 1-0 into the third period, and what seemed like an inevitability that the Badgers would break through became a tense performance of great defensive zone play by UMD.
A couple of times the Bulldogs did turn the puck over and allow clean break-ins by the Badgers, but Black simply turned them aside with great poise and style.
In the closing minutes, Jenna McParland got the puck and tried to rush up the left side. Fighting off a checker all the way, McParland veered toward the net, and about the time she was going to shoot, Rigsby reached out to poke-check the puck from her. In a blur of action, McParland fell to the ice and slid past the goal on the right side, as the puck slid up on Rigsby’s stick and popped up into the air, landing in the net behind her.
The goal gave UMD a 2-0 lead with 2:50 remaining, and Black held firmly the rest of the way. The Bulldogs, who had dropped out of the top 10 ranking for the first time in their history, had upset a Badger team considered a favorite to reach the national tournament.
Miller admitted she was pretty much holding her breath through the third period. “I kept looking for Decker out there, but we kept her in check pretty well,” said Miller. “We played hard and really got an early reward, and I’m happy they got the reward they deserved.”
It was suggested after that first game that senior defenseman Jessica Wong might have to rise up and be an offensive catalyst for the youthful Bulldogs, who are led up front by McParland, Audrey Cournoyer, Pernilla Winberg, Katie Wilson, and Zoe Hickel. Wong didn’t agree.
“We have a young team, but a great team,” she said. “We all have our own things we can do to help the team, and I don’t think we have to depend on any one person.”
Having said that, Wong went out and scored a goal in the second game, and, even more amazing, Kayla Black recorded another shutout and the Bulldogs beat Wisconsin 1-0 for a sweep of the series.
“We lost three players who scored 100 goals,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. “We’ve got some young kids, and maybe it takes longer to mature, but there’s a lot of parity in the WCHA, and that’s good for everybody -- except the coaches. We’ve been playing UMD for my 10 years, and I can’t think of one game that has been bad.”
The biggest surprise is for those who thought that after five national championships and annually a position as a top league and national contender, UMD might finally be having a down year for rebuilding. Guess again. UMD tests more of the WCHA’s parity this weekend, at MSU-Mankato, then the Bulldogs head for Boston College, before returning home to take on the No. 1 ranked and undefeated Minnesota Golden Gophers on November 2-3.
UMD’s men’s hockey team was in a position very similar to the women. The women had lost star forward and top gun Haley Irwin, and four-year goaltending star Jennifer Harss, and replacing them would be impossible, causing the Bulldogs to play, score, defend and ultimately win by committee -- as a team. The men, of course, had lost Hobey Baker winner and All-America Jack Connolly, as well as his power play wingers, J.T. Brown and Travis Oleksuk, plus a couple of skilled defensemen and goaltender Kenny Reiter.
Winning by committee is not a bad thing, and that also seemed to be the men’s challenge as they opened their season against a tough Ohio State outfit from the CCHA. Aaron Crandall, who had once alternated with Reiter in the nets, but had started only three games last season, got the first crack at the job. Crandall has an even-keel personality, and while his statistics weren’t quite up to Reiter’s, he had the habit of making the game-winning saves, and his career record was 12-4-1 with a 2.83 goals-against average.
Up front, nobody knew what to expect from a young group of promising prospects. It didn’t take long to find out. Tony Cameranesi, former Wayzata star, and a darting, exciting player, set up Austin Farley, a freshman from Niles, Ill., for a goal at 1:05 of the first period, and when Alex Carlson tied it on a power play a couple minutes later, UMD struck for goals by Joe Basaraba and Mike Seidel 19 seconds apart and jumped to a 3-1 lead by the 4:27 mark. Justin Crandall, sophomore brother of the junior goaltender, scored at 16:49 and UMD went to the dressing room with a 4-1 bulge after a period.
Ohio State came back in the second period, as the Bulldogs seemed to go for a snooze. Maybe the young players spent their adrenaline trying to prove themselves so well in the first period, but Ohio State closed the gap to 4-2 after two. It took a ration of Ohio State penalties in the third period to set p power-play goals by Seidel and freshman defenseman Andy Welinski, 43 seconds apart, to finish the job 6-2.
Crandall got the nod for the second game, too, but a key factor was Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki, a former Wisconsin star defenseman, and his associate head coach, Steve Rohlik, who was his Badger teammate and who spent 10 years as a UMD assistant before going to Columbus a year ago.
“In our league [the CCHA], Michigan and Miami play an up-tempo, offensive style,” said Osiecki. “Everybody else plays a slow-it-down defensive style. We knew what we were in for coming here, because UMD is really quick, and our kids hadn’t seen anything like this. I’m not sure if we can adjust in time.”
The Buckeyes adjusted, and maybe UMD allowed them to show off their adjustment a bit, because the second game started off at a much higher tempo, mainly because of the Buckeyes. Alex Carlson and Tanner Fritz scored in the first 10 minutes, and Ohio State led 2-0 at the intermission. UMD got things together in the seocnd period, although it took another ration of Ohio State penalties to get the Bulldogs untracked. Basaraba and Seidel scored, with Seidel deflecting Chris Casto’s point shot in the last minute of the middle period for the 2-2 tie.
A critical turning point came at 3:40 of the third period. Derik Johnson, a sophomore defenseman whose dad -- former Bulldog and NHL star Jimmy Johnson -- was watching, rifled a shot in from the point to break the tie for UMD. But as the Bulldogs and the fans celebrated, the referees reviewed the video tape, and decided a Bulldog skater was in the crease, so they nullified the goal.
The Bulldogs seemed to sag, and three minutes later, Max McCormick scored off a great pass from Tanner Fritz, and Ohio State had taken advantage for a 3-2 lead that stood up as the final score.
UMD coach Scott Sandelin was a bit surly after the game and said, “We can’t have guys who’ll live off one night. We didn’t have that urgency [in the second game].”
However, the Bulldogs outshot Ohio State 39-26 the first night and 30-21 the second. And as they head off to Notre Dame this weekend, their fans can appreciate that when they return home to face Wisconsin next week, this rebuilding process might be an exciting one.
Meanwhile, UMD’s powerful football team comes home to Malosky Stadium Saturday for a 1 p.m. battle with Bemidji State, and the volleyball team, which was upset last weekend at Augustana, is at home in Romano Gym against Upper Iowa Friday at 7, and Winona State Saturday at 4 p.m.