Bulldogs at a Peak to take on North Dakota

John Gilbert

Tony Cameranesi scored UMD’s second short-handed goal on a breakaway Saturday, sweeping Miami 3-1 in the NCHC series. Photo Credit: John Gilbert
Tony Cameranesi scored UMD’s second short-handed goal on a breakaway Saturday, sweeping Miami 3-1 in the NCHC series. Photo Credit: John Gilbert

Upsetting No. 1-ranked North Dakota in Friday’s NCHC tournament semifinals looks like a tall order, but in reality, the Bulldogs are extremely close to their North Dakota rivals, despite the disparity in their records.
Consider that UMD played very well but couldn’t score when the teams played a series at AMSOIL Arena, and the Fighting Hawks flew away with a pair of 3-0 victories. Flash forward to mid-February, and the teams met again in Grand Forks, and this time North Dakota won 2-1, then again by 2-1 in an overtime stunner decided on a highly questionable penalty-shot call in sudden death.
In the final standings, North Dakota won with a 19-4-1 record, while UMD finished fourth at 11-10-3. Breaking it down, winning the four close games was huge for North Dakota. What if UMD would have beaten North Dakota? It wouldn’t have been outrageous to say they played well enough to win all four. If they had, the Bulldogs would have finished 15-6-3, and North Dakota would have finished 15-8-1. Incredible.
Such exchanges don’t work, of course, and North Dakota is a worthy and deserving league champion. But UMD could make an enormous statement for its program by upsetting North Dakota Friday afternoon. It could be the biggest post-season game UMD has played since it caught fire and won the NCAA tournament in 2012.
It would be a nice coincidence if we could draw some similarities between UMD’s current hockey stretch rush and the team that caught fire in the NCAA tournament four years ago to bring home the Bulldogs first and only men’s national championship.
Nice, but not possible. Four years ago, the Bulldogs had a strong season but sputtered a bit near the end. After sputtering, they were upset by Bemidji State at home to be denied advancing to what was then the WCHA Final Five. Fortunately, UMD’s season had been strong enough that a spot in the 16-team NCAA field still worked out, and the Bulldogs were sent out East where they suddenly caught fire and won two games there, before coming to Xcel Energy Center and beating Notre Dame and then Michigan to claim the national title.
This year, the Bulldogs have been inconsistent in their results, even though they’ve been very consistent in their play. It looked bleak for gaining home ice for the first round of NCHC playoffs a month ago. They had been failing to find the combination required to win, and they were forced with the seemingly impossible task of playing at North Dakota and then at St. Cloud State – the two best teams in the league, if not the country.
But after predictably losing a pair of wrenching 2-1 games at North Dakota, suddenly everything snapped together for the Bulldogs, who went into St. Cloud and swept the Huskies 4-1 and 2-1, knocking St. Cloud State out of any chance at winning the league title, and also thrusting themselves back into the home-ice picture. Miami of Ohio came to AMSOIL to finish the regular season, and the Bulldogs whipped the RedHawks 5-0 and 3-1 to gain home ice, after all.
Last weekend, Miami had to come right back to AMSOIL for a best-of-three NCHC playoff series. That’s when the magic kicked in. UMD was indeed lucky to escape the first game, trailing 4-2 after two periods before erupting for goals by Adam Johnson, Neal Pionk, and Carson Soucy to win for the first time after trailing by two in the third period.
The next night, Kyle Osterberg scored short-handed in the opening minutes, Andy Welinski gunned in a power-play goal for a 2-0 lead before the first period ended, and Tony Cameranesi scored another short-handed goal midway through the second period to make it 3-0. Kasimir Kaskisuo lost his shutout with 2”48 remaining, but the Bulldogs still won, 3-0, to sweep the series.
The good news is that the Bulldogs have won six straight games, behind Kaskisuo, a balanced scoring attack that has suddenly blossomed, and a nearly airtight defense.
The better news is that UMD, ranked 13th in the Pairwise computer-guided system the NCAA selection committee uses to pick its 16 tournament entries, is headed for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Target Center for the first time in the event’s three-year history.
UMD joins three fellow-NCHC rivals for the Frozen Faceoff, and top-ranked North Dakota, No. 3 St. Cloud State, and No. 6 Denver are already certain to be ranked high enough to qualify for the NCAA party. UMD is the one that might be vulnerable, ranked No. 13. Yes, that’s within the top 16, but NCAA rules say that the playoff champion in any qualified conference is automatically put into the field, and each time that happens, one of the existing 16 teams is bumped out.
Thirteenth should be safe, if there are no upsets in other conferences. To be safe, the best thing UMD could do would be to win the NCHC tournament and claim the automatic berth. But winning just one game might be enough to do it. That leads to the next issue: UMD faces North Dakota Friday at 4:30 p.m. at Target Center, while St. Cloud State and Denver play at 7 p.m. The two winners play for the tournament title and the automatic NCAA berth, but the other two teams play a third-place game on Saturday, giving Friday’s losing teams a chance to win one more game for NCAA consideration.
Can the Bulldogs do it? Well, the current six-game winning streak is their longest of the season. Everything is clicking, and the team is tight and unified and healthy. That means there is no similarity to this team and the one four years ago that, at this point of the season, had proven nothing and wasn’t remotely on a streak. This year’s Bulldogs might be primed and ready to make a serious run, for the league tournament title, and into the NCAA.