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We have no idea what will happen out in Denver this weekend, where the UMD Bulldogs will try to keep surging upward. It’s almost as though the Bulldogs are going to keep finding tougher and tougher opposition, just to prove how good they really are.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference is a r eal dogfight. Two weeks ago, we finally saw glimmers of what the Bulldogs can be when they came off their holiday break by going to Colorado College and sweeping the Tigers 6-5 and 5-1. But we still were trying to figure out who was the best team in the NCHC — was it North Dakota, St. Cloud State, or Denver?
The Bulldogs stood a poor 2-7 in league games at the break, so the sweep at CC helped a lot. But the league’s Big Three — Denver, St. Cloud State and North Dakota — seemed to be playing in a league of their own. Two weeks ago, UMD beat North Dakota 5-3 and 5-2 for another sweep, damaging the Fighting Hawks hopes for a title.
Last weekend, the Bulldogs played what I thought was their best game of the season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. St. Cloud State had only three losses, meaning on a percentage basis, the Huskies were the best team in the NCHC. UMD got first-period goals from captain Karson Kuhlman and Peter Krieger to take a stunning 2-0 lead. In the final minute of the first period, a third UMD goal was disallowed by a questionable call of goaltender interference at 19:08.
That could have caused a team to buckle, to forget its momentum and hang on. The Bulldogs instead came right back to beat the clock when Scott Perunovich, who keeps playing spectacular defense as his freshman year moves along, raced in on the left side and seemed to hold the puck too long. But we can’t question Perunovich. Joey Anderson didn’t, he just kept skating toward the right post and, sure enough, at precisely the right time Perunovich threaded the needle with his pass and Anderson scored at 19:48.
“It was just a little Iron Range rink-rat hockey,” said Perunovich, who is from Hibbing, and who admitted he planned to pass, then had a fleeting moment when he thought it would be better to shoot, before finally passing anyway.
“I was sure Scotty would pass all the way,” said Joey Anderson. “When he’s got the puck, you just go to the net and know that he’ll pick the right time to give it to you.”
Leading 3-0 after one period was remarkable, but it became more remarkable when Perunovich went to the penalty box at 15:29 of the second period. Parker Mackay and Justin Richards suddenly broke free 2-on-0. Mackay, one of the subtle players who always does the little details but can also come up with huge plays, carried the puck up the right side, feeding Richards on the left, and easily converting a perfect return pass from Richards for a shorthanded goal at 17:24.
Another UMD penalty, and, ho-hum, another shorthanded goal. This time it was Nick Swaney who took a drop pass and cut deep around a sliding defenseman, then sent a goal-mouth pass to the right edge, where Kuhlman scored at 19:53.
That unlikely 3-0 first-period lead was 5-0 after two. A quick shot by Ryan Poehling, one of three brothers on the Huskies top line, broke Hunter Shepherd’s shutout bid midway through the third period, but UMD alerted the rest of the country that it is for real, with a 5-1 victory.
It couldn’t go on indefinitely, of course. UMD had won six consecutive NCHC games to zip from ninth to third in the standings. The Huskies ended that streak with a comeback 2-1 victory the next night, after Swaney’s goal at 8:24 of the first staked the Bulldogs to a 1-0 lead. Jake Wahlin had three goals and Patrick Newell two, playing opposite wings with center Blake Winiecki on St. Cloud’s fourth line. Wahlin scored the equializer a minute and a half after Swaney’s goal, and it stayed 1-1 until only 5:10 remained in the third period, when Newell scored at the left edge, set up by Winiecki, who assisted on both goals.
The split was less satisfying than a sweep would have been, although the Bulldogs showed they wouldn’t go down easy despite appearing exhausted enough from Friday night to be off their game.
It caused me to hold to my opinion that St. Cloud State might be the best team in the NCHC right now, but UMD is playing the best of any team in the NCHC right now.
As for Denver? There are interesting parallels. Back on Novermber 3-4, UMD opened the season with a trip to St. Cloud, and the Huskies administered 5-3 and 5-0 beatings to the young Bulldogs. On December 1-2, Denver came to AMSOIL Arena riding high to recreated the NCAA final game won by Denver last April. It was tough, unyielding hockey, and Denver won 1-0 and 2-1. Those two sweeps are what caused the Bulldogs to be 2-7 in the standings.
Now we’re in the second half, though, and everybody knows there are no easy games in the NCHC. Denver played a 3-3 tie and a 1-1 tie at North Dakota last weekend, but the Pioneers found ways to score the winning goals in the 3-on-3 second overtime both nights. The Bulldogs know how good the Pioneers are, but there’s a good chance the Pioneers don’t realize the high level of play the Bulldogs are playing right now. I thought it was a major plateau that the Bulldogs got outshot 25-18 but won 5-1, and were outshot 28-20 the second night in that wrenching 2-1 setback. Not worrying about shots, or power plays, or any of that other trivial stuff was further evidence of the maturity of the Bulldogs.
It’s hard to calculate when there are three points available for every game nowadays, but Denver leads with 31 points, St. Cloud is second with 28, then comes UMD with 24. Well, UMD and friends, because North Dakota, Western Michigan and North Dakota also have 24, creating a four-team snarl for third place.
The top five get home ice for playoffs, of course, and playoff time will be here soon enough. After Denver, UMD comes home to face Miami of Ohio, then goes to Western Michigan, before finishing at home against Nebraska-Omaha. Enjoy it while you can.