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When a hockey team has as many outstanding players as UMD has, it’s difficult to focus in on any of them as a favorite. More likely you just realize you don’t have any “non-favorites” on the team, and you can appreciate all of them on any given night.
But one of my favorites is Nick Wolff. He’s the giant 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior defenseman who stood out last season when, as a sophomore, he was the shepherd who guided five freshmen defenseman through their rookie year, resulting in the NCAA championship. As a large and intimidating presence, Wolff’s defensive style allowed Scott Perunovich to rush and roam and score enough to lead the Bulldogs in scoring.
This season, the Bulldogs are even stronger, and remain in contention for the NCHC title and also to defend its NCAA title. And while the whole defense has played well, it’s always fun to watch the Wolff-Perunovich pairing, because while Perunovich may have learned some intrinsic things about playing defense from Wolff, playing with the mercurial Perunovich has inspired Wolff to jump up in the play more and contribute a heavy shot to the offense.
The Bulldogs continued their display of fantastic balance last weekend against North Dakota in the 5-0 victory on Friday, although it disipated in Saturday’s 2-1 loss. The Peter Krieger-centred line with Riley Tufte-Nick Swaney on the wings has 10 goals this season; the Justin Richards-centered line with Cole Koepke and Parker Mackay has 12; the Jackson Cates-Noah Cates-Tanner Laderoute all-freshman line has 11 goals; and the line with Jade Miller and Jesse Jacques alternating at center with Kobe Roth and Billy Exell has 5 goals; while the defensive corps has scored 9.
Very impressive. Wolff, unfortunately, didn’t get the chance to build much on his plus-14 evaluation for being on-ice for even-strength goals-for/goals-against, the second-best in the country. He was thrown out of the Friday game when the ferocious hitting got a bit out of hand and he got in a bit of a scrap protecting a teammate. It didn’t matter much, in the 5-0 final count.
But Saturday, Wolff was tossed again for “contact to the head,” and while nobody has been willing to defend his hit early in the second period, I will take a shot at it. Wolff skated up the right side, right in front of the press box at AMSOIL Arena, and as I watched him, he turned and skated straight for the UMD bench for a change. He was about halfway across the ice when North Dakota came toward the UMD end and a Fighting Hawk moved the puck and cut to his left, looking back to admire the play. He might have been the only one in the building who was unaware that, much like the captain of the Titanic, was heading straight for a giant iceberg, wearing No. 5.
Wolff didn’t take a run at his adversary, and he wasn’t aiming to obliterate him — at first — but when he saw this easy target coming right at him he continued straight toward his bench, and made the alternative plan to brace himself for an impending collision. He didn’t throw an elbow, or even lead with his shoulder, but he kept going in a straight trajectory and stiffened his body at the moment of impact, striking his adversary with his bicep.
The penalty, if anything, should be called for “hitting too hard,” because that’s what happened. It appeared his upper arm struck the Fighting Hawk skater on the shoulder, not the head, although whiplash might have made it seem like it had hit his head. Actually, it was a top to toe bit of contact, and while Fighting Hawk trainers hustled out on the ice to tend their player, the officials talked it over. Wolff has made a number of heavy hits on purpose, some of them worth penalties, but this time he really just braced himself as he headed for the bench and his victim supplied most of the forceful velocity.
A 5-minute major and game misconduct meant that Wolff was gone for the rest of the night at 5:14 of the second period, with the Bulldogs trailing 2-1. They had trailed by that score since yielding a goal to Jordan Kawaguchi at 3:10 of the first and Grant Mismash, assisted by Kawaguchi, at 4:41. At 19:27 of the first period, Kawaguchi was tossed, but there was no defending his action — a flagrant spearing penalty worth 5 and a game.
Laderoute, the freshman, countered with a goal at 10:28 for UMD to cut the deficit to 2-1, but as the second period progressed, UMD seemed to lose its sharpness, and by the third period, it looked like the Bulldogs were out of gas. Weary, maybe.
Or, my supposition, was that it’s easy to play a bold, swashbuckling style when Nick Wolff is back there, stabilizing things. This game, and the series, were without question the most physical of the season. I can’t remember a game where every hit was finished with a certain degree of venom. It was, flat nasty. The converse is that it might not be as easy to “play their game” when big No. 5 is not on the ice, or on the bench.
The referees, Todd Anderson and Ryan Hersey,to 6 for North Dakota, and while neither team scored a power-play goal, North Dakota had seven power plays to UMD’s 2. The refs called 11 penalties on UMD and 6 on UND. There were several questionable ones, but the call on Wolff bothered me the most, especially after it took a lengthy delay for reviews before it was made.
“We dug a hole, and our penalty-killers were outstanding; there was not a lot of 5-on-5 play.” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. He didn’t want to get into critizing the refs, but he said those involved in controlling the game “can’t be selective. They should let the players decide the game. Wolff plays hard, and he’s a big part of our team. I’ll have to see the hit again, but he plays hard, and we don’t to take that out of him.”
Over in the North Dakota dressing room, coach Brad Berry was his usual classy self, acknowledging how tough the game was. “Old-time hockey,” he called it. He thought the number of penalties on both teams weighed on them. His priority to to get some of is injured players back.
“We’ve got to get healthy, we’ve got a whole line missing with injuries,” he said.
He also noted that the team was heading home for Grand Forks up Hwy. 2, and that when you split a series — especially a tough, physical series — winning the second of two games “makes the bus trip home a lot shorter.”
The series was the final home series of the calendar year for UMD, with the holiday break upcoming. But first, a trip to Western Michigan this weekend could prove to be pivotal for the Bulldogs going into the holidays.