Home games disappoint, road games uplift Bulldogs’ season
Visiting teams excelled in the inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference postseason tournament, a fact that fit in well with the Minnesota Duluth men’s team’s dominant road record this season.
But, unfortunately as it turned out, the Bulldogs played their lone playoff series at Amsoil Arena and the same result ensued as it had during much of the regular season. A sweep at the hands of Western Michigan a week ago ended UMD’s chances at an NCAA tournament berth.
Why the Bulldogs struggled so much at home — the team posted a 5-10-3 mark at Amsoil — and why it showed flashes of brilliance during a 10-6 road campaign were just two unanswered questions in a wacky college season that saw the NCHC’s No. 6 seed Denver beat last-place team Miami in the tournament championship game Saturday night.
Denver, North Dakota and St. Cloud State will represent the NCHC in the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve never gone through that and we have to find a way to make sure that doesn’t happen (again),” UMD coach Scott Sandelin, who completed his 14th season, said of the Bulldogs’ impotence at home. “But I’m proud of our kids for how they did on the road. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
The season highlights included a road win over No. 1 Minnesota and forcing a shootout against the Gophers in the final of the inaugural North Star College Cup, but going 0-4 vs. St. Cloud State and suffering through a four-game losing streak near the end of the season proved costly.
“It was a wonderful season at UMD, though we fell short of our goals,” said junior center Caleb Herbert, who led the team with 31 points. “It was an up-and-down year — we beat some teams we weren’t expected to beat and lost to others we should have beaten.”
Ultimately, UMD’s .500 overall record against what was ranked as the toughest schedule in NCAA Division I seemed fitting.
“I’m pleased with a lot of things this year,” Sandelin said. “I’m not pleased that we’re done (playing), but we had a good group and, hopefully, some of the young guys learned their lessons about how hard this league is and we’ll use that to build for next year. This team showed its potential at times and could have beaten anybody on any given night.
“Five hundred is not a bad year in this league. It might seem like that to other people, but it’s not. But it’s not something that’s good enough; you have to keep working and getting better. Next year guys get a year older and we’ll get in some pieces to the puzzle that maybe we’re missing.”
The Bulldogs graduate only four seniors — goaltender Aaron Crandall, forwards Joe Basaraba and Max Tardy and defenseman Tim Smith — and lose Herbert and Luke McManus due to a professional contract and injury, respectively.
“I felt bad for the seniors,” junior co-captain Adam Krause said. “I don’t think people realize how much you put into a program like this and how much it consumes your life for four years. To see those guys leave, it’s a huge blow.”
But a solid corps of young talent and depth returns at forward, including goal-scoring co-leader Kyle Osterberg (14 goals) and NCHC All-Rookie selection Alex Iafallo, while next season’s incoming players likely will include two defensemen, one goaltender and three or four forwards.
“They have a bright future ahead of them,” said Herbert, who announced two days ago he was leaving a year early to sign a professional contract with the NHL’s Washington Capitals and play for their East Coast Hockey League affiliate. “There’s a lot of talent in the UMD program and, hopefully, they can reach the next level.”
Entering the season, defense and goaltending were the main question marks, but Sandelin was pleased with the play of freshmen Carson Soucy, Willie Raskob and Dan Molenaar, sophomore workhorse Andy Welinski and junior shot-blocker extraordinaire Derik Johnson on the blue line and saw Crandall up his game after being selected as the No. 1 netminder at midseason.
One aspect that severely underperformed was the power play, which scored just 26 times on 165 attempts (15.8 percent) and took away from a solid penalty-killing unit (33-for-180, 18.3 percent).
“It’s the first year in six or seven years where we’ve been below 20 percent (success rate),” Sandelin said. “When you score on the power play, it takes the burden off 5-on-5 scoring. That’s foreign territory to what we’re used to and that might have played a factor in us not winning some games.”
Sandelin, who is under contract through the 2016-17 season and makes $245,780 annually, is not immune to criticism despite winning an NCAA title in 2011. Occasional Twitter postings and newspaper reader comments question whether he’s the right coach moving forward in the NCHC. That’s not the case with the UMD administration.
“I was extremely pleased with our coaching staff and their ability to recruit and develop young players,” first-year UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said. “The recent wall we put up at Amsoil honoring our NHL presence (12 players signed to pro contracts since 2007) is a testament to the great coaching staffs that we’ve had over the years, and I’m excited for the future. We have a great corps of young group of players and strong emerging leaders that should make Bulldog hockey very exciting and competitive for the foreseeable future.”
Still, an intangible may be needed to vie for an NCHC title next season. Playing better at home would be a good start in a league that was noted for its week-in, week-out battles that may have contributed to costing it a spot or two in the NCAA tournament. Despite a middling nonconference record against eastern conferences, Sandelin says the NCHC’s debut was a success.
“It lived up to its billing and all the competitiveness that we talked about — you saw that throughout the year and in the first round of the playoffs,” he said. “From a competitive standpoint, it was awesome. The intensity of the games in the second half (of the season) ramped up. It’s what we all expected and that’s why I feel fairly good about having a good year.”