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College men's hockey: UMD's Thomas solidifies depth in other ways than goal-scoring

Ryan Poehling (11) of St. Cloud State and Jared Thomas (22) of Minnesota Duluth compete for the puck on Jan. 14 at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Minnesota Duluth defeated St. Cloud State 4-3 in overtime. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Jared Thomas heard you. He's seen your tweets.

He may not have known exactly how many games it had been, but Thomas was well aware of his goal drought. He didn't need any reminders.

The truth is, Thomas didn't care how many games — 69 — it had been since he last scored a goal. That's because he was too busy helping out the Bulldogs elsewhere on the ice.

"People who don't watch the game and just look at the box score haven't seen my name on there for a while in the goal column," Thomas said. "People that don't watch the game see that, say 'Oh, he must not be playing well,' but you can play well in other ways, too."

Jared ThomasAnd Thomas has done just that at Minnesota Duluth. The junior forward from Hermantown is not the scoring machine he was at the high school or junior level, but he's a much more well-rounded player than he once was as a teenager.

His role as a grinder, shot blocker, penalty killer and face-off specialist is one he embraces to the fullest going into this weekend's best-of-three NCHC quarterfinal series against Miami at Amsoil Arena.

Thomas, with one goal and eight assists this season, said he's still striving to score, but being a complete, two-way player is more important. It's what the program needs and what the program looks for in its players, especially come postseason.

"When I first got here, I wasn't as good defensively as I am now. Faceoffs too, I've improved a lot," Thomas said. "I haven't put up the points that I thought I would or wanted to, but I'm still trying to make plays out there. I know I can make plays, it's just a matter of executing on them or scoring a goal or bearing down in front."

Thomas led the Hawks in scoring as a senior in 2011-12, tallying 30 goals and 54 assists in 31 games. Later with the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League, he led the team in scoring in 2012-13 with 20 goals and 46 assists in 64 games.

In 112 games as a Bulldog, Thomas has just eight goals and 24 assists. After scoring his seventh collegiate goal on Oct. 17, 2015, Thomas went 69 games without a goal before scoring last Saturday in a 6-3 win at Western Michigan to close the regular season.

As happy as Thomas has been with his all-around game, he's even happier to put the drought behind him. He's hoping to start a new streak — a scoring streak.

"At some point in time, unless you're Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, you're not going to be able to score every night," Thomas said. "It's just a matter of finding what you can do when you're not scoring ... You just have to focus on what you can do to help the team win."

One area Thomas has greatly helped with is on faceoffs. It's been one of UMD's biggest weaknesses over the past three years. Of Bulldogs who have taken 75 or more faceoffs this season, Thomas is the only one with a win percentage above .500 (206-197, .511).

Elsewhere, Thomas' 17 blocks during the regular season tied him for fifth among UMD forwards. It's also his career high.

The increase in blocked shots comes from Thomas' increased time on the penalty-kill unit. As many Bulldogs will tell you, coach Scott Sandelin only puts players he trusts on the penalty kill.

"He's done a really good job on the penalty kill this year," Sandelin said. "He's been a key centerman for us. He's won a lot of draws. He's bounced around a little bit from line to line but I think sometimes for him, where he has been playing (on the fourth line) with Blake (Young) and Billy (Exell) has been good. It's given us some depth and at this time of the year, it's about your team and not about individuals."

Thomas has spent most of the 2016-17 season on UMD's second or third line, playing alongside an ever-changing cast of wings that's included freshmen Riley Tufte and Joey Anderson, sophomore Parker Mackay and senior Kyle Osterberg.

Sandelin recently dropped Thomas down to the fourth line — before injuries and illnesses forced another shakeup of the lines — alongside Exell and Young for, as the coach mentioned, greater depth. Despite Thomas' offensive struggles, the move helped the line create more scoring chances and increase offensive zone time, Exell said.

"He brought his next-level kind of playmaking. That's what he's good at," Exell said. "He's a pretty skilled guy down low and everything, making plays when there is not a lot of time."

Thomas spent much of his first season at UMD on the fourth line, but it wasn't a role he always embraced. He said he went through the same adjustment many rookies in college hockey do and that's the transition from top-liner to role-player.

That's not the case this season. Thomas said he is happy to play whatever role he's cast in and wherever that may be.

"The key for championship teams is to have depth and having four lines that can go," Thomas said. "I think we have that here whether it's me or Sammy (Spurrell) or whoever it is on that fourth line. We all are good players."

Miska up for national, league awards

Everyone, including the NCHC, is sure making up for leaving Bulldogs freshman goaltender Hunter Miska off the league's all-rookie team.

Miska picked up a number of nominations Thursday, being named a finalist for NCHC Rookie of the Year, Goaltender of the Year and the league's Three Stars Award. In addition, Miska was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Mike Richter Award, which is given to the top goaltender in NCAA Division I men's hockey.

Miska is competing against sophomore forward Adam Johnson for the Three Stars Award and Anderson for top rookie.

The Bulldogs' other NCHC award nominees include sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk for Offensive and Defensive Defenseman of the Year; junior wing Karson Kuhlman for Defensive Forward of the Year and the Sportsmanship Award; senior center Dominic Toninato for Defensive Forward of the Year; senior wing Alex Iafallo for Player of the Year and Forward of the Year; and Sandelin for Coach of the Year.

MIAMI (9-18-6) AT NO. 3 UMD (21-6-7)

What: NCHC best-of three quarterfinal series

When: 7:07 p.m. Friday; 7:37 p.m. Saturday; and 7:07 p.m. Sunday (if necessary)

Where: Amsoil Arena

TV: KBJR Ch. 6

Radio: WWAX-FM 92.1

Internet: network1sports.com/station/kqds (audio); nchc.tv (video)

Twitter: @mattwellens

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317
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