UMD in Perfect Position to Make NCAA Run
There have been a dozen or so turning points in the UMD men’s hockey season, but the single most significant one was last Friday’s game at Target Center, a 4-2 UMD victory that earned the 16th and final spot in the NCAA tournament this week.
For the first time since January 9 against Miami of Ohio, Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo both scored goals. The familiar junior linemates have played together all season in what was as much an example of coach Scott Sandelin’s patience as it was the resilience of Toninato and Iafallo. Those two were projected to be the leading scorers on a UMD team that was projected to win the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
The fact that the Bulldogs sputtered through much of the season because of goal-scoring problems that were in lockstep with the fact that Toninato and Iafallo had trouble scoring themselves. The two parallel facts were more than just coincidental.
Reunited with freshman Adam Johnson from Hibbing at the end of February, the Bulldogs immediately embarked on a six-game winning streak to end the regular season and open the NCHC playoffs. For the first five of those six victories, one of the members of the Toninato-Iafallo-Johnson line got a goal. But heading down to Target Center for the semifinal showdown with North Dakota, the challenge was obvious. North Dakota had won all four games against UMD during the season, although all four were intensely contested.
The Bulldogs and ace sophomore goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo had to shake off a stunning start, in which Nick Schmaltz scored for North Dakota after only 49 seconds had elapsed. It stayed 1-0 until the second period started.
On the opening faceoff, Toninato gained possession deep in the left corner and he flung a surprise shot at the net that fooled NCHC-leading goalie Cam Johnson and tied the game at 0:28. Three minutes later, Rhett Gardner got loose for a Grade A chance, but Kaskisuo stopped him. The Bulldogs came right back, and Johnson and gambling defenseman Willie Raskob conspired to get a shot on net. Iafallo, standing off to the left, deftly deflected the shot past Cam Johnson and the Bulldogs led 2-1 at 3:46 of the middle period. Austin Farley scored at 12:27, and UMD’s third unanswered goal made it 3-1.
If the Bulldogs were to have a lapse, it came late in the middle period when they were caught napping in the defensive zone while the Fighting Hawks peppered Kaskisuo until Troy Stecher scored to cut the deficit to 3-2.
Adam Johnson and Iafallo charged deep into the UND zone late in the third period, Johnson fed the puck out off the end boards, and Toninato stepped into a 15-foot slap shot that caught the net with 5:58 remaining. The UMD defense came back to give Kaskisuo all the help he needed, and the Bulldogs held firm, 4-2. It was a game that signaled the Bulldogs intentions for whatever is to come next. True, UMD lost the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game the next night in a 3-1 loss to St. Cloud State, but the North Dakota game was the launching pad.
The silver lining was that the Bulldogs were left without a sniper, but acquired scoring balance out of necessity. All four lines were clicking as the Bulldogs extended their winning streak to seven against UND. And if the streak ended against St. Cloud State, that is just one more bit of pressure removed as the Bulldogs start NCAA play against Providence in Worcester, Mass., Friday afternoon.
Toninato’s two goals lift him to 15 for the season, while Iafallo’s goal was his 8th. Neither total is close to what they wanted, but there’s still time. Johnson adds 6. After getting only two goals in four games against North Dakota during the season, then Toninato and Iafallo scored from less than ideal angles to the left side of the UND net, I asked the two if they thought maybe during the regular season they were shooting from too-good an angle.
The best answer, of course, was Toninato’s second goal, a straight-on blast that shows the big line is clicking with full chemistry right now, and can score from anywhere. All four lines, plus the offensive-minded defense, are playing at a playoff peak right now, and Kaskisuo’s goaltending just dueled more than evenly with UND’s Cam Johnson and St. Cloud’s Charlie Lindgren, generally considered the best two goalies in the NCHC.