Bulldogs start on NCHC, NCAA tournament treks

John Gilbert

Riley Tufte got an assist, and an up-close look, as Karson Kuhlman's wide-angle goal snuck behind Omaha goaltender Evan Weninger to tie Saturday's game 1-1. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Riley Tufte got an assist, and an up-close look, as Karson Kuhlman's wide-angle goal snuck behind Omaha goaltender Evan Weninger to tie Saturday's game 1-1. Photo credit: John Gilbert
UMD sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff went down to block Tyler Vesel's attempted goal-mouth pass to the waiting Jake Randolph. Photo credit: John Gilbert
UMD sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff went down to block Tyler Vesel's attempted goal-mouth pass to the waiting Jake Randolph. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Billy Exell (16) and Louie Roehl crowded in to stop UNO's Martin Sandberg's late scoring try. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Billy Exell (16) and Louie Roehl crowded in to stop UNO's Martin Sandberg's late scoring try. Photo credit: John Gilbert

As the center of “Northern Hockey” this season, Duluth gets two chances to win a state tournament or two this week, and behind Duluth East and Hermantown, high school hockey deserves all the accolades it can muster. But we do have more, much more, on the hockey scene, because we have college hockey as our other resident passion.

We have watched a young but talented UMD team mature and develop, sometimes in fits and starts, toward becoming a viable candidate to win the NCHC tournament that begins this week. Successful or not, the Bulldogs could also take a healthy run at winning their second NCAA championship.

The NCHC is blessed with strength from top to bottom, and this weekend’s playoff quarterfinals may be the best evidence of that. Western Michigan, which was doing right well until UMD went down there and thrashed the Broncos 8-0 and 6-1 two weeks ago -- a sweep that propelled the Bulldogs up into third place in the league, while delivering a blow to Western, which was hopeful of gaining home ice.

Last weekend’s split of 4-1 games with Nebraska Omaha showed how fragile such standings can be, and also how resilient the Bulldogs can be, rising up to win the second game while banishing Omaha to play at North Dakota. 

The victory was a good one, under the circumstances, although I didn’t think the Bulldogs were close to getting back to the level of rhythm and flow they had enjoyed while sweeping at Colorado College and at home against North Dakota. But there’s time.

The Bulldogs were well off their game in Friday’s 4-1 loss, despite outshooting the Mavericks 42-28. UMD sophomore winger Joey Anderson scored the only goal of the first period to stake the Dogs to a 1-0 start, but Zach Jordan tied it a few minutes later on an odd play. Goalie Hunter Shepard had stopped Jordan, but when he went past the net and looked back, he saw the puck, and he reached in and around a defenseman to tap in the loose puck.

Duluth East grad Jake Randolph put Omaha ahead with a power-play goal in the second period, and two third-period goals let UNO sail away. “It was a big-time win for us,” said UNO coach Mike Gabinet. “There was a lot of pressure on us and while we bent a couple times, we didn’t break.”

On Saturday, UNO’s hopes took an upturn on a double-deflecton goal in the first period for a 1-0 lead, but UMD’s three best players for the weekend -- aside from goalie Hunter Shepard -- came up with a goal apiece in the second period. Captain Karson Kuhlman, who has discovered a latent scoring touch now that we’re at the end of his senior year, scored on a quick follow shot midway through the period for a 1-1 tie. Freshman Scott Perunovich scored on a weird breakaway at 13:22 to give UMD a 2-1 lead, and Joey Anderson scored with a wide-angle shot and a 3-1 lead.

Joey Anderson scored again into an open net for the 4-1 final, giving him three of UMD’s five goals for the weekend.

Perunovich was a force all night, rushing frequently and dazzlng the Mavericks and the crowd with some of his sleight-of-hand moves. On the goal, he got a long breakaway pass from Peter Krieger and sailed in at goalie Evan Weninger, but as he got within range, he did a little hesitation step and took a glance over his shoulder. “I was gassed,” Perunovich said. “I was looking for Joey Anderson, but he was covered, so I figured I’d shoot.”

Good choice. Also, when asked about his strong rushing game from defense, Perunovich said: “Sandy said ‘Start jumping up in the play and rushing more,’ so I did,” the rookie scoring leader from Hibbing said.

Seems hard to imagine that somebody would have to tell Perunovich to rush more, because he is at his best when he does. “That’s why I told him to do it,” said Sandelin.

The Bulldogs aren’t blessed with a hot-shot gunner this year, but anybody and everybody seems to chip in when needed. After Riley Tufte’s 15 goals, and 10 by Krieger, that game sent Kuhlman up to 11, and both Perunovich and Joey Anderson to 9.

Winning the NCHC tournament is the next objective, although both UMD and Denver recently won NCAA titles after being eliminated from their league quarterfinals and missing the big league tournament. But for most teams, winning the NCHC tournament is their only chance to reach the NCAA.

Miami of Ohio, for example, plays at No. 1 St. Cloud State, and Colorado College is at arch-rival Denver, along with the UNO-UND series, and the Western-UMD pairing, in a quartet of best-of-three playoffs to determine the four teams that will go to St. Paul for the league semifinals and final next week.

It’s interesting that the leagues all play best-of-three to get to the semifinals, then it’s a one-game knockout in the semis and final. The NCAA selection committee doesn’t particularly care about what we care about, because they look at such playoff games as just another game to fit into the entire season’s body of work.

Of utmost importance is the Pairwise rating that uses the criteria the NCAA selection committee uses, but there are other elements, too. For example, the teams that are ranked 13-14-15-16 this week are intriguing, with Minnesota -- having faltered four straight times at Penn State -- somehow still holds on, dropping to the No. 13 slot in the Pairwise, followed in close order by Nebraska-Omaha in 14th, North Dakota 15th and Bowling Green in 16th. With the Gophers cashing in their chips in the Big Ten tournament, their situation is not hopeless; with semifinal and final series to go, the Gophers can’t lose again, because they aren’t playing.

Their question is that Nebraska-Omaha is at North Dakota this weekend in a best-of-three. If either of them wins the first two, that team might well vault ahead of Minnesota for 13th. If they go three, both teams will crowd Minnesota’s stance. Bowling Green, similarly, is at Northern Michigan, with both of them resting in about the same limbo, and both looking for a sweep of their WCHA series, and possibly more success in the league final, to vault into the top 16. That possibility also puts the Gophers at risk.

And there are two other interesting circumstances. The top six conferences in college hockey all get an automatic berth in the NCAA’s field of 16, and the American Hockey Conference doesn’t have anyone in the top 16, which means its playoff champion, whether league champ Mercyhurst or someone else, will get in as the No. 16 team. That narrows the possibilities for those teams that might feel secure in the top 13 or so positions.

The intricate system has still one other characteristic: Since the playoff champion in each league gets an automatic berth in the 16, there are still several possible upset chances awaiting the semifinals and final games. If, for example, the Bowling Green-Northern Michigan winner goes on to win the WCHA playoff title, it would gain the automatic berth, while league champ Minnesota State-Mankato is ranked fifth in the Pairwise, easily high enough to be secure for a spot. The same goes for Union, or even UMD’s rival this weekend, Western Michigan.

It’s a long shot for any of those teams to win and keep winning through their league playoff, but it is possible one or two of them might make it.

The NCAA also has some strange criteria for selecting regional sites, and we can suspect that financial remuneration might be involved, but the regional sites this year are Bridgeport, Conn., Allentown, Pa., Worcester, Mass., and Sioux Falls, S.D. Each of those sites has host school, and, for example, North Dakota is the host school for the West site at Sioux Falls.

So if we figure North Dakota is 15h in the Pairwise, and Mercyhurst gets the No. 16 slot, then a North Dakota loss might drop the Fighting Hawks from the top 16. At the same time, the NCAA has been known to select a team outside the 16 in order to have its host team make it. No matter what, if North Dakota makes the field, the Fighting Hawks will be at Sioux Falls.

A month ago, when both Minnesota and North Dakota were solidly in their league races, there was conjecture that North Dakota might be a No. 3 and Minnesota a No. 2, both at Sioux Falls, and would guarantee a big crowd by being paired in the regional semifinals.

We also can wonder where UMD might end up being shipped. The Bulldogs could go to the West, to the Allentown “Midwest” regional, or out East. Coach Scott Sandelin isn’t worried about that, believing that getting in is what matters, and playing well means you have a chance to win wherever you’re placed.

At least the NCAA follows rational criteria for selecting the men and their regional assignments. Nothing like that for the women, who face a rude stipulation that the selection process should strive to avoid unnecessary air travel.

The Minnesota Gophers are host for the NCAA tournament at Ridder Arena, but the Gophers were at risk of missing the 8-team NCAA. The WCHA already had top-ranked Wisconsin and its runner-up, Ohio State, set in the field. So the Gophers went to work, beating first Ohio State in the semifinals while Wisconsin beat Bemidji State, and then the Gophers beat Wisconsin 3-1 with an empty-net goal. That gave the Gophers an automatic berth in the NCAA field.

But while the men state right in their criteria that every step will be made to avoid in-conference match-ups, the women ignore that, and Minnesota’s reward for its league playoff title and a scrambling 24-10-3 record is that the Gophers will get on a bus for Madison, to try to beat the potent Badgers (30-4-2) this weekend in what will count as an NCAA quarterfinal. Other match-ups have Colgate (32-5-1) playing Northeastern (19-16-3), while the other bracket has Mercyhurst (18-14-4) at Clarkson (33-4-1), while Ohio State (23-10-4) plays at Boston College (30-4-3).