Bulldogs rack up NCHC points at Omaha

John Gilbert

Matt Anderson, one of the “Fantastic Five” corps of freshman defensemen who led UMD to two NCAA championships, defended goalie Hunter Shepard last season. The other four have all signed pro contracts, and Anderson is a senior protecting a new goalie and taking charge of a new defense this season. Photo by John Gilbert.

With all eight NCHC teams battling for supremacy at Baxter Arena in Omaha, you could say this already is the weirdest season on record. But brace yourself, it gets weirder after January — we hope.
UMD had startled the hockey world by taking off from the start at Omaha, creating a 5-0-1 start by beating No. 3 Denver in a 2-1 thriller, and last weekend beating No. 1 North Dakota 4-2 last Thursday and beating Denver for a second time, 4-1 on Saturday. Coming right back to face Colorado College Sunday noon, the Bulldogs were not exhausted, nor were they flat, but they ran into an inspired CC team and got whipped 4-1.

CC coach Mike Haviland said his team was embarrassed by a scattered performance in a lopsided beating at the hands of Western Michigan. “We spent a lot of time watching that video, and it wasn’t pretty,” said Haviland. “Then we talked about how consistent Duluth is, and how they play the same every night. They move as units of five in all three zones, and that’s what we have to do.

“I was proud of the way we responded, because after we got ahead 2-0, we knew they’d come hard. Our guys really handled that well.”

The Tigers rode that lead to 4-0 in the third period before UMD got its only goal. Dominic Basse made 31 saves, but the key to the game was that UMD blocked 11 shots, which is a lot, but CC players threw themselves in front of 21 Bulldogs shots. With 31 saves, that’s 52 shots that didn’t go in. CC captain Grant Cruikshank provided the spark, dashing in to score a short-handed goal, then coming back to score on a power play for the 2-0 lead in the first period, and he set up the third goal, in the second period.

Still, it had to be a mental challenge for UMD to beat both highly ranked Denver and North Dakota and then Denver again, and taking on CC for a third game in four days.

“We didn’t have our best game, but give them credit,” said Scott Sandelin, UMD coach. He’s got to be happy with the 5-0-1 start going into Wednesday night’s game against Omaha, because his Bulldogs have shown great scoring touch and balance, getting all four lines into the scoring, while the defense has played consistently well, and new goaltender, Ryan Fanti, has looked outstanding.

The Bulldogs finish against North Dakota on Sunday, and if they should find a way to beat the Fighting Hawks, they will be in a unique position: Having beaten the top two title contenders, Denver and North Dakota, twice each. And, they do not face either of them the rest of the regular season. A dark horse candidate is St. Cloud State, as coach Brett Larson has a rebuilt team with speed and skill and can use the Olympic-width ice at St. Cloud to a huge advantage. The Huskies also have been a surprise at Omaha, beating Denver and North Dakota.

When UMD resumes play, they face St. Cloud State six times, Western Michigan six times, Miami of Ohio four times — and that’s it. Cutting back travel led to the odd schedule, which shows the first two weekends in January with two home-and-home sets against St. Cloud State, at St. Cloud on New Year’s Day and back home on Jan. 2; home against the Huskies on Jan. 8, and at St. Cloud Jan. 9. Then they don’t see the Huskies again until the season-ending series at St. Cloud February 26 and back home against them Feb. 27. Another oddity is that after facing two games at Miami in mid-January, the Bulldogs are home against Western Michigan for three straight games, Jan. 21, 22, 24, and then stay at AMSOIL Arena for a series Feb. 5-6, then they hit the road for three straight at Western Michigan, Feb. 10, 11, 13.

But the Bulldogs are built for depth and balance, getting the scoring and playmaking they expected from brothers Noah and Jackson Cates, and Cole Koepke, while Nick Swaney is a cinch to score. So, apparently, is senior Kobe Roth, who scored five goals in the first six games, while Jesse Jacques, Luke Loheit and Koby Bender have two goals apiece, and Tanner Laderoute continues to make colorful, game-breaking passes and can also score.

With Fanti coming through in goal, a freshman Wyatt Kaiser pairing, so far, with senior Louie Roehl, and the rest of the defense looking solid. A key factor for the Bulldogs is that Matt Anderson, who was one of the Fantastic Five freshmen defensemen four years ago and a solid regular through two straight NCAA championship runs and last year’s halted run at three in a row by the pandemic, is in position to have a standout season. Led by Scott Perunovich, the Bulldogs had all kinds of defensemen eager to jump up offensively, and Matt Anderson tended to stay back and cover for his roaming partners. They’ve all signed and gone now, along with Nick Wolff who graduated, leaving only Matt and Roehl from that youthful group of over-achievers.

At Omaha, when the Bulldogs trailed North Dakota 2-1 through the third period and only three and a half minutes remained, Cole Koepke scored with a bullet from deep on the right side. The play started when the puck went around the boards through the right corner, and somebody came speeding up the boards to beat the Hawks defense to the puck, then made a great move to escape the corner, and fed Koepke for the tying goal with 3:25 left. Making the pinch-in move from right point is the sort of play Perunovich would have made on his way to the Hobey Baker Award last year, but he’s gone; the play was made by Nick Anderson. Nick Swaney got the additional point with a blast into the upper right as the third man in the shootout. Fanti, who made a sparkling lung and poke check on North Dakota’s second try, smothered the third one, and UMD stayed undefeated.

“I’ve told our guys to enjoy every game down here,” Sandelin said, after beating Denver 4-1. “Because we don’t know what will happen in the second half.”

At this point in the season, the national ratings mean nothing, and while it seemed UMD had a chance to jump up from No. 2 to No. 1, that honor went to the University of Minnesota, which has an 8-0 record and is in clear command of the Big Ten conference race. The Gophers have speed and depth and skill, and they’ve swept Penn State, which lost all its scoring from last year’s championship team, Ohio State, which was solid, then hit the road to sweep at Michigan State, where the Spartans put up little resistance, and then at Michigan, where both teams had lost multiple players to the U.S. Junior team’s tryouts. But if the Big Ten has better PR with the national voters than the NCHC, it won’t matter when they face NCHC teams. If Minnesota’s eight games had been against UMD, Denver, North Dakota and St. Cloud State, the Gophers would not be undefeated.

Vikings up against it

As suggested here last week, the Vikings seem to generate tremendous accolades when they beat anyone, but face the reality of being less successful when facing a defense that can make life miserable for Kirk Cousins and force him to scramble. Tampa Bay’s defense smacked Cousins repeatedly, and the Vikings fell 26-14. The Buccaneers hit Cousins 12 times last Sunday, which means he has been hit 26 times in the last two games.

That leaves the Vikings three games to get back up to .500 from their 6-7 record, and after Chicago comes to Minneapolis this weekend, the Vikings go to New Orleans, then to Detroit. Chicago had lost six games in a row to fall from the top of the league, but just in time for the Vikings, the Bears snapped the skid with a resounding 36-7 rout of Houston, as Mitch Trubisky threw three touchdown passes, and the Bears moved up to — you guessed it — a 6-7 record. You think the Bears will try to make constant contact with Cousins this weekend? So do I.

The Big Ten made a couple of surprising moves, incidentally, first voiding their own guidelines saying that any team had to play a minimum of six games to qualify for the league playoff game and any future playoffs. Ohio State, the big favorite in the Big Ten, was going to end up with five, so the conference ruled to allow the Buckeyes to play Northwestern as the divisional playoff game for the Big Ten championship. That seems like a good move, but instead of Ohio State playing Cinderella Northwestern, the playoff would have been Northwestern against Indiana in a match of two Cinderella teams.

It followed that the conference also should allow Minnesota and Wisconsin to reschedule their game, cancelled for the pandemic as the first interruption for the nation’s longest running rivalry. They will play this weekend too, and the Big Ten was probably shamed into it by their action on Ohio State’s behalf.

League political structures don’t always know best. Washington was supposed to face Oregon in a game last Saturday to decide which of them would win the Pac-12 North title and earn the right to face Southern California for the league championship this Saturday. But Covid-19 problems scratched that game, and the league voted to send Washington to the title game. But only 36 house after making that decision, Washington had to bail out of the game because of the pandemic, so now Oregon will face Southern Cal Friday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Southern Cal is undefeated only because of a narrow escape over UCLA in the 90th meeting between the two. Coach Chip Kelly, who perfected the quick-play, no-huddle offense at Oregon a decade ago, now has UCLA playing that way and the Trojans jumped ahead 14-0 against USC. The Trojans came back impressively after trailing by 18 points late in the third quarter, and took an ultimate 36-35 lead with 8 minutes left. UCLA appeared stopped on downs next, but the Bruins came up with a 44-yard field goal by llNicolas Barr-Misa with 52 seconds remaining to reclaim the lead at 38-36. On the ensuing kickoff, though, Darin Bryant sprinted for a 55-yard return, and USC hustled in for a touchdown after a big pass play to give them a first and goal at the 8, setting up a perfectly executed touchdown pass for a 43-38 Southern Cal lead. Undaunted, UCLA gave it one more shot, with 30 seconds to go. UCLA reached their own 40 with 9 seconds left, then connected again at the USC 42 with 0:02 on the clock. A hail Mary pass to the middle of the end zone was batted down, and Southern Cal won 43-38.