Friday, March 24, 2017

NCAA Tournament -- West Regional: It's Ours to Defend

UND's title defense starts Friday at 2 pm from Scheels Arena in Fargo versus the Boston University Terriers.
After all the ups and downs for the 2016-17 UND men's hockey team, they enter this weekend's NCAA West Regional right where they wanted to be at the start of the season -- 81 miles from home in Fargo with a chance to defend their 2015-16 national championship.

It's in our state and the title is ours to defend until someone takes it.

Joining the Green and White at Scheels Arena are three other teams who want to end UND's run at the top and move on to the Frozen Four in Chicago.

Semifinal 1 pits No. 3 seeded UND, the away team just an hour-plus from home, against the No. 2 seeded Boston University Terriers. In the other semifinal, the No. 1 seeded Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs faceoff with the No. 4 seeded Ohio State Buckeyes.

2017 NCAA West Regional -- Scheels Arena, Fargo

Semifinal 1 -- No. 2 BU vs. No. 3 UND, ESPN2, 2 p.m.
Semifinal 2 -- No. 1 UMD vs. No. 4 OSU, ESPNU, 5:30

UND/BU vs. UMD/OSU -- ESPNU, 5 p.m.

Loaded with nine players drafted in the first or second round in the NHL draft, the Terriers are a team chocked full of talent. Minnesota Duluth enters the West Regional as the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament and have beaten the Green and White five times in five opportunities this season, capped off by a wild 4-3 win in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game last weekend in Minneapolis. Ohio State features the best power play in the nation and the second-highest scoring offense.

Simply put, this is anybody's region to win.

When the brackets were announced this past Sunday, DDC called a friend when finding out UND would be taking on BU and had a potential looming battle with a foe in UMD that just locked the Green and White in a rough and tumble battle at the Target Center the night before and said, "Yikes."

DDC's first reaction was that he didn't want the Terriers in the first round. The response he got was simple -- "Well, no one wants to play us in the first round, either."

Think about it... The Green and White are playing this regional weekend having just beat the No. 1 overall seed Denver and took the No. 2 seeded Bulldogs down to the wire. UND is playing its best hockey of the season. Add that to the fact that the three other teams are headed to Fargo to play this weekend and the point is easy to make -- this region, this NCAA title, is ours until someone takes it.

Let's get it on.

Here's DDC's "Who? What? How?" breakdown of what will be a terrific weekend. Who will punch their ticket to Chicago?


Players to watch

BU Fr. F, Clayton Keller
leads all NCAA rookies
in points per game (1.45).

Boston University Terriers

Fr. F, Clayton Keller, 20 goals, 22 assists -- 42 points; Fr. F, Patrick Harper, 12g, 22a -- 34 pts; So. F, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, 13g, 19a -- 32 pts; So. F, Bobo Carpenter, 13g, 18a -- 31 pts; Fr. G, Jake Oettinger, 20-10-3, 2.09 goals against average, .927 save percentage.


So. F, Shane Gersich, 21g, 16a -- 37 pts; Fr. F, Tyson Jost, 16g, 19a -- 35 pts; So. F, Brock Boeser, 16g, 17a -- 33 pts; Jr. D, Tucker Poolman, 7g, 23a -- 30 pts (questionable with injury); Jr. G, Cam Johnson, 20-12-3, 2.38 GAA, .904 SV PCT.

OSU So. Mason Jobst
leads the nation's top
power play and second-
highest scoring offense.

Ohio State University Buckeyes

So. F, Mason Jobst, 19g, 36a -- 55 pts; Sr. F, Nick Schilkey, 27g, 14a -- 41 pts; Sr. F, David Gust, 18g, 23a -- 41 pts; So. F, Dakota Joshua, 12g, 22a -- 34 pts; Sr. G, Christian Frey, 9-7-3, .910 SV PCT, 3.07 GAA; Sr. G, Matt Tomkins, 12-4-3, .909 SV PCT, 2.48 GAA.

Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs

Sr. F, Alex Iafallo, 18g, 27a -- 46 pts; So. F, Adam Johnson, 17g, 19a -- 36 pts; So. D, Neal Pionk, 7g 25a -- 32 pts; Fr. F, Joey Anderson, 10g, 20a -- 30 pts; Fr. G., Hunter Miska, 24-4-5, 2.23 GAA, .917 SV PCT.


Standout Stats

Boston University

The Terriers are 18th in the NCAA in scoring, averaging 3.16 goals per game and 10th in goals allowed at 2.27.

Freshman Clayton Keller leads all NCAA rookies with a 1.45 points per game mark.

BU has four NHL first-round draft picks in Keller, Kieffer Bellows, Dante Fabbro and Charlie McAvoy and four second-round picks in Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Jordan Greenway, Chad Krys and John MacLeod. Netminder Jake Oettinger is expected to be drafted high in June's draft.


The Green and White are t-16 in NCAA in scoring (3.18) and 19th in goals against (2.56).

UND allows the second least amount of shots per game in the nation with 24.8.

North Dakota is 12-5-2 when scoring first this year and just 9-10-1 when not.

Freshman Tyson Jost is 6th in the nation in rookie points per game with 1.09.

Minnesota Duluth

The Bulldogs are 8th in the NCAA in scoring offense (3.42) and 11th in defense (2.29).

Minnesota Duluth netminder Hunter Miska is t-4 in the NCAA with five shutouts and 2nd in winning percentage .803.

Neal Pionk and Dom Toninato are tied for 10th nationally in plus/minus with a +22 rating.

UMD is 16-0-2 when leading after two periods, this season and 4-4-5 when trailing at that same point.

Ohio State

OSU is 2nd in the NCAA in scoring with 3.97 goals per game but are allowing a 31st-best 2.89. The Buckeyes are first in power play with a ridiculous 32.5%, nearly five percentage points better than No. 2 Northeastern.

Sophomore forward Mason Jobst is 8th in the NCAA in points per game with 1.45 and t-5th in assists per game with .95.

Senior forward Nick Schilkey leads the nation in power play goals with 16 and is 2nd in goals per game with .79.


How'd they get here?

No. 6 BU (23-11-3, At-Large Bid, 2nd in Hockey East) lost to Boston College in the Hockey East Tournament semifinals. The Terriers have won four out of their last six games. BU was rolled by Denver, 7-2, in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season.

No. 10 UND (21-15-3, At-Large Bid, 4th in NCHC) topped Denver 1-0 and lost to UMD 4-3 in the  NCHC Frozen Faceoff last weekend. The loss on Saturday snapped a five-game winning streak. The Green and White are the defending national champion and are playing in their 15th-consecutive NCAA tournament (2nd-best streak in history).

No. 3 UMD (25-6-7, NCHC tournament champion, 2nd in NCHC) topped UND 4-3 in the finals of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff last weekend. The Bulldogs have won five straight games. UMD lost to Boston College 3-2 in the Regional Final.

No. 14 Ohio State (21-11-6, At-Large Bid, 3rd in BTHC) lost to Wisconsin 2-1 in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. Before the loss, the Buckeyes had won four straight. OSU returns to the national tournament for the first time since 2009.

The Pick(s)

So now that you're all caught up on the ins and outs of these four teams, let's get to it.

West Regional Semifinal No. 1 -- UND vs. BU

What a juicy match up. These are two of college hockey's blue bloods taking the ice in an arena that will be packed to the rafters.

Boston University entered this season will all the accolades.

Picked by many fans and media as the favorites to raise the national championship trophy at the end of the year, the Terriers have wholly lived up to expectations. While their season hasn't been perfect, BU is a tremendously talented team that is stocked with players who know what it feels like to play in big-time situations. Seven players from this year's squad played in the World Junior Championship tournament with six winning gold for Team USA. The big stage won't scare the Terriers.

On the other side of the ice, the defending national champions know exactly how to play in this spot, having won the 2015 West Regional in Scheels Arena in front of a green-clad, tremendously partisan and raucous crowd.

While both teams won't be afraid of the bright lights, the crowd in Fargo will be jacked up for this one and an early edge will do one of two things depending on who nets the first tally on Friday. It will either blow the roof off the arena if it's the Green and White leading, while the silence will be deafening if it's the Terriers.

Boston University, with all its youth, hasn't exactly been world beaters away from home this season, going just 10-8-1 away from their home rink, Agganis Arena. Also, since the national tournament went to its current 16-team format in 2003, BU hasn't done well when having to fly to a regional, losing in the first round in three previous attempts.

The Terriers have also had a recent trend of falling behind early. In their last nine games, BU has allowed the first goal of the game and have gone 4-4-1 in those games.

So, being unfazed by the big stage is one thing in the WJC, falling behind UND in Fargo doesn't seem like a recipe for success for the Terriers.

Both teams have top end talent. Both teams can score. Both teams are serviceable defensively. Both teams have solid goaltending. What will be the decider?

Again, this one is in North Dakota and this rink is ours to defend.


West Regional Seminfinal No. 2 -- UMD vs. OSU

Ohio State reminds DDC a lot of UND's 2016 Midwest Regional final foe, Michigan. This is a team that can score quick, fast and in a hurry. However, that's not where the comparison ends. Much like the Wolverines last season, the Buckeyes are a bit leaky defensively, sporting the 31st-ranked team defense, allowing 2.89 goals per game.

Their opponent, the UMD Bulldogs are, top-to-bottom, one of the most well-rounded and skilled teams in the NCAA featuring the 8th-best scoring offense and 11th-ranked team defense. Goaltender Hunter Miska will be tested against a team the tries to fire the puck from everywhere, but UMD has been near the top of the NCAA polls all year for a reason.

In DDC's opinion, it's all about composure for the Bulldogs. In the Frozen Faceoff championship last weekend against UND, Minnesota Duluth was incredibly undisciplined, committing 15 penalties and allowing three power play goals. Against the best power play in the country in OSU, UMD has to stay out of the box.

While DDC thinks OSU will get their chances with the extra man, the Buckeyes don't look to be deep enough to hold the Bulldogs down for 60 minutes.


West Region Final -- UND vs. UMD

*Takes a deep breath*

The Bulldogs have beaten the Green and White five teams this season and have won the last six between the two teams, overall.
However, after UMD beat UND last weekend in Minneapolis, in a game that was as intense, chippy and wild as it comes, DDC realized one thing -- the Green and White can beat the Bulldogs.

Much like against BU, both of these teams can score, play defense and have good netminding. This time, UND finishes the job.

Forget Neal Pionk running over Cam Johnson. Forget all the questionable calls. Forget the late, heart-breaking goal in Minneapolis. Forget six losses in a row.

With sights set on Chicago and revenge in the cross hairs, North Dakota will take on one of its biggest rivals, but this time, it's to keep its title defense alive and it's in their backyard.

It's ours to defend.


Strap in, boys and girls. Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Roses and Thorns: Trying to Take the High Road

UND and Minnesota Duluth scuffle after UMD's Neal Pionk (4) ran over North Dakota goaltender Cam Johnson (33)
in the first period of the Bulldogs' 4-3 win over the Green and White in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff Championship game
from the Target Center in Minneapolis on Saturday. Pionk was issued a five-minute penalty for the play. (Photo: Eric Hylden, GF Herald)
This must be said ...

DDC isn't "that guy" to criticize officiating. He's truly not. Refereeing sports is incredibly hard, having it done it at the high school level, DDC knows it's a no-win job.

This must also be said ...

DDC has never been one to question a team's leadership and/or integrity (other than maybe the Gophers ;) ).

With those things said, there were some ... we'll call it... questionable ... calls and some ... questionable ... penalties committed this Saturday night when the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs topped the UND men's hockey team 4-3 in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's Frozen Faceoff championship game from the Target Center in Minneapolis.

The Green and White used a 5-on-3 power play goal to tie the game with just under three minutes to go in the third period. However, UMD would have the last laugh, netting their own 5-on-3 goal with under a minute left in regulation to take the Frozen Faceoff tournament title.

Below are some video highlights from this wild game, thanks to Goon and his blog. There are a few points to note, well, more than a few, actually ... DDC is going to take the high road and let you make the calls:

1:15 -- Neal Pionk takes out Cam Johnson; 2:00 Commentary on Previous Hit; 4:00 -- Kyle Osterberg Falls After Clear Penalty by Johnny Simonson; 4:20 -- Willie Raskob Falls After Scuffle with Hayden Shaw; 5:10 -- Dom Toninato Reacts to Call; 7:00 -- Hunter Miska Falls Down; 7:45 -- Dan Molenaar Falls Down -- Note Commentary After Fall.

With all of that said, while the Green and White aren't back in Grand Forks with a new piece of hardware, they come back with a lot of reasons to be happy.

UND topped Denver 1-0 on Friday night, holding Denver to just 21 shots on goal, a season-low total for the Pioneers, and broke a 0-3 skid in the Frozen Faceoff semifinals. The win mathematically clinched North Dakota a spot in the NCAA tournament for the 15th-straight season.

However, DDC Baby No. 2's magic ran out on Saturday night, as Duluth took the NCHC's autobid.

But hey, 5-1 ain't so bad.

Here's what stood out to DDC in his Frozen Faceoff edition of his Roses and Thorns column.


No. 1 -- Breaking the Target Center Curse

Finally, UND faithful left the Target Center in Minneapolis on Friday with smiles on their faces and not gonna lie, that felt pretty darn good. After three years of lethargic play and bad bounces, the Green and White played with pace and passion against Denver and got a bounce off those lovely, springy end boards and got a win in the Frozen Faceoff semifinals. Fans in the Target Center saw a team that was hungry and their defensive effort was tremendous on Friday night. It was a good win against arguably the best team in the country. Coupled with another great effort the next night against UMD, the Green and White showed they can hang with (and outplay) anyone in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

UND Jr. F, Austin Poganski and Shane Gersich celebrate Poganski's goal in the third period
of the Green and White's 1-0 win over Denver on Friday (Photo: Eric Hylden, GF Herald)

No. 2 -- Offensive Creativity

While this weekend wasn't a dynamite offensive effort, it was a very good one. What's more important in the eyes of DDC were the chances UND created, particularly on the power play. Outshooting the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the PairWise on a particular weekend isn't a small feat, particularly since both Denver and UMD are among the defensive teams in the nation. In a game that was largely played with special teams on Saturday night, the Green and White scored all three of their goals on the power play. Sure, they had 10 chances, but even when they didn't score, UND moved the puck well and broke the Bulldog PK box with sharp passing and created loads of chances. The top power play unit has started to become something special with Boeser, Jost and Gersich consistently finding each other in soft spots for scoring chances. Outside of the power play, Jost and Boeser paired together at times and are showing once again why they are NHL first rounders. When UND gets this kind of effort from its top forwards, the bottom six becomes that harder to handle and those lines have been creating a lot, too (see: Trevor Olson). For the Green and White, it's all about effort and speed. They brought that game to the Target Center this weekend and it turned out two great performances.

No. 3 -- Defensive Effort

UND Fr. D, Colton Poolman

What would you have said if DDC told you UND would shutout Denver, the best offense in the nation since January 1st, on Friday? What would you have said if DDC told you the Green and White would lose the NCHC Defensive Defenseman of the Year in Tucker Poolman to injury in the first period on Saturday and that UND would hold Minnesota Duluth down for large chunks of the game and nearly win? Crazy on both accounts, right? Well, not this weekend. As mentioned previously, North Dakota's game is all about speed and effort right now and that is showing up. On Friday, the Green and White held DU to just 21 shots, a season low for the Pioneers. On Saturday, it took a goal off a teammate's skate during a 5-on-3 penalty kill to beat netminder Cam Johnson for the game winner. The D-corps' physicality was tremendous. Colton Poolman and Hayden Shaw played with an edge this blogger has rarely seen. While Tucker's injury looms large, UND's young blue line took a big step this weekend in Minneapolis.


No. 1 -- 27 Penalties and Four 5-on-3s

Simply put, this shouldn't happen. Like mentioned previously, DDC is going to take the high road and not overly criticize, but no way should a tournament championship be decided on a 5-on-3 power play. Nor should the game end up tied with less than 3 minutes to go on a 5-on-3 power play. The fact that the stripes reviewed Neal Pionk's contact with Cam Johnson and gave him a five minute penalty without tossing the sophomore defenseman is what, in DDC's opinion, let this game get away in terms of penalties. This was too good of a weekend for it to be hijacked by penalties. A bit of a shame, to say the least.

No. 2 -- An Injury and a Big One

Jr. D, Tucker Poolman
left Saturday's NCHC
Championship game
in the first period due
to injury and did not return

Tucker Poolman is a NHL defenseman. He has the frame, the offensive skill, the skating and the defensive prowess to be playing for the Winnipeg Jets, his draft team, as we speak. So, when he went down in the first period on Saturday against Duluth and did not return to action, a collective groan could be heard across NoDak nation. Head coach Brad Berry brought fans a little solace in the postgame presser, saying that Tucker is the toughest player in the NCHC and expects him to play on Friday when the NCAA tournament starts. It goes without saying that Tucker is invaluable to UND. Cheers to him hopefully being ready to go.

There you have it, hockey fans. Welp, the conference tournaments are over, the field is set and the NCAA Tournament starts in four days. UND will be in Fargo in a pretty eyebrow raising regional, considering history and this past weekend's event.

Check back on Friday as DDC previews the West Regional from Scheels Arena in Fargo -- Minnesota Duluth ( 😁 ) versus Ohio State and North Dakota vs. Boston University.

Thanks for reading!