The George Costanza Special(A prediction that is the exact opposite of every instinct and inclination I have): Minnesota-Duluth sweeps St. CloudAs you may have noticed, Duluth did sweep St. Cloud, and I was at the DECC to witness their win on Friday night. Here were my thoughts.
In hindsight, it’s probably not a huge surprise that Duluth swept the Huskies. The Bulldogs played St. Cloud tough in the WCHA playoffs last year, and Duluth was playing on their home ice, in front of their home fans.
But, I was still surprised at how well they played on Friday night. Perhaps I had been overly hard on Duluth over the summer. To be honest, they didn’t have a lot going for them. They were a team that looked like they had quit the past two seasons, and they had lost their two best players to the NHL. But if they continue to play the way they did this past weekend, they have the potential to finish much higher than I, or anyone else, predicted.
The Bulldogs may have lost two great players in Matt Niskanen and Mason Raymond, but the guys that are still on the team aren’t that bad. I doubt you’ll see many of them in the NHL, but they do have a lot of veterans on their team playing key roles, which is rapidly becoming a luxury in the WCHA. They’ve got a lot of big, strong guys that work hard and get the most out of what they have. Their freshman class hasn’t done much so far, but they haven’t had to because they’ve got experienced guys to carry the load.
The other secret to Duluth’s success is on special teams. They held St. Cloud scoreless on seven powerplay opportunities on Friday night. They’ve had a great penalty kill, going back to last season. Part of it was that St. Cloud really struggled to move the puck on their powerplay, but Duluth did a great job of staying in position and not allowing much in the way of shooting lanes. Their penalty kill even created some offense. Drew Akins forced a turnover in the St. Cloud zone to create a breakaway opportunity. Akins was hauled down before he could get to the net, but drew a penalty that eventually led to Duluth’s second goal.
Both Bulldog goals came via the powerplay. A lot was made of junior Michael Gergen finding a way to get back onto the scoresheet with a goal and an assist on Friday, but just as important for Duluth was the emergence of Trent Palm. Palm came to the Bulldogs last year from the NTDP U18 team, but struggled in his freshman campaign, only scoring one point. This year, he is on Duluth’s top powerplay unit and looks very comfortable running the point. He made a great cross-ice pass to Gergen, which Gergen one-timed into the goal to give Duluth an early lead on the first goal.
With the way games are called now, special teams is one of the most important aspects of the game. The Bulldogs had a +2 special teams net on Friday night. I think most coaches would say that if a team wins the special teams battle by two goals, that team is going to win most nights.
This doesn’t mean I’m entirely sold on UMD yet. As the season progresses, the advantage of having so many upperclassmen will lessen, as everyone else’s freshmen and sophomores get more comfortable. And I’m still not sold on Alex Stalock in goal. The Bulldog defense did a great job of limiting his shots, but I still think he flops around too much, and if an opposing team could crash the net and get to rebounds, I think the Bulldogs could be in trouble. But if they continue to play the way they did this past weekend, there’s a definite possibility that they could compete for home ice in the WCHA.