A look at the first half
By Mark Schuttenhelm, for the Sun
Time to take a look back at a see-saw first half that included a four-game losing streak and a four-game winless streak, but concluded with five wins in a row.
UND was 4-7-2 after a 5-2 home loss to St. Lawrence on Nov. 29. A player’s only meeting immediately after that game helped right the ship, and the five-game winning streak began the next night. There’s a lot to cover here ... specialty teams, effort and energy level, physical play, defense, face offs, offense, bad penalties, and line combinations, so let’s get started.
It’s no secret, specialty-team performance is a key to success on the ice, and these numbers really prove the point. In UND’s nine wins, the power play converted at 26.2 percent. But during the seven losses, the power play success rate was down at 13.8 percent, cut almost in half. The penalty kill numbers are not quite as striking, but still show a substantial difference between the wins and losses. The PK success rate is 85.4 percent for the wins, and 78.1 percent for the losses. Overall, the power play is at 20.5 percent, 24th in the country, and the PK is at 83.9 percent (21st). Considering the loss of Corban Knight and Danny Kristo, two players who excelled on both sides of the special teams battle, this season’s performance should be applauded.
Effort and Energy Level
Captain Dillon Simpson used the phrase “taking too many shifts off” a few times during UND’s struggles. Recently, numerous players have described an increased effort, work ethic, and energy level as reasons for the turnaround. So, did Simpson mean the guys were dogging it out there? No, clearly not. There is some middle ground between “dogging it” and playing each shift as if it were your last. Working a little harder, giving a little bit more, shift by shift, might be a better way to describe it. It’s clear the players realized they needed to at least match, if not exceed, their opponents effort, to succeed. And it appears that most, if not all, of the team have bought in to this concept. Junior Nick Mattson may have said it best after the road sweep at WMU: “We can outwork a lot of teams.”
I keep track of hits for every game, and three uniform numbers appear over and over in my notes ... 9, 28, 27. Drake Caggiula, Stephane Pattyn, and Luke Johnson. Honorable mentions go to Brendan O’Donnell and Adam Tambellini. And while this team lacks an intimidating, stud defenseman in the mold of an Andrew MacWilliam or Ben Blood, it does include some smaller but gritty players who don’t mind mixing it up.
Let’s face it, the job of No. 1 goalie on this team has been batted back and forth between Clarke Saunders and Zane Gothberg for a season and a half. Gothberg is clearly the guy now after winning the last five. The Thief River Falls, Minn., native has brought his goals-against down to a respectable 2.36 after allowing just eight in the last five games. Overall, North Dakota has allowed 2.89 goals against per game, 34th in the nation, and that number needs to come down by at least a half a goal per game. Dillon Simpson continues to be one of the best shot blockers in the nation with 44, good for sixth in the country.
Coach Dave Hakstol has been talking quite a bit about the importance of face-offs. UND has won 586 while losing 575, a .505 ratio, a substantial drop off from last year’s .525 rate. Of course, Corban Knight, one of the best in the nation (.572) was taking a lot of face-offs last season. One interesting note: Rocco Grimaldi was moved from the wing to center four games ago and has been dominant in the circle, winning his face-offs at a .583 clip. Over the second half of the season, I’ll break it down a bit further by keeping track of the most critical draws, those in the offensive and defensive zones. Noteworthy numbers will be included in the column each week.
We knew replacing the production of Knight, Kristo, and Rowney was not going to be easy. UND is scoring only 2.78 goals per game, 32nd in the nation. Only four forwards, Rocco Grimaldi, Drake Caggiula, Luke Johnson, and Michael Parks, have scored in double figures, led by Grimaldi with 17 points. Dillon Simpson, Jordan Schmaltz and Paul LaDue have all chipped in with some scoring from the blue line, while ‘General’ Pattyn and Connor Gaarder have scored some timely goals. Who else can possibly provide some more offense down the stretch? Mark MacMillan and Brendan O’Donnell are two likely candidates, but both have been banged up a bit. It’ll likely be goal scoring by committee the rest of the way.
I continue to cringe at some of the offensive zone penalties this team takes. For example, in UND’s most recent win over Northern Michigan, three offensive zone penalties were committed along with a 10-minute misconduct which took one of the team leaders off the ice for half of the third period. A little more discipline would go a long way.
Forward Line Combinations
Last season, coach Hakstol used seven different players alongside Knight-Kristo in an attempt to find the right combination. At this season’s mid-point, five players have already skated with Grimaldi-Caggiula. There’s good news on this front though ... Luke Johnson, who centered for Grimaldi and Caggiula once early in the season, has been reunited with the pair for the last four games, this time with Grimaldi at center, and the results have been encouraging. This line has the potential to put up some numbers in the second half. Hard working forwards Stephane Pattyn and Connor Gaarder have skated together in some form for most of the season. The addition of Derek Rodwell over the last seven games has paid dividends ... the trio has done a nice job matching up with the opponents top line.
After evaluating the schedule before the season, I didn’t expect much better than a 10-6-2 first half, pretty close to the 9-7-2 the team put in the books. The slightly easier second half looks like this ... Colorado College at home, home/home with Bemidji, at Denver, UNO at home, Miami at home, at Duluth, at St. Cloud, and WMU at home. I’m ball-parking the second half at 9-4-3 or thereabouts, which would have UND finishing in the 18-11-5 neighborhood, likely good enough for another trip to the NCAA tournament.
Hockey East teams rolled as UMass-Lowell, Boston College, and Vermont all came away from their respective holiday tournaments with perfect 2-0 weekends. Michigan and Clarkson, however, both went 0-2. Clarkson has a pair at U ass-Lowell this weekend and badly needs at least a split. Wisconsin extended its winning streak to six with a home sweep over hapless Alabama-Huntsville.
Stat of the Week
In the second period of Monday’s game at the UConn Hockey Classic, Quinnipiac out-shot Sacred Heart 25-0. Final score: Quinnipiac 5, Sacred Heart 0. Final shots on goal: Quinnipiac 54, Sacred Heart 12.
Games to Watch
This weekend brings the 23rd annual Mariucci Classic, featuring the top two teams in the nation: Minnesota and Ferris St., along with RPI and Colgate. On Friday, Maine is at Quinnipiac on NESN and Brown vs. Denver will be on Root Sports. There’s an outdoor doubleheader at Fenway Park on Saturday, Providence/Merrimack and Notre Dame/BC, both on NESN.
Up to date including the holiday tournament play: 1) Minnesota, 2) Providence, 3) Ferris St., 4) St. Cloud St., 5) Boston College, 6) Quinnipiac, 7) Union, 8) U Mass-Lowell, 9) Vermont, 10) Michigan, 11) Wisconsin, 12) Notre Dame
Next week, I’ll take a look at the rest of the country’s first half and set up the UND-Colorado College series.
Mark Schuttenhelm’s column on college hockey runs each Thursday. He can be reached at email@example.com