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Signs of life

By Mark Schuttenhelm For The Sun

A pair of 3-2 wins ... the first sweep of the season for UND ... on the road ... at a tough building to play in. Pretty impressive.

How tough is it to play at the Lawson Ice Arena? In the last two plus years, Western Michigan is 28-12-6 at home. Going in there and winning a pair is clearly not an easy task.

I’ve been comparing this season with 2011-2012, and there are quite a few parallels. Two years ago, after a 4-7-1 start, it was a big sweep of Colorado College in late November, a pair of one-goal games, that got the team back on the right path. That North Dakota squad followed up the CC sweep with a sweep at Alaska-Anchorage, and suddenly UND had crawled back into the national poll at number 19. Let’s face it, we don’t expect to look at the national poll and not see North Dakota. Something wrong with that. Will a home sweep this weekend against Northern Michigan propel UND back into the top 20 where it belongs? I would think so. How likely is that to happen? I’ll address that in a bit.

Friday’s game at WMU began with the Broncos pressing hard for 5-6 minutes. UND had to survive the early onslaught and was able to thanks to some great play by goalie Zane Gothberg. A defensive zone face-off loss led to an early WMU goal, but after that Gothberg was essential in keeping the game close until the boys in black and green could get their bearings.

Luke Johnson’s power play goal late in the period tied it. The second period was problematic for UND. Another Johnson goal gave North Dakota a 2-1 lead, but three bad penalties had UND on the defensive for much of the period. North Dakota was fortunate to escape the second with a lead. A slick play by “General” Pattyn set up Derek Rodwell’s insurance goal midway through the third. A late goal by WMU made it 3-2.

Saturday’s game followed much the same path. The Broncos came out hard, but UND again survived the home team’s push. An early power play goal gave WMU the lead, but goals by Dillon Simpson and Paul LaDue had UND up 2-1 after one. In the second frame, an odd goal by Rocco Grimaldi, where a rolling puck managed to evade goalie Frank Slubowski, gave UND a 3-1 lead and led WMU coach Andy Murray to yank his netminder in favor of little used Lukas Hafner.

In the middle of the period, UND had to kill a 5-on-3 for about a minute and a half, and it turned out to be a key point in the game. Western never got set up and managed to take just one shot. North Dakota did a great job shutting the Broncos down in the third, allowing the home team just six shots on goal. A late power play goal by WMU was it for the scoring. Gothberg made a spectacular save with about a half minute left to preserve the win.

Special teams were a key to the successful weekend for UND. North Dakota was 3-for-10 on the power play, and 11-of-13 on the PK (85 percent). It’s noteworthy to point out two things that coach Hakstol wasn’t happy with after the Friday loss to St. Lawrence ... face-offs and penalty killing. St. Lawrence was 3-for-6 on the power play and won 34 of 64 face-offs. Both of those areas showed improvement in the sweep of WMU. In fact, since that loss, UND has killed 14-of-16 penalties (88 percent) and won 105-of-204 face-offs (51.4 percent).

On the weekend score sheet, Luke Johnson led the way with two goals and two assists, Jordan Schmaltz had three assists, while Rocco Grimaldi and Dillon Simpson each had a goal and an assist. Zane Gothberg was solid in net both games. He appears to be the go-to guy at least for the immediate future.

Hakstol praised his teams work ethic, calling it a “hard-fought series,” and saying “the guys played 120 full minutes.” On a similar note, Nick Mattson said “we can outwork a lot of teams.”

I’ll have an in-depth look at the first half of the season after the Northern Michigan series.

Stat of the Week

Typically, a team attempts about 60 shots per game ... roughly 30 wind up as shots on goal, the other 30 are blocked, go wide, or hit the post. In Minnesota’s 2-2 tie against Michigan State on Friday, the Gophers attempted 91 shots ... 46 resulted in shots on goal, 24 were blocked, a few hit the post, and the rest went wide. Nice job by MSU goalie Jake Hildebrand and kudos to the Spartans skaters for sacrificing their bodies out there.

Around the Country

Several teams made statements with their play last weekend. Boston College, coming off two bad losses, used a great PK to sweep its home/home with UNH, 6-2 and 2-1. BC killed all 8 shorthanded situations it faced in the series. Ferris State visited Lake Superior State and got out shot 79 to 49, lost 94 of 150 face-offs, almost blew a 3-0 lead on Friday ... but wound up with a sweep, 5-3 and 3-1. Ferris State is unbeaten in 13. Wisconsin needed 2 wins badly, and got them at home against Penn State. Clarkson swept its home/home vs. St. Lawrence. Northeastern continues to play well against the Hockey East heavyweights with a 3-3 tie vs. Providence. St. Cloud gets a big sweep up at Duluth. Quinnipiac had its first poor weekend of the season, tying RPI and losing at Union. Minnesota probably deserved a sweep, but settled for a tie and win at Michigan State. The Gophers are off until Jan. 3rd. Denver and Miami split a pair ... Minnesota State has won five in a row after sweeping Northern Michigan.

UND-Northern Michigan Preview

The Northern Michigan Wildcats (6-8-2), a member of the new WCHA, visit Grand Forks this weekend. This series will wrap things up for UND until Jan. 10. Northern Michigan, based in Marquette, is one of three Division I programs hailing from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Lake Superior State & Michigan Tech). The Wildcats are winless in four and coming off a poor weekend at Minnesota State in which they lost both games, were outscored 6-2 and out-shot 90-33. The Wildcats are struggling to put the puck in the net, and they’ve scored just four goals in their last four games.

Interestingly, Northern Michigan is 4-0-0 when scoring first but just 2-8-2 when its opponent scores first. They score just 2.31 goals a game, but the power play is pretty good at 21.5 percent. Penalty kill is not great at 80 percent, but they give up just under 2.5 goals a game. It’s hard to figure this team out.

Senior forward Stephan Vigier is the Wildcats biggest offensive threat with 10 goals and 15 points, and defenseman C.J. Ludwig, son of NHLer Craig Ludwig, is scoring almost a point per game. Freshman goalie Mathias Dahlstrom is having a nice season, with a 2.13 goals-against average, .929 save percentage, and three shutouts.

Northern Michigan is a mediocre team in a bit of a slump. On the other hand, UND is now on somewhat of a roll, and has a renewed work ethic that has been quite apparent in its last 3 games. If we see a similar effort from the fighting North Dakotans this weekend, a sweep is a definite possibility. One caveat is Dahlstrom, who has shown he’s capable of stopping an opponent cold.

Games to watch

Great non-conference action awaits this weekend. Denver visits Rensselaer, Colorado College heads to Wisconsin, and my favorite matchup finds Union visiting St. Cloud State. In the NCHC, WMU visits Duluth. All are two-game sets. NBC Sports Network will have Friday’s CC/Wisconsin game, and the CBS Sports Network will have Saturday’s WMU/Duluth tilt.

Look at the Poll

There’s just so much wrong with the poll this week, it drives me crazy. Minnesota has played the seventh-strongest schedule in the country, St. Cloud State the 25th. I think it’s a stretch to place St. Cloud at the top over the Gophers. The bottom of the poll is even worse. Vermont, UNH, and Minnesota State should be taking up the 18-20 spots. Rensselaer, UNO, and Denver have all played weak schedules. Oh well.

Frozen Dozen

1) Minnesota, 2) Providence, 3) St. Cloud State, 4) Ferris State, 5) Michigan, 6) Quinnipiac, 7) Boston College, 8) U Mass-Lowell, 9) Clarkson, 10) Union College, 11) Miami, 12) Lake Superior State.

Schuttenhelm’s column on college hockey runs each Thursday in The Sun