Team of the Week: Minnesota-Duluth
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
North Dakota entered last weekend's showdown at Minnesota-Duluth riding a 10-game unbeaten streak dating back to last season, a streak that of course included the Fighting Hawks' national championship triumph in Tampa. Moreover, UND had not been swept in a league series in three years, and hadn't been swept at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth since 1995.
Propelled by dynamic special teams play and by an emerging rookie goaltender, Minnesota-Duluth ended all of those streaks at a frenzied AMSOIL Arena over the weekend — sweeping the reigning champs and staking a legitimate claim as the top team in the nation.
On the heels of its dramatic sweep — a 5-2 win on Friday night, and a 3-0 shutout in Saturday's encore — the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs are CHN's Team of the Week.
Until now, UMD had flown under the radar this season, relatively speaking, working out early season kinks after losing its top two scorers from last season's NCAA tourney squad, as well as its starting goaltender. Netminder Kasimir Kaskisuo signed an NHL deal in the offseason, choosing to forego his final two years of NCAA eligibility.
But behind the scenes, the Bulldogs were gaining momentum — especially, as it turned out, in terms of improving their power play and penalty kill.
The behind the scenes work paid off against North Dakota, as the Bulldogs went 3-for-10 on the power play for the weekend. In addition, on North Dakota's 13 power play chances, UMD actually outscored the visitors, 2-1, scoring a pair of shorthanded goals in Saturday night's shutout.
Last season, North Dakota allowed only four shorthanded goals all year.
"It's great to see us do well on that aspect of the game," said UMD senior Alex Iafallo. "Especially getting rewarded for working hard, week in and week out, on our power play and penalty kill."
Iafallo proved to be a catalyst, too. Friday night, he scored his first career hat-trick, scoring a power play goal, an even-strength goal, and an empty-netter.
"I'll remember that one forever," said Iafallo, who was named the NCHC's Offensive Player of the Week after totaling five points for the weekend. "My mom was in the stands, too. It felt good. I had a lot of support from teammates, so I owe it to them too."
Indeed, there's plenty of praise to spread around. But long before the Bulldogs' weekend sweep was complete, they faced the most critical moment of the young season so far. Friday, a 3-0 lead had been cut to 3-2 entering the second intermission — thanks to two late second period goals by North Dakota's Rhett Gardner and Shane Gersich.
That, says Iafallo, is when things really changed.
"That was definitely a momentum changer," said Iafallo. "Coach [Scott Sandelin] came into the locker room and told us what we had to do. We came together as a team there. Everybody was on the same page from then on. After that, we kind of just took off and rolled from there."
Sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk — currently tied for the most points in the nation among blueliners (10) — scored a third period power play goal, and UMD seemingly never looked back. Meanwhile, freshman Hunter Miska, emerging as the Bulldogs' starter, didn't allow another goal the rest of the weekend.
Saturday, Miska — the NCHC Goaltender of the Week — made 30 saves to earn his second shutout of the season. It was the first time North Dakota had been shut out since March 21, 2014.
"It was straight up and down the lineup," continued Iafallo. "Everybody played great. Special teams was a big part of this weekend. Everybody made sacrifices, whether it was on the power play or the penalty kill. And our defensemen made some huge blocks and saved a lot of goals.
"It was a huge weekend. Now we just have to keep it going."
Minnesota-Duluth — now with all the attention of the college hockey world — travels to St. Cloud State this weekend, playing six of its next eight games on the road.