College men’s hockey: Bulldogs shorthanded up the middle going into NCAA tournament
DULUTH — Minnesota Duluth senior forward Billy Exell stepped up in a big way last Saturday in St. Paul by scoring the game-tying, short-handed goal in the Bulldogs’ 4-3 double overtime win over St. Cloud State in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship.
Exell could be called upon again this Saturday, March 30, when the top-seeded Bulldogs open the NCAA Midwest Regional against fourth-seeded Bowling Green at 3 p.m. at PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
UMD could be short centermen with junior Jade Miller and freshman Jackson Cates both still considered “day-to-day” by coach Scott Sandelin after Wednesday’s practice with two more practices to go before game day against the Falcons.
Neither Miller nor Cates have practiced with the team this week, though they have skated. Cates missed the entire Frozen Faceoff with an illness while Miller left Saturday’s final in the second period with a lower-body injury.
The absence of Miller and Cates leaves UMD with just three centers in senior Peter Krieger, sophomore Justin Richards and freshman Jesse Jacques.
The fourth center in the early days of practice this week has been Exell, an assistant captain who has almost exclusively played wing in his four seasons. His first real college experience at center came Saturday against the Huskies after Miller went down.
“He’s had a really good year for us,” Sandelin said of Exell, who has just two goals and two assists this season. “It’s not always about the points with Billy. It’s the way he plays. He brings the energy, the speed. He can create a lot of problems with that on the forecheck and certainly on the penalty kill.
“If the one he got on Saturday is the only one he gets the rest of the year, that was a really big goal for us.”
Still three days out from the showdown with Bowling Green, Sandelin only offered a brief scouting report of the Falcons during his weekly press conference Wednesday at Amsoil Arena.
“They pressure all over the rink; they work extremely hard,” Sandelin said of the Falcons. “They’ve got some talented forwards and a very mobile D-corp. It’s going to be a very tough game.”
Sandelin’s primary focus at this point remains his own team, specifically the way they are starting games.
A year ago during the national championship run, the Bulldogs were able to jump out to 2-0 leads against Air Force, Ohio State and Notre Dame en route to the NCAA title. That fast-start formula worked well to start 2018-19 as well with UMD going 8-1-1 to start.
Sandelin said his team has gotten away from those strong starts. In the NCHC tournament, UMD gave up the first goal in two games and was shut out in the first period the other two times.
“We have to be more of a faster-starting team, for sure,” Sandelin said. “We did that to teams last year at the end of the year, had quick starts. We were a good team earlier in the year with fast starts. We have to remedy that.
“We’ve got to be prepared, we’ve got to come out of the gate. We’ve got to have four or five good shifts, try and get a lead, get some momentum going.”
In addition to starting faster, Sandelin would like to see improvement from his power play, which went 1-for-15 during the NCHC tournament. The Falcons average the third-most penalty minutes in the country at 14.5 per game. BGSU’s penalty kill ranks second in the nation at 88.2 percent.
The five finalists for the Mike Richter Award, given to the national goaltender of the year, will be announced Thursday morning. Bulldogs junior Hunter Shepard is among the 10 semifinalists with a 1.87 goals against average (sixth nationally) and .918 save percentage (25th) going into the NCAA tournament. Not amongst the 10 semifinalists is Bowling Green junior Ryan Bednard, who brings a 1.78 GAA (third) and .926 save percentage (12th) into the regionals.
The Bulldogs are attempting to be the first repeat national champions since Denver in 2004 and 2005. UMD went 8-6 against NCAA tournament teams this season. Those eight wins are the most by anyone in the field of 16.