This past weekend, the University of North Dakota hockey team lost and tied (4-3 L, 2-2 T) Michigan State in a non-conference series. Obviously, this wasn’t the result UND hockey fans were hoping for.
Based on what I’ve seen the past two weeks, I believe that this team is very close to becoming a very good, contending hockey team. There’re just a few areas that need to be tweaked and cleaned up. Here’re a few things that caught my eye this past weekend.
Tucker Poolman Shines
Against the Spartans, Junior defenseman Tucker Poolman was a beast, he was also a man among boys. In two games, Poolman scored a goal and an assist and was a plus-one.
In the offseason, the Winnipeg Jets wanted to sign Poolman to a professional contract, but he decided to return for his junior season. Watching Poolman this past weekend, I can see why the Jets are so high on their prospect. The Hawks are very lucky to have him back this season.
He is fourth on the team in scoring and during the past six games, he’s been red hot. During that time, he’s second on the team in scoring with two goals and seven points, he’s also a plus-three. On Saturday, he scored a beautiful goal on a blast from the point to give UND a 2-1 lead. All season long, Poolman has been the Fighting Hawks’ best d-man, playing close to 30 minutes a game.
Calling the Poolman will fix all of your problems. pic.twitter.com/UPcrJHFB1T
— North Dakota MHockey (@UNDmhockey) November 27, 2016
Goaltending Isn’t the Problem
I want to expand on something that I wrote about on Saturday night. This past weekend, I had fans tweeting me about the starting goaltender. I also had fans asking me when does someone else get to play? I don’t know if they are looking at the big picture. When a hockey team is struggling to get wins, the most popular players on a hockey team are the backup goalies.
Having watched practice the past two weeks, I can say with great confidence that Johnson is UND’s best goalie. I also think it’s safe to say that Matt Hyrnkiw is the second-string goalie and has looked very good.
Now, as far as Matej Tomek goes, from the two times that I’ve watched him in practice, he hasn’t looked very good. I am not sure what is going on there. While Tomek came to UND as a highly regarded goaltender, he’s yet to get a start in net. This was partly due to a lower-body injury that kept him out of the first half of last season. I think he’s going to have to bide his time and keep working hard in practice. There’s a reason that Johnson has started 45 games in a row. He gives UND the best chance to win hockey games.
Frankly, Johnson isn’t the problem with the team. You can’t pin this past weekend’s results on the goalie. There are many other issues that plague the Fighting Hawks. Are his numbers down from last season? Yes, they are. In 15 games, Johnson is 7-5-3, 2.19 GAA and .908 save percentage. Statistically, that’s a decline from last season, but I think that’s to be expected.
In the last six games, Johnson is 2-2-2, 1.64 GAA and .933 save percentage. Those aren’t bad numbers. I also believe that he’s returning to last season’s winning form.
Seriously, I know I have posted this before, but nine players from last season’s championship team (Drake Caggiula, Bryn Chyzyk, Coltyn Sanderson, Nick Schmaltz, Troy Stecher, Paul LaDue, Luke Johnson, and Keaton Thompson) are gone. That’s a lot of talent and experience that’s no longer playing with the Hawks. Moreover, three of those players (Caggiula, Schmaltz and Stecher) are currently playing in the NHL. Also, another one, Paul LaDue is on the cusp of making his NHL debut with the Los Angeles Kings.
I don’t think anyone thought that the team would only lose six games this season. If you did, that’s unrealistic. You have eight freshmen and 11 sophomores filling the roles of the nine aforementioned players above. You have very talented players filling those roles, they just need more seasoning. There’s no substitute for experience.
Excellence or Nothing
Wins in college hockey don’t come easy, they require a mistake free, full 60-minute effort. You can’t take time off at crucial points. So far, this season, this has been a reoccurring theme for UND.
While the Fighting Hawks are playing good hockey, they’re making mistakes at these crucial points and those end up in the back of their net. That needs to change if they want to be successful in the long run.
After Saturday’s non-conference 2-2 tie against Michigan State Spartans, the Hawks had a player’s only team meeting where they aired out their differences. At the post-game press conference, sophomore defenseman Christian Wolanin was very frank on what needs to done.
“All we talked about was putting it together,” Wolanin said.”It’s unbelievable how well we play when we’re on and we’re firing on all cylinders, forwards, defense, and goaltenders. Then, we turn it off for a period, turn it off for five minutes and there’s a momentum swing and the energy on the bench dies.
“It’s not that we’re young. It’s not that we have no leaders. It’s just a mindset that we have to develop.”
Sophomore forward Johnny Simonson echoed Wolanin’s comments: “Guys aren’t too happy about that in the locker room. We still have a long ways to go as a team.”
While UND is a young team, that doesn’t excuse their play. Every time players put the UND uniform on there’s expectations from their fan base.
“We’re the University of North Dakota,” Wolanin said. “That’s what’s expected, excellence or nothing. We’ve got ourselves to believe in.”
Eric is a 1996, 1999 graduate of the University of North Dakota. Eric covers the University of North Dakota Hockey and Division I college hockey. Eric is the Contributing Editor for Inside Hockey.