NCAA Hockey 101: Minnesota-Duluth and the not-so-stunning turnaround

Via Minnesota-Duluth

On Jan. 29, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs lost their third game in a row, and the fourth in their last five. A little more than a month and a half later, they played in the NCHC title game and lost. But that loss was their first in almost a month, and only their fourth since that three-game skid.

This was a team that came into the season with some fairly high hopes, but sputtered early. In their first 24 games they went just 8-11-5, with their only real quality results being two ties with Notre Dame, a win over UMass Lowell, and a single tie against both St. Cloud and Denver. Other than that, they beat who they should have beaten and little more.

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But since that serious skid in mid- to late January, they've only really faltered once, losing to Bemidji State. Other than that, getting swept at North Dakota is something most everyone does, but you'd have to say sweeping at St. Cloud just about makes up for it.

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Going from 8-11-5 to 18-15-5 to squeak into the NCAA tournament isn't exactly the most incredible turnaround of the season (that honor obviously goes to Northeastern, a team we'll talk about at length later this week), but it's impressive nonetheless, and it speaks to the quality of the team Scott Sandelin has put together that they were able to do it.

“Consistency” is something of a dirty word when dealing with numbers in sports, but the one thing you can really say about this club is that it was consistently the better possession team in just about every game all year. In fact, they were only out-attempted at full strength four times all season, in 38 games. Their overall possession share of 58.1 percent is the second-best in the nation behind only Minnesota State, and given that the NCHC is a considerably better conference than the WCHA, their ability to push play nearly every night is both crucial and impressive.

And here's how consistent they were with it: There was never a five-game stretch in which they had a lower CF% than 51.2, and that was when they finally got on that big winning streak and started leading for larger chunks of their games. As you might imagine, shots-for followed suit, with the team never sinking below 50 percent in any five-game segment of the season.

Two areas where they were very much inconsistent in the traditional sense, was in both scoring and preventing goals. Both were talents which were much harder for the Bulldogs to grasp on a regular basis, with their goals-for percentages swinging wildly from lows of just 33.3 to highs of almost 86 in very short stretches. They ended the year at 57.1 percent in this regard, which is obviously the important thing, but those swings are what makes a team look as bad as Duluth did for stretches this year.


This is very clearly not an overwhelmingly talented team, with only one player clearing 30 points for the season and four in double-digit goal totals. Good players, play the system well, etc. That's often all you need, and you can ask Lowell — a team which has made the NCAA tournament four of the last five years, and the last four conference finals — all about that.

It probably doesn't take a math genius to guess that over the last 10 games or so, Duluth is up around 8.2 percent at 5-on-5 after suffering closer to 6.7 percent for previous 28 games of the season. That latter number is going to make it tough to win very often. That's a huge difference, basically adding 0.4 goals per night at 5-on-5 alone to the team's total, an improvement of 22 percent.

Meanwhile, Kasimir Kaskisuo has been a very solid netminder this season (.922 overall, .927 at 5-on-5) but that's not a particualrly great mark on the national stage, and he too went through some serious ups and downs this year. That five-game run of a .981 save percentage at full strength speaks pretty well there, but he had more than a few below .900 as well. It happens, of course, that you run into talented and untalented teams in bunches over the course of the year, which is going to strongly impact your percentages more at the college level than the NHL.

The fact that his most recent play has been very bad (.875 over five games) against clubs loaded with scoring talent like Miami, North Dakota, and St. Cloud tells that story pretty clearly.


These issues are highlighted, too, by the fact that Duluth's power play is one of the worst in the nation (15 percent is an ugly number) but the PK is fifth-best in the country (allowing just 13.3 percent).But here's the issue for the Bulldogs: They drew 18 more power plays than their opponents this season, which isn't a huge penalty differential, and scored only five extra goals. That's because while they were 14th in the nation in penalties drawn, they were only middle of the pack in penalties taken. That's obviously preferable to the alternative, but a team with as much of the possession as they carried shouldn't only be a plus-18 in power play opportunities (less than half of an extra opportunity per game). And if you're not going to get consistently good goaltending, this is something that can become a major problem.

On the balance, though, this feels like a team that was clearly in the top-3 in the second-best conference in the nation, and for that reason certainly deserved to make the NCAA tournament. If you can dominate possession as strenuously as the Bulldogs did front-to-back this year, that's the sign of a good team. Doesn't necessarily mean they're going to have anything less than a super-hard time against Providence in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, because Providence is a combination of dominant possession (eighth in the nation) and lots of talent (seven drafted players and a number of pro-ready undrafteds), with stellar goaltending all year as well.

No one should be surprised that Minnesota-Duluth got this far. They're a very good team, albeit one with some demonstrable problems. They just need to hope they can stave off those issues for the next four games.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Quinnipiac (won the ECAC with wins over)


2. North Dakota (finished tied for third in the NCHC after losing to Minnesota-Duluth and tying Denver)

3. St. Cloud (won the NCHC with wins over Denver and Minnesota-Duluth)

4. Providence (finished tied for third in Hockey East with a loss to Lowell)

5. UMass Lowell (finished second in Hockey East with a win over Providence and a loss to Northeastern)

6. Boston College (finished tied for third in Hockey East with a loss to Northeastern)

7. Michigan (won the Big Ten with wins over Penn State and Minnesota)

8. Northeastern (won Hockey East with wins over BC and Lowell)

9. Harvard (finished second in the ECAC after beating St. Lawrence and losing to Quinnipiac)


10. Minnesota-Duluth (finished second in the NCHC by beating North Dakota and losing to St. Cloud)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here