Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wild, 15 Others Chase Lord Stanley

You can have your March Madness, your September football openers, your October baseball playoffs/cranking-up of football season, December bowls into NFL and college football playoffs, or whatever sports time of year you prefer.

Nothing makes goosebumps form on top of  goosebumps like the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I mean, well, um ... hold on. Just watch this.



Says it all.

First team to 16 wins gets the spoils. And the tears.

Anyway, the playoffs start Wednesday. I'll deliver some predictions later, but here are some thoughts on the Wild as they prepare to open up Thursday at Colorado.

This is really simple, in many ways. Colorado is a great story, but the story masks some problems with this team.

The nerds like to note that Colorado is the worst possession team in the tournament. The Avalanche get by that issue by carrying the best shooting percentage of any of these 16 teams. Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog are elite. Semyon Varlamov had a great run this season.

However, Colorado's possession problem could rear its ugly head in this division bracket. St. Louis and Chicago are going to go to war for the right to advance, but both teams sport the kind of hard-nosed forwards it takes to break down the Avalanche.

So does Minnesota.

Ever since a 5-1 loss to St. Louis had the Wild on the brink of a lot of bad things, the group has banded together. If you're enough of a diehard, you probably know about the off-day "summit" the Wild on-ice leadership had in Phoenix after that St. Louis debacling. If not, stud beat writer Michael Russo wrote a lot about it, including here.

Bottom line: This team has been much more system-strong since that day off. Zach Parise made a comment after the St. Louis loss about the Blues' commitment to their system, and it was a subtle shot at his guys for a bevy of blue line turnovers that led to chances (and sometimes goals) for the opponents.

The Wild have been much better since then at getting pucks behind defensemen and going after them on the forecheck. It's one part of the success story, but it's a huge one, especially going into this best-of-seven.

Colorado isn't weak on defense, but the Avs aren't strong there, either. There are some young guys there, and some potentially vulnerable players. I'd like to see the Wild make them work for possession and make them earn their space up the rink. Colorado wants to play a rush game, but if the Wild can make them get away from firewagon hockey, the Avalanche can easily be beaten in this series.

Make Colorado break out more slowly, and make their forwards more engaged in the defensive zone. Puck retrievals and wall play take energy. Sap their will by making them earn every puck they get and every rush they're able to generate. Colorado has been really good this season at getting into run-and-gun type of games.

Remember the structure and the system. Stick to it, and good things will happen.

Of course, it ultimately comes down to goaltending. Varlamov has been great, and while Ilya Bryzgalov has been good for the Wild, the sample isn't very big. I did say when the Wild got him from Edmonton that I thought Bryzgalov would be solid playing for a team that has some structure in front of him, as Minnesota certainly does.

If Bryzgalov, who has a promising .923 even-strength save percentage, even matches what Varlamov (.933, by the way) can do, Minnesota probably wins. Ultimately, the talent gap in goal, which I do believe exists, is the biggest reason I have Colorado beating the Wild. If the Wild avoid getting suckered into run-and-gun hockey and get good goaltending, they very much have a shot in this series.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

College Hockey Almost Certainly Not Done Changing

One-time Minnesota Wild executive Bill Robertson was named the new commissioner of the WCHA Tuesday. Robertson will replace Bruce McLeod, who ran the league for 20 years and will retire in June. Robertson will actually join the league next month, providing a bit of a buffer between his official arrival and McLeod's official departure.

(Notice how I resisted jokes about McLeod's departure actually having taken place about a decade ago. I'm actually proud of myself for that.)

Robertson's task is not a small one, but he's not alone.

College hockey is not in a stable position, for a variety of reasons. Namely, there are schools in virtually every league that aren't happy. Something is irking them, be it travel, scholarships, finances, or administrative issues of some sort.

I'm not here to say everyone was happy with the old arrangement. I'd bet there were unhappy types back then. It just wasn't as vocal a group, and everyone had their traditional leagues to lean on. The WCHA and CCHA had their warts, but they'd also been around for a long time and had experienced a ton of success, both on the ice and off.

(Example of off-ice success in the old alignment? Look what the WCHA Final Five became at its zenith, in the early and mid 2000s.)

When the Big Ten and NCHC plucked all the "big-name" programs from those leagues, the CCHA died completely and the WCHA changed dramatically.

Now, it seems the majority of hockey people involved in these leagues would probably revert back to the way things used to be, if only it was that easy.

Since we know that won't happen, it might be time for fans to resign themselves to more changes.

With that potential inevitability in mind, here are a few ideas -- both mine and others -- that could help alleviate the concerns of programs and remove some of the "buyer's remorse," as Mankato Free Press scribe and wonderful human Shane Frederick tweeted Tuesday.

The WCHA should cut to 24 conference games.

Will this create more holes to fill in non-league schedules? Absolutely. But the NCHC (ten) and Big Ten (14) have plenty of them, too.

Why should the WCHA cut from 28 to 24? Money.

Last season, every WCHA team visited Alaska at least once. Four teams went twice, playing road series against both Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska. Two of those teams made two separate trips north, while Michigan Tech and Minnesota State spent a whole week up there. With a 24-game league schedule, it could be structured so three teams don't go to Alaska at all during a season, and certainly you wouldn't have four teams going twice.

Not only does it remove some of the financial strain, but it makes travel a little less than a pain.

The WCHA should seek to expand.

This one will be a little controversial. I know that there are some teams in Atlantic Hockey that want to go to 18 scholarships. That's been the case for a while. If the WCHA finds two of them, expands to 12 teams, and goes to a two-division format where the Alaska teams are in separate divisions but locked into playing each other four times a season, the league could settle travel concerns without necessarily cutting the league schedule.

A so-called Eastern Division would comprise the two AHA teams, one of the Alaska schools, Alabama-Huntsville, Ferris State, and Bowling Green. The upper Michigan teams, Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and the other Alaska team would make up the West.

Structuring a full league schedule could be difficult. If each team in the division played a home-and-away, that would be 20 games. With a 24-game conference slate, that would leave four games, two home and two away, to be played outside the division. Doing that would mean only two teams out of 12 would have to make the double-trip north, and that would be easily handled around school breaks to minimize academic impact of the travel. At 28 games, you'd have eight games to play against the opposite division. Either way, there would be teams in the league that did not meet during the regular season.

In addition, I'm told the travel arrangements for UAA and UAF are different, and it's more expensive for teams to go to Anchorage. I'm not sure how this is possible, but Robertson needs to fix it if it's the case.

The NCHC should run its tournament the way the Big Ten does.

This has been suggested to me multiple times.

I'm not sure how it would be executed, but there are a couple options.

The first is to bring every team to Minneapolis, which would allow for travel arrangements to be made far in advance, thus making that side of things cheaper than it is now, where arrangements are made on short notice. The negative? Four games on Thursday. You think the tournament wasn't attended well this year? Wait until -- as an example -- Denver and UNO are playing a quarterfinal game at like 10am on a Thursday.

The other option? Take six teams to Minneapolis and play single elimination. Top two get byes into the semifinals, and there are two quarterfinal games Thursday. Same format as the Big Ten. Teams couldn't arrange their travel until late notice, but the tournament would be structured to succeed. Gives the teams at the bottom even more to play for at the end of the season, because they have to fight for inclusion into the conference tournament.

Why go this route? Look at the crowds drawn for first-round campus-site playoff series this season. It could be argued that teams are better off playing in a centralized location and building a cool event that way.

******

None of this is guaranteed to help, but it's clear change is coming.

I don't know what that change will be, but I'd be stunned if we kept this configuration in place any longer than schools are contractually obligated to stick around for. We might see new leagues formed, we might see current leagues dissolved.

We welcome Robertson to college hockey. Hopefully he doesn't end up regretting what he got himself into, and hopefully all the leagues can find common ground and work together for the good of the sport.

UMD Men's Hockey Schedule 2014-15

As published in Tuesday's Duluth News Tribune, here is the UMD men's hockey schedule for next season.

Oct. 10 -- vs. Minnesota at Icebreaker, South Bend, Ind.
Oct. 12 -- vs. Notre Dame or RPI at Icebreaker, South Bend, Ind.
Oct. 17 -- Minnesota State
Oct. 18 -- at Minnesota State
Oct. 24-25 -- Denver
Oct. 31-Nov. 1 -- Miami
Nov. 7-8 -- at St. Cloud State
Nov. 14 -- at Minnesota
Nov. 15 -- Minnesota
Nov. 21-22 -- at Nebraska-Omaha
Dec. 5-6 -- Colorado College
Dec. 12-13 -- at Michigan Tech
Jan. 9-10 -- at North Dakota
Jan. 16-17 -- Western Michigan
Jan. 23 -- vs. Bemidji State at North Star College Cup, St. Paul
Jan. 24 -- vs. Minnesota or Minnesota State at North Star College Cup, St. Paul
Jan. 30-31 -- at Denver
Feb. 6-7 -- Northern Michigan
Feb. 13-14 -- St. Cloud State
Feb. 20-21 -- at Miami
Feb. 27-28 -- Nebraska-Omaha
March 6-7 -- at Western Michigan
March 13-15 -- NCHC playoffs first round
March 20-21 -- NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Target Center

A few things:
  • Expect at least one home exhibition game to be added, especially with there being a month between games over the holiday break. That seems like a good spot for something.
  • No North Dakota in Duluth next season, and UMD will not visit Colorado Springs. Sad face.
  • Home non-conference is Minnesota and Minnesota State for single games, then Northern Michigan for two. UMD plays in two tournaments -- the Icebreaker and North Star College Cup -- and also visits Michigan Tech in December.
  • As for the Icebreaker, it's a Friday/Sunday event in South Bend because Notre Dame football is home to take on North Carolina that Saturday. If you're traveling out for that event, the football game is probably a must if you're at all a football fan. Actually, I'd carve out time for a campus tour of some sort if you've never done that before. And go to the football game.
  • 2014-15 will be the fourth time in five years that UMD's final regular season home series has come against Nebraska Omaha.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Thinking Out Loud: Twins, Brewers Seek Improvement

Baseball is back. I'll have to admit: I didn't watch much of it last year. The Brewers stunk, and the Twins were much worse. Our local nines were stuck in the bowels of sucktitude. Once June hit, there was no real reason to watch baseball, and I might have seen a couple games through the summer.

In the words of Canadian alternative band Evans Blue, this time it's different.

Maybe.

The Twins look miserable once again. Yeah, they went out and bought themselves some requisite major league pitching. That was good, because they didn't really have any in 2013. For an organization that home-grew guys like Brad Radke, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano (yeah, I know he wasn't drafted, but most of his development was as a Twin), and others, the well ran dry in a hurry.

While Trevor May and Alex Meyer mature in Rochester, the team needs Ricky Nolasco, Philip Hughes, and 2013 newcomers Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey to lead the way. Monday, Nolasco sure didn't start well, giving up five runs and ten hits in six innings as Minnesota fell 5-3 to the White Sox.

I'm actually optimistic about Minnesota's pitching. Less so about the bats.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know I've been pretty consistent with the stance that Joe Mauer will have a big offensive season, by his standards. I said that when the team announced his move to first base. I'm thinking 15-20 home runs, the typical 30-35 doubles, .400 OBP, and a jump in slugging percentage, closer to his MVP season (.587) but not quite hitting that unsustainable number.

Mauer won't be the problem. If Monday's lineup is any indication, the problem will lie above him in the batting order.

Spare me the "two hits, three RBI" talk with Kurt Suzuki. He's a good defensive catcher and only a passable, replacement-level bat for the position.

He hit second in Monday's game. Brian Dozier, who makes outs for breakfast every day, was the leadoff hitter. Ahead of Mauer. Poor guy -- figuratively speaking, of course, since we all know Mauer is filthy rich -- is going to lead the American League in "at bats with two out and nobody on base" this season (had one Monday, three total two-out at bats).

I'd love to rip Ron Gardenhire, but until Aaron Hicks proves himself, the Twins don't have a viable leadoff hitter, or No. 2 guy.

Unless you put Mauer in the leadoff spot. And even that's not ideal, because while he gets more at bats, it also takes him away from more of a run-producing role.

And, no, Byron Buxton isn't ready yet.

Meanwhile, the Brewers actually have a pretty formidable top of the order. Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Jonathan Lucroy can all rake. Youngster Scooter Gennett has shown promise at second base, where Rickie Weeks has sufficiently flamed out and has little use to this team in his current form.

This team can score runs from the top of the order. It's the bottom that has me concerned, but lots of teams can say that.

Who's playing first base? Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay.

Who's in left instead of Braun? Khris Davis.

Yuck.

They better get runs out of the top five guys, and some production out of Gennett, because whatever they get from left field and (especially) first base is going to be a bonus.

The pitching staff is solid (the Matt Garza signing was genius, because now Milwaukee has three proven starters in a pitching-rich division), but the NL Central is stacked. The Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are all contender types, so the Brewers are lost in the shuffle in the division race.

I have hope for Milwaukee, though. Ownership is committed to competing, and since the young talent pool is dry compared to, say, Minnesota, the Brewers have to make moves like the Garza and Kyle Lohse (last year) signings to stay above water.

What do the teams have in common? Solid bullpens. Minnesota's has more upside, but both should be just fine, at the worst.

For the Twins, the offense and the lack of high-end pitching will hold them back in a division that isn't exactly stacked.

For the Brewers, it's more about the top teams that already exist, along with the lack of balance in the batting order. Damn, do they miss Prince Fielder in Milwaukee.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Dominate Everywhere But Scoreboard, Season Over

Buzz. Kill.

That's the best I can do to describe the sensation as Western Michigan scored two third-period goals Saturday to beat UMD 4-3 and end the Bulldogs' season.

In all honesty, one weekend of hockey pretty accurately summed up UMD's entire 16-16-4 season. On Friday, UMD outshot and outchanced Western Michigan, but gave up a power-play goal off a faceoff win and ended up never drawing even again from that point, despite a furious rally.

Saturday, the Bulldogs jumped to a 2-0 lead, dominated long stretches of play (specifically, puck possession, scoring chances, shots on goal, and shot attempts), ended up outshooting WMU 37-11, and lost 4-3.

It might have been an extreme example -- and it certainly was a poorly-timed one -- but it painted a perfect picture of UMD's season-long home-ice struggles.

That 5-10-3 Amsoil Arena record was not something head coach Scott Sandelin ever really wanted to talk about, but you have to know it ate at the UMD players and coaches. It's just not something you can flip a switch and solve, and it affected the team's postseason chances. 11-6-1 is a fine record away from home. Even if this team goes 8-7-3 at home, it's probably sitting in at least a bubble spot now, even with the WMU series loss.

UMD was outscored 2-0 on special teams Friday, and 3-0 on the weekend. The Bulldog power play was very good, especially on Saturday, but in that game, they couldn't beat Frank Slubowski. While the power play was inconsistent in terms of its execution, the one consistency was the lack of scoring punch from that unit.

UMD scored 41 power play goals and was an impressive 23.4 percent on the season in 2012-13. This season, the Bulldogs scored 26 power play goals and went just 15.8 percent on the power play, its worst percentage since the 2007-2008 Season of No Goals (11.5). It was a combination of inexperience all over the ice, shuffling the high forwards a few times, and occasionally not getting enough pucks or bodies to the net. The inexperience showed itself on occasion against good and aggressive kills like Denver and UNO.

But let's digest the numbers a bit when it comes to the UMD offense.

In 2012-13, UMD scored 99 goals in 38 games, an average of 2.61 per game. Special teams accounted for 42 of those 99 goals (41 PPG and one short-handed), leaving UMD with just 57 even-strength goals, an average of 1.5 per game. UMD was outscored 76-57 at even-strength, an eye-popping minus-19 differential.

In 2013-14, UMD scored 104 goals in 36 games, an average of 2.89 per game. Special teams accounted for 30 of those 104 goals (26 PPG and four short-handed), leaving UMD with 74 even-strength goals, an average of 2.06 per game. UMD outscored opponents 74-66 even-strength. The plus-eight differential was 27 goals better than last year!

(Honestly, this math leads to the conclusion that UMD absolutely should have experienced more than a two-win improvement over last season.)

Before the season, Sandelin and others talked about the need for improved goaltending. Last year, UMD posted a team save percentage of .896. Despite some positives scattered throughout the season, UMD's team save percentage ended up at -- you guessed it -- .896 this year. Counting conference games only, it actually dipped from .898 in the WCHA last year to .891 in the NCHC in 2013-14.

It's not about blame. There are five guys in front of the goalie, and before the goalie can fail to stop the puck that goes into the net, those five guys may all have made mistakes. Hockey is a game of mistakes. Pinning blame on one player out of six on the ice is just farcical.

Especially when that player, Aaron Crandall, saved this team's bacon so many times. 90 saves on 93 shots against UNO. 30-save shutout of hard-charging Miami in a great pitchers' goalies' duel. The win at Western Michigan where WMU scored first and had two five-on-threes in the first 30 minutes of the game.

Want me to go on?

Four goals on 11 shots doesn't look like great goaltending. And he's certainly played better. But be fair. You didn't think Crandall would do what he did in the second half of the season. And if he hadn't done that, we wouldn't have won 16 games or earned home ice in the NCHC quarterfinals.

Not Crandall's fault that the team took a bunch of dumb penalties throughout the season, including some horribly-timed ones.

(UMD completely dominated the first period Saturday, yet only had one power play to WMU's three when the horn sounded. Because of that, it was only 2-1 UMD after one instead of maybe 3-0 or 4-0, which would have been more fitting of how the 20 minutes were played. The penalties were avoidable. Two of them came in the offensive zone, which happened too much this season.)

In the end, there are a few different reasons UMD didn't win more, and why the season has come to a seemingly premature end. It isn't all on one guy, and it isn't all on one part of the team. Next year's group will have more experience, and therefore will have more leadership (remember, leadership isn't just about the captain and assistant captains). And there will be a lot of pressure on Matt McNeely and newcomer Kasimir Kaskisuo to improve the team's goaltending.

A few more quick thoughts on the season's end:
  • If money had to be placed on an early departure, it would be bet on Caleb Herbert signing with the Washington Capitals. 32 goals and 89 points in three years is nice, but Herbert could improve his game in college. I'm not sure I'd say he's ready, but it isn't my call. I don't think anyone else leaves early.
  • If Herbert leaves, look for a 2015 forward to come in one year earlier than previously planned.
  • Look for a 2015 defenseman to fill the 2014 recruiting class, a move brought on by the retirement of Luke McManus.
  • UMD's blue line could be stacked next season. Andy Welinski, Carson Soucy, Derik Johnson, Willie Raskob, Dan Molenaar, and Willie Corrin all have eligibility remaining. Add St. Scholastica transfer Brenden Kotyk, whom I was told would absolutely have been in the mix this season if NCAA rules didn't prohibit him from doing so as a transfer, and you have an impressive group.
  • Molenaar is going to be a stud. So is Raskob. Love the young guys in this group. Kotyk brings some serious size, and Johnson will block any shot and hit any player.
  • Doesn't hurt to have the three components of the top line all returning. Tony Cameranesi played really well, no matter what the numbers tell you. Led the team in shots on goal, and probably deserved double the total of seven he had on the season. Kyle Osterberg had a great year, as did Justin Crandall. This group came on very nicely over the last month.
  • If Herbert leaves, we need a second-line center. Hello, Cal Decowski.
  • Dominic Toninato, Alex Iafallo, and Adam Krause could make a great shutdown line again next season. I'd like to see them get more offensively, because their puck possession and work ethic justify it. Modestly increase their total of 25 goals between them, and watch the team's overall numbers improve even more as a result.
Another fun year. It's always fun to get to know guys. Lots of fun times and unique memories with every season. Thanks to the UMD staff -- Scott Sandelin, Jason Herter, Derek Plante, Christian Koelling, Josh Berlo (who is doing a fantastic job as AD, by the way, and I'm sure the best is yet to come in that regard), Bob Nygaard, Suz Hoppe, Chris Garner, Hogie, and countless others -- for the constant accommodations at home and on the road. Thanks also to the players for being such good kids and such a joy to be around during the week and during road trips.

We'll keep you up to date on news as it happens during the offseason. In the meantime, prepare for mindless rambling about things other than UMD hockey.

Enjoy the summer, if the snow ever goes away.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Game 36: Western Michigan at UMD (NCHC First Round Game 2 - WMU Leads 1-0)

This could very well be it.

Facing elimination on home ice, there isn't much that can comfort UMD about Friday's 3-2 loss. The Bulldogs have to crank up the intensity from the opening bell, as Western Michigan proved very difficult to solve defensively, especially once having taken the lead.

Every facet of the Bulldogs' game has to be sharp. Net-front presence is a must. There are little battles you can watch in this game in front of the Western Michigan net. If UMD is losing battles for position and for loose pucks, it's a bad sign.

All four lines contributed good shifts and scoring chances Friday. However, all four can play better. Dominic Toninato won a lot of draws, and his line had a ton of zone time, but they didn't win many battles in front of the net, something that cut back a bit on scoring chances.

A sleepy second period was ignited by a great shift from the fourth line, led by Cal Decowski and Max Tardy, who were wonderful on Friday and ended up scoring UMD's only goals in the game's final 90 seconds. I'm not exaggerating by saying it might have been Tardy's best game in these colors.

(Perhaps a coincidence, but Western Michigan coach Andy Murray went out of his way to praise Tardy when I spoke to him this week. "He's had a good influence on them. I think he brings that senior leadership to their lineup.")

Bottom line: UMD hit three pipes and was somewhat unlucky against Lukas Hafner throughout the evening. But more bad luck will only lead to the end of the season, so there is no time to lament it now. Instead, the onus is on the Bulldogs to play a stronger, harder game, get to Hafner, and break down this solid WMU defense.

I don't have anything planned Sunday night. Might as well come back here one more time.

Make it so, boys.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Osterberg - Cameranesi - Crandall (Justin)
Farley - Herbert - Basaraba
Iafallo - Toninato - Krause
Tardy - Decowski - Spurrell

Soucy - Welinski
Johnson - Raskob
Smith - Molenaar

Crandall (Aaron) - McNeely - Fons

WMU
Dries - Kessel - Cichy
McKee - Mellor - Hadley
Berschbach - Balisy - Kovacs
Hargrove - Pitt - LaPorte

Nitsche - Morrison
Dienes - Fleming
Oesterle - Brown

Slubowski - Bloomberg - Hafner

(Note: Hafner is starting. WMU lists goalies in numerical order.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Game 35: Western Michigan at UMD (NCHC First Round Game 1)

Win or go home.

That's playoff hockey to me, and that's what faces both these teams here this weekend.

Without the automatic bid, Western Michigan is not going to the NCAA Tournament. Without the automatic bid, UMD is likely not going, though Lloyd Christmas would be thrilled to know the Bulldogs still do have a shot without it. That minute opportunity revolves around winning this weekend and probably again next Friday in the NCHC semifinals.

For those who think this team is better off on the road, I'm told Western Michigan's travel plans weren't set in stone until Wednesday. They flew from Detroit (a couple hours from Kalamazoo) to Minneapolis and took a bus to Duluth. That might have been a normal trip to Duluth for them, but it's hard to claim creature comforts and routine on the road when you don't know all your details until the day before the trip.

Traveling this time of year -- on short notice -- can be a major pain. Athletes crave routine, even on the road, and it's hard to get that with this kind of travel.

And, no, I'm not going to change my tune if UMD loses this weekend. I don't care if 1,500 people show up for the games. The Bulldogs need to establish a presence and an attitude in this building. No better time than now.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Osterberg - Cameranesi - Crandall (Justin)
Farley - Herbert - Basaraba
Iafallo - Toninato - Krause
Tardy - Decowski - Spurrell

Soucy - Welinski
Johnson - Raskob
Corrin - Molenaar

Crandall (Aaron) - McNeely - Fons

WMU
Berschbach - Balisy - Kovacs
McKee - Mellor - Hadley
Hargrove - Kessel - LaPorte
Dries - Cichy - Novak

Nitsche - Morrison
Dienes - Fleming
Oesterle - Brown

Slubowski - Hafner

(Note: Hafner is starting. WMU lists goalies in numerical order.)

New Season Begins, and Desperation Ensues for Bulldogs, Broncos

Each is two games over .500 overall, and exactly .500 in league play. They have identical NCHC records, separated only by a head-to-head tiebreaker that shows a 3-1 edge for UMD.

However, what that 3-1 edge doesn't tell you is that two of those three UMD wins over Western Michigan this season were tied at some point in the third period, while the other was tied in the second period before UMD scored twice. Hardly blowouts, even though UMD was clearly the better team in the Kalamazoo games.

"They were really good," Western Michigan coach Andy Murray said this week. "Great team speed, played real hard."

Why the success against a WMU team that plays so tight and is this difficult to beat in front of the net?

"I think they bring out the best in us," junior forward Justin Crandall said. "They force you to play intense, up and down the ice. We really like playing that team. I thought that was one of our best weekends, going in a tough building and beating a good team back to back."

This runs counterbalance to some UMD teams of the past. Western Michigan plays a hard-nosed, physical game, and the Broncos are really good at outnumbering opposing teams deep in the defensive zone. It keeps teams from mounting sustained attacks because it's difficult to forecheck effectively against them. However, the Broncos struggled at times with UMD's speed.

Expect them to come out hitting early and often this weekend. They have some bigger guys like sophomores Colton Hargrove (ten goals) and Josh Pitt (nine goals, but suspended for Friday due to getting a third game misconduct of the season last weekend). Like UMD, Western has some scoring balance. Justin Kovacs, Shane Berschbach, Chase Balisy, and Nolan LaPorte can all get in on the act.

They have speed guys who can get the puck through the neutral zone in a hurry, and the forwards are generally responsible defensively. The line of Will Kessel, Sheldon Dries, and North Dakota transfer Mike Cichy is the go-to defensive line for Murray, but he doesn't get his choice of matchups this weekend as the visiting coach.

The Broncos have an active and often effective blue line, led by experienced guys like Dennis Brown and Jordan Oesterle, and supplemented with talented sophomore Kenney Morrison.

UMD won three straight after a four-game skid before dropping Saturday's season finale to Nebraska Omaha.

"After the four-game streak, we could have gone the other way," Bulldog head coach Scott Sandelin told Jim Rich of the NCHC Radio Show this week. "I thought our guys regrouped and went into a tough place in Miami and got a couple wins. I think our guys understand how we have to play to win games."

Make no mistake: They better figure it out. This is it.

UMD is probably not going to make the NCAA Tournament without going on an extended run in the NCHC playoffs and possibly winning the league tournament to get the autobid. Intrepid PairWise mind John Forsyth (@blackbear93 on Twitter) has UMD listed as a team that can play its way in without the automatic bid (though he says it's an outside shot). My assumption is this would require two wins this weekend and a win over St. Cloud State in the NCHC semifinals next Friday, but my math isn't good enough to figure it out beyond that.

The equally intrepid Jim Dahl believes UMD can work its way back to the immediate tournament bubble by winning this series. His graphic seems to indicate UMD's chances of getting in the top 15 after this weekend sit at around 20 percent if business is successfully taken care of against the Broncos.

Bottom line: UMD needs to win this weekend, or it's all over for 2013-14. That would mark the end for UMD seniors Aaron Crandall, Joe Basaraba, Max Tardy, and Tim Smith, along with retiring junior defenseman Luke McManus.

"I think we're too good of a hockey team to be done after this weekend," the younger Crandall brother said. "I think we've got too much talent and grit in that locker room to be done."

One can only hope he's right. Unquestionably, Western Michigan will bring out every bit of that talent and grit, as the Broncos have all season.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Game 34: Omaha at UMD

I expect this to be interesting. UNO has little to play for, outside of third place in the league and maybe being a spoiler to UMD's home-ice hopes.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Osterberg - Cameranesi - Crandall (Justin)
Decowski - Herbert - Basaraba
Iafallo - Toninato - Krause
Farley - Tardy - Spurrell

Soucy - Welinski
Johnson - Raskob
Corrin - Molenaar

Crandall (Aaron) - McNeely - Fons

UNO
Guentzel - Zombo - Archibald
Walters - Montpetit - Ortega
Searfoss - Lane - Polk
Youso - Pearce - Simonson

Megna - Seeler
Cooper - O'Rourke
Young - Brady

Massa - Thompson

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Build a Snowman in Rout of Mavericks

Had no idea what to expect this weekend at Amsoil Arena.

Never would have guessed "UMD by six" in the series opener, but that's exactly what we got.

The Bulldogs won going away 8-2, scoring the most goals in a game since November of 2009, when some guy named Justin Fontaine scored four in an 8-1 win over Michigan Tech.

11 UMD players had at least one point, while six had at least two. Kyle Osterberg and Justin Crandall each had three. Tony Cameranesi scored the first two goals inside of the game's first ten minutes. So, yeah, that line was going.

Meanwhile, UNO's stud line of Dominic Zombo, Josh Archibald, and Jake Guentzel were held to a fat goose-egg at even strength. Archibald's only contribution to the scoresheet was a cheap elbow to Cal Decowski's head that got him ejected from the game in the third period.

(To be fair, it looked like goalie Aaron Crandall was cheating toward Archibald, who was at the bottom of the left faceoff circle, when Michael Young snuck a shot by his glove for a second period PPG.)

Zombo scored a power play goal, and Guentzel assisted on both UNO goals, which were both on power plays. The guys responsible, primarily, were Dominic Toninato, Alex Iafallo, and Adam Krause. Toninato won draws all night, and they hounded the puck when they didn't have it, keeping scoring chances to a minimum for the befuddled Mavericks. Safe to say we'll see that matchup again Saturday, with the Zombo line challenged to play better and get Archibald open for some scoring chances.

UMD jumped UNO early, outshooting the visitors 18-5 in the first period. Only having a 2-1 lead could have been discouraging on a different night, but not this one. The Bulldogs kept putting on pressure, and goalie Ryan Massa was simply overwhelmed. Coach Dean Blais pulled Massa after the fifth UMD goal, a laser of a one-timer by Osterberg. Freshman Reed Peters offered little resistance, stopping six of eight shots, and UMD threw in an empty-netter when Blais went without a goalie during a chunk of four-on-four hockey midway through the third.

Osterberg, Cameranesi, and Justin Crandall combined for 14 shots on goal and five goals, with Cameranesi and Crandall getting two apiece.

UNO won't just go away. This team didn't score five or more five times over an 11-game span by accident. The Bulldogs sapped their will on Friday, thanks to physical play, a relentless forecheck, and great puck possession. It won't be this easy again on Saturday. Expect the Mavericks to push back, and the Bulldogs will have to play another smart game, take care of the puck, and hound it when they don't have it.

One negative: I thought UMD's defensive zone play got a little soft for a stretch of the third when it was 5-2. It didn't lead to anything, really, but it's the kind of thing that can burn the Bulldogs against a dangerous offensive team if they keep it up. Just a few lazy passes leading to turnovers. When you win by six, it can be glossed over, but Saturday will not be a six-goal game.

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Plus/minus is dumb when taken in the context of a single game. But this is supposed to be fun, right? So let's have some fun with Friday's numbers.

Carson Soucy and Andy Welinski were each plus-four. Osterberg, Cameranesi, and Justin Crandall were all plus-three. UMD had only three skaters who weren't pluses. UNO had four skaters who weren't minuses. Nick Seeler was minus-five, while Tanner Lane was minus-four.

Among skaters, Soucy now has the team lead at plus-ten, while Osterberg is plus-eight and Crandall plus-seven for the season.

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Elsewhere in the NCHC, results have rendered Saturday a meaningless game for UNO. The Mavericks are 28th in the Pairwise, and one win isn't going to lift them to even bubble team status. North Dakota's 2-0 win over Western Michigan clinched home ice for the Mavericks next weekend. Only question is whether they're seeded third or fourth.

In Grand Forks, Stephane Pattyn and Luke Johnson scored 18 seconds apart late in the second period to lift UND. Zane Gothberg was perfect on 18 shots for his second collegiate shutout and first at The Ralph. With a regulation win, North Dakota is in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the NCHC playoffs and the right to host Miami in a best-of-three next weekend. UND needs to match what SCSU does in Saturday's season finale to hold on to the top seed. Western can no longer get home ice, no matter what happens Saturday.

St. Cloud State's top six forwards were unbelievable in a 7-4 win at Colorado College that kept the Huskies in line to potentially share the Penrose Cup. Joey Benik had two goals and three assists, Jonny Brodzinski picked up a hat trick, Kalle Kossila had four assists, and Jimmy Murray one goal and two assists. T'was more than enough for Ryan Faragher, who stopped 30 of 34.

At Magness Arena, Denver stayed alive for home ice by beating Miami 5-2. Emil Romig, Zac Larraza, Joey LaLeggia, and Nolan Zajac all had one goal and one assist each for Denver. Goalie Sam Brittain made 36 saves. Want a microcosm of Miami's season? Matt Marcinew was ejected for a hit from behind, and Miami had a long power play going into the third period with the score 3-2. The power play lasted all of two minutes before the RedHawks took a bench minor for too many men to negate the power play for two minutes. It's been that kind of year.

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Now, what you all have probably been waiting for.

What has to happen Saturday for UMD to get home ice?

The Bulldogs clinch it themselves with a win in regulation or overtime. That actually would put UMD in third.

UMD also clinches home ice with a shootout win, which would lock the Bulldogs in fourth.

If Omaha wins a shootout, UMD would need Denver to go to a shootout with Miami, at the minimum. If UMD loses a shootout and Denver wins in regulation or overtime, the Bulldogs would finish fifth and hop a bird to Denver next weekend.

If UMD does not gain any points Saturday, it needs Denver to lose -- regulation, overtime, or shootout would work just fine.

Potential opponents are whittled to Western Michigan and Denver. UMD will not travel to Kalamazoo under any circumstances. If the teams meet, it will happen in Duluth. Denver is the only team UMD could play on the road. The Pioneers could also end up in Duluth.

Either way, a lot on the line Saturday night.