Well, it's close enough to midseason. Chris Dilks, a St. Michikato Mancloudgan State fan who also runs a fine blog on college hockey on the left side of the country, has asked some of us who write blogs (and those of us who take a month off from ours) to opine about the team(s) we cover at the near-halfway mark of the season.
As you may recall, Chris helped us out with analysis of Minnesota State. I feel that, as the radio voice of UMD hockey, I should at least try to break down where the Bulldogs are as they turn the calendar to 2006 (only four games left in 2005).
Chris' questions are in bold, followed by my best attempt at an answer. Enjoy.
1. In 50 words or less, give a quick overview of your team's season so far.
I keep seeing UMD listed with eight losses. Strangely, I don't remember four of them. Weird.
Rough start, as 11 freshmen tried to figure it out. They have been improving, and now have given themselves a chance to steal home-ice from a higher-regarded WCHA team with a strong second half.
(Ha! Exactly 50 words. Someone give me a cookie!)
2. What is the general consensus among fans about your team?
Generally, I think the fans are understanding. Howie Hanson, who opined about a "poorly-prepared" team getting embarrassed in the opening weekend against BSU, has strangely not said one word about UMD since. Nor would he appear with me on the radio when I challenged him over his stupid remarks. And that was before I got the play-by-play job. Imagine how he would have reacted if I'd have called him out after getting the job.
Anyway, outside of Howie's run-and-hide mentality, most people around here have been quite understanding of the early struggles. You don't have to remind most Duluth hockey zealots that the team has all these freshmen and has had to deal with the Meyers injury on the backline. They get it. And they're thrilled with what they've seen lately from freshmen like Mason Raymond and Michael Gergen, among others.
3. What does your team need to do better in the second half to improve?
It starts on defense. I really like what I have seen lately from freshmen Jason Garrison, Matt Niskanen, and Adam Davis, all of whom have played well as of late (Davis had, in my opinion, his best game as a Bulldog in the Saturday effort in Mankato, and he was pretty good in Colorado, too). Garrison and Niskanen are going to be stars. Niskanen, selected to the U.S. Junior National Team roster last week, is smooth as silk on both ends of the ice. Garrison's slapshot is going to kill somebody if he isn't careful (that poor Yale goalie still has a headache). And he's getting better on defense, too.
But, as a team, the 'Dogs aren't good enough defensively. The goalies have played pretty well, but they're not good enough to win games on their own. Josh Johnson's Friday effort at CC is one that stands out as a cry for defensive help. He made a number of saves early to keep the team in the game, but there were too many defensive breakdowns to count, and he couldn't keep all his team's mistakes out of the back of the net.
I would also submit that the team has to start games stronger. They were badly outshot early in both games in Mankato, and they got off to a terrifyingly bad start against CC on Friday night. The team started better on Saturday, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. They can't afford to keep with the trend of poor starts, because the margin for error isn't at a point where they can be falling behind all the time.
Also, discipline must improve. Too many dumb penalties. Too many unnecessary penalties. As much as I liked the idea of getting physical with Sterling on Saturday night in Colorado, you have to be careful and be smarter about the timing of said physicality.
4. Who is your team's star player and how has his season been going?
Before the season, I would have said Tim Stapleton was the star player. Buster is still doing well, but he hasn't yet carried this team offensively. For the most part, he hasn't had to. Gergen and Raymond have both been playing well, and Raymond's recent surge (including a five-point weekend at CC) has him leading all WCHA freshmen in point scoring during conference games. His ice vision is incredible, and his scoring touch isn't exactly something to sneeze at. Stapleton has stepped up since the WCHA schedule started up, but right now, Raymond appears to be the best player on the team right now. As he improves throughout the season, the sky is the limit for the youngster, and the Vancouver Canucks will eventually be thrilled with their 2005 second-round pick.
5. Who on your team doesn't receive the credit he deserves?
I'd go for Andrew Carroll, the freshman who has a nose for everything and always seems to be giving a better effort than anyone else on the ice, but I think he's been getting love.
The forgotten man for UMD so far has been Matt McKnight.
McKnight has been centering UMD's top line for much of the league schedule, and he's done well. He's been pretty solid on faceoffs, and his point production has improved by leaps and bounds from his freshman campaign. He plays hard on both ends, and he has shown deft passing ability along with some scoring touch. Not only that, but he's growing into a leader.
6. Who is your favorite player to watch?
Raymond. He's Mr. Excitement. Not to discredit anyone else on the team (as I already said, Carroll is always playing hard and forechecks like a crazy person, Niskanen is fun to watch because of his poise, and Garrison is going to be a great offensive defenseman before he's done), but you know when Raymond is on the ice. And lately, you get the feeling that you're merely seconds away from something good happening when you see #11 out there.
Is it wrong to hope for another NHL lockout so this kid doesn't go anywhere?
(Actually, it is, because the lockout probably wouldn't stop anyone from jumping if the time was right.)
7. Who or what has been the biggest surprise for your team this season?
I would have to say that I'm surprised by how quickly UMD's freshmen have grown up. It's baptism by fire, because there are so many youngsters and so little depth, especially at forward. But it's been fun watching everyone get better, and the improvement has been pretty consistent from week-to-week as of late.
It only makes the team's prospects for the second half of the season more exciting.
8. What is going on with your team's goalie situation?
After a rough start and a lot of uncertainty, both junior Josh Johnson and senior Issac Reichmuth have settled down and played well. To me, it all started with Issac killing off a five-minute power play in the Friday night game at Michigan Tech. The Techies got nine shots on goal during the five minutes, many of them from close range. Reichmuth got on a roll after that, and with the exception of a weekend-long hiccup against North Dakota, he has played very well since that tough start. Johnson sat after a struggle in the Saturday Bemidji game. He got a chance to play against Yale when Reichmuth was among five UMDers suspended for a team rules violation. Johnson played so well in the Friday game against Yale that he started Saturday's game, too. He carried that over to a strong effort in the Friday MSU game in Mankato. Despite allowing seven goals Friday in Colorado Springs, the consensus seemed to be that Johnson played okay, and that the score could have been much worse had Johnson not played well, especially early in the game.
9. Where do you see your team in three months?
Playing the Saturday game in the first round of the WCHA playoffs (March 12 is three months from now).
Seriously, I think UMD has a chance to gain home ice. Before the season started, most "experts" felt that the top five contained Minnesota-Twin Cities, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Denver, and Colorado College, in some order. But I think the overwhelming sentiment around the league was that this group was the top five, and the other teams would be jockeying for position in the second division.
Of the teams in the "bottom half" of the league, I think UMD has established themselves as "Most Likely to Crack the Top 5", which is, of course, significant in that it would earn the Bulldogs home ice in the first round.
It's still going to be tough, with one series left against each of the five aforementioned teams. But UMD has chances to clean up at home against MSU and the Techies in January, and they have done a pretty good job so far against teams they "should be able to beat".
10. Who will you be saddest to see leave at the end of the season?
Not a lot of choices. And the answer is easy.
Tim Stapleton has tremendous speed and skill. He has a coolness about him, both on and off the ice. I like his personality, and I like his game.
With all due love to UMD's other seniors (Issac, Swanson, Williams, and Czech), Stapleton will be the one I miss the most.
11. Who are you most excited about joining your team next season?
Simply to watch my wife's face turn red in anger every time he wanders out of the crease to play the puck. It's going to be worth the price of admission (which is now $0.00 for me, now that I think about it).
12. What has been the highlight of the season so far?
I really hate to pile on, but the three-point weekend against Minnesota-Twin Cities was fun. The way Nick Kemp reacted to his early goal on Saturday against the Gophs was special. You could tell it meant something to him to score against the Gophers. Andrew Carroll got his first goals of his UMD career, too. And he chased UMTC Saturday starter Jeff Frazee. That had to be fun. I know I enjoyed it. Rik did, too.