What's most encouraging about this group? There are a few things.
The work ethic. Last year, there were times that UMD was outworked. It didn't happen as often in the second half of the season, when UMD put together a run of over-.500 play and surpassed their win and WCHA point totals from the year before. However, the Bulldogs aren't getting outworked right now. They've brought the proverbial lunch bucket to every game so far, and the results have shown themselves. UMD has deserved this 3-0-1 start by not only being better than their opponents, but working harder.
Scoring from everyone. The freshmen haven't gotten in on the action yet, but they will if they keep playing well. Justin Fontaine almost broke through with an assist last night, but his pass was just out of the reach of Nick Kemp. Outside of that, the team is balanced with their offense. The top line of MacGregor Sharp, Matt McKnight, and Andrew Carroll wasn't as active on the scoreboard against St. Cloud State (though Carroll did net the empty-netter Saturday), but that was okay. Second-liners Michael Gergen and Nick Kemp scored Friday night, and the third line of Matt Greer, Drew Akins, and Mike Curry contributed two goals and six points on Saturday. They were on the ice for defenseman Jason Garrison's game-winning goal. Garrison and fellow junior Josh Meyers have paced the scoring on defense, with Meyers already up to four points. The scoring balance is going to be an ongoing storyline for the Bulldogs this year if they are to sustain this early success.
Defense and goaltending. It's good to see that last year's defensive improvements weren't just a flash in the pan. This team can play defense. Just ask St. Cloud State (7 shots in two periods Friday, then 12 in the first two on Saturday). Or ask Northern Michigan (5 shots in the third period last Saturday). They're making Alex Stalock's job a bit easier, and the sophomore is doing the rest, including a picturesque larceny on Ryan Lasch late in a one-goal game Saturday. Stalock looks comfortable in net, and it's perhaps more important to note that the UMD defense looks more comfortable with Stalock's wandering ways. One of the keys to success with a goalie who likes to skate and play the puck is for defensemen not to get too complacent. Just because the goalie can play the puck doesn't mean that he will. Sometimes, the other team will employ a strategy to limit that. It's nice to see UMD defensemen working with what appears to be an improved rapport with Stalock and his somewhat unorthodox style.
Taking care of home ice. After an impressive stretch of home-ice play late last year, the 3-0-1 start is very encouraging. UMD is now 9-2-2 in their last 13 home games going back to the start of the second half last year. This has to continue, and UMD has to show continued improvement on the road this weekend. It's a good place to try to do that, since UMD has had good fortune in Denver lately.
They beat a Minnesota team. UMD played ten games against Minnesota schools in the regular season last year. They lost all of them, some of them in gutwrenching fashion (Teddy Bear Toss, anyone?). They beat St. Cloud State once in the playoffs and finished 1-12 against Minnesota teams. This year, I'll take the 2-0 start. Forget the DQ Cup, though that's nice. This is all about beating up the in-state teams.
It's the start of a very busy week here. We travel to Denver this weekend, and Thursday is our flight out. I'll be blogging from Denver Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and I'll be back with more stuff on the World Series, the NFL, and college hockey this week. I might not be able to attend the World Series games in Denver, but I'm guessing it will be pretty cool to visit a town buzzing for baseball. Of course, it'll be weird to be attending a noteworthy sporting event in Denver that will be completely ignored by the media there, but it'll still be a cool experience. Also promising:
THURSDAY AND THURSDAY NIGHT...MOSTLY CLEAR. HIGHS IN THE LOWER 70S. LOWS IN THE MID 30S.
FRIDAY AND FRIDAY NIGHT...PARTLY CLOUDY. HIGHS IN THE LOWER 60S. LOWS IN THE MID 30S.
SATURDAY...MOSTLY SUNNY. HIGHS AROUND 60.