It's always fun to travel with the team that I cover. I only get to do this three or four times a year, so I relish the opportunity.
Just being around the guys gives me a certain insight into the way these guys get along together. And this group is very close. The freshmen seem to have acclimated themselves quite well, and it's a very likable bunch.
It also gives me an extra day to think about the games. This can be good and bad, as witnessed by my "basket case" behavior before Game Three against Denver in March 2006. That was a tough day, being that we flew in here Wednesday night that week. I had Thursday to myself, and then Saturday's game was ripe with controversy. To make it all worse, we knew Minnesota was getting socked with a snowstorm that Monday, so traveling back was going to be a bear.
So we're here in Denver. It's nice out, maybe a bit too nice, considering that November starts in a week. The line of the day came from a UMD player when we got off the bus at Magness Arena earlier today.
"Why did we go to Tallahassee?"
Just think. These people got four inches of snow on Sunday. And now it's - um, let me check - 75. Yes. 75. And we're here for a hockey series. Isn't that odd?
(No odder than those games we had in Florida in December 2005. Except that it was Florida, and I can see snowcapped mountains from my hotel room window here.)
This series should be about goaltending. This isn't to disrespect talented forwards like Tyler Ruegsegger, Rhett Rhakshani, Brock Trotter, MacGregor Sharp, Nick Kemp, or anyone else.
But UMD's Alex Stalock has a .941 save percentage so far. Peter Mannino of Denver is at .935.
If they keep playing at that level, this series will be about goaltending.
Stalock is off to a great start. I don't necessarily buy into this "He's not moving as much, and it's helped his game" thing. He's still moving around quite a bit, ranging right and left to play loose pucks and try to knock pucks away from charging opponents. What's noticeable, however, are two key factors. For one, Stalock is doing a better job choosing when to wander and when to stay put. I'm not sure there's an exact science involved here. Putting it as simply as I can, it's about making sure he has a place to go with the puck if he decides to go after it, and it's about making sure he's not putting himself in peril by trying to play a puck in traffic, where one bounce can lead to disaster if he doesn't get back to the net.
I also think he has a better rapport with his defensemen this year. That helps. They know him better, and they're aware of situations where he will go after the puck. You can't put a price on the chemistry that is only brought on with experience. For many of these UMD defensemen, this is the first time they've ever played with a goalie like Stalock. Sure, all goalies wander, but Stalock's skating and passing ability are rather unique among goaltenders.
Of course, his puck-stopping ability is also pretty good, as Ryan Lasch learned last Saturday.
(Yes, I know I covered some of this on Sunday. It bears repeating.)
The defense will be tested by Denver's speed. Their top two lines are full of quick guys, and the rink is a tad bigger than the DECC. It's not wider than the DECC, so it shouldn't be a terribly big deal for UMD. But it is worth mentioning, after four straight home games. We're seeing a balanced group of defensemen for UMD, with all six guys getting regular playing time, and they all have important assets.
Jason Garrison is a very physical player who also has a wicked shot. Josh Meyers is probably the best offensive defenseman on the team (though Garrison's start this year indicates he will rival Meyers in this department), and he's much improved defensively. The pairing of Travis Gawryletz and freshman Evan Oberg has been rock-solid so far. Coach Scott Sandelin can also get a good pairing out of Jay Cascalenda, Trent Palm, and Chase Ryan. Cascalenda has super speed, which will render him quite the asset on the big ice. Palm's offensive game looks to be coming around to match his already-strong defense. Ryan is a tough soul who doesn't appear as advanced offensively. He was the "seventh" defenseman last weekend in the St. Cloud series, meaning he did not play.
As for Denver, George Gwozdecky welcomes 14 freshmen this year. It's a huge class, and it provides DU with some depth as well as some fresh talent. With losses like Paul Stastny and Ryan Dingle the last two years, they need all the depth they can find.
Tyler Bozak, Jesse Martin, Anthony Maiani, Chris Nutini, and Kyle Ostrow have all found the scoresheet so far, and that would be five more freshmen than UMD has had on the scoreboard (none of the five freshmen who have played for UMD have scored). If there's an advantage for UMD, it's the depth and experience of the Bulldogs.
However, Denver is still strong defensively, and Mannino makes up for anything they may be missing on defense. The senior has national championships to his credit already, and he's off to a good start this year in his quest for another one. He is capable of carrying the Pioneers to wins, even in a tough WCHA.
For Denver to get back to the NCAA Tournament, they're going to have to score more goals. But it's hard to nitpick a 3-1 start, and it's hard to nitpick Mannino's save percentage.
We don't know yet how good St. Cloud State is, so the overall quality of UMD's sweep last weekend can be argued, but a sweep is a sweep.
Speaking of sweeps, did you realize that Denver was the only WCHA team that failed to sweep a league series at home last year? I find that incredibly odd.
I don't think they'll sweep this weekend, either. This series has "low scoring split" written all over it. I don't know how to say it any other way.
Predicted UMD lines for Friday
Carroll - Sharp - McKnight
Fontaine - Fulton - Kemp
Greer - Akins - Curry
Danberg - Bordson - Schmidt
Garrison - Meyers
Cascalenda - Palm
Oberg - Gawryletz
Stalock - Ziegelmann
(No, I don't know anything for sure. Don't ask.)