I feel like I practically live here.
Five times in less than four seasons, UMD has made the trip to Denver. Usually, it goes pretty well for them, with last year's playoff series a notable exception.
This series ought to be thoroughly interesting. Denver, with guys like Tyler Bozak, Tyler Ruegsegger, Rhett Rakhshani, Patrick Mullen, Luke Salazar, and so on, has the top offense in the WCHA.
UMD, thanks in large part to the play of guys like MacGregor Sharp, Justin Fontaine, and the unrelated Connolly brothers (Mike and Jack), is right behind Denver on the scoring ledger.
And this might actually be an okay time to get Denver on the schedule. The Pioneers are coming off two non-wins (a home tie and a road loss) against rival Colorado College. In those games, Richard Bachman stood on his head while carrying the Tigers on his back. He stopped 84 of 88 shots, including some amazing saves during Denver's power plays.
(Denver's power play is sick. I'll get to that in a moment.)
Anyway, the Pioneers have "only" netted ten goals in their last four games (1-2-1). It hasn't stopped guys like me and UMD coach Scott Sandelin from drooling over Denver's offensive talents. We know this is a deep and highly-skilled team. We're not stupid (especially true of Sandelin).
But there might be a hole. Perhaps that confidence can be shaken a tad. Maybe it already is. Bachman did a number on this team last weekend. Alex Stalock is no slouch.
Offensively, even though there is a mini-slump going on and UMD has been playing pretty well, Denver gets a slight edge. They're able to roll three really good lines and play a fourth that will make some plays and create problems. UMD can roll their four lines, but I don't know that they are quite as explosive as Denver. Consistent? So far. But not as explosive.
Denver has more power play depth, too. I can't believe they're only hitting at 15 percent so far. Watching them click against Colorado College, I'm convinced that they're a good bounce away from catching fire. Let that happen some other time. UMD's on-again, off-again penalty kill was on again last weekend and has to stay that way.
Keys to UMD success start with solid puck possession. The Bulldogs' defensive corps has been better than expected so far. A lot of that credit goes to improvements by returnees Josh Meyers, Evan Oberg, and Trent Palm, among others, along with sophomore Mike Montgomery, a former forward who has been a real find for UMD on defense. This is an area Stalock can contribute to, but he can't do it all himself. The Bulldogs have to avoid turnovers on their half of the ice. Preferably, if they're giving the puck up, it's deep in the DU zone. Make the Pioneers go 200 feet to score.
Get pucks deep and forecheck the hell out of these guys. Make them be the ones working to get the puck out of their own zone. If you let them dictate the forecheck and pressure your defensemen, you're hanging the goaltender out to dry.
Obviously, goaltending is a huge key. Marc Cheverie's numbers are lukewarm for Denver. He's allowing almost three per game and has a save percentage around .900. Stalock is the statistically superior goalie, and outside of a rather odd two-game stretch where he wasn't seeing the puck that well, he's been really good for UMD this year. Again.
Letdown syndrome is also a key. Denver is coming off an emotional and very disappointing series against CC. The Gold Pan is important in this state, and Denver got off to a bad start. That's after they blew a two-goal lead and lost at home to Ohio State the previous weekend. If UMD can get off to a good start Friday and take advantage of their positive momentum after last week, the Bulldogs could surprise some people out there.
One thing's for certain: I don't believe they're going to surprise themselves if they have success. This a confident group of kids. Let's hope they can get on a roll.