Sometimes, it's good to play on the road.
There are fewer distractions for everyone, and it gives players a chance to bond as they travel together.
For the UMD Bulldogs, this is the first time they've experienced a road trip this season. For the last two months, players have been skating at home, either on their own or with the guidance of coaches. They're familiar with the DECC, because that's about all they know as far as hockey environments.
The National Hockey Center is bound to be culture shock for some of them this weekend. Its huge ice surface means plenty of room for the skill players, and it's tougher to rub people off the puck. Because skating is at such a premium, head coach Scott Sandelin took his players to UMD's on-campus rink this week for two days of workouts. It was a way of helping prepare the legs for what lies ahead.
There is much debate about the potential effects of such a move, because while you're better preparing players for the physical demands of the big rink, you're also taking them away from what is comfortable for them. The daily routine of working at the DECC is broken when the guys have to pack their gear and head up to campus.
Not only that, but UMD has won plenty of big-sheet games over the years without practicing on campus.
It's just that not many of those games have come in St. Cloud.
The Bulldogs are 1-8 in their last nine games at the NHC. Neither UMD's Scott Sandelin nor SCSU's Bob Motzko likely know of a really good reason for this, since UMD seems to dominate games played in Duluth.
"I've given up on trying to figure out WCHA series," Motzko told me in advance of this weekend's two-game set.
It's hard to blame him, really. The Huskies played very well against UMD at home last year, outscoring them 9-3 in a two-game sweep. They played not as well in the two road games against UMD, one of which was played at XCel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Bulldogs won those games by matching 5-1 scores.
"We got clobbered," Motzko said. Yeah, they certainly did do that.
But the favor was returned in January at the NHC. Goaltender Alex Stalock did not play well, as he seemed out of sorts, as if the atmosphere had somehow penetrated his skull. The Bulldogs were not strong defensively, and it didn't seem as if they were moving their feet very well anywhere on the ice.
This team is hopefully going to play well, off those lessons learned. The big sheet requires you to skate, and you can't afford to take a shift off. The Huskies have too many highly-skilled players who can burn you if you aren't careful.
Last weekend, the Bulldogs were impressive on Friday in a 5-2 win over Minnesota State, then not as solid in Saturday's win. Those kinds of nights can test the character of a team. UMD fell behind 2-0, looked out of sorts, and generally weren't doing much right. A power play late in the first period started to get things going for the Bulldogs, who cashed in to make it a 2-1 game before intermission.
Eventually, Minnesota State was done in by the things that do them in so often: dumb penalties, bad penalty killing, and inconsistent offensive zone effort.
Don't get me wrong, the Mavericks played very well Saturday, especially compared to Friday. They took the play to UMD big-time in the first period, but it seemed they tailed off a bit once UMD tied the game. Not sure if that was a fatigue issue, or if it was an "Oh, crap, we're in trouble, even after basically dominating the first" issue.
This weekend, however, will be nothing like last weekend, or next weekend. That's just how it works in the WCHA. The Bulldogs have to bring "it" Friday and Saturday, or there's a good chance they'll make their way back up Highway 23 Saturday with the same number of points as they got last time they were in St. Cloud (0).
The last time UMD won a regular-season game at the National Hockey Center, it was Evan Schwabe, Marco Peluso, and Nick Anderson scoring third-period goals in a 3-1 triumph. Steve Czech assisted on all three goals.
Yes, really. It's been that long.
It's a streak that needs to end. This team is due, and they have the speed across all four lines to make it happen. Guys like Jack Connolly, Justin Fontaine, Mike Connolly, Rob Bordson, Keegan Flaherty, Jake Hendrickson, and Kyle Schmidt can freaking fly, and UMD has an impressive group of skating defensemen like Dylan Olsen, Mike Montgomery, and Wade Bergman, all of whom could very well see ice time this weekend.
Hopefully, the Bulldogs are able to bring some points home with them this weekend. Trust me, they'll make room on the bus for all four if they can pull it off.