Thursday, November 05, 2009

Back at the Scene of the Crime

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- I hate to say it that way, but it's probably how Colorado College views it.

Last year, UMD went 3-0-1 in the Colorado Springs World Arena. After a 1-1 tie in the opener of a two-game series last December, the Bulldogs ripped off three straight, outscoring the Tigers 14-6 over that stretch.

Included was a two-game sweep in the first round of the WCHA playoffs March 13-14. It was a series that catapulted UMD on a run to the NCAA quarterfinals, and it was a series that ended Colorado College's once-promising season. The team virtually everyone picked to win the WCHA ended the season tied for third, seeded fourth in the playoffs, and they were quickly ousted in the first round.

With no chance to make the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers were left to watch the Bulldogs go on their magical run.

Now, UMD is back in Colorado Springs, greeted by virtually clear skies and temperatures in the 70s. Go ahead and be jealous.

The Bulldogs struggled the last time they played on Olympic ice, taking just one of four points in St. Cloud two weekends ago.

However, the World Arena tends to be much kinder to UMD than the National Hockey Center. Last year is certainly a prime example, as is four years ago, when UMD rallied from a 7-2 blitzkrieg on Friday to win Saturday's game 4-3 behind the exploits of Mason Raymond and Michael Gergen, along with approximately 433 saves from Isaac Reichmuth.

Head coach Scott Sandelin is preaching discipline. The Bulldogs are the most-penalized team in the WCHA (second nationally to Ferris State) at nearly 23 minutes per game. As we like to talk about on the air, you can yell all you want about the inconsistency in officiating that we've seen so far, but the bottom line is that teams deserve the vast majority of penalties that are called against them. Not only that, but in virtually every case, a player has put himself in a bad position when he takes a penalty, even if the call isn't warranted.

These are the things that UMD has to curb, somehow, because the Tiger power play will singe them if given too many chances.

Colorado College is hitting on the power play at an absolutely sick 32.7 percent. Yes, it's early, but it should be more than enough for UMD to take notice. The Bulldogs have been pretty good on the kill so far, but they'll be seriously tested on the big sheet against a formidable opponent.

As CC head coach Scott Owens noted this week, the Tigers have two units that are performing well with the man advantage. However, its guys like Bill Sweatt, Tyler Johnson, and freshman Rylan Schwartz that draw most of the attention. Sweatt is thriving as a senior leader, and Johnson -- a former Cloquet/Esko/Carlton Lumberjack star -- is enjoying the start of what could be a breakout season for him, as he's scored five goals and has totaled eight points in six games.

This is a clash of top offenses. Seven of the league's top 15 point producers will be on the ice Friday night. UMD boasts sophomore Jack Connolly (first with 14 points), junior Justin Fontaine (second with 12), junior Rob Bordson (third with 11), and sophomore Mike Connolly (tied for 12th with seven). Colorado College has Sweatt (tied for fourth with ten), Johnson (tied for eighth), and Schwartz (tied for 12th) all on that list.

If that's not enough, both teams have gotten nice contributions from inexperienced goalies out of the chute. UMD's Brady Hjelle (2.79 goals against, .913 saves) and Kenny Reiter (1.73, .929) are both available this weekend, while CC goes with freshman Joe Howe (4-0-1, 2.17, .935).

Two years ago, the Tigers had great success with a freshman netminder, as Richard Bachman took home a ton of WCHA honors while leading the Tigers to the league regular-season title. Along the way, Bachman shut the Bulldogs out three times in four starts.

Let's hope that doesn't repeat!

UMD will be tested on the big sheet, thanks to the Tigers' speed and their ability to use the extra space. Expect UMD to work hard defending the middle of the rink, taking away the Tigers' grade-A chances. From there, it's up to a team that isn't used to extra space to find a way to use it.

Guys like Connolly, Connolly, Bordson, and Fontaine can move, and they have to get out in space and make plays with their speed. In St. Cloud, the line of Drew Akins, Kyle Schmidt, and Keegan Flaherty was UMD's best, and there is good reason for that. Schmidt and Flaherty can fly, and Akins isn't exactly gliding around with lead in his skates, either.

Defensively, UMD brought seven players on this trip, and it is highly possibly that all seven will get a chance to play. A healthy Dylan Olsen could be a huge factor with his skating ability, and it's nice to know that Scott Kishel is again available to play.

The bottom line is that UMD is getting more consistent. It was hard to judge the Bulldogs' play five-on-five against Clarkson because there were so many penalties, but it's clear that UMD can grind out victories even when things aren't going smoothly. Now, it's time to play 120 consistent, high-quality minutes, while showing they can handle the rigors of the big sheet and the altitude (though the altitude issue tends to be overstated by most).

I'll be back with lines before Friday's series opener.

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