Friday, December 11, 2009

Denver Presents New Challenge

16 games down in the 2009-2010 season, there are a few certainties with the UMD men's hockey team.
  • They can score goals like crazy. UMD has four of the top point producers in the country interspersed over their top two lines.
  • They have character. UMD doesn't fear a deficit, and they do not quit.
  • There are still some questions about their ability to play 60 minutes.
  • I love this team.
It's no longer about, "Boy, if they can play like that again next weekend, they might have a chance."

UMD has officially crossed into dangerous territory. Expectations.

Instead of hoping for a split last weekend, fans wanted more. They were disappointed with the second-period lapse that likely cost them Friday's game, and they weren't happy with the overall effort through two lackadaisical periods on Saturday, at which point UND led 2-0.

There is something about this team. They just keep plugging away. Starting with around 7:00 to play in the second period Saturday, the tide changed. They were stringing good shifts together. They started hitting people. They were moving their feet.

When Kyle Schmidt buried a rebound at 1:15 of the third period, the comeback was on. UMD outplayed North Dakota in every facet of the game over the final 27:00 or so of regulation, and they deserved what they got with :34 to play. That was when Travis Oleksuk found the puck at the side of the net and tucked it around the goalpost for the game-tying goal.

We all know what happened from there.

The split was an important one for UMD. They stayed above the home-ice line. They are now more than halfway to the typical number of points (28) that it takes to earn home ice.

Now comes a bigger test.

As good as North Dakota is -- and they're good -- Denver is better at this point. They're deeper and faster up front, and they're better in goal. Guys like Drew Shore and Shawn Ostrow give the Pioneers depth along all four lines, something they haven't been known for in the past. Meanwhile, the main cogs (Rhett Rakhshani, Tyler Ruegsegger, Jesse Martin, Joe Colborne) are still scoring, too.

Defensively, they're good with the puck, and they push the tempo. Patrick Wiercioch might be the best defenseman in the league, especially with Chay Genoway hurt. Now you can throw top-notch youngsters William Wrenn and Matt Donovan in the mix, too.

Of course, if you get through all that, you have Marc Cheverie in goal.

In reality, the Pioneers are a great opponent for UMD. This should be a great weekend of hockey. You'll see some hitting, plenty of skating, some high-tempo hockey, and goaltending. The Bulldogs have to bring their best effort for 120 minutes, because Denver is too good to let up against.

For UMD to get points this weekend would be huge. It would be a boost for the team's profile, and it would send an emphatic message to the league that this team is for real.

Of course, we already know that.

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