BURLINGTON, Vt. -- When the UMD Bulldogs hit the ice at Gutterson Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon, it will mark the start of a pivotal stretch of games.
January is a huge month for UMD. That's not to pooh-pooh February, March, or (hopefully) April. It's to speak the truth. The other months could end up mattering less, depending on what the Bulldogs do this month.
Why is it so important? UMD plays every weekend in January, starting Saturday. In that ten-game run, the Bulldogs will see two WCHA rivals (Colorado College, Wisconsin) they are going to battle for position with for most of the stretch run. Another (Minnesota State) has played very well as of late, as they look to set themselves up for a surge.
The other four games are non-conference games, and they're important in their own way. With the use of the Pairwise system to set up the NCAA Tournament field, non-conference games are a tad overvalued. That means that games with Mercyhurst, Vermont/UAH, and Bemidji State are extremely key for the Bulldogs' NCAA hopes.
Mercyhurst -- Saturday's opponent here in Burlington -- is unbeaten in their last eight, and they're tied for first place with Air Force in Atlantic Hockey. While they're nowhere near the Pairwise rankings at this point, they will be in those ratings automatically if they win their league tournament (this would be true of any automatic qualifier not already in the Pairwise).
The same is true of Vermont and Alabama-Huntsville, the combatants in Saturday's nightcap in this tournament. No matter who UMD plays, wins are essential because of the nature of non-conference games.
When the Bulldogs face Bemidji State in a home-and-home Jan. 22 and 23, you can add another factor to the Pairwise-related importance. The Beavers have played (and split with) Minnesota, and they've played (and been swept by) Minnesota State. The common opponent factor is part of the Pairwise, so UMD needs to play well in this series.
As for this weekend, let's hope the offense is as hot as it was when we left it. When we last spoke about Bulldog hockey, UMD was in the process of carving up Denver's vaunted defense, and making Marc Cheverie look like a sieve when we all know he's not.
The three-goal third period that snapped a 3-3 tie in that Dec. 12 game might have been UMD's best of the season. They had jump, won battles, and got pucks to the net. Kyle Schmidt's winning goal was a bit of a lucky bounce off Cheverie, but the other two -- by Jack Connolly and Rob Bordson -- were things of beauty.
Reality is that while UMD's defense continues to grow and mature, the offense is carrying the team. They can score with virtually anyone in the country, and they're starting to get serious contributions from their secondary players. That takes pressure off Bordson, Justin Fontaine, and the Connollies (Jack and Mike). The more free they are to make things happen without being smothered by opponents' shutdown units, the better off UMD will be.
The key this weekend will be to continue making the defense better. Don't give up grade-A scoring chances, and don't let them make you look silly. UMD likely didn't watch a ton of tape on these teams, as they're more focused on their own game at this point. As with any good team, the feeling is that if they play well and work hard, good things will happen.
However, they also have to be aware. Letting teams you expect to beat hang around is a good way to find yourself in an undesirable third-place game.