SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. -- Welcome to the 2010-11 hockey season!
When we last left you in March, the UMD Bulldogs were sweating out a weekend in which they had no games to play, and yet had no clue if their season was over.
Sure, it didn't look good mathematically, but there was no need to give up and act like it was over when it might not have been. Once it was actually over, any thought that UMD would lose a lot of players to early departures was quickly set aside.
Yes, Rob Bordson left quickly for the Anaheim Ducks and a free-agent contract. And, yes, goalie Brady Hjelle bolted for the junior ranks and a likely transfer.
But in the end, guys like Mike Montgomery, Justin Fontaine, Brady Lamb, and the Connollies -- all of whom could have found some dollars directed their way under the right circumstances -- all returned to school.
It was a huge win for UMD, and now it's time for the team to reap the benefits.
This year's Bulldogs carry the weight of expectations into their first series this weekend, but it's something they've understood all summer they would be facing.
Now, it's time to start delivering.
I'm a firm believer in the idea that experienced teams -- ones with good senior and junior leadership -- have a great chance to win in NCAA hockey. Everyone has turnover nowadays, and everyone who has a shot at the national title is going to lose a player here and a player there ... sometimes, this will happen when it's not expected.
(To this point, Boston College had a kid quit after the season started last year to go play major junior, and Wisconsin has regularly lost kids early to pro hockey.)
I've already made a case for UMD being a solid No. 2 pick in the WCHA. Instead of repeating that stuff, let's talk instead about what the future holds.
UMD has to show they can score outside of their top line, or that they can score with someone else working with the Connollies on that top line, or that they can score with Jack and Mike not playing on the same line. No matter what, the Bulldogs have to show they can score consistently, something that didn't always happen in the second half last year.
On defense, there's talent, experience, youth, and plenty of depth. A lot of this battle will be mental and involve egos. Can the Ten Angry Men come together and support each other, while working hard in practice and trying to earn playing time? I believe in the leadership of this group, both in terms of the coaches and senior captain Montgomery. Four of these guys are likely to be in the stands for every home game (assuming UMD doesn't dress seven defensemen at any point), so it could be quite a test of players' patience ... something that isn't always very high in college hockey anymore.
In goal, Kenny Reiter is "The Man" now, but don't discount Aaron Crandall here. The coaches have been glowing in their praise of Crandall, who is a redshirt freshman. After a rough go in the USHL, Crandall has done nothing but work his tail off as a Bulldog. That said, this is Reiter's job, and he's earned that perch after his performance in the Final Five loss to North Dakota.
The opponents this weekend -- Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan -- come out of the CCHA. LSSU is a one-time national power who has fallen on hard times as of late. The Lakers haven't posted a winning season since 2006-07, and they haven't made the NCAA Tournament since Jeff Jackson was wandering around the bench in 1996. LSSU is picked ninth in the CCHA preseason polls, but they have a lot of experience back, and it would surprise me if Jim Roque's team didn't make a run at a winning season this year, along with a higher finish in the league standings.
NMU made the NCAAs last year, but lost a heartbreaker in double-overtime to St. Cloud State in the first round. The Wildcats then lost top players Mark Olver and Erik Gustafsson to pro hockey. It's going to be hard for them to stay in the upper half of the CCHA, but they do have some talent.
None of that matters, really. For UMD, this is a great chance to see what they have. Everyone went on the trip, and only senior forward Cody Danberg is known to be unavailable (he's out until around Christmas, it sounds like). There probably wasn't a lot of prep done for the specific opponents. Instead, UMD is focused on UMD.
The games are important, though. The Bulldogs' mediocre 4-4 mark in non-conference games last year cost them an NCAA bid, with losses to Bemidji State (two) and Vermont being the most damaging. There is no reason to think that the same won't happen again in March if the Bulldogs don't take care of these games.
I'm not saying league play isn't important, but remember that Denver finished second in the league standings in 2006, only to have their NCAA hopes sunk by a poor non-conference record. If the second-place team in the nation's best league can miss the tournament because of a bad non-league mark, anyone can.
Don't be that guy.