Friday, October 15, 2010

The Importance of Non-Conference Wins

Last year, UMD missed the NCAA Tournament by one win.

It could have been in January, when the Bulldogs traveled to Vermont and fell to the hosts 5-2 in the Catamount Cup championship game. Vermont ended up barely making the NCAA Tournament.

It could have been in March, when UMD fell to Alaska-Anchorage 3-2 on a late goal by longtime UAA pest Kevin Clark.

You might argue it happened in late January, when Bemidji State swept UMD, including a game at the DECC where the Beavers scored at the horn in regulation to tie it, and then won it in overtime.

Perhaps that moment could have been in February, as UMD went to Houghton for Winter Carnival and lost the Friday game.

If any of those results are different, the Bulldogs go dancing.

Instead, they're left with a lesson learned.

Don't take non-conference games lightly.

Last weekend, UMD went 1-0-1 in Upper Michigan. That's no big deal. Yes, it sucks to tie a team you think isn't going to be very good. In the end, though, that game isn't going to cause any notable damage to UMD's NCAA hopes in March. Not only that, but the win over Northern Michigan could be huge, because the Wildcats play Denver, Bemidji State, and Michigan Tech later this season. Those are comparisons that could flip in UMD's favor -- in part -- because of Saturday's result.

It's a problem in NCAA hockey, but it is what it is. Non-conference games are severely overvalued, because the system rewards teams for performing well in comparisons against everyone else. Those comparisons are often so volatile that they can be flipped based on one common opponent result. Since UMD doesn't play many teams from out east, games like the ones they're going to play Friday and Saturday against Providence take on added importance.

The system works because it's simple math. It doesn't work for a number of other reasons that are usually difficult to articulate, and that's probably better left for a different day.

As the Bulldogs prepare, they have a largely healthy team. They also have a lot of competition for playing time, especially on defense. This is the last weekend of non-conference games until January, so expect to see a few different guys in the lineup this weekend.

Up front, the drive for secondary scoring continues. Providence is a tough defensive team, so expect them to try to clamp down and try to regulate the FCC line. While Justin Fontaine, Jack Connolly, and Mike Connolly all scored Friday at Lake Superior State, it could be argued the most significant thing they did happened on Saturday at Northern Michigan.

After Jack won the opening faceoff, the Bulldogs got the puck into the offensive zone almost immediately. For 39 seconds, the three cycled the puck and generated a couple decent chances. Then they drew a penalty on the Wildcats, which Dylan Olsen turned into the game's first goal with a booming slapper from the center blue line.

The FCC line didn't figure into the actual scoring, but they were a big reason for the goal happening to begin with. It set the tone for Saturday's 3-2 win.

"We said 'If we win the draw, get it up to the winger, try to get it deep, and pursue pressure,'" Fontaine said. He says he thinks it really did set the tone for a smart defensive game by UMD.

He's right.

Now, the Bulldogs have to carry over that mentality. They were nowhere near a 60-minute effort on Friday, and much closer to it on Saturday, save for a 90-second lapse that produced both NMU goals. It was a good first weekend. Something to build on.

It's time to do that building. The Bulldogs need a sweep this weekend. It could be potentially huge for Pairwise reasons down the road.

That sounds stupid, really, because there are so many more significant games UMD will play this season. But these games matter because the system says they do. It's not a perfect system, but it won't change before March. You either adapt to it, or it runs you over.

No comments: