Yes, Halloween has come and gone, but the terror may very well carry over into another week for the UMD men's hockey team.
This weekend, the unbeaten Bulldogs take their act to Grand Forks, N.D., home of their longtime nemesis, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Ralph Engelstad Arena doesn't feature any funky mirrors, nor are there ghosts (that we know of, anyway) lurking around the corner, waiting to terrify the visitors.
Instead, the Bulldogs simply haven't been very good in the building. Since it opened in October of 2001, UMD is 2-11-2 in games played at Ralph Engelstad Arena. The Ralph has been especially unkind to UMD since their first visit there, which didn't happen until the tail end of the 2002-2003 season. The Bulldogs won and tied on that weekend, and are just 1-11-1 in their last 13 games in Grand Forks.
Not since the Brett Larson-captained 1994-95 team swept a series at the "Old Ralph" has UMD taken four points from the Sioux in a series played in Grand Forks.
By no means would anyone predict that this streak of futility in that facility will end this weekend, but UMD could take some huge steps toward national respect by making the streak end.
Two weeks ago, head coach Scott Sandelin told me he felt the month of games before Thanksgiving would help define the identity of the Bulldog team. So far, UMD has done a good job, dispatching opponents like Alaska-Anchorage and Bemidji State that have given them more than the fair share of trouble.
But North Dakota gives them lots of trouble ... more than anyone.
It's not just the tough goaltending. It's the big, physical defense. It's the relentless forecheck. It's the loads of talent UND possesses. When the Sioux get going, they're hard for anyone to deal with, and UMD is just one of the teams on that list.
Sometimes, they've caught the Sioux at bad times. There have been weekends where UMD just hasn't played well, and they didn't deserve points, no matter the opponent.
In series like this, your best players need to be your best players. It's cliche-ish, but it's true.
For UMD, that means they need more out of Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly, and Justin Fontaine than they've been getting. The top line hasn't been playing badly, but as they see more physical play from opponents, they've been unable to string together the kind of quality shifts they were having earlier in the season. With North Dakota likely to make sure they see plenty of the likes of Chay Genoway this weekend, the FCC line has to work on avoiding regulation against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Heartening for UMD has to be their defensive zone play on Saturday against Bemidji State. If they can improve their hunger around the opposing goal while being as smart as they were for most of the game, things are looking up. It's weird to talk about defensive zone deficiencies on a team that's allowed a whopping 17 goals in eight games, but UMD still struggles to take care of the puck and move it beyond their blue line.
With this being the only series against North Dakota this year, it's very important that UMD find a way to get some points out of it. It doesn't have to be pretty -- in fact, it's highly unlikely that it will be pretty -- but it needs to be an effective 120 minutes of effort and hard work by the visitors.
Do that, and the hex might just get lifted.
If not, UMD is going to wish for the days of the Old Ralph. Again.