Monday, January 31, 2011

Premature Tweet-ulation

There were reports that Packer Clay Matthews had won Defensive Player of the Year.

Those reports were apparently erroneous, as Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu won it, instead.

I suppose you're expecting a post full of bitterness about the tease of Matthews winning, only to have Polamalu, who plays for the Packers' Super Bowl opponent.

Not only am I not bitter about the early reports, but it doesn't bother me at all that a guy who is probably not even the best defensive player on his own team won the league-wide award.

The problem with awards like this is that there really isn't any set criteria. It's a major issue if it's decided that these awards really matter.

If you think they do, you should want some sort of criteria in place, so the voters don't have to base their decisions on things like "They lost to the Jets when he was hurt."

Of course, that's a more well-informed decision than "The other guy is buddies with Brian Cushing, and look what happened to him."

No, I don't know that it was a factor. But I know that a lot of the AP voters felt Cushing was undeserving of the Defensive Rookie of the Year award after they found out he was caught using a banned substance during the season in which he won.

And I know Matthews and Cushing aren't exactly strangers.

I also know that dumber theories have worked their way into votes like this in the past, so it wouldn't surprise me one bit.

In the end, it's pretty funny that some tweeted the wrong result to the voting. Given how close it was, I wonder if some sort of exit polling was the reason for the incorrect information getting out there. If so, it's very refreshing to see that major news networks aren't the only ones who can screw up exit polling.

Let's face it, that's how Polamalu won.

(Oh, and how can you not love that hair?)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Chay Genoway Injured for Sioux

With UMD having the weekend off, attention turned to other college hockey Friday night.

Got to watch a stirring battle between Notre Dame and Miami on CBS College Sports. That led into a newsworthy North Dakota-Colorado College game.

Unfortunately for North Dakota fans, it wasn't newsworthy for any good reason. Instead, it was newsworthy because one of college hockey's best players and ambassadors was injured, and it didn't look good.

North Dakota captain Chay Genoway went down in the second period in Colorado Springs, had to be helped off the ice, and did not return to the game.

Afterward, UND coach Dave Hakstol provided a say-nothing update on his best player.

“I don’t know what it is,” Hakstol told the Grand Forks Herald. “Obviously, everybody saw him go off the ice and what it appeared to be, but I don’t know.”

(Not blaming Hakstol for a vanilla answer here. For starters, they probably don't know anything for certain, because I don't believe they have a full compliment of medical equipment at the World Arena. And even if they did know, it's best to not say anything until you have a chance to prepare yourself for questions. Hakstol didn't have that opportunity, being that he had just been coaching his team in a game.)

I don't want to say that Hakstol's comment confirms my pessimistic suspicion, but it doesn't make me feel any better about what I saw.

What I saw was this:

Early in the second period, Genoway was behind the UND net playing the puck when he was checked by Colorado College's Tyler Johnson. The hit was clean, as Johnson simply rubbed Genoway into the boards. It wasn't a vicious hit, a hit to the head, or a hit from behind. It wasn't interference, boarding, charging, high-sticking, contact to the head, or anything else against the rules. It was a perfectly clean and legal hit.

However, when Genoway fell to the ice, his left leg appeared to get caught under him. It was hard to tell if this was because he caught a rut in the ice, or because his leg was up against the boards and couldn't move. When Genoway hit the ice, he didn't look like he hit his head, unlike what the commentators on television speculated.

On the replay, the camera went as close to Genoway's face as it could, and it told a grim story. It's said that athletes often know what's wrong when they get hurt, even before they're fully examined. If Genoway's face was any indicator, he knew, and it's not good.

North Dakota played like they were shell-shocked for most of the second period, as a 2-0 hole turned into 4-0. Jason Gregoire tried to bring them back, scoring twice in the third, including a three-on-five goal that was a thing of beauty.

(It was one of the best three-on-five kills I've seen in a long time. North Dakota flat out-worked Colorado College for almost two minutes, and had this sequence happened in the second period, it could have been a major turning point in a Sioux comeback. It was a clinic in how to disrupt the predictable passing sequences that plague so many five-on-threes. Unfortunately for them, they didn't leave themselves enough time, and Mario Lamoureux ruined much of it by taking a major penalty.)

Genoway has been ruled out for Saturday's rematch. If that's the worst that happens, the Sioux should consider themselves fortunate. A long-term absence could be disastrous for a team that -- while it's deep on defense -- doesn't have a ton of game-breakers like Genoway. Any college team that loses a valuable player like Genoway is going to be hurting, no matter their overall depth.


UMD is off, as they prepare to host Minnesota next weekend at Amsoil Arena. With any luck, the Bulldogs will have senior Kyle Schmidt back in the lineup on Friday. He's resumed skating, and his recovery from a broken hand is on schedule.

If he is able to return, the dilemma becomes where to put him in the lineup. The line of Justin Fontaine, Travis Oleksuk, and J.T. Brown accounted for ten points and a plus-11 in the series at Michigan Tech. You're not breaking them up at this point.

Putting Schmidt on a line with Dan DeLisle and Keegan Flaherty, and moving Mike Seidel with Jake Hendrickson and Joe Basaraba, could be the least "disruptive" move available. I don't know that we'll see Schmidt paired with the Connollys, even though his speed and nose around the net add an interesting dynamic to that group. David Grun has played well there, and having the space afforded to you by Mike and Jack on your line seems to have allowed Grun to showcase playmaking ability that so few people probably knew existed. His setup for Jack Connolly's first goal in the Friday game at Tech was a thing of beauty, and he had a couple other great passes for scoring chances in that series.


Michigan Tech is now winless in 21 after a 4-2 loss to Wisconsin. At least they scored, ending their goalless drought at 228:08 on an Alex MacLeod goal 41 seconds into Friday's second period.

Minnesota won again, beating road-weary Alaska-Anchorage 5-1. The Seawolves played at Denver last weekend, got swept, and then traveled to the Twin Cities instead of going home. They do this at least once per season, but it still has to really suck.

St. Cloud State's winning streak ended at six, but they're now unbeaten in seven after a 3-3 tie against Minnesota State. Since sweeping Minnesota in December, the Mavericks have played seven WCHA games. They've been decided -- in order -- by one, two, zero, one, one, one, and zero goals. The Mavericks have a record of 0-5-2 in that span. I'm just sayin'.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Let's Just Use the Homeless to Get Ratings, Instead of Actually Helping Them

You probably all know me well enough by now. If there is going to be a non-sports rant on this blog, there's a pretty good chance it will spawn off a Daily Show or Colbert Report bit.

Jon Stewart, take it away.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indianapolis Homeless Talent Show
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

Words cannot describe this.

I mean, what kind of news director decides to do a story like this? Why?

Frankly, it's something I'd expect to see in a small market, where a news director and reporter at least have the excuse of "I'm trying to make a name for myself in a tough business."

This is freaking Indianapolis. Not a small market in any way.

It's every bit as exploitative and stupid as you think it is. Not only that, but it manages to confirm most stereotypes you hear about today's news media.

Yeah, we have freedom of the press in this country. That doesn't mean the press has a right to do stories like this, instead of chasing real news that actually matters to people.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Matt Niskanen Wins Fight

After his previous misadventures with Cory Stillman, Sidney Crosby, and Shane Hnidy, former Bulldog Matt Niskanen wasn't exactly labeled as a fighter.

Wednesday night, he took a significant step toward changing that perception.

After missing a few games with a nasty cut on his left hand, Niskanen returned to the Stars lineup for their final game before the All-Star Break, at home against a pesky Edmonton outfit.

Early in the game, Krys Barch of the Stars got in a fight with Edmonton's Jim Vandermeer. Barch got knocked to the ice during the fight and bounced back to his skates quickly, only to have the linesmen step in. He wasn't happy about it, but the fight was over.

14 seconds later, Niskanen set out for revenge, as he dropped the gloves with Oiler center Colin Fraser, a member of last year's Cup-winning team in Chicago.

Let's go to the videotape.

Decisive win for the former UMD and Virginia/MIB star. Decisive.

Gotta love Fox Sports Southwest's Darryl Reaugh with the one-liners like "Down goes Fraser!," and "He grew the goatee back. He looks angrier." That's why he's one of the best.

They always say you remember your first NHL goal. I wonder if getting a win in an NHL fight for the first time is just as memorable.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

J.T. Brown Snags WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Honor

After an eight-game scoreless drought, UMD freshman forward J.T. Brown broke out in a big way over the weekend in Houghton.

Brown scored the opening goal and added two assists on Friday night, then scored the weekend's final goal and assisted on another in Saturday's win. The five-point weekend earned Brown WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Here is the information from the league.

University of Minnesota Duluth right winger J.T. Brown, who led all conference players with five scoring points and factored in on both game-winning goals in two conference road victories at Michigan Tech last weekend, has been named the Red Baron® WCHA Offensive Player of the Week for Jan. 25, 2011.

A 5-10, 178-pound freshman from Burnsville, Minn., Brown figured in on five of UMD's eight goals during its Jan. 21-22 sweep of the Huskies in Houghton, Mich. He scored the game-winning goal and assisted on two other goals last Friday in a 5-0 victory, with his deciding goal 4:07 into the second period snapping an eight-game pointless skid. He then helped set up the Bulldogs' first goal in the rematch last Saturday, drawing an assist on Jack Connolly's winner, then capped off the 3-0 triumph by tallying late in the third period. In addition to his five scoring points in the series, Brown also earned a +5 plus/minus rating and fired five shots on goal.

Through 25 games this season, Brown ranks fourth among WCHA newcomers in points overall with 21 (7g, 14a). He was also honored back on Oct. 19 as the league's rookie of the week for his efforts vs Providence.

UMD is off this weekend, before hosting Minnesota Feb. 4-5 at Amsoil Arena.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Alex Stalock Gets the Call


After toiling in Worcester of the AHL for more than season and a half, former UMD Bulldog Alex Stalock has been called up to the NHL.

Here is the release from the San Jose Sharks, who announced the move officially on Tuesday.

San Jose Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson announced today that the club has recalled goaltender Alex Stalock from the Worcester Sharks, the team’s top development affiliate.

Stalock, 23, has posted a 17-17-4 record with a 2.65 goals against average and a .907 save percentage with Worcester this season.  In 2009-10, Stalock set an AHL rookie record by recording 39 wins, played in the 2010 AHL All-Star Game and was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team.

The 6-foot, 185-pound native of St. Paul, Minnesota was selected by San Jose in the fourth round (112th overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

In a related move, the Sharks reassigned goaltender J.P. Anderson to Mississauga (OHL).  Anderson dressed in one game on Jan. 22 vs. Minnesota, but did not appear in the contest.

Stalock should be in Los Angeles Wednesday for the Sharks' final game before the All-Star break. What happens after the break is up to the lower body of goalie Antero Niittymaki, who was hurt last Thursday.

Ted Thompson May Not Want Spotlight, But He's Earned It Anyway

Ted Thompson has made one thing abundantly clear as general manager of the Green Bay Packers.

He wants nothing to do with the spotlight.

Some GMs don't mind the face time. They built the team, after all, and they like the idea of other people giving them credit for that.

Thompson isn't like that. Instead of inviting the spotlight, he does everything he can to avoid it. He doesn't give a lot of press conferences. He isn't running up and down the sideline like a crazy person at the end of games.

When the George Halas Trophy -- which was much nicer-looking before the NFL "modernized" the thing -- was handed out in the Packers' locker room Sunday, Thompson wasn't there to grab it, do an interview, or take the attention away from the people who earned it.

He might be largely responsible for many of the players who were in front of the camera Sunday, but he's still content to let them get the credit for what has happened in Green Bay.

Even if much of it should go to him.

"He's the leader of our football operations," head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. "He's why this team is in the shape that it's in and why the future looks so bright."

Look at this list:

Nick Barnett
Morgan Burnett
Brandon Chillar
Jermichael Finley
Ryan Grant
Brad JonesDerrick Martin
Mike Neal
Brady Poppinga
Anthony Smith
Mark Tauscher

Those are all players who either could have or actually did start games for the Packers in 2010 before going on injured reserve. In the case of Martin and Smith, they were expected to be contributors more on special teams, but they were still contributors, and with how the injury bug hit this team, they were both on track to get significant time at safety.

This team was ravaged by injuries, and they lost key players.

So what did Thompson do?

Instead of panicking and making a big-splash trade -- which would have been completely contradictory to his personality and management style -- Thompson stuck to his guns. He tried to fill from within, and when he rant out of bodies, he started looking toward undrafted players.

Unwanted players.

He found guys like Frank Zombo, Sam Shields, James Starks, Howard Green, Erik Walden, Tim Masthay, and Robert Francois, either late in the 2010 draft, after the 2010 draft (in free agency), off the street during the 2010 season, or off waivers.

They've all become big parts of this team, with Shields becoming the nickel back the team was searching for when they realized Al Harris wouldn't be ready right away. Zombo might not be much of a run-stopper at linebacker, but he can rush the passer. Walden had two sacks during the Week 17 win over the Bears.

Green is a huge cog in the defensive line rotation.

I'm not sure there are the proper superlatives for what Masthay has done. Outside of honking that punt right to DeSean Jackson in the Wild Card Game, I'm not sure he's done anything remotely close to "bad" since about the first week of October. He's been outstanding, including with how his alternating pooch punts and freaking bombs were able to keep the Bears behind the eight-ball in terms of field position.

The mantra going into the week was "Don't kick to Devin Hester."

The Packers kicked to Devin Hester, and they covered the hell out of those kicks. Hester didn't come close to making a big play.

The job Thompson has done here is nothing short of remarkable. From a standpoint of fan perception -- admittedly not a big subject for Thompson -- he's probably earned a few accolades.

Hopefully, given the things many were saying about him after Favreapalooza 2008, he's earned a few apologies, too.

When asked about that decision Monday, McCarthy was as open as you could expect him to be.

"Well, I think that's the big part of our business," he said. "We have a plan. Unfortunately, for the media, we don't have … it’s probably not in the best interest for us to put every decision, every conversation out there in the public, and I understand how passionate our fan base is.

"So at that particular situation, there was a lot that was out in the public. But I think it truly shows the strength of Ted to stick to his guns, stay the course. We stayed with the plan. We made the decision based on what we felt was the best interests of the Green Bay Packers, and we never budged off of it. It wasn't popular, and it wasn't fun at times, but we felt it was the right decision. And I think why we're standing here today talking about it proves it was the right decision."

Like I said on Twitter Sunday, now that the Packers have gotten back to the Super Bowl, and Favre missed out after coming so close twice in three years, does that mean Thompson can finally be considered the winner of that trade?

After all, he was able to show who runs the Green Bay Packers, and he then spent the rest of his time quietly proving why he was the chosen one.

As Super Bowl XLV approaches, hopefully Packer fans don't forget how they got there. It wasn't easy, but Thompson devised his plan, stuck to it, and now the fans are going to reap the benefits.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Game 25: UMD at Michigan Tech

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- Time to see if UMD can avoid being the one Michigan Tech ends their seemingly endless winless streak against.

It's also a chance to finish off a critical season sweep to avoid potential RPI damage down the road.



Connolly (Mike) - Connolly (Jack) - Grun
Fontaine - Oleksuk - Brown
Tardy - Hendrickson - Basaraba
DeLisle - Flaherty - Seidel

Faulk - Montgomery
Bergman - Lamb
Olson - Palm

Crandall - Reiter

Furne - Olson - Johnstone
Gubb - McCadden - MacLeod
Royer - Holmberg - Rix
Doriott - Witt - Reddick

Brown - Seigo
Cousens - Sova
Stebner - Heinonen

Robinson - Genoe - Cramer

Saturday WCHA Notes and Thoughts: Omaha-North Dakota is Must-See TV

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- Friday night didn't include many surprises in the WCHA. The surprise we saw was a biggie.

While UMD and Denver took care of business in their league games, North Dakota got thrashed around the waves at Ralph Englestad Arena.

Doing the thrashing? Dean Blais and his Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks.

UNO scored on their first five power plays, threw in a first-period shortie, and ended up with an 8-4 victory that lacked a lot of drama.

The Sioux tried to rally in the third period, cutting a 7-1 deficit down to 7-4, but Blais called a timeout, and Joey Martin iced the game for the Mavs.

It was a game that saw the same kind of rash of penalties that overcame UMD last Saturday at Amsoil Arena against Wisconsin.

One of the referees that night? Brad Shepherd.

One of the referees Friday in Grand Forks? Brad Shepherd.

Hmm ... Smiley

Anyway, UND was uncharacteristically bitten by penalties, calls that captain Chay Genoway wouldn't put on the officials. Since I'm in Houghton, I won't see the game until Sunday, so I can't help you on the particulars.

For now, I'll leave you with a few thoughts.
  • As good as Blais is, the Sioux are going to be ready for Game 2. The Mavericks may benefit, because UND came out on fire in the third period, cutting a six-goal hole in half, so they probably won't be overcome by the North Dakota effort Saturday. They should be ready for what they're going to see.
  • This is must-see TV. A win puts UNO on the map, so to speak, more than anything else they could do in their first regular season of WCHA membership. Meanwhile, North Dakota is almost expected to come out and stomp the visitors, a very difficult expectation to meet when playing such a strong team.
  • Someone here in Houghton noted Friday that if it were okay to gamble on college hockey, a large amount of coin would be placed on North Dakota in this game. The reaction was favorable, and I still tend to agree with this. However, I do believe that the third period effort by UND gives UNO a bit of an advantage. They saw the Sioux bring it, and they know how it works. Blais will turn that around to help his team in this game.
  • Did I mention this is must-see TV?

UMD did exactly what they needed to do. They got their legs and kept Michigan Tech off the board in the first, then jumped on the home team in the second, and were not threatened after that.

It wasn't pretty in the first, as Tech played their game very well, keeping the quality chances away from goalie Kevin Genoe. It was almost a rope-a-dope strategy, with the hopes UMD would get frustrated or otherwise knocked off their game.

It didn't work.

Like they did in earlier series against Providence, Alaska-Anchorage, and Michigan Tech, UMD kept to their game, didn't waver from the game plan, and eventually overwhelmed their opponent. They did it with some great passing, hard work along the boards, and the underrated ability of guys like Justin Fontaine and Jack Connolly to get open when everyone should be watching them.

By my count, Tech had all of five shot attempts in the prime areas around the front of the UMD net. On those five attempts, Kenny Reiter had to make all of one save. If you're someone who wants Michigan Tech to end their 19-game winless streak on Saturday, this is the first and most important thing that has to change. If the Huskies can't or won't get to the front of the net, they won't score.

When killing penalties, UMD did a good job of keeping everything on the perimeter and blocking shots before Reiter had to stop them. All in all, he probably played more pucks outside of the crease than he did inside. It's a recipe for UMD success, for sure.

You might argue here that Tech is hardly an opponent for UMD to play against and end up looking good, but considering their past history with the Huskies, a season sweep is a huge accomplishment. It's also a message to the rest of the college hockey world that this speedy, skilled UMD team can play the hard-nosed, grind-it-out style of hockey and be just as successful in that style.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Game 24: UMD at Michigan Tech

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- Gotta love the MacInnes Student Ice Arena press box, with the bowl of sinful chocolate goodness waiting for you.



Connolly (Mike) - Connolly (Jack) - Grun
Fontaine - Oleksuk - Brown
Tardy - Hendrickson - Basaraba
DeLisle - Flaherty - Seidel

Faulk - Montgomery
Bergman - Lamb
Olson - Palm

Reiter - Crandall

Furne - Olson - Johnstone
Gubb - McCadden - MacLeod
Royer - Witt - Lickteig
Doriott - Holmberg - Rix

Brown - Seigo
Cousens - Heinonen
Stebner - Sova

Genoe - Robinson - Cramer

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Antero Niittymaki on Injured Reserve; Stalock Time?

The San Jose Sharks have placed goalie Antero Niittymaki on injured reserve.

Word is that he was injured (lower body, no specifics in yet) during Thursday's morning skate in Vancouver, where the Sharks played the Canucks on Thursday.

The Sharks didn't have time to bring anyone up from the minors or sign a free agent, so they plucked a goalie in from the University of British Columbia on an amateur tryout.

A player on injured reserve has to sit out at least seven days, so San Jose has to find another goalie to at least back up Antti Niemi while Niittymaki is out.

Could this be former UMD Bulldog star Alex Stalock's shot?

Stalock is the No. 1 goalie at AHL Worcester, and he has yet to see any time in the NHL. He set the rookie record for wins by a goalie last year, and he has been playing well after a relatively slow start to this season.

Certainly, Bulldog fans are rooting for this outcome. We'll keep you posted.

NOTE: The Sharks told FanHouse colleague A.J. Perez that they wouldn't make a decision until Friday morning at the earliest. The team's next game is Saturday night at home against Minnesota.

Bulldogs Aim to Take Care of Business

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- There are pluses to a trip like this.

Houghton isn't a terrible place at all. There are some really nice people in this town, including many of the folks we'll run into at the rink Friday and Saturday.

But for UMD, this has been a house of horrors.

Under Jamie Russell, Michigan Tech is 49-142-28 against WCHA teams. They are 9-16-5 against UMD.

In Houghton, the Bulldogs have had their share of struggles. Last year, they lost on Friday and had to rally from 2-0 down to win Saturday against a team that won just three games all year that weren't against UMD. In 2008-09, a six-win Tech team stole points in each series at the DECC, getting a Saturday tie each time.

UMD has not swept a two-game series in Houghton since Oct. 15-16, 2004, when they won 5-4 and 6-3. That's a long time ago, especially when you consider that Michigan Tech is UMD's "protected" rival in the WCHA, so they will play four against each other every year while the schedule rotates other teams on and off the "home and away series" list.

There is no real rational explanation for the troubles. Tech was 4-12 at home last year. Their only road win of the season was against UMD. They are 1-5-3 at home this year, with the win coming Oct. 15 against Minnesota State.

That's also the last time the Huskies won a game. They're 0-16-2 since.

Beset by injuries, Russell was left to recruit a player off campus recently. They got junior co-captain Brett Olson -- a Superior native -- back, but he's not going to solve it all by himself, no matter how well he plays.

You want to know what the problem is right now? Check these stats out.

UMD's 12 juniors and seniors have combined for 55 goals and 139 points this season, which accounts for 69 percent of UMD's goals and 64 percent of their points.

Michigan Tech has ten juniors and seniors (Eric Kattelus is no longer on the team, so only nine of them are active). They have a total of 17 goals and 45 points among them, accounting for 31 percent of each. The Huskies have 29 goals and 69 points out of their freshmen, which is more than half their goal total and nearly half the points.

That bodes well for Tech's future, because it's obvious Russell has found some young players who can go. But it doesn't help them much now, especially when valuable guys like Milos Gordic are hurt.

For the fifth-ranked team in the country, the mantra is a simple one. Take care of business.

No one wants Tech's program and fans to continue to suffer. On the other hand, UMD can't afford for them to start getting well this weekend. Not only is there a league title on the line, but the February loss here last year is one of four or five that many have pegged as being severely detrimental to UMD's NCAA chances last year.

In the end, you never know for sure what losses will hurt you. But when you play a last-place team, and you have a weekend off after it, there's no reason not to take care of the business in front of you.

In fact, UMD likely can't afford not to.


--> Injured senior forward Kyle Schmidt has played ten games against Michigan Tech in his UMD career. He has no points. Schmidt has six goals in his career against Colorado College, and six points against North Dakota.

--> Schmidt, by the way, is still hoping to make his return against Minnesota Feb. 4-5 at Amsoil Arena. His recovery is on schedule as of this week.

--> With only 12 forwards healthy now that senior Cody Danberg has decided to take a redshirt year, UMD brought two defensemen on the trip as extras: Chad Huttel and Scott Kishel. Kishel and Trent Palm both were listed as wingers on the line chart for the series at Clarkson, but Kishel's forward shifts were extremely limited when Drew Olson got sick after arriving at the rink that night. Palm spent significant practice time last year skating as a forward while taking a medical redshirt year of his own, because it allowed UMD to balance out their forward lines and defensive pairings (they had 14 forwards and nine defensemen on the roster).

--> Since Danberg is redshirting, freshman defenseman Luke McManus is expected to redshirt at this point, Schmidt is injured, and freshman goalie Christian Gaffy not expected to play this season, that means there are no healthy and available UMD players who were left at home this weekend. That's certainly not what was expected to happen when UMD started the season with a healthy 27-man roster.

Pairwise Changes Come a Year Late

HOUGHTON, Mich. -- Last March, UMD players and fans were left in limbo, waiting to learn their team's ultimate fate after their run at the WCHA Final Five ended with a 2-0 loss to North Dakota.

The news wouldn't be good, as the Bulldogs were bumped from the field by a series of unfortunate events in other conference tournaments.

Turns out that they were victims of a flawed system that wasn't addressed until this year.

We knew the system was flawed. Nothing is perfect, after all, and the Pairwise has holes in it big enough to drive a bus through. One of those holes was the idea that the only teams that should be rated are the top 25 of the RPI, or Ratings Percentage Index. That arbitrary line was the subject of much debate, and it led to a term called the "TUC Cliff," meant to describe the last couple spots in the Pairwise, which changed constantly as teams at the bottom won and lost.

The number (25) was odd, because the idea of the "Teams Under Consideration" being that big for a 16-team field that included six (now five) automatic bids was a bit crazy. While that term doesn't really fit many of the teams, the change the NCAA Championship Committee made this week makes perfect sense, and it moves us away from that arbitrary number.

Beginning in 2011, the Pairwise will include any team with an RPI of .500 or better. While you could argue that this is also arbitrary and non-sensical (why the hell should Michigan State's ability to maintain a .500 RPI have any impact on who makes the NCAAs?), it's not nearly as bad as what we had before.

Why not? Because you're no longer deciding that 25 teams -- and only 25 teams, dammit -- are good enough to be in the ratings. Instead, a perfectly reasonable line has been drawn (.500 RPI) that a decent, mediocre, good, or great team can meet, but a truly bad team can't.

Teams like Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State, and Michigan State haven't had enough success to make the NCAAs without winning their league tournaments, but they have picked off some good teams this season. It makes sense that the ability of the teams above them to win games against these types of opponents would matter when it comes selection time. It should matter.

Not only that, but the Pairwise won't be as volatile with this new provision. Yes, you'll see fluctuation in the rankings. It might go from 34 teams to 38 to 33 to 30 in a short time. But once we get closer to the big day, that number won't move as much, and the teams that are on the bubble won't have to lament a series sweep over a team that finished up at No. 26, or a loss to a team that finished No. 24 in the Pairwise.

Simply put, the TUC cliff that everyone hated is gone.

Now, about that silly "TUC" moniker.

Yes, it's stupid for anyone to think that a team rated No. 33 in the Pairwise is "under consideration" for the NCAA Tournament. It's dumb. Makes no sense.

But it's just a term. It's not like the selection committee is going to sit and debate the merits of St. Cloud State's candidacy, wasting everyone's time when we all know they're not getting in.

Arguing over the term is just a waste of time.

Instead, let's look at the merits of what the committee has done here. They fixed an issue with their system.

Granted, it was a year late.

Last year, with this system in place, UMD unquestionably would have made the NCAAs. In fact, they would have been a No. 3 regional seed, with no need for hand-wringing as we headed into the selections. It's an unfortunate reality, but perhaps UMD's plight helped urge the committee to make this switch for 2011.

Of course, the Bulldogs are out to make the PWR a non-factor in 2011. Stay tuned on that.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hockey Day America Activities Set

More than a decade ago, CBC spawned a superb day of programming called Hockey Day in Canada.

As the Canadian network embarks on the 11th annual Hockey Day in Canada, the celebrations of this great sport have expanded.

Fox Sports North launched Hockey Day Minnesota in 2008. The now-annual tradition includes televised outdoor high-school games, a Gopher game, and a Wild game.

(As for the other Division I schools in Minnesota, well, pfft.)

This year, the geniuses at FSN scheduled their event for the same day as Hockey Day in Canada, Feb. 12.

Eight days later, NBC will, for the first time, make Hockey Day in America a nationally-televised event. As part of a press release touting a McDonalds sponsorship, the NHL detailed that day, which is scheduled for Feb. 20.

Here is the scoop.

The NHL and NBC Sports will celebrate America’s passion for hockey with the inaugural Hockey Day in America presented by McDonald’s on Sunday, February 20.

With six hours of coverage (Noon-6 p.m. ET) – which will include four NHL games – hosted from Millennium Park’s outdoor ice rink in Chicago, NBC Sports will tell the stories that demonstrate this country’s affinity for hockey – from hockey parents who chauffeur pee wees to practice before sunrise to the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minnesota, played by amateurs amidst arctic temperatures, to ‘celebrity’ hockey played by actors and producers in Los Angeles to inner-city hockey in Washington, D.C. that has made a difference in the lives of countless children and young adults.

NBC Sports will broadcast four NHL games featuring eight teams from some of the most avid U.S. hockey markets. The first three games will be broadcast regionally with staggered starts. All viewers will begin the day with the same game before some viewers are taken to their regional game. The staggered starts allow for live look-ins of the other regionalized games during intermissions. The fourth game, Pittsburgh at Chicago, will be broadcast nationally. All games will be streamed live on

“Hockey Day in America” is part of “Hockey Weekend Across America.” Launched by USA Hockey in 2008, “Hockey Weekend Across America” is a nationwide initiative to celebrate the game and those involved at all levels and to expose hockey to new audiences.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Game 23: Wisconsin at UMD

Great win on Friday, and a superb opportunity for UMD in this game.

A win gives them a season sweep of the Badgers, and there's no way Wisconsin can tie the season series (a UW win Saturday, and they would draw the season series even by sweeping a WCHA playoff series ... hey, there'd still be a chance).


Connolly (Mike) - Connolly (Jack) - Grun
Fontaine - Oleksuk - Brown
DeLisle - Flaherty - Seidel
Tardy - Hendrickson - Basaraba

Faulk - Montgomery
Bergman - Lamb
Olson - Palm

Reiter - Crandall - Gaffy

Murray - Smith - Zengerle
Mersch - Turnbull - Barnes
Little (Ryan) - Dolan - Johnson (Patrick)
Lee - Dahl - Little (Sean)

Gardiner - Schultz
Johnson (Craig) - Ramage
Simonelli - Springer

Gudmandson - Bennett

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts

UMD picked up a huge 2-0 win over Wisconsin Friday night. Power-play goals by Justin Fontaine and Mike Connolly were more than enough to support junior goalie Kenny Reiter's 22-save shutout. With the win and North Dakota's loss to Minnesota (woo!), the Bulldogs moved back into a first-place tie in the WCHA standings.

At this point, North Dakota owns the tiebreaker over UMD because they have one more league win (the teams split their series 1-1, and the Amsoil Arena opener didn't count in the league standings), but UMD is in front of UND in the updated Pairwise rankings.

Those have the Bulldogs at No. 3, behind Yale and Boston College, both of which were idle Friday night. North Dakota slipped to No. 4, one spot ahead of Denver. Two other WCHA teams -- Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin -- are in the top ten.

Of question in Friday's UMD win was the 12 minutes of penalties Fontaine had to serve after being called for shooting after the whistle. It's the second time UMD has seen the crew of Brad Shepherd and C.J. Beaurline call Fontaine for shooting after the whistle, with the first being at North Dakota in the Friday game. That was a more controversial call, as it appeared most of the players on the ice were unaware that there was a whistle. In this case, the whistle from linesman Dan Dineen was loud and clear, and Fontaine's shot was high and hard at Wisconsin goalie Scott Gudmandson.

On that particular penalty, the officials have no discretion. Rule 6, Section 46 calls for an automatic minor penalty and misconduct for shooting after the whistle. The referee's only discretion on that play is to potentially add a game misconduct or disqualification if the violation is deemed serious enough. The misconduct is automatic.

People were asking me after the game why that play happens so often (late shots) without a penalty being called. This is exactly why. Referees don't have any discretion to only send a player into the box for two minutes, and unless it's a really late shot, there's just no reason to stick a player in the sin bin for 12 minutes.

Obviously, Shepherd and Beaurline feel differently, and that's fine. Late shots (especially when they're high like Fontaine's was) need to be stopped, and they won't be stopped if referees don't penalize them.

In Grand Forks, Brad's brother, Derek, was working with Marco Hunt, and the WCHA's top officiating crew had to deal with a skirmish between the Gophers and Fighting Sioux at the end of the second period.

Brad Malone's hit on Kevin Wehrs started all the tension, even though things didn't boil over until a minute or so after the hit.

Let's talk briefly about the hit.

Wehrs was struggling with the puck, and Malone popped him, shoulder to shoulder. It's not a head shot. It's not an elbow.

Was it boarding?

A player shall not body check, cross-check, elbow, charge or trip an opponent from the front or side in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently into the boards

By letter of the law, there's simply the question of whether Wehrs was "thrown violently into the boards."

Tough call, but given some of the things I've seen over the years, I have a hard time labeling this as either a dirty hit or an obvious penalty. It's neither of those things.

Of course, given Malone's reputation among some who follow this league, it's probably the worst thing ever done on a sheet of ice.

What was odd about the whole thing was that North Dakota got a power play out of an incident that one of their guys instigated. It was very similar in that way to what happened in the Tuesday game at Clarkson, where a UMD player was checked from behind along the bench, and Clarkson ended up with a power play out of the deal, even though the major penalty was called.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Game 22: Wisconsin at UMD

Should be a lot of fun here this weekend. Drive safely if you're going out for this game, because it's greasy out there.



Connolly (Mike) - Connolly (Jack) - Grun
Fontaine - Oleksuk - Brown
DeLisle - Flaherty - Seidel
Tardy - Hendrickson - Basaraba

Faulk - Montgomery
Bergman - Lamb
Olson - Palm

Reiter - Crandall - Gaffy

Murray - Smith - Zengerle
Mersch - Turnbull - Barnes
Little - Dolan - Johnson (Patrick)
Lee - Dahl - Faust

Gardiner - Schultz
Johnson (Craig) - Ramage
Simonelli - Springer

Gudmandson - Bennett

Back in the Saddle

True, Friday's and Saturday's games against Wisconsin mark the first WCHA points that will be earned at Amsoil Arena.

More than that, though, the games get UMD back in the grind of the tough league schedule, as the second half of the season begins.

Between now and March 5, UMD will finish up the league slate with 14 games, eight of which will take place at Amsoil Arena. It's a favorable schedule for UMD in terms of home/away, especially when you consider that Michigan Tech and Minnesota State aren't traditionally intimidating road trips, even if they are tough places for UMD to get wins.

(Don't sleep on Tech, which gets Brett Olson back for their weekend set against St. Lawrence.)

The Bulldogs need to keep winning games. More than that, the ability to win season series from league rivals is very important when it comes time for Pairwise comparisons. The Bulldogs have 2-0 advantages over Wisconsin, Michigan Tech, and Alaska-Anchorage already, but have work to do against Minnesota (0-1-1). They haven't played St. Cloud State (home Feb. 11-12), Minnesota State (away Feb. 18-19), Colorado College (away Feb. 25-26), or Nebraska-Omaha (home March 4-5) yet. Among them, it appears CC and UNO are the best bets to be among the top 25 of the RPI by season's end, but MSU could be a darkhorse player in the "Who makes the NCAAs?" race, because they blew through non-conference play without a loss, picking up key wins over Notre Dame and Brown in the Shillelagh Tournament.

(Brown isn't good, but that could be a big win for MSU in the Pairwise.)

Wisconsin has plenty of firepower up front, thanks to guys like Craig Smith and Mark Zengerle, but they're also well-stocked on the blue line, with two of the better offensive defensemen in the league in Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz. Their ability to put the puck in the net is not something you see often in blue-line teammates, and they're a challenge for the Bulldogs, who can't afford to sit back and give them space.

UMD has shown the ability at times to play a more passive game. I thought they gave Minnesota too much room and respect in their Friday loss there, something the Gophers were able to take advantage of. On the other hand, they've also shown the willingness to get in opponents' faces and play that highly-competitive style. If they lean that way this weekend, they'll do well at home.

Wisconsin goalies Scott Gudmandson and Brett Bennett didn't do that great against UMD in November, but Gudmandson has really emerged as the top guy since then. The senior has ten wins and an impressive .933 save percentage. UMD has experienced some adventures in goal, and one of them was Kenny Reiter's Friday start in Madison, where he was pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots.

Goaltending and special teams matter this time of year, and UMD seems to have secured one of the three major phases. The penalty kill has been very sharp as of late, improving to 83 percent on the season over an even 100 opponent power plays. Their improvement there has bumped them to fifth in the WCHA, their highest ranking of the season. Much of that work has been without key players. Wade Bergman missed the Minnesota series. Kyle Schmidt has missed the last three games. Cody Danberg hasn't played this season, and won't now that he is officially taking a medical redshirt. If Reiter and Aaron Crandall keep playing well in goal, that takes care of the second phase, and all the Bulldogs have to do is get the power play going again.

Expect to see David Grun on the top power play unit this weekend, with Justin Fontaine working a point with Justin Faulk on the other point. Grun will have the Connollys (Jack and Mike) joining him down low. Travis Oleksuk will center the second power play unit, with Trent Palm and Brady Lamb on the points.

It's a bit of a change, but a good idea, because it might jumpstart a struggling facet of UMD's game, and it gives opponents some different combinations and ideas to think about.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Packers Need to Sharpen Up to Beat Falcons

NFL Network is a grand thing. As if the "Top Ten" shows, follies shows, and other magnificent NFL Films productions weren't enough, the network has been re-airing regular-season games that are being revisited in the playoffs.

One of those is the Week 12 game between Green Bay and Atlanta. In re-watching that game, a few things stood out. For the Packers to pull the upset Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, many of those things will have to change.

(Note: I'm a Packer fan. Don't look here for intricate analysis of what the Falcons have to do to win, because I'm not giving you that. I don't want the Falcons to win.)

That game ended 20-17 in Atlanta's favor after Matt "Matty Ice" Ryan ably and bravely drove the Falcons about 20 yards into field goal range following a long kickoff return and a stupid facemask penalty on the Packers. The game was tied on an Aaron Rodgers dart to Jordy Nelson along the left sideline about six yards deep in the end zone. That fourth-down play was made by Rodgers, who had no one initially, and scrambled to his left to buy time. He then zipped a pass to Nelson and couldn't have thrown it any better.

However, the Packers were beaten by inconsistent execution in all phases, as they were in many of their five other losses this season.

They couldn't run the ball at all in this game, and it hurt them in goal-line and short-yardage situations. Eventually, coach Mike McCarthy just gave up on the run, and that left Rodgers to make plays with his feet and arm, sometimes when those types of plays weren't there to be made.

This makes James Starks a big player in Saturday's game. His ability to run against the Philly front seven Sunday made a huge difference in Green Bay's ability to win the game, even if he was held out of the end zone. It'll be even bigger Saturday, because Rodgers -- despite the nearly-complete lack of a running game -- was able to keep Green Bay in the Week 12 tilt. If he has more help, it greatly benefits McCarthy's play-calling acumen and the Packers offense in general.

Over the course of the season, receivers James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, and Greg Jennings were all guilty of critical drops. Jones' drop in Sunday's game -- a sure touchdown and a 21-3 halftime lead if he catches it -- probably made the difference between the Packers winning going away and having to hold on for dear life. Rodgers has missed a few big plays, and in general, this offense has left way too many points on the field for anyone's liking.

McCarthy gets too conservative at times, not giving his offense a chance to really clamp down and take control of a game. At the same time, his conservatism helped a great deal on Sunday. Between his insistence on calling run plays late and Dom Capers' ability to keep the Eagles from making a big play for a touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter, they held Philly at bay, and made it so the last drive didn't come with too much time on the clock. Instead, the Eagles had to burn their timeouts and run their hurry-up offense on the last series, which contributed to the game-clinching interception by Tramon Williams.

So there's good and bad there, but speaking generally, it would be nice if McCarthy would put his foot on the gas and go for the throat more often when the opponent is reeling. It would also be nice if players like Jones would execute when given the opportunity. That blame goes both ways, as you can see.

On defense, the tackling in Atlanta was as bad as it's been all season. So was the pass rush. Ryan was protected very well, and the quarterback missed only four times all afternoon. Smart money is on Capers finding a way to get heat on him, and if that doesn't work, they'll mix up coverages enough that Ryan will miss many more than just those four passes this week. Capers might not be long for Green Bay, but the Packers and their fans should consider themselves fortunate as long as he is around. Not many guys in the league know how to run a defense better than he does, and his game-planning has been nothing short of brilliant at times this year ... along with it being rarely subpar.

Michael Turner might not have the speed of a gazelle, but he will burn this defense if they don't get in the holes and make good hits on him. Atlanta won't give up on running the ball unless the score or game situation dictate it must, so expect a steady diet of Turner Saturday night.

Atlanta is a rock-solid team. They're not flashy in any area. The Falcons just make first downs, move the chains, get the occasional big play, and play very good defense. This team is easy to pick against because it doesn't have any overwhelming strengths, but at the same time, you're hard-pressed to find serious weaknesses.

That means it's a dangerous team to pick -- and play -- against. The Falcons won't beat themselves, and they're playing a team that has done just that more than once this season.

Green Bay is capable of executing at Atlanta's level, but there can be no letdown in that execution if the Packers are to move into the NFC Championship.

UMD Football Notes

We noted earlier this week that UMD coach Bob Nielson was named the Liberty Mutual Division II Coach of the Year.

That's not the end when it comes to honoring the UMD football team, or its insanely-accomplished head coach.

Nielson was named Tuesday as the American Football Coaches Association Division II Coach of the Year. Nielson is now 79-21 at UMD, including an astonishing 41-2 over the last three years, in which UMD has won two Division II titles (2008, 2010).

The Bulldogs have won four NSIC titles and made the NCAA playoffs four times under Nielson's leadership.

Also, the school announced that there will be a celebration of the team's latest national championship coming up on campus. The celebration will include player and staff introductions, as well as the playing of a highlight video. It's all set for Jan. 20 at 7 p.m., and will take place at Romano Gym on the UMD campus.

It's free and open to the public.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2010-11 Midseason WCHA Honors

Every year, I submit a pre-season and post-season ballot. The pre-season ballot calls for prognostication and guesswork. The post-season ballot is for the All-WCHA Teams, as well as major individual awards. I am one of a few dozen people given the honor of helping to make these selections.

Though we don't have any organized mid-season awards, I tend to enjoy taking some time to organize some thoughts at the halfway point of the season.

Obviously, all of this is subject to change in early March, but here's a look at how my ballot would look if the season ended today. With 12 teams now in the league, the play on the ice might be tougher, but selections like this definitely are!

Mike Connolly, UMD
Jack Connolly, UMD
Matt Frattin, North Dakota
Justin Schultz, Wisconsin
Chay Genoway, North Dakota
Aaron Dell, North Dakota
Justin Fontaine, UMD
Craig Smith, Wisconsin
Drew Shore, Denver
Jake Gardiner, Wisconsin
Justin Faulk, UMD
Sam Brittain, Denver
Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College
Matt Ambroz, Nebraska-Omaha
Kurt Davis, Minnesota State
Matt Donovan, Denver
John Faulkner, Nebraska-Omaha

Apologies to ...
Corban Knight, North Dakota; Drew LeBlanc, St. Cloud State; Joey Martin, Nebraska-Omaha; Rylan Schwartz, Colorado College
Gabe Guentzel, Colorado College; David Makowski, Denver; Ben Youds, Minnesota State
Dan Bakala, Bemidji State; Scott Gudmandson, Wisconsin

Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College
Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
Jason Zucker, Denver
Justin Faulk, UMD
David Makowski, Denver
Sam Brittain, Denver

Mike Connolly, F, UMD
Jaden Schwartz, F, Colorado College
Aaron Dell, G, North Dakota

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bob Nielson Named Coach of the Year

Outside of being a snazzy dresser, a class act, and a heck of a busy guy, UMD football coach and athletic director Bob Nielson is also the best coach in Division II.

For the second time in three years, UMD won the Division II national championship, beating Delta State (Miss.) 20-17 on Dec. 18 in Florence, Ala.

This year, Nielson added the Liberty Mutual Division II Football Coach of the Year award to his list of honors.

Here is the release from UMD:
After a season marked by the success of the University of Minnesota Duluth on the football field, achievements by his student-athletes in the classroom, and tireless dedication to his communities and charities, Bulldog head coach Bob Nielson today received the ultimate reward for his inspirational efforts both on and off the field. Liberty Mutual Insurance announced Nielson as its 2010 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award winner for Division II. The Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award is the leading college football honor recognizing coaches for their sportsmanship, integrity, responsibility and excellence, on and off field.

Nielson rose above a group of five Division II coach finalists through fan votes cast Dec. 13-28 at and ballots from elite selection committees of national media and College Football Hall of Fame players and coaches. Fans votes contributed 20 percent to each coach’s final score, and the media and College Football Hall of Fame accounted for 25 percent and 55 percent, respectively. The other 2010 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year winners include Gene Chizik, Auburn University (FBS) K.C. Keeler, University of Delaware (FCS) and Glenn Caruso, University of St. Thomas (Division III).

“Nielson embodies the spirit of the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award through his dedication to his students, team and community, and fans should be proud of the significant impact they made through their votes and support for their teams, alma maters and coaches,” said Greg Gordon, Liberty Mutual senior vice president, Consumer Marketing. “As a company that values ‘doing the right thing’ as its core responsibility, we introduced the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award in 2006 to celebrate responsibility in coaching because we believe it is one of the clearest examples of a positive influence one can have on young people, their families and their communities. Liberty Mutual is delighted to celebrate Bob Nielson with our award.”

This past fall, the 51-year old Nielson directed the Bulldogs to their second NCAA Division II championship in three years, defeating Delta State University 20-17 on a last-second field goal in the title game to cap off a perfect 15-0 season. In his eight years at UMD, Nielson has won four Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference titles (including the last three in a row with identical 10-0 marks) and earned four NCAA II playoff berths while amassing a 79-21 record, the best in the school’s storied 78-year football history. Along the way, he has produced 14 All-Americans along with a pair of Harlon Hill Award finalists and has helped nurture classroom champions as well (nine Bulldogs received 2010 NSIC All-Academic Team status, including senior running back Isaac Odim, who was chosen as one of 16 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award recipents as well as the 2010 ESPN Academic All-America of the Year for football).

Nielson, who has also served as UMD’s director of intercollegiate athletics since 2004, is known throughout the Duluth area for his civic and philanthropic endeavors. This year, he was the honorary chairman of the Udac “Walk a Mile in Our Shoes” campaign, helping to provide fitness services for individuals with severe physical, mental or developmental disabilities. He also organizes and leads a Junior Football League clinic, and he and his players and staff participate in an annual fishing tournament to raise money for ALS research.

Nielson will be honored in the permanent Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year display at the College Football Hall of Fame. In addition, Liberty Mutual will make a $50,000 charitable donation on his behalf, which Nielson has designated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Northland, Mentor Duluth, the Northern Lights Foundation, the Udac STEPS program, and Peace in Christ Lutheran Church in Hermantown, Minn. A $20,000 scholarship award also will be presented in his name to the University of Minnesota Duluth Alumni Association. With this year’s award, the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year winners have now donated more than $1.2 million since the award’s inception in 2006.

"On behalf of our football program and coaching staff I want to thank Liberty Mutual for this award and for their commitment to college football and the coaching profession," said Nielson. "As a coach, you work to help make a difference in the lives of those who you coach and this award certainly emphasizes the value and importance of those efforts. I am truly honored to have been selected as this year's NCAA Division II recipient."

Packers Find a Way

Survive and advance.

Survive and advance.

This is the mantra when you get into tournament play, no matter the sport, no matter the level of competition.

It's especially true in the high-stakes world of NFL football, where the ability to move on in the playoffs can often be directly tied to a missed field goal or two, one underthrown pass, one foot out of bounds, one first down, or one sequence of bend-but-don't-break plays by a big-play defense.

For the Green Bay Packers, it took all of those things to overcome two fumbles, a critical drop of a perfect throw that could have put the game out of reach before halftime, and an offense that couldn't do much of anything after halftime.

It all added up to a 21-16 win in Philadelphia Sunday that:
  • Kept the Packers' season alive.
  • Showed they could win a close game away from Lambeau Field after losing so many (they had lost their last three road games by a total of 11 points, and their five total road losses were by a total of 17).
  • They don't need Aaron Rodgers to throw for 400 yards to win.
  • They can run the ball, after all.
Yes, there were hiccups. Rodgers' fumble in the third quarter was awful and preventable. James Jones would have been seeing that drop before halftime -- a sure touchdown -- in his sleep had the Packers lost. The Packers played a bit of prevent offense after halftime, especially once they got up 21-10.

But Dom Capers' defense came to play again, and while Tramon Williams' game-clinching interception was the only turnover they forced, they did a very good job containing Michael Vick. They were physical, stopped the run very well, and did a great job of stretching Philadelphia's only touchdown drive of the game.

(Their third-quarter touchdown came after Rodgers coughed it up at the Packers' 24. That's hardly a touchdown drive.)

The reward is another road game for a team still under .500 for the season away from Lambeau. They play No. 1 seed Atlanta on Saturday night. The short week and invigorating road win help.

So does the indoor venue. We still haven't seen definitive proof that Rodgers is a good cold-weather quarterback, and this is hardly the time to go asking for that. Instead, here's hoping the indoor venue is not of a serious advantage to the Falcons, who play in one of America's worst sports towns. It strikes as the kind of game where the Packers can take the crowd out of it by simply scoring first and making a defensive stop.

My long-standing motto has been to kick off to start a game whenever possible. I'm a big fan of letting the defense make a stop, and I like the idea of my team getting the ball to start the second half, because that's usually a more important time for momentum in the game.

Saturday might be an exception. Let Rodgers and Company on the field first. A six- or seven-minute touchdown drive could be the best possible way to start this road playoff game. Let "Matty Ice" stand on the sideline and watch as the Packers kill all their pregame momentum.

Then we'll see if Matt Ryan can live up to his stupid and largely unwarranted nickname.

Friday, January 07, 2011

NFL Falls Over Itself to Hire Coach With 0-0 Record


That's what all 12 NFL playoff teams are right now. Just ask Bill Belichick, who would know, since his playoff record is the stuff of legend.

That's not why 0-0 is in the news this week.

Instead, we present the story of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh has accomplished great things at Stanford. Last year, the Cardinal got back into the postseason for the first time under his leadership, running back Toby Gerhart was invited to New York as a Heisman finalist, and young quarterback Andrew Luck took advantage of Gerhart's prowess to gain a ton of valuable experience and grow into the role.

This year, Luck was amazing, hitting over 70 percent of his passes and leading Stanford to a BCS bowl game for the first time in over a decade. Harbaugh has done a superb job rebuilding the talent base, and presenting that program with an opportunity to win at an elite level.

Michigan -- Harbaugh's alma mater -- has fired their coach. Efforts to hire Harbaugh have been futile so far, but you never know. The NFL has also come knocking on his door, hoping to lure him to the pro ranks with gobs of money.

Harbaugh has as many NFL coaching wins as I do. In fact, he has just two years of NFL coaching on his resume, and both of those were in Oakland as a quarterback coach.

He moved from there to become head coach at the University of San Diego, and then to Stanford.

The Miami Dolphins are among the franchises trying to lure Harbaugh, embarrassing themselves and the league by reportedly being willing to pay Harbaugh over $7 million per season. That's more than twice what some accomplished coaches in this league make, and it's an absolutely insane number for a guy like Harbaugh who lacks experience.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross might simply be trying to do what's best for his team, but his attempt to hire Harbaugh will simply hurt him on multiple levels.
  • How can current coach Tony Sparano ever again trust his owner and general manager?
  • How high did Ross just drive the price for every other random assistant or college head coach who is up for an NFL head job despite no previous experience?
  • What the hell is it going to cost a team now to hire a guy like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher out of retirement/television?
Ross might find some of these answers out the hard way, because there's no guarantee Sparano will want to stay with a group that he knows was actively trying to get rid of him in favor of a guy with zero NFL wins.

College coaches don't automatically succeed in the NFL. Some of them get sick of it and go back to college. Others just flame out and never are the same again.

No matter what, Ross' ploy was a dangerous, risky one, and now that it didn't work, the rather inexperienced NFL owner is left with a large amount of egg on his face.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Game 21: UMD at Clarkson

POTSDAM, N.Y. -- Long night ahead for the Bulldogs. Clarkson is bound to give a better 60-minute effort in this game, which is one they probably think they need as badly as I think UMD does.

From there, it's back on the bus to Syracuse, where the team will stay overnight ahead of the flight back home Wednesday.



Connolly (Mike) - Connolly (Jack) - Fontaine
DeLisle - Oleksuk - Brown
Grun - Flaherty - Seidel
Kishel (seventh defenseman) - Tardy - Hendrickson

Palm - Montgomery
Bergman - Lamb
Olson - Huttel

Crandall - Reiter

DeFazio - Oakley - Freeman
Zarbo - Morley - McPherson
Pawlick - Tamblyn - Tremblay
Tuohimaa - Burton - Garlasco

Borowiecki - Pratt
Rufenach - Pizzo
Boak - Pokulok

Karpowich - LaVeau - Rosen

Potential Significance of UMD-Clarkson is High

CANTON, N.Y. -- Last year, UMD didn't miss the NCAA Tournament by much. While my math isn't good enough to run numbers and confirm anything, it's reasonable to suggest that if any one of five losses by UMD over the second half of the season in winnable games (at Vermont, at Bemidji State, vs. Bemidji State, at Michigan Tech, and at Alaska-Anchorage) had been wins instead of losses, the Bulldogs would have gone dancing.

Being close isn't good enough, and the best way to avoid letting a computer decide your fate is to just win games.

Of course, life isn't always that easy.

Right now, UMD is 13-4-3, pending Tuesday's game with Clarkson. According to the version of the Pairwise currently available at CHN, UMD sits at No. 6 in the Pairwise after Monday's 4-1 win in Potsdam. That puts them safely in the NCAA field, but we've got a lot of hockey left to play.

Because there's so much season left, Tuesday's game for UMD is a highly significant one. Here's why.

In the Pairwise, each team eligible (the top 25 of the RPI -- also known as Teams Under Consideration) is compared to one another in four different categories. Those are RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), Head to Head (when applicable), Record vs. Teams Under Consideration (TUC), and Record vs. Common Opponents (when applicable).

Because there simply aren't many WCHA vs. ECAC regular-season games, each one that is played gets over-valued in a sense. It's the nature of this system, and everyone is playing under the same rules. UMD's games against Clarkson are the only time this season they will see an opponent from the ECAC. Clarkson, meanwhile, will play every other team in the ECAC, including Yale, RPI, Union, Princeton, and Dartmouth, all of whom are currently in the Pairwise.

If UMD can beat Clarkson, they will help themselves immensely. Clarkson is unlikely to go the rest of the season without a win. They're a good team with a good record, and there are plenty of chances for them to beat a top team the rest of the way. Clarkson plays Yale, RPI, and Union twice each before the regular season ends. Every time one of those teams fails to beat Clarkson, it's a win in the Pairwise for UMD. The Golden Knights will not be the only common opponent for UMD and Yale, Union, or RPI, but they will be one of few.

Yale played (and won) at Colorado College. UMD hasn't played CC yet, but will visit in late February. RPI also visited CC, getting a loss and tie for their efforts. The Engineers don't share any other opponents. Union played Minnesota (win) and Bemidji State (loss) at the Gophers' tournament this past weekend, and the Dutchmen also beat Alaska-Anchorage in Fairbanks.

That makes Union 2-1 against those common opponents so far. UMD is 3-1-2 (two wins vs. UAA, a win and tie vs. Bemidji, and a loss and tie vs. UMTC). The Bulldogs still have two games left with Minnesota, and the games with Clarkson will count in that comparison once Union plays Clarkson this weekend.

Not only would a sweep of Clarkson help the Bulldogs in these individual comparisons, but it's a huge get if Clarkson plays well enough down the stretch to stay among the TUC teams. Record vs. TUC only counts if you have ten games against TUCs within a comparison (head-to-head games don't count; for example, when you compare UMD and North Dakota, their games against each other are eliminated from the TUC record, and because of that, the comparison isn't counted yet because UMD doesn't have ten games against other TUCs).

It's a bit early to pay much attention to the ebb and flow of the rankings, but it's not too early to understand what games are potentially significant to rankings and (maybe) seedings down the road.

I will now depart from the nerdery. Talk to you later from Potsdam.

USA Hockey Has a Ways to Go

While UMD was busy taking care of business at Clarkson Monday night, we were getting texts and Twitter updates on a game that wasn't going terribly well.

Unless you're Cody Danberg or one of the other six Canadians on the UMD roster.

None of us had a chance to watch Canada thrash the United States 4-1 at the World Juniors. We had the texts and tweets to tell us what was going on. From the sounds of it, we didn't miss much, and we didn't have to see the game. This dance has been danced before.

Pure Canadian domination. An American team that wasn't ready to play, even if they were talented enough to compete.

There's a reality that comes with a whipping like this. For the United States, it's another sign of both the progress that's been made, and the work that remains.

There is undeniable progress for USA Hockey. After all, they entered this tournament as no worse than a co-favorite, and many thought they could pick off Canada and win a second straight gold. The fact that sober, sane people could say this is a sign that USA Hockey has come a long way.

But getting beat 4-1 by a Canadian team missing at least six age-eligible players who could have made a difference is an unmistakable sign that much more progress is needed.

While Cam Fowler is patrolling the Anaheim Ducks' blue line, Canada is missing, yes, six players who were eligible by birthdate to compete in this tournament. Among them are Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, the top two picks in the 2010 draft. Evander Kane and Matt Duchene are also playing in the NHL and weren't released to play in the World Juniors.

More than any other country, Canada is stuck playing more of a "B" squad in this tournament. Sweden has guys like Magnus Paajarvi and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but they're not missing the bodies Canada is.

This happens every year, and it's not meant as an insult to any other country who misses players in this tournament because of pro commitments. Instead, it should be taken as a sign of Canada's superiority at this level.

Get to the national team level, and the Olympics proved that Canada doesn't have some sort of ridiculous advantage. As players get older, the gap narrows. When you pick teams of adults and have no restrictions on the players you can select, the United States can totally compete. They beat Canada in the Olympics last year before losing to them in overtime for the gold medal. As great as Ryan Miller was in the gold-medal game, final shots were only 39-36 in favor of Canada, hardly a dominant performance where they were simply thwarted by a hot goalie.

But at the U-20 level, Canada has a ridiculous edge in talent. Is it better youth development, or is there just an age where Canada has the talent and numbers to dominate the world?

If the U.S. is that capable of competing at the Olympic level, is it simply a matter of their players getting better at older ages? What's closing that gap?

There are a lot of questions, but again, we're back to the basic. When you look at this U-20 tournament, there's no question the United States has a way to go to become competitive on an annual basis.

A medal Wednesday would be huge for the Americans. Yes, the bronze sucks. It's not as pretty as the gold, and third place isn't nearly as sexy as first place. But it means you ended the tournament with a win, and it's a win that will mean something for an American squad that has never medaled in back-to-back World Juniors.

Canada will play for their 16th gold in this event later Wednesday, but you aren't going to magically start competing with the big dog on an annual basis. You have to build to that, and consecutive medals are a significant step in that build.

Just don't mistake last year's gold as a sign that the build has been completed.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Game 20: UMD at Clarkson

POTSDAM, N.Y. -- If you've never been to this part of the world, there is an easy comparison I can make for you.

It's like Houghton in a way. These are small towns and small schools and proud Division I programs that haven't seen the same kind of success they used to have.

Michigan Tech's past is more pronounced than Clarkson, their times as of late much harder. But there are similarities to the towns.

That might not be conducive to tourism, but we're not here to sightsee.



Connolly (Mike) - Connolly (Jack) - Fontaine
DeLisle - Oleksuk - Brown
Grun - Flaherty - Basaraba
Hendrickson - Tardy - Palm (seventh defenseman)

Kishel - Montgomery
Bergman - Lamb
Olson - Huttel

Reiter - Crandall

DeFazio - Oakley - Freeman
Zarbo - Morley - McPherson
Cayer - Tamblyn - Tremblay
Frederick - Burton - Garlasco

Pratt - Borowiecki
Rufenach - Reed
Boak - Pokulok

Karpowich - LaVeau - Rosen

William Wrenn Leaves Denver for WHL

The major junior ranks might not have been the preferred destination for former UMD defenseman Dylan Olsen, but they'll work just fine for William Wrenn.

The Denver sophomore, a high draft pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2009 and a product of the U.S. National Team development system, has decided to leave school and move on to the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks.

The news was first reported by College Hockey News, via my friend Chris Dilks at Western College Hockey.

CHN quotes longtime Denver coach George Gwozdecky, and it's about as short and precise as Gwoz will ever be quoted.

“William has decided to leave our varsity hockey program and concentrate full-time on his hockey career,” Gwozdecky said. “William feels he will have a better opportunity to play on a regular basis and contribute in a more important role at the junior hockey level. He was a good teammate and was well liked in our locker room. William will be missed by our program.”

That's a solid, high-road response from the coach.

This isn't about Wrenn developing more quickly in the WHL, and there are no rumblings at this point that this departure is related to academics.

Instead, it's time, Wrenn has apparently decided, for a change of scenery. In 41 games at DU, he notched just eight assists, including one this season in 18 games, tying him with freshman goalie Sam Brittain on the team scoring chart.

Looking at Denver's lineup from their weekend games against Northern Michigan, it appears Wrenn was relegated to the role of seventh defenseman (DU dressed 11 forwards for each game). The continued improvement of John Lee, the emergence of freshman David Makowski, and the continued play of sophomore Matt Donovan made it tough for Wrenn to get a lot of minutes on special teams, and he was struggling to earn more ice time with the Pioneers.

He'll be a welcome addition for a Portland team that is looking like a strong contender for a spot in the Memorial Cup this May. However, with three defensemen possessing double digit plus-minus ratings, and two blue-liners at or over 20 points for the season, Wrenn might struggle for minutes in Portland the same way he did in Denver.

UMD Tries to Find Itself Again

CANTON, N.Y. -- For the UMD Bulldogs, the grind has resumed.

After a two-week break that followed a simply bizarre weekend at Minnesota -- nearly 20 inches of snow postponed a game and brought down the Metrodome, which was within view of our hotel -- the Bulldogs fell 5-0 to North Dakota Thursday in the Amsoil Arena opener.

It was a good hockey game that turned into a thrashing and an embarrassment for UMD. Throw in the injury to Kyle Schmidt and the departure of Dylan Olsen, along with the absence of Justin Faulk, and you have a lot of negativity introduced to a team that was rolling out of the gates.

Of course, nothing eliminates negativity more than a few goals and a couple wins, and the Bulldogs have that opportunity before them in upstate New York. It's UMD's first-ever visit to Cheel Arena in Potsdam, N.Y., and these goofy Monday-Tuesday games will probably help set the course for UMD's second half.

(In case you're wondering, the Monday-Tuesday series was necessitated by Clarkson basically double-booking itself. The initial plan was for UMD to be here for Thanksgiving weekend, but Clarkson was already scheduled to play in the Denver Cup. Denver normally has that event the weekend after Christmas, but moved it to Thanksgiving for whatever reason -- attendance, worries about World Junior losses, whatever. So Clarkson needed to move the UMD series, and the Bulldog coaches were kind enough to oblige. Personally, I would have made them forfeit. Smiley)

UMD does have to figure some things out. Quickly. Even at 12-4-3, there isn't much time to mess around and miss out on wins.

Where will the secondary scoring come from? Schmidt's absence isn't just a loss in terms of hockey smarts and speed. Schmidt has 18 goals over the last season and a half, and 16 of those have come even-strength. Without Schmidt, and with the second line of Schmidt, Travis Oleksuk, and J.T. Brown already struggling a bit at times recently, the coaches are challenged to find combinations on the second, third, and fourth lines that can generate chances and occasional goals.

A key player in this will be Mike Seidel. The sophomore didn't have his best game against North Dakota, but he's good around the net, is an offensive threat, and is still developing his game.

Will the FCC line force de-regulation? At this point in the season, there's little doubt that Mike Connolly (above) is UMD's best player. He drives opponents batty with his constant hustle and willingness to put his stick where some might argue it doesn't belong. He's a key cog in the power play, penalty kill, and top forward line. Frankly, there isn't much he doesn't do well. He even knows how to break glass.

However, the top line hasn't been humming as it was early in the season. One has to wonder if they can re-gain some of that lost mojo, or if it might be time to spread the proverbial wealth. We brought this up during Thursday's broadcast, and the idea isn't as easy to resist as it was in November.

No switch would be permanent, of course. There's always room for having your three best offensive players on a line together, and there's no doubt these three can handle large gobs of ice time.

Of course, in the end, the best way to keep defenses from stopping your three best offensive players might be to have them separated a bit, thereby keeping them from focusing all their juice on one line.

Who steps up on defense? A friend texted me last night to play the "What If?" game. After all, if you keep guys like Evan Oberg and Dylan Olsen from leaving early, you could have them working defensively with Mike Montgomery, Justin Faulk, Wade Bergman, and Brady Lamb right now. That would be pretty scary for opponents.

However, we've already seen one player step up his game this season, and now it's time for a second. Sophomore Drew Olson has vastly improved. He can skate, he isn't afraid to bring the puck up the rink, but he's also strong in his own zone and can play the physical game.

Throw in Bergman's ferocious hip checks, and Lamb's ability to hit, and you have some solid physical play on the blue line.

Now, we'll see if Scott Kishel can become the every-night player we all want to see him be. No one figures to benefit more from Olsen's departure, as Kishel can play the power play and is improving with the puck. He has to keep getting better defensively, but we're seeing signs that he can get the job done.

Once Faulk returns, Kishel will have to battle Lamb for power-play time, but that would probably be good for both guys. They're both capable offensive players who haven't yet blossomed in that area this season.

It all starts with Monday Night Hockey in Potsdam. Follow me on Twitter for updates, or listen to the game live at

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Dylan Olsen Signing Doesn't Hurt College Hockey

As I mentioned Friday, former UMD defenseman Dylan Olsen chose to cement his departure from school by signing a pro contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. He will report to Rockford of the American Hockey League after Canada is done playing in the IIHF World Junior Championships.

As is true whenever a college hockey player bolts midseason -- whether it be the likes of Brock Trotter or Kyle Okposo or Olsen or anyone else -- this has resulted in some hand-wringing, including by some UMD fans who went from hoping for the best for the Canadians in the World Juniors to practically hoping the arena collapses during one of their games.

The other thing you'll hear -- if you listen closely enough -- is talk that Olsen's signing is a blow to college hockey.

The same thing is said when a player like Sam Lofquist or Josh Birkholz leaves college for major junior. The same is said when a player like Jarred Tinordi jumps from a college commitment at the last minute to go play major junior.

While Olsen leaving doesn't do anything to make college hockey better, it's also hard to argue that Olsen's departure is any kind of blow to the reputation of the college game or its ability to attract and develop top players.

Instead, it's another example of what we mean when we say college isn't for everyone.

Some people flourish when given the added responsibility of being a student along with being a top-notch Division I athlete. That doesn't mean every Tom, Dick, and Harry who gets picked in the first round should go that route. For a guy like Olsen, there were signs that it just wasn't meant to be.

Olsen was allegedly a recruit with academic baggage when he signed at UMD. More than one hockey publication noted that other Division I schools tried to recruit him, but they didn't think he would qualify. Then sources last December indicated that Olsen might not return to the team. He managed to stay eligible then, and again to start his sophomore season.

After an uneven freshman season on the ice, Olsen really started to blossom as a sophomore. More than once, UMD coach Scott Sandelin talked about Olsen's development, referencing his failure to make the 2010 Canadian World Junior team as a negative turning point in his first year with UMD. It made sense. After all, Olsen was 18, carrying the weight of insanely high expectations, and generally having trouble with the speed of the Division I game. Then throw in the major disappointment of not having a chance to play for your country. It was a lot.

This season, Olsen got better. He developed chemistry with freshman Justin Faulk, who is on the American World Junior team. The two played together a lot, and eventually developed as UMD's best defensive pair. They saw extensive ice time in all situations, even if they weren't always on the ice together on power play and penalty kill.

Both left for the WJCs, and the roof fell in Thursday against North Dakota.

Rumors were out there for a week or two prior to that night that Olsen was going to be gone because of academics. Then Kyle Schmidt got hurt in practice Wednesday (out a month or so). Come Thursday night, the press box was buzzing with word that Olsen's fate was sealed: He was not going to return to UMD. It was confirmed Friday with his signing.

This was not an Okposo. Olsen didn't have a choice but to leave UMD. He sealed his fate by not taking care of his academic business.

College wasn't for him.

The sad thing is that we basically all knew that going in.

Olsen's loss isn't a loss for college hockey. He had a chance to go to UMD and better himself as a player and a person.

Unfortunately for him, he only chose to take advantage of one of those opportunities.

That doesn't hurt the college game. We already know that college hockey isn't the right place for every 18-year-old. Some need more time in juniors to mature ... physically and mentally. Some need to play in Canada's major junior system to develop, then move on to the pros. Unless you're a completely irrational supporter of either the CHL or NCAA, you recognize and understand this, and you're okay with it.

Olsen leaving proves nothing about the college game. It would have proven nothing had he left for major junior at some point, or if he hadn't come to college to start with.

Moreover, this story shows no previously undiscovered inadequacies in the NCAA system, nor does it show any real flaws in the NHL system.


The theories are out there. Some are speculating that he never intended to come back. He was gone no matter what. That's unfortunate, but I can't confirm any of that, and I'm not about to assail someone for something that can't be proven.

One thing I have a serious problem with is how this was handled. As of Friday, two sources told me that UMD coaches had not heard directly from Olsen or his agent about his decision. Duluth News Tribune writer Kevin Pates, who broke the story, had to find out from outside sources. Meaning someone with the Blackhawks or NHL.

That's disappointing, and no matter the other circumstances involved, it speaks to the character of the people involved. Before ink was put to paper, that phone call should have been made as a courtesy. UMD's coaches invested a lot of time in Olsen's development, in terms of ice time, practice hours, and off-ice work. The common courtesy of a phone call when he decides to leave early for pro hockey -- especially when leaving early during the season -- is the least that can be expected.

Hopefully, it's a phone call Olsen made this weekend. Better late than never, right?

It doesn't change the reality. UMD gave him a lot of ice time over the first 17 games (he left before the 18th game for the World Junior tryouts), and now they have to adjust on the fly to not having him again this season. For the likes of Wade Bergman, Brady Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Drew Olson, and Faulk, the job is tougher. Olsen not being around doesn't make this a better team. Instead, it's up to the Bulldogs to respond in a way that makes them a better team.

We'll find out starting Monday night if it's something UMD can make happen.