Friday, February 25, 2011

Home Ice Clinched, But Work Not Done for UMD

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Saturday's 6-2 win at Minnesota State assured the UMD Bulldogs that there would be no last-second travel plans made for a WCHA playoff series. They are going to play at home March 11-13.

It's the first time since 2003-2004 that UMD has earned home ice in back-to-back seasons, and the Bulldogs also know they won't finish lower than fourth, which will mark their best finish in the WCHA standings since the Frozen Four run of 2004.

Don't be mistaken, though. UMD's work is hardly done.

Before the season, multiple players stated the team's goals for the season, which included the MacNaughton Cup (WCHA regular season champion), Broadmoor Trophy (WCHA playoff champion), and the NCAA title.

Yes, North Dakota is probably going to win the MacNaughton, but the other two goals are still very much in sight for UMD.

It starts this weekend here in Colorado Springs, as UMD tries to improve their playoff positioning. There are other markers in play for the Bulldogs in the coming weeks.

UMD has 19 wins, one win away from a third straight 20-win season. That has only been accomplished once before in school history, when UMD won 20 or more in four straight seasons under Mike Sertich from 1982-1986.

Three more victories would give UMD 66 wins over the last three years, the most in any three-year span since the first three years of that incredible run under Sertich.

These are generally meaningless accomplishments, but they show how far UMD hockey has come in the last few years. After a 20-52-7 start under Scott Sandelin, the program has posted a 165-145-44 record in the last (almost) nine years, including five winning seasons, something (five winning seasons in nine years) that also hasn't happened since that four-year run under Sertich.

The Colorado College Tigers present the first of many upcoming challenges for UMD. Since the Bulldogs became a bit more of a skating team and less of a grinder team, they've had more success at the World Arena, going 4-1-1 here in the last three visits. One of the huge keys to this recent run is UMD's ability to skate with the always-speedy Tigers.

Defensive-oriented teams can do well here, but teams that don't skate well get caught in no man's land on this huge ice surface, a surface CC usually uses very well. They also take a lot of penalties, and the Tigers typically have a strong and efficient power play. That is the case again this season.

UMD averages nearly 16 minutes of penalties per game, and even if you allow for the fact that a team will take an occasional misconduct (10 minutes) or major/misconduct combo meal (15 minutes), that's a lot of special teams time for a team that can ill afford to be putting its opponent on the man advantage all the time.

Last time here, UMD was buried by PIMs (51 in a 6-2 loss that included four CC power-play goals) after killing off a six-on-three (CC had their goalie pulled) in the final minute of a 4-3 win on Friday.

It's probably oversimplifying things to say that staying out of the box is important, because it always is. We saw that last weekend, when a middling Minnesota State power play burned UMD for two first-period goals, then as UMD tightened up the penalty kill, they had to deal with 9:41 of MSU power play time in the second period. Makes a comeback kind of difficult.

The Bulldogs need to play strong defense, finding a way to contain CC junior Tyler Johnson and the brothers Schwartz, sophomore Rylan and freshman Jaden. Jaden is a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, and despite missing six weeks with an ankle injury, he's the favorite for WCHA Rookie of the Year. He's been dynamic and consistent, making a huge impact on a CC team many had tabbed for the bottom half of the league standings.

If there's a bug with this UMD machine right now, it's their play in front of the net. Too many quality chances given up, and too many position battles lost in front of whoever is playing goal on a given night.

When those things are happening, it doesn't matter if Kenny Reiter or Aaron Crandall is in goal, and it doesn't matter how well they are playing.

And once the calendar flips to March, and the games become all the more meaningful, such mistakes are magnified. Any one of them could be a season-ender, and they best be avoided at all costs.


--> Brady Lamb did not make the trip. The junior defenseman will miss his second straight weekend with an upper body injury. He began skating again this week, and may be able to return next weekend against Nebraska-Omaha.

--> All 13 healthy forwards made the trip to Colorado Springs, with Scott Kishel coming along as the extra defenseman. UMD hasn't changed the personnel on defense since Lamb was injured and Chad Huttel took his place in the lineup. Dan DeLisle and Max Tardy have split the last four games at forward, with DeLisle being a scratch for Saturday's win in Mankato.

--> UMD hasn't announced their 2011-12 schedule, but for those interested in planning, the Bulldogs will play non-conference series at home against Notre Dame and Alabama-Huntsville, and on the road against Providence and Western Michigan. In league play, UMD will play home and away series with cluster mates Michigan Tech, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They will host North Dakota, Minnesota State, Bemidji State, and Colorado College, and they will play at Alaska-Anchorage, Denver, St. Cloud State, and Nebraska-Omaha. The clusters will rotate for the 2012-13 season, meaning UMD will not play two series against Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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