Friday, February 04, 2011

The Stretch Run Begins

The next five weeks will decide a lot in the WCHA. Once we are through this weekend, there will be no difference in games played among the league's top eight teams (at least the top eight heading into the weekend), meaning we won't have to talk about games in hand, and teams won't have to sit out weekends and watch someone pass them in the standings.

At the top, it's a jumbled mess, with little separating Denver, UMD, and North Dakota. Or North Dakota, Denver, and UMD. Or UMD, North Dakota, and Denver.

You get the point.

North Dakota's schedule is very easy down the stretch, but that doesn't mean they've got a lockdown on the league title. Injuries to Chay Genoway and Danny Kristo have at least left the door open.

For UMD, a significant group of games awaits. The Bulldogs will be tested by the defense-minded Gophers, improving teams from St. Cloud State and Minnesota State, the always-tough-at-home Colorado College Tigers, and a Nebraska-Omaha team that is still a legitimate threat to make noise in this league.

Obviously, it's not reasonable to suggest North Dakota is going to play .500 hockey against UAA, St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, and Michigan Tech. Best case for the teams battling UND for the top spot is probably that North Dakota posts something resembling a 5-2-1 mark over these eight games. That leaves them 19-8-1 in league play for 39 points. To beat that, UMD would need at least seven wins over their last ten. I'm not saying that's too much to ask, but given the Bulldogs' schedule, it doesn't leave much margin for error.

Factor in the importance of winning season series (UMTC leads UMD 1-0-1 in the season series now), and this is a huge weekend for the Bulldogs, even if you don't take the opponent into account.

UMD is at full strength for the weekend, as forward Kyle Schmidt is back in the lineup. Look for Schmidt to skate five-on-five with Keegan Flaherty and Mike Seidel. The Schmidt/Flaherty combination is hard to beat in terms of speed, and Seidel is very good around the net. This allows UMD to keep the top two lines intact, with David Grun joining Mike and Jack Connolly, and Travis Oleksuk centering Justin Fontaine and J.T. Brown. The latter of these two was potent against Michigan Tech, and Grun looks to be working very well with the Connollys.

For Minnesota, there are a few things to be aware of. First off, goalie Kent Patterson has been in a zone lately. Even in games the Gophers have lost, it's not like you can really put it on Patterson. He's third in the league in save percentage, and in league play, he's one of the top goalies around. UMD's netminders -- Kenny Reiter (starting Friday) and Aaron Crandall -- are no slouches, but Patterson was a game-breaker against UMD in December, and if he does that again, the Gophers will be very tough to beat.

Offensively, the Gophers are heavily reliant lately on their transition game. The speed they generate with the likes of Jay Barriball and Jacob Cepis makes them potent off turnovers, so it's key for UMD to take good care of the puck. Minnesota is capable of turning neutral zone/blue line turnovers into odd-man rushes, but they're a less dangerous team when you make them go 200 feet with the puck and don't let them score off the rush.

Defensively, Minnesota has some physical guys like Mark Alt and Justin Holl, but they also have guys back there who aren't as noticeable in the hitting game. That's not to say Cade Fairchild, Kevin Wehrs, and Aaron Ness can't lay the lumber. It's just that they're more effective with the puck because of their passing and/or shooting ability. On the power play, Minnesota likes to use big bodies like Mike Hoeffel in front of the net, something UMD will have to be careful of.

The atmosphere should be electric this weekend, and UMD needs to raise their level of play. It's a huge key down the stretch for UMD to get points. Doesn't matter if they have to win ugly.

Just win, baby.

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