Thursday, March 24, 2011
UMD's Climb Not Complete
Destination: St. Paul.
The goal this year was to climb the mountain. Grab the brass ring. Whatever championship analogy you want to use, UMD was out to accomplish it.
Last weekend, UMD missed out on the chance at the Broadmoor Trophy, losing to Bemidji State in the WCHA Final Five.
No matter. The Broadmoor is awesome, but it's not as awesome as the ultimate prize, and that's what UMD is after this weekend ... a shot at the NCAA title in St. Paul.
It starts in the NCAA East Regional Friday, as the No. 3-seeded Bulldogs battle No. 2 seed Union College. It's Union's first trip to the NCAA Tournament, but that only matters to those who tend to overrate experience.
(As I mentioned yesterday, the Bulldogs have NCAA Tournament experience, but it just doesn't translate to this game in my view. The more important thing to note is that neither school has won the national title, and UMD hasn't played for a national title since 1984.)
Union has some very impressive forwards, especially junior Kelly Zajac, the leading scorer with 42 points. If that last name sounds familiar, it's because Kelly's brother Travis is a forward for the New Jersey Devils. Played his college hockey at North Dakota. Zajac is more of a setup man, but Union has some guys who can score, including freshman Daniel Carr, who has 20 goals, 12 of them on the power play.
John (er, Wayne) Simpson has 16 goals, nine on the power play.
See a theme?
Union's 31 percent power play is a big storyline heading into this game. When you're that good with the man advantage, virtually anyone who takes penalties against you is going to be in a heap of trouble.
Junior All-American Jack Connolly and head coach Scott Sandelin both echoed those thoughts during Thursday's pre-tournament press conference in Bridgeport. Many will oversimplify this, and say that the special teams game is the only thing that matters in this game.
Sometimes, when it looks that obvious, it ends up going the other way. We don't know who the officials are for the game, but they will come from either the CCHA or Hockey East, as those leagues aren't represented in the game. Officials from both leagues have a reputation for calling games much more tightly than we see in the WCHA. Right away, that could become an advantage for Union, a team in a league where officials lean more toward that tendency.
(This fact will eventually lead me into a rant on the WCHA's current state of officiating, but I will lay off for now. It's a different topic likely best tackled during the offseason.)
We'll see how it plays out. Officiating bounces are something UMD has not been accustomed to lately, but they did get some earlier in the season. They usually even out over this many games.)
One other point to make about Union's power play, and this is not meant as a slam of any kind, because I know they're good. However, Union outscored opponents 51-27 on the power play in their 39 games this season. The margin during the Dutchmen's 22 ECAC games was only 22-16, meaning Union scored 29 power play goals -- and allowed 11 -- in 17 non-conference games. In their home non-conference games, Union hit at nearly 50 percent, while they were barely 20 percent in road games. They also had a lot more power plays in the home games, which were worked by ECAC officials.
You hate to put a game on the officiating before it even happens, but it's a valid point to say that how the game is called will help determine its final outcome. If it's a five-on-five game where both teams are allowed the occasional stick foul or grab without a call, it probably works in UMD's advantage, because it keeps Union's dangerous power play from being a factor. UMD scores a slightly higher percentage of their goals by means other than the power play, and UMD likely wants a game where they can roll all four lines, rather than turning it into a special teams game where they are constantly trying to match against Union's top guys.
Faceoffs will be a huge factor. UMD has been spotty in this area throughout the season. With Union being the home team and holding that last line change, expect to see a lot of Zajac taking faceoffs against Jack Connolly. Zajac has won over 60 percent of draws this year. Jeremy Welsh could also match up against Connolly, as he sits just under 60 percent.
For UMD to take the flight back home Saturday and be able to look ahead toward at least one more game, they're going to have to be sharp in all phases, starting Friday afternoon. Anything less, and disappointment could lie ahead.
--> UMD reports no injuries. The lineup should look similar to what it's been for the last couple weekends ... if not identical.
--> UMD set a school record this season, losing just four road games. These are neutral-site games, so that record will stand no matter what happens this weekend.
--> The Bulldogs also set a school record for attendance, drawing 110,399 fans to the DECC and Amsoil Arena. That is an average of 5,810 per game.
--> Union assistant coach Ben Barr is from Duluth, and his grandparents live in Hermantown. He grew up in the Glen Avon neighborhood.
--> Mike Connolly has scored half (three) of his team's six short-handed goals this season.