Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bulldogs Try To Regain Traction

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Four straight home games and ten out of 14 sounds like a great way to start the season.

Yet, it's a trip out east that could get UMD the team bonding they seek.

The Bulldogs are off to a surprising -- not in a good way -- 1-3 start to the season. This weekend, they have made the trip to Providence for a two-game series against the Friars of Providence College.

So far, the Bulldogs have proven potent on offense and leaky on defense, allowing 18 goals in four games while scoring 15, and that's a number high enough (you'd think) to win a few hockey games. However, with 18 goals against, and a penalty kill that's allowed eight goals in 18 chances, the ability to win games has been severely hampered.

No one on this UMD team is kidding around. They know the areas they need to improve, and the road to that improvement starts here.

Why does being on the road matter? You remove the creature comforts. You remove the familiar hops and bounces. You remove the supportive fans.

(Especially on this trip. Remember how quiet Clarkson's building was last January? Well, this could rival it, if past attendance figures are to be believed. UMD may need to create its own atmosphere on the ice, if you know what I mean.)

We all love being at Amsoil Arena, but the opportunities that exist for a team to bond and gain a little chemistry during a road trip are virtually limitless.

"It's been nice to start at home in front of our fans," senior captain and two-time All American Jack Connolly said. "It's been fun, but it's not the start that we wanted, and I think there's nothing better than getting out of town for a weekend and playing a different team. Hopefully get a couple wins under our belt out east."

Having been on this beat for over six years now, I can tell you that it's a different vibe on the road. There are no distractions, especially when you fly somewhere. It's all about the team. They eat together for the better part of four straight days on a road trip like this. They are divided up by twos in hotel rooms. They go everywhere -- practices, games, team dinners -- together. It's a serious bonding opportunity for a group that hasn't really had that yet.

It's not a knock on the home fans or the home environment. Every team benefits from that first road trip of the season. UMD hopes that it works out for them, too.

Of course, if the ills on the ice aren't corrected, it won't matter. Providence doesn't appear to be a patsy as it's been in the past. First-year coach Nate Leaman comes from Union, where he did a very good job for eight years and led the program to its first-ever NCAA appearance last season. Leaman's Friars got off to a very good start last weekend, upsetting No. 7 Boston University 5-3 in its season opener, then beating Massachusetts 6-4 on Saturday.

Leaman makes it abundantly clear that he doesn't have all the answers yet. He is using players generally recruited by former coach Tim Army, and he is still in a feeling-out process, as are his players. He likened it to have a team full of freshmen, because even Providence's seniors are trying to get Leaman's system and methods down pat.

This is a nice opportunity for UMD to make some headway in the PairWise when that ugly thing starts staring all of us down later this season. It helps immensely that Providence has already beaten a nationally-ranked team in Boston University.

But I'm not going to drone on about the PairWise in October. I refuse.

Instead of worrying about that, let's worry about UMD making itself right this weekend. It's a great chance to gain traction, with some huge series coming up (Bemidji State, Denver, UAA) in consecutive weekends.

(Yes, I included UAA in there. Love the start that Dave Shyiak has them off to in Anchorage. I may get more into that in the coming days/weeks.)


As for the lineup, don't expect any drastic changes. Max Tardy switched spots with Jake Hendrickson, with Tardy now a wing on Travis Oleksuk's line and Hendrickson centering Keegan Flaherty and Adam Krause, in practice. I don't think we'll see anything else different on Friday.

For those clamoring for a change to the top line, give it some more time. It took months for Connolly to develop the chemistry he ended up having with Justin Fontaine and eventually Mike Connolly. I know they made it look easy at times, and it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch, but it didn't happen overnight, and neither will the chemistry with Connolly, J.T. Brown, and Mike Seidel. Week three is not the time to tinker with something you think is going to work if you're a hockey coach. For now, I think the UMD staff is more focused on getting more out of Oleksuk's linemates. Oleksuk has four goals and five points, but only Dan DeLisle (single assist) has registered a scoring point while skating on Oleksuk's line. The hope is that Tardy and Joe Basaraba can generate a little more. If that doesn't happen, I wouldn't be shocked to see some more tinkering within the top six forwards.

We don't know who will start in goal Friday. I tend to think we'll see both of the goalies play this weekend, but that's not based on anything besides a gut feeling. If whoever starts Friday plays a very strong game, the staff might decide to go back to that guy Saturday.

Based on what we saw last Saturday, I would really like to see more of freshman defenseman Derik Johnson. I liked what he brought to the table against the Gophers, and I tend to think he's going to end up being as advertised -- responsible defensively, high character, physical play.

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