Tuesday, November 29, 2011

UMD's Resiliency Key to Playoff Run

I doubt anyone is really surprised to see the UMD football team in the regional final Saturday. They've been a staple in the Division II playoffs in recent years, and UMD has made four straight Super Region Three finals (wins over Grand Valley State and Augustana, with a loss to Grand Valley in 2009). This is the third straight year that the Super Region Three final will be contested at Malosky Stadium, an amazing accomplishment for a football program that hadn't tasted anything close to this level of success before its first title in 2008.

UMD, though, didn't follow the same path as prior years in getting to this point.

UMD rolled through the 2008 and 2010 championship years with matching 15-0 records. The Bulldogs were rarely challenged in the regular season, and outside of the 2008 road win over top-ranked Grand Valley State, really didn't pull any upsets to win the title. There was adversity in 2010, with injuries to Isaac Odim and Brad Foss and the playoff suspension of leading receiver D.J. Winfield. But UMD overcame it, beating Delta State for the national championship.

That late-season and playoff adversity was a harbinger of things to come for the football program. The 2011 season started well, with a road win over an amped-up Augustana team that was hell-bent on making up for last year's playoff loss in Duluth. The Bulldogs, though, fell to Wayne State (Nebraska) 7-0 in late September, marking their first NSIC loss since they rejoined the league when the North Central Conference died in 2007.

If that wasn't enough, UMD turned in its worst performance in years in losing to St. Cloud State 35-7 in October, marking UMD's first two-loss regular season since Bob Nielson returned as head coach. The Huskies were better than UMD in virtually every area, and the score really wasn't said to be deceiving.

However, the Bulldogs responded to both losses. After the Wayne game, UMD went to Bemidji and beat a good BSU squad. After they fell to St. Cloud State, UMD needed to win its remaining games to qualify for the Division II playoffs. The Bulldogs did that, including a solid win over Minnesota State in the season finale.

In the playoffs, UMD has shown its resiliency, its mental toughness, its mettle, whatever you want to call it. This might not be the most talented team Nielson has taken into the Division II playoffs, but they're tough and experienced, and they know how to win in the postseason.

Against Colorado State-Pueblo Saturday, we saw how tough this UMD team really is. Pueblo scored on its opening drive, then didn't score an offensive touchdown for the remainder of the first half. UMD's defense stiffened throughout the game, holding the potent Thunderwolves to just 224 yards, a season low.

The Bulldogs offense was content to grind things out, wearing down the smaller Pueblo front seven with a punishing ground game. Were it not for an errant snap that gave CSUP a touchdown right before halftime, there's a chance UMD could have won going away. Instead, the Bulldogs had to respond to that late touchdown, and they did on the opening drive of the third quarter, impressively going the length of the field for a go-ahead touchdown.

After a CSUP touchdown drive gave the Thunderwolves a 21-17 lead, UMD had to again respond to adversity. Quarterback Chase Vogler threw an interception in the end zone, giving CSUP the ball back after a long UMD drive that ended up empty. The defense came out -- desperately needing a stop -- and forced a three and out. After an Aaron Roth punt return touchdown was called back by a penalty, Vogler ripped off a 31-yard run that led to Brian Lucas' one-yard score to cap the scoring.

UMD might not be capable of overwhelming opponents, but Todd Strop's defense has developed into a very good group. They shut down MSU in the season finale, made the necessary stops late in the game against Saginaw Valley State, keeping the Cardinals from scoring a game-changing or game-winning touchdown on a couple occasions. But their best performance of the season may have come against Pueblo.

With Wayne State -- not the one from Nebraska, this one is from Michigan -- coming in on Saturday, look for more out of this defense. UMD isn't as potent offensively as in past years, so they're going to need it as the Bulldogs look to grind out three more wins and pick up what could end up being the most improbable of national championships.

It may be improbable to some, but it really shouldn't be surprising. Nielson's teams have been known for their toughness and resiliency through tough times, and this one may be the most impressive in that regard. Come playoff time, there is nothing at all wrong with a team leaning on its toughness and experience to win close games.

In fact, it's often the best way to win.

Monday, November 28, 2011

BCS Needs Help, Change

I've made no qualms about the fact that the BCS sucks. Hell, I typically refuse to seriously entertain arguments that it's good in any way for college football.

Back in 2006, Michigan and Florida were jousting for the final spot in the BCS title game against unbeaten and top-ranked (and, as it turned out, severely overrated) Ohio State. Michigan had lost its season finale to Ohio State in a nail-biter that came one day after the death of legendary former coach Bo Schembechler.

The Wolverines were still ahead of Florida in the BCS rankings, but Florida beat Arkansas Dec. 2 for the SEC title while Michigan and Ohio State watched TV. No. 2 USC lost to UCLA, shockingly taking itself out of the running.

That, naturally, brought on the politicking that makes the BCS so damn special to college football fans.

Remember when Florida was worried Michigan and Ohio State were going to meet in a rematch for the title? Here’s what Urban Meyer said that day:

"We’re going to tell a group of young men who just went 12-1 with the most difficult schedule against six ranked opponents that they don’t have a chance to go play for a national championship?” Florida coach Urban Meyer asked incredulously. “I’m going to need help with that one.”

Here’s then-freshman receiver Percy Harvin:

“Michigan already had its chance. I think we deserve a chance.”

And the best quote came from Florida President Bernie Machen (who is a playoff guy):

“If they don’t vote for us after tonight, we need a new system,” Florida President Bernie Machen said after the game. “We should be packing our bags for Glendale.”

Florida got in, largely because a number of voters decided that their win over Arkansas meant they were suddenly better than Michigan.

Now, of course, the lobbying is of a different sort. An Alabama team that is idle this weekend while the SEC, Big 10, and Pac 12 decide conference titles with championship games is expected to play LSU in the BCS title game Jan. 9. That game might actually be played even if LSU stubs its toe against Georgia Saturday.


The games this weekend don't count. At all. They have no bearing on the BCS, which prides itself on telling us how every game counts.

These games don't count, and apparently LSU's win over Alabama Nov. 5 meant nothing, too, because Alabama will get another shot at LSU.

I'm guilty of saying publicly that Alabama is the second-best team in the country, yes. But as Stewart Mandel writes this week, the BCS is choosing Alabama not because it's clearly deserving, or because the world is clamoring for another Alabama-LSU snoozefest.

Instead, the selection is about the past, and not the present. If you look at the case Mandel makes, it's not about the present. Oklahoma State has more wins against top 25 teams, more wins against top 50 teams, and actually (gasp) won its conference. Alabama didn't even win its division, much less its conference.

The system needs help. There is no easy way to determine a second-best team in a world where there is only one viable unbeaten (sorry, Houston). I'm not going to bang the playoff drum, because there's no point. People are either going to scream along with you or scream at you. There is no convincing the insane on this issue. They will continue to believe that every game counts in the BCS, and that there are no major issues with the bowl system.

Go ahead. Rally against facts, and against the truth. It wouldn't be the first time the majority believed in a lie.

Meanwhile, another season has gone by where the powers-that-be have ignored the obvious cash cow that is a college football playoff in favor of an inferior, corrupt, less lucrative bowl system that sucks half the life out of a sport a lot of people would love if only given the chance.

Oh, and we continue to judge teams that play different styles and different schedules by results of games that were played three, four, five, or more years ago.

Of course, this doesn't matter to the BCS. The SEC is king, the league that produces national champions. That voters already spoke loudly about a potential title game rematch five years ago is irrelevant. That, after all, involved the crappy Big 10. This involves the NFL-like SEC. And you know fans will flip their TVs on in droves to see another big SEC game morph into a field goal-kicking contest.

Since it's the BCS, that's all that matters in the end.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Enjoying the Holiday

This has been fun, I have to admit. I haven't even logged into the computer since early Thursday, and that was to look at Black Friday ads.

It's always good to get away, even if it's only for a couple days, and even if you don't necessarily go anywhere. We're hockey fans here, and I have a greater appreciation for the sport virtually every day I cover it.

But down time is a must, even if you don't do much to begin with.

Anyway, I don't have much for you this week. Didn't watch much of the televised games on Friday, which included Minnesota falling 4-3 at Michigan State, Denver shutting out Princeton 3-0, and North Dakota winning a goaltenders' duel over Colorado College, 7-6.

(All of a sudden, UMD is ahead of the mighty Gophers in the Pairwise. Hmm ... )

I will say that North Dakota looked rock-solid Friday in the third period. I thought they got away with some stick fouls while trying to hold off the Tigers late, but Brad Eidsness did a great job in relief of Aaron Dell, and UND found a way to get two points it really, really needed against a very good team.

There are concerns with this Fighting Sioux team. For starters, the team save percentage is .880, which is beyond bad and bordering on garish. Starter Dell has a save percentage of .875, which is 30 points below his career total, and 49 under his number (.924) from last season.

Defensively, this team is nowhere near where it needs to be. I know you know about Dave Hakstol's reputation as coach, so I won't bore you with it again. We know it's expected to improve. And it probably will improve. But it hasn't yet.

Seven goals against CC, though, is nothing to sneeze at. Perhaps the start of UND's annual surge to the top.


Friday's other WCHA game saw Alaska-Anchorage beat Minnesota State 5-4. In non-conference play, St. Lawrence beat Michigan Tech 3-2, and Wisconsin eased past Mercyhurst, 7-2. St. Cloud State and Nebraska-Omaha are playing a Saturday/Sunday series in Omaha.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sidney Crosby Return Lives Up To Hype

If the media had things the way the media would probably have wanted it, this wouldn't have played out the way it did.

Some 29 hours before the opening faceoff of Monday's Pittsburgh Penguins-New York Islanders game in Pittsburgh, the Penguins announced that captain/superstar/hockey lightning rod Sidney Crosby would be returning. Crosby was scheduled to play in a game for the first time since early January, when his MVP season was cut short by a concussion that wouldn't go away (presumptuous, maybe, but Sid had 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games, so saying he was on track for the MVP is probably quite the understatement).

Versus scuttled plans to televise Boston-Montreal (boring!). CBC scuttled plans to televise whatever CBC usually televises on Monday nights. They scrambled to get their broadcasters to Pittsburgh for the game, Versus sending Dave Strader and Pierre McGuire, while CBC went with the "A" team of Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson.

No one knew what to expect. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma talked of Sid playing 12 minutes. He was going to play between Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, his linemates last season. But would he have to kick off the rust, or would he quickly return to his old self?

The answer was quick. And it was as emphatic as it was quick.

It took all of 2:20 of ice time for Sidney Crosby to light the lamp.

Before the game, NHL Network's E.J. Hradek boldly predicted Sid would have three points. I was watching, and I wasn't so sure. After all, he wasn't going to have his normal ice time. He hadn't done anything at game speed since January.

The comeback from concussions eventually turns into a mental game. What would happen when Crosby was on the verge of getting hit. What would happen when he got hit hard? Would he shake it off and keep playing, or would there be doubts and questions about whether or not he was okay?

No worries. He took hits. He gave hits. He kept going, and he kept dazzling the home crowd in Pittsburgh.

It was a great show, even from the couch. Crosby did everything that made him the best player in the world before he was hurt. He has speed unlike virtually anyone else. His vision and smarts are second to none, too. But what makes Crosby great is that competitive drive, and it doesn't look like he's lost one bit of that drive.

From Bruce Arthur of The National Post:

And Crosby, once again, was able to soar to the occasion. A little over five minutes into his second hockey life, on his third shift, Crosby gathered a puck at speed in the neutral zone, raced right around defenceman Andrew MacDonald, and sliced a backhand over the glove hand of rookie goaltender Anders Nilsson. The clock froze at 5:24 and Crosby turned in the corner, flexed his arms, roared “F— yeah!” along with the crowd, turning the air a little blue.

He would add an assist on a Brooks Orpik one-timer that made it 2-0, and would pick up a secondary assist on the power-play goal by Evgeni Malkin that made it 3-0. He would win a puck battle, create space, and send a knuckling backhand that deflected off the leg of Islanders defenceman Steve Staios for the game’s final goal. Four points, and he could have had more — twice he set up teammates who hit the post. He kept displaying his old terrifying speed, his drive, his relentlessness. Like old times.

“The first draw — it’s a faceoff and he battles like it’s the last draw of the season,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

“I felt like I was waiting forever,” said Crosby, who played just 15:54. “And I kind of was, in a way. I’ll have a great memory of this one for a lot of different reasons.”

Sure, the Islanders looked like a team that was a ladder and a bucket of confetti away from playing the Harlem Globetrotters. But it’s easy to forget that as recently as Sept. 7, Crosby didn’t absolutely rule out the possibility of retirement.

It was an incredible night for the sport, one that brought it plenty of attention it wouldn't normally get.

At the tail-end of November, that's hardly a bad thing.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Video: Aaron Crandall Does Something Called 'The Bernie'

During timeouts at Amsoil Arena, there are often things put on the Jumbotron meant to engage the fans and get them involved.

Fans are encouraged to kiss each other, dance, and on Saturday, they were implored to do something called "The Bernie."

Thanks to the recent 1980s classic movie "Weekend at Bernie's," we have a dance craze on our hands.

Just ask UMD sophomore goalie Aaron Crandall.

That might have been the loudest the crowd was all night after UMD scored four goals in :96 on its way to a 7-3 win.

BlogPoll Ballot


Nothing at all against anyone else, but come on. I might be stubborn, but a loss doesn't make me any less of a believer in Oklahoma State's ability to beat anyone ranked below them on this list.

Not only that, but how funny is it going to be when Auburn beats Alabama, leading to Oklahoma State getting a title shot after Arkansas gets pantsed by LSU?

Gotta love BCS chaos. Not that it ever does any good besides producing a chuckle or three.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Game 14: Minnesota State at UMD

Let's make it ten, shall we?



Seidel - Connolly - Basaraba
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Crandall (Justin) - Hendrickson - Grun
Krause - Tardy - Flaherty

Bergman - Lamb
Kishel - Casto
Olson - McManus

Reiter - Crandall (Aaron) - Gaffy

Mueller - Zuck - Dorr
Burkemper - Lehrke - Hayes
Lafontaine - Leitner - Gaede
McInnis - Jokinen - Leivermann

Louwerse - Schiller
Palmquist - Mosey
Nelson - Knoll

Cook - Lee

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Lining Up For Seconds

Yeah, it's cheesy. I don't care.

UMD ran its unbeaten streak to nine with a 5-2 win over Minnesota State Friday at Amsoil Arena. It was a game that featured a little bit of everything, including an absolutely unstoppable second line for UMD.

Two weeks ago, coach Scott Sandelin put Travis Oleksuk at center after a few games as a left wing on Jack Connolly's top line. Sandelin reunited Oleksuk with his right wing from virtually all of last season, J.T. Brown, and he put freshman Caleb Herbert at left wing on that line.

While Jack Connolly has enjoyed a bit of a surge as of late with Mike Seidel and Joe Basaraba, that second line has been forgotten about to an extent.

Until Friday.

Oleksuk's line struck four times Friday night, with Herbert scoring twice, and Brown and Oleksuk each tallying once.

Simply put, it was a matchup nightmare for Minnesota State, one that Troy Jutting couldn't escape until the clock had run out to end the game. For much of the night, his experienced line of Eli Zuck, Adam Mueller, and Michael Dorr was matched up against Oleksuk's line, and they just couldn't do very much. Mueller scored a late goal to make it a 5-2 game, but the three were a garish minus-nine combined. They would have been minus-12 if Mueller hadn't picked up that relatively meaningless goal.

Herbert scored the game's first goal off a really nice snipe from the left circle, a low shot to beat MSU goalie Austin Lee. Brown made it 2-0 in the second period with a great move around Lee and a backhanded shot into an empty net. Herbert scored off a defenseman late in the second period to make it 3-0. Oleksuk capped UMD's side of the scoring in the third.

The three combined for four goals, seven points, and a plus-11 for the game.

It was a tremdendous effort for UMD, one that looked perilous in the first period, when MSU outshot the home team 21-9. Taking away power play chances, the Mavericks outshot UMD 12-1 even strength. UMD made some adjustments and played much better defensively the rest of the game, outshooting MSU 25-15 in the last 40 minutes.

Efforts like that from Oleksuk's line are always great for UMD, because it creates more opportunities down the line for Connolly's line. In the case of Friday, it created a matchup nightmare for Minnesota State, and we'll see if Jutting can find a counter to it in Saturday's game.


UMD is one point back of the Gophers in the WCHA after Minnesota fell 4-3 to St. Cloud State Friday night. Kent Patterson gave up four goals on 13 shots over the first two periods, but was out-dueled by Ryan Faragher, who stopped 40 Minnesota shots.

Denver bested Nebraska-Omaha 7-3, scoring all their goals over the first two periods. Also in the Mountain time zone, Colorado College got by Wisconsin 4-2 in Colorado Springs.

In Anchorage, Alaska-Anchorage got its first WCHA win, beating Michigan Tech 3-1. The Huskies have played three road games this season and lost them all, while the Seawolves won for the first time since going 3-0-1 at tournaments in Anchorage and Fairbanks to start the season.


Congratulations to UMD coach Scott Sandelin, who picked up his 200th career win Friday night. It's not all about him, and he'd be the first to tell you that. But it's a significant accomplishment, and well worth mentioning.


Also, UMD has signed five players to letters of intent, all of whom are playing in the USHL. Forwards Tony Camaranesi, Cal Dekowski, and Austyn Young have signed, along with defensemen Willie Corrin and Andy Welinski.

All five players hail from Minnesota, with the forwards all from the Twin Cities area, Corrin from International Falls, and Welinski from Duluth.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Game 13: Minnesota State at UMD

Hopefully everyone drove carefully. Slick on the side streets with snow falling that wasn't exactly in the forecast. At least not for Friday.

Minnesota State is in town, hoping to end a six-game winless streak in Duluth by succeeding in its first game inside Amsoil Arena.



Seidel - Connolly - Basaraba
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Crandall (Justin) - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Flaherty

Bergman - Lamb
Kishel - Casto
Olson - Johnson

Reiter - Crandall (Aaron) - Gaffy

Mueller - Zuck - Dorr
Burkemper - Lehrke - Hayes
Lafontaine - Leitner - Gaede
McInnis - Jokinen - Leivermann

Louwerse - Schiller
Palmquist - Mosey
Nelson - Knoll

Lee - Cook

UMD Ready For Odyssey

UMD has only had two road trips so far this season. The Bulldogs will get to spend a lot of time on buses coming up in the next two months.

This weekend, UMD hosts Minnesota State at Amsoil Arena. Once we hope to hear "Holiday Road" after a UMD win and (again, hopefully) get a stick salute Saturday, it will be the last time Amsoil Arena's lights come on for a UMD men's home game until January.

Late January.

It will be eight weeks before the Bulldogs host Alabama-Huntsville Jan. 20-21.

Over those eight weeks, the Bulldogs will play four road series and have four weekends (next weekend, and then three weekends for Christmas break) off.

It's a lot of bus travel, with one plane trip (Western Michigan), and a lot of team bonding.

As for the 14-game run to start the season, so far it's gone pretty well. UMD is 7-3-2 on the season, and the Bulldogs are unbeaten in eight heading into this series against the Mavericks.

While Minnesota State certainly presents some challenges, there's no question UMD is favored to win. So far, UMD has played that role well, sweeping Bemidji State and Alaska-Anchorage for eight huge points on home ice, and UMD also got a win and a tie at Providence, which still stands as the Friars' only blemishes at home (6-1-1 at Schneider Arena).

It's tough to get a read on this MSU team. The Mavericks have dealt with a rash of injuries, and they're clearly a tough-minded, gutty team, because after a 10-2 blowout loss at Denver in which the Mavs only had 14 healthy skaters at the end, things have started to turn around.

MSU got a win at Michigan Tech -- the Huskies' only home loss so far -- and also beat St. Cloud State at home last weekend.

Freshman JP Lafontaine (uncle Pat might be somewhat familiar to hockey fans) is their leading scorer, and he's not the typical big, bruising, Backes-like power forward MSU has sported in the past. Instead, Lafontaine is more like his uncle, a guy who could fly on a pair of skates. This kid can go, and his skating ability will challenge UMD's defense this weekend.

Guys like Zach Lehrke, Michael Dorr, and Adam Mueller are smaller guys who can move and make plays. They will challenge UMD, but the Bulldogs should be up to the test.

The defense has played well for the most part, limiting scoring chances and protecting the front of the net very well. When they have broken down, Kenny Reiter (1.23 goals against, .955 saves over eight starts) has been more than good lately.

To run the unbeaten streak to ten, UMD needs to keep building off the good things they've been doing. Jack Connolly has been very good lately, and the Bulldogs' third line (Hendrickson centering Crandall and Grun) continues to set a great example for the rest of the team with its work ethic and ability to create turnovers off the forecheck.

Enjoy the games this weekend. Unless you have satellite TV, a really good cable package, and/or are willing to fork over for online coverage, you're stuck with me for the next eight games. Smiley

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

UMD Players Honored by WCHA

For the second straight week, UMD is front-and-center as the WCHA releases its weekly individual awards.

This time, the Bulldogs are double-dipping, with players of the week on both ends of the ice. Here is the press release from the league:

Veteran forward Jack Connolly, who figured in on half of the University of Minnesota Duluth's eight goals in a two-game conference home-ice sweep of Alaska Anchorage last weekend, has been named the Red Baron® WCHA Offensive Player of the Week for November 15.

A 5-8, 170-pound senior from Duluth, Minn., Connolly scored two goals and set up two others for four points while extending his personal scoring streak to 10 games as the defending national champion Bulldogs pushed their unbeaten streak to eight games (6-0-2). He scored a power-play goal and earned an assist on teammate Joe Basaraba's winner in the series-opening 5-0 victory over the Seawolves last Friday (Nov. 11) and then duplicated that feat the following evening (Nov. 12) as Minnesota Duluth prevailed 3-1 over UAA to complete the sweep. In addition to his four points, Connolly fired four shots on goal and earned a +2 plus/minus rating.

A two-time All-WCHA First Team honoree and a 2011 Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist, Connolly is tied for second in scoring among WCHA players overall this season with 17 points (6g, 11a) in 12 games. Over his 137-game UMD career, he has recorded 154 points (52g, 102a).

University of Minnesota Duluth goaltender Kenny Reiter, who extended his scoreless streak to a school-record 166:45 while backstopping the Bulldogs to a two-game sweep over visiting league rival Alaska Anchorage last weekend, has been honored as the Red Baron® WCHA Defensive Player of the Week. This marks the second straight week Reiter has earned the conference's Defensive Player of the Week honor.

A 6-0, 175-pound senior from Pittsburgh, Pa., Reiter posted his second consecutive shutout and third in the last four games last Friday (Nov. 11) night while stopping all 27 shots on goal as defending national champion UMD blanked the visiting Seawolves, 5-0. Then last Saturday (Nov. 12) in a 3-1 Bulldogs' victory, Reiter finally surrendered his first goal in 166:45 of action when the Seawolves' Eric Scheid scored at 5:18 of the first period. He went on to stop 33 of 34 shots on goal in that game. The 166:45 scoreless streak is a school record, topping by exactly 19 minutes the previous mark set by All-American Alex Stalock from March 19-27, 2009.

Over his last eight games, Reiter owns a 6-0-2 record, a 1.23 goals-against average and a .955 saves percentage. Overall this season, the three-time WCHA Scholar-Athlete is 7-2-2 with a 2.05 gaa and .923 sv%. His career mark at UMD of 36-19-7 (.637) is the second best winning percentage in club history behind former All-American Rick Kosti's .753 figure (60-18-2) between 1983-85. 

The Bulldogs are unbeaten in eight. Reiter has been incredible over that stretch, but Connolly is playing some great hockey right now. His last three games have been probably his best of the season. He seems more engaged on both ends of the ice, and the captain has very good chemistry with linemates Joe Basaraba and Mike Seidel.

It's hard to imagine Connolly exceeding expectations in a season where "Hobey Baker" is listed among the expectations, but he's leading by example right now. By stepping up his game and cementing himself as UMD's best player, he's also making his linemates better. The pass he made to Basaraba for the first goal Friday was something to behold. Give Joe credit for getting to the right spot, but that pass had no margin for error, and it was perfect.

Connolly and the Bulldogs host Minnesota State at Amsoil Arena this weekend. It's the last chance for UMD fans to see the team play at home until late January, as UMD will play eight straight road games over two months starting in Houghton in two weeks.

(Four road series and four off weeks over eight. Thanks for that, WCHA scheduling person.)

Is Leslie Frazier In Over His Head?

I've tried not to harp too much on this year's NFL happenings, mainly because I completely whiffed on the NFC North, outside of Green Bay.

I am not going to rub anyone's face in the Packers' success. It's been a lot of fun to watch, and it's probably not a lot of fun for a lot of the readers of this blog, many of whom are not Packers fans.

I thought Minnesota would be good. I actually thought they could compete for a playoff spot.

I was dead wrong.

Minnesota is simply a bad team. The Vikings don't have any serious play-making receivers, a porous offensive line, and they are incredibly weak and thin in the secondary, especially at safety.

There are players on this team. Adrian Peterson is a beast, Jared Allen is having a huge season, Brian Robison is a real upgrade on Ray Edwards, Kevin Williams -- even injured -- can go, and while Chad Greenway isn't dynamic in any way at linebacker, he's reliable and very solid.

But it's not enough. The Vikings made a bad move at quarterback with Donovan McNabb, paid for it with a poor start to the season, and rookie Christian Ponder is quickly finding out that it wasn't McNabb's fault that plays weren't being made downfield.

So there are real concerns about the talent. But how much of this can be pinned on head coach Leslie Frazier?

At times, it looks like Frazier's in over his head a bit, like the job of head coach is too big for him to handle. There are times where the Vikings have looked unprepared for games, as if they don't understand how to handle their opposition.

One of those times was Monday night. In a perfect storm of sorts for Frazier, the Vikings were on national television (ESPN) against a rival (Green Bay) and coming off a bye week. Losing 45-7 in that situation just looks bad for Frazier and the entire staff.

But it's not that simple. Look at what Frazier took over.

We're in a passing league nowadays. The Vikings' problems are magnified because of the lack of receivers who can make plays at this level. While Aaron Rodgers is posting obscene passer ratings week after week (he's at 130.2 for the season), and it seems everyone is throwing the ball with great success, the Vikings can't move the ball through the air. Even with Ponder on board, they're going to find it excessively difficult to even present the threat of a passing game that can take heat off Peterson and the ground game.

These problems existed before, but having a quarterback in Brett Favre who could throw a ball 50 yards into a moving wastebasket helps mask such deficiencies. Guys that don't come around every day, and Favre made a rather pedestrian group of Vikings receivers look like stars. Sidney Rice's heyday helped, too, because his big-play ability on the outside took a lot of coverage away from Percy Harvin.

Now, Harvin -- not the best receiver when playing outside the slot -- is much more limited in what he can do. The injuries he keeps battling don't help, either.

Those are circumstances beyond Frazier's control, and they shouldn't be held against him when conducting a fair evaluation of his coaching acumen.

Did the Vikings look unprepared Monday night, or were they just overwhelmed by a team far superior in every area of the game? The defense permitted just ten points in the first half (remember, the first touchdown was a punt return). They kept Rodgers at bay as much as anyone has in the last year-plus, outside of the Bears and maybe Philadelphia in last year's Wild Card game. It was a good effort, and the Vikings had a 17-0 hole to show for it. That's a hole that was on the offense, not the defense, which did everything it could to keep the team in the game despite being overmatched on paper.

To rip Frazier for offensive shortcomings that appear to be talent-driven and not coach- or coordinator-driven seems unfair. Holding the defense responsible for those shortcomings also seems unfair. Yeah, the Packers rolled up 28 points in the second half, and didn't appear to be really trying in the fourth quarter while scoring the last 14. But saying that and putting it on the head coach is convenient, when that same team held the Packers to ten offensive points in the first 30 minutes.

Frazier might look like he's in over his head, but it's amazing what a couple good drafts can do to the perception people have of a coach. Mike McCarthy, who looked to be on the hot seat that national pundits love so much just a year or so ago, is lauded now as a genius. He earned a chunk of that praise, coaching a team full of injured stars to a championship last year. But part of it is the talent level that Ted Thompson has accumulated on the roster.

In the NFL, people like to say teams take on the personality of the coach. It's a convenient argument usually only thrown around when a team is losing and the coach appears stoic on the sidelines. When the bluster-filled, energetic coach can't win, no one seems to want to roll out this argument.

I'm not saying Frazier is the answer in Minnesota. I'm saying 15 games -- counting his time as interim head coach last year -- isn't enough to make that judgment.

Monday, November 14, 2011

BlogPoll Ballot

Here goes ...

Nice kicker, Boise State.

And, no, I'm not rating TCU ahead of Boise State. And I'm not rating Baylor ahead of TCU. I don't care what the head-to-head results show.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Game 12: Alaska-Anchorage at UMD

UMD is trying for a second straight home series sweep. A win and a Minnesota loss leaves UMD one point out of the top spot in the WCHA, not that it will stop much of the Twin Cities contingent from kneeling before their favorite hockey team.



Seidel - Connolly - Basaraba
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Crandall (Justin) - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Flaherty

Bergman - Lamb
Kishel - Casto
Olson - Johnson

Reiter - Crandall (Aaron) - Gaffy

Allen - Scheid - Currier
Spencer - Gellert - Cameron
Leinweber - Bailey - Bruijsten

Portwood - Naslund - Mellor

Warner - Karl
Docken - Gorham
Coldwell - Sproule

Kamal - Gunderson

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: We're Goin' Streaking!

Sorry. Sometimes I can't resist.

The streaking UMD Bulldogs bamboozled Alaska-Anchorage early and cruised to a 5-0 win at Amsoil Arena Friday night. UMD scored three goals in a span of less than two minutes in the first period, added one more later in the period, and then put the game in auto-pilot.

Kenny Reiter set a school record by running his scoreless streak to over 160 minutes. He'll carry that into Saturday's game, which is likely to be his tenth straight start in UMD's goal. I've already written a few superlatives about Reiter's recent play, and I'm not going to bore you with more.

As coach Scott Sandelin told me Wednesday, this isn't the NHL or even major junior, where you play enough games that you'd have to think about the potential of wearing down a goalie. Two games a week isn't going to do that to these kids. Minnesota isn't sitting Kent Patterson anytime soon, and as long as Reiter is putting up these kinds of numbers, he shouldn't be on the pine, either.

UMD got goals from five different players -- though it sure seems like Travis Oleksuk scored the second goal, which was credited officially to Chris Casto -- and the defensive contributions continue. Casto got that second goal, Brady Lamb had two assists, and Wade Bergman had an assist.

The Bulldogs started a tad sluggishly Friday, but quickly turned on the jets to a level UAA simply couldn't match. Jack Connolly threw a beauty of a pass to set up Joe Basaraba for the first goal, then Oleksuk's line -- with J.T. Brown and Caleb Herbert -- turned on the forecheck. A failed clearing attempt led to Casto's quick shot from the right point, one that looked relatively harmless until it was in the net. Before the game was seven minutes old, Connolly one-timed a superb pass from Scott Kishel to make it 3-0 and force Alaska-Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak to change goalies.

Chris Kamal played well in relief of Rob Gunderson, but he can't score goals for his team. The Seawolves were largely inept offensively for most of the night, and unless Kamal plays out of his mind in Saturday's finale, UAA better find a way to generate more of an attack than it did for most of Friday.

Sandelin told Kevin Pates after the game that he still wants his team to play better. It's not necessarily coach-speak, because UMD was in cruise control for most of the night, and outside of some great forechecking from Jake Hendrickson's line (with Justin Crandall and David Grun), the Bulldogs really didn't do much on a consistent basis.

Such is life when you take a 4-0 lead less than 13 minutes into a game. UAA couldn't really do anything positive to carry over into the series finale, which means it wasn't all bad. Like I told my wife, most of the time it's okay if a game is boring when your team has a 4-0 lead in the first period. Most of the scenarios that could make that type of game exciting -- comeback, big fight leading to injuries and/or suspensions -- are not good things.

UMD will need to match the opponent's intensity Saturday, though. No question UAA will be better, especially when it comes to one-on-one battles, many of which the Seawolves uncharacteristically lost Friday. Against Bemidji State two weeks ago, UMD struggled to match the improved level of play from the opponent after a Friday blowout. This time around, we'll see if UMD can pass the test.

If the Bulldogs do, we'll keep talking about this unbeaten streak for another week. I think we're all just fine with that idea.


Elsewhere, the Gophers figured out that you can indeed lose a game once in a while, falling 3-1 at Wisconsin.

The Badgers rang up a three-spot on eight shots in the second period, and that was enough to send Minnesota to its first WCHA loss, cutting their league lead to three points over UMD and about 15 other teams (okay, three). The Gophers offense, which is virtually unstoppable according to a gaggle of Twin Cities hockey geniuses, has scored 24 goals in seven league games, exactly three fewer than UMD in the same number of games. Looks like the Sacred Heart Offensive Inflation Factor -- which benefits everyone but Air Force, I guess -- is coming into play here.

Bemidji State got a goal from the vastly-underrated Jordan George in the final minute to tie Nebraska-Omaha 3-3 at home. The Beavers kept UNO from taking sole possession of second place in the league.

Minnesota State won its second straight, topping St. Cloud State 4-2. I think the Huskies are really going to miss injured captain Drew LeBlanc, especially with Mike Lee already on the shelf for them. Meanwhile, MSU might not have the most talented group they've ever had, but you have to give credit to the Mavericks for playing their tails off to rally back from a terrible start and a bunch of injuries.

Colorado College plays Denver Saturday night in Denver for a single game on the weekend. Michigan Tech and North Dakota are off, which means the Fighting Sioux will get a normal week out of their offense.

(Sorry, I had to play that card while I could. By February, this 1-5 WCHA start will be a distant memory for UND.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Game 11: Alaska-Anchorage at UMD

Should be an interesting weekend, as a desperate Seawolves team tries to break a four-game slide against a UMD group that hasn't lost in six.

Start of a four-game homestand at Amsoil Arena, which will be followed by eight straight road games (in wondrous locales like Houghton and Kalamazoo) spread out over two months before UMD returns home in January.



Seidel - Connolly - Basaraba
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Crandall (Justin) - Hendrickson - Grun
Krause - Tardy - Flaherty

Bergman - Lamb
Kishel - Casto
Olson - Smith

Reiter - Crandall (Aaron) - Gaffy

Portwood - Naslund - Crowell
Spencer - Gellert - Mellor
Allen - Scheid - Pettitt
Leinweber - Bailey - Bruijsten

Warner - Gorham
Sproule - Karl
Coldwell - Docken

Gunderson - Kamal

UMD Faces Physical Challenge

For the UMD men's hockey team, there have already been tests this season. Their speed was tested against Notre Dame. The series against Minnesota -- especially the outcome -- tested their mettle. Providence was the first road trip, and it tested UMD's ability to play a patient game and play in front of a less-than-ideal atmosphere. Bemidji State tested the Bulldogs' patience even more, and Denver tested UMD's conditioning and provided another opportunity for the team to show its mettle.

This weekend, UMD plays what is likely its most physical opponent to date in Alaska-Anchorage. I'm not basing that off long studies of tape. I haven't seen this UAA team. I'm basing it off what I've seen in each of my previous six years calling these games. I can't imagine it's much different now.

Dave Shyiak will demand that this team work hard, finish checks, and make life miserable for the UMD players, just like he always does. That means that the Bulldogs will need to bring the pain themselves. They need Tim Smith, Brady Lamb, Chris Casto, and other big bodies to throw the lumber early and often in this series. Protect your skill players (though J.T. Brown and Travis Oleksuk don't exactly shy away from contact), and make sure no one dictates anything to the home team.

It's not fancy, and it's certainly not pretty. Instead, for UMD, it's the way they have to play to win. It's something UMD did very well last year, and they are 3-0-1 this year playing teams that don't exactly want to play a skating game. UAA fits that bill, though they certainly have some guys who can skate.

Mickey Spencer has five goals already, and Daniel Naslund can move. They have a couple smaller forwards who likely will mold into Kevin Clark-type players that simply drive opponents nuts with their scoring ability and general competitiveness.

The Seawolves also have experience and talent in goal. Sophomores Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal don't have sexy numbers, but Kamal flat-out stole games against the Gophers last year, and Gunderson has his share of wins, too. Shyiak has the luxury of being able to play either goalie and know he will have a chance to win the hockey game.


Don't expect a lot of lineup changes for UMD Friday, especially up front. At practice this week, the forward lines from Saturday were intact, and if there is a change to the lineup at all, it will be at that sixth defensive position that has been occupied by three different guys -- Luke McManus, Derik Johnson, and Tim Smith -- so far.

Kenny Reiter will start in goal. UMD coach Scott Sandelin talked Wednesday about the fact that they have stuck with Reiter so far, and he has made it pay off. Sophomore Aaron Crandall hasn't exactly been playing poorly in practice, and he continues to push for playing time. Sandelin was non-committal Wednesday when asked about maybe getting Crandall in a game before Thanksgiving, something that I could certainly see happening, even if UMD stays hot.

That said, they are going to stick with Reiter at least in the here and now.


UMD has a couple special events surrounding Friday's game. You probably know about the camouflage jersey auction happening throughout. If you aren't attending the game, you can still take part in the auction. Defending the Blue Line has set up a couple numbers for call-in bids during the game. They are (651) 253-6737 and (651) 829-1827.

The charity will post live updates on its website during the auction.

In addition, a toy drive will be going on to benefit Toyland Express. Please bring a new, unwrapped toy if you are attending Friday's game.


UMD has not announced 2012-13 recruits that signed during the early signing period, which started Wednesday. Goalie Matt McNeely -- currently with Cedar Rapids of the USHL -- has already signed to play with UMD. The other recruits are expected to sign by the end of the signing period, at which point UMD will announce them.

I know that a lot of you care about recruiting. It was one of the early lessons I picked up when I took this job, because I never really covered recruiting in the past. I still probably don't spend as much time on it as some of you would like, but I will post on the recruits once we get the official word.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Kenny Reiter Cements Spot in UMD History

It was really good to see UMD respond like it did last weekend in Denver.

Down 1-0 after 64 seconds, 2-0 later in the first, and eventually 3-1 in the second period, the Bulldogs had nothing going offensively. Head coach Scott Sandelin decided to mix up UMD's lines, and the changes worked.

UMD scored two power-play goals to force a 3-3 tie Friday. The Bulldogs then used their newly-drawn lines for the entire game Saturday, cruising to a 4-0 win.

The line changes became a bit of a story over the weekend, and justifiably so. For those who didn't hear, Sandelin took Travis Oleksuk off Jack Connolly's line and put him back to center, then moved Caleb Herbert and J.T. Brown to his wings. Connolly now centers Mike Seidel and Joe Basaraba. You can expect to see more of these lines in the Alaska-Anchorage series this weekend.

But equal or greater to all that was the play of senior goalie Kenny Reiter.

After struggling in his first three starts (two losses), Reiter has caught fire as of late. In leading UMD to a six-game unbeaten streak entering this weekend's games, Reiter has posted a .944 save percentage and stopped 151 of 160 shots.

Reiter has shutouts in his last two Saturday appearances, giving him eight for his career. That's one off the school record. He has also taken the top spot all-time in save percentage (.912) and goals against (2.34) entering this weekend, besting former UMD All-American Alex Stalock.

This isn't to say that Reiter is automatically a better goalie or a better NHL prospect than Stalock. They're different goalies with different strengths who played on different teams at UMD. Stalock didn't have the benefit of guys like Connolly, Connolly, Fontaine, Oleksuk, or others for most of his UMD starts. The 2007-2008 team he started for was one of the worst offensive teams UMD has ever had, and Stalock kept them in virtually every game they played.

Reiter, meanwhile, has a ring, which counts for something. He's been pretty consistent, and he's worked his way up to this job. He didn't have Stalock-ian hype coming in, and when he eventually earned the right to start most of the games for UMD, it came after virtually everyone assumed that someone else would take the job and hold it for a couple years.

He's at his best when he's fighting through screens to see the puck, and he's become quite capable of playing the puck, even if he'll never be able to hold a candle to the never-boring Stalock in that department.

Instead of just accepting his fate as a backup, Reiter established himself as at least an equal to Brady Hjelle from the start of the 2009-2010 season. By year's end, he was far and away UMD's best option in goal, getting the call in the WCHA playoffs against Colorado College and in the Final Five against North Dakota. That last game -- a 2-0 loss -- might have been Reiter's best of the season. UMD could do little offensively, but were in a scoreless draw deep into the third period thanks to Reiter's stout play in net. Hjelle transferred to Ohio State, where he isn't exactly stinking up the joint early in the season (.938 save percentage in three games).

If Reiter can keep up his current level of play, he will hold three major UMD career goaltending records (save percentage, goals against, shutouts) when he's done at the end of this season. He will also become the men's hockey program's first-ever four-time WCHA Scholar Athlete.

It's hard not to be impressed by that.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Derek Boogaard Will Be Honored by Wild

Not a surprise, but I'll throw the information out there for all those interested. Sellouts and full houses have been hard to find in St. Paul this season, but I think it would be really nice if we could fill the XCel Energy Center for this.

The Minnesota Wild announced plans Tuesday to honor former player Derek Boogaard, who died in May.

The plans surround Minnesota's home game against Calgary, scheduled for Nov. 27 at 5 p.m.

Here is the announcement from the team.

On November 27, Minnesota Wild fans will get one more chance to say goodbye and to remember Derek Boogaard, the beloved tough guy who called Minnesota home for most of his professional career.

Boogaard, who tragically passed away in May, will be honored in a special pre-game ceremony prior to the Wild hosting the Calgary Flames at 5:00 that Sunday afternoon. Boogaard's parents Joanne and Len, siblings Aaron, Krysten, Ryan and Chris and grandparents Peter and Nancy are scheduled to be in attendance when the team shows a tribute video during the ceremony.

On the ice, Boogaard was one of the most feared enforcers in the game. Off the ice, he was one of the most charitable and friendliest players to wear a Wild sweater. One of his biggest passions was the support of Defending The Blue Line, a non-profit charitable foundation whose mission is to ensure that children of military members are afforded every opportunity to participate in the great game of hockey. Military personnel wishing to to attend the game can purchase lower level tickets at a special price of $45.

While at the game, all fans in attendance will receive a Derek Boogaard poster featuring a re-production of a painting of "The Boogeyman" by sports artist Robert Blehert. They can also visit a Boogaard tribute in the main concourse near Gate 3 and adjacent to a similar tribute to former Wild player Sergei Zholtok.

The team will also unveil a commemorative Boogaard tribute T-shirt and puck along with releasing a limited number of Boogaard autographed items and game worn jerseys on November 27. Proceeds from the sale of these items will benefit Defending The Blue Line.

For more information on Defending The Blue Line, go to www.defendingtheblueline.org.

No Matter Their Reasons, Twins Got This One Right

As we get wound up for the hot stove season in baseball*, the Minnesota Twins made their first significant move of the offseason Monday.

(* - Yes, I know free agency has started, but nothing of note generally happens until after the winter meetings.)

The Twins' move doesn't involve a player. Instead, the team has gone to its past to try to save its future.

General manager Bill Smith was fired Monday, with the team citing the always-mysterious "philosophical differences" in making the announcement. Former general manager Terry Ryan -- who served in that capacity from 1994-2007 -- is taking over on an interim basis.

"Philosophical differences" doesn't tell us much. Thankfully, 1500 ESPN's Phil Mackey did some digging on the matter.

Smith was fired, according to sources with knowledge of the team's thinking, because he simply had lost the confidence of the people around and underneath him within the organization.

... The firing, however, had nothing to do with a drop in payroll, sources said -- Smith was told, with no qualms, that the payroll would dip from $115 million to approximately $100 million. Turning a 99-loss team into a contender with a limited free-agent budget is a tall task, as the Twins are already tied up for about $80 million, but Smith did not push back in that regard.

The firing also had nothing to do with the addition of former Cincinnati Reds' GM Wayne Krivsky as a pro scout and adviser -- Smith actually facilitated that move perhaps more aggressively than anyone in the organization, one source said.

There was just a growing sense within the organization that Smith was not the right man to turn things around going forward -- a notion his successor Terry Ryan laments, because he was the one who recommended Smith to be his own successor in the first place.

Unquestionably, this is a sensitive issue for everyone involved, especially considering that Smith replaced Ryan, and now we're seeing the script flipped for the world to see.

The Twins had no choice here, especially if Mackey's report rings true (no reason to think it doesn't). The organization hasn't been moving forward lately. It's been moving the other direction. Minnesota hasn't drafted terribly well, and the players they have drafted haven't been making the kind of impact that they should.

I'm not saying the Twins can't grow prospects. Certainly, guys like Denard Span, Ben Revere, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau have done a lot of good things. But the Twins don't have the rotation ace they need, the bullpen they should have, and they haven't developed an impact position player since Kubel. He's been around long enough to be eligible for free agency, so that should tell you something.

The Twins denied permission to the Orioles to speak with scouting director Mike Radcliff about their front-office overhaul last week. It makes you think that Radcliff might be in play for the "permanent" job in Minnesota.

But is that the right way to go? It's not like the Twins are overwhelmed with prospects, and that's on the scouting guy, at least in part. Perhaps there were issues here with Smith (speculation) trying to control too much, and then this all makes more sense.

Hats off to the Twins, who didn't take any shots at Smith or reveal whatever the issue was with him. It's something more specific than "philosophical differences," but there's no point in tearing the man down more than firing him already did.

No matter the motivation, Twins brass got it right. Ryan is a good baseball man, and a loyal Twins employee. He thinks this can be fixed quickly, and we can only hope he's right. It went south in a hurry, and hopefully it can go north just as fast.

Monday, November 07, 2011

BlogPoll Ballot

Here it is for this week.

Quickly, the reason I kept Alabama at No. 2 ...

Simply put, I think they're better than everyone ranked below them. To me, the standard has always been "Who would win on a neutral field?" In this case, Alabama gets the nod because I'm certain that Boise State, Oklahoma State, and Stanford would come up short on a neutral field. I don't care that Alabama lost to LSU, because that simply means LSU is better. Doesn't mean unbeaten teams that I don't think are as good are automatically better than Alabama.

Elsewhere, a very "meh" weekend. Nothing of real note in the poll.

The Big Ten still stinks.