Thursday, November 03, 2011

UMD Visits Once-Familiar Grounds

DENVER -- It's a road trip that became quite familiar for the UMD Bulldogs a few years ago. Between March 10, 2006, and Nov. 8, 2008, UMD played 11 games in Denver (4-7 record). Buoyed by two playoff series here, it was UMD's most-visited venue in that timespan.

Since Nov. 8, 2008, the Bulldogs have played as many games at Magness Arena as they have at Wessman Arena.


It's an odd scheduling quirk. The WCHA schedule for 2009-10 was set in a way that UMD wouldn't be visiting Denver. We all knew that going in. But when the league expanded to 12 teams for 2010-11, it meant the schedule rotation would be remade. That new rotation had UMD not going to Denver last year, too.

As a result, only three players who were on board UMD's bus to the Twin Cities and subsequent Delta flight to Denver who have played in Denver before. Senior captain Jack Connolly and defensemen Brady Lamb and Scott Kishel were all freshmen on that 2008-09 UMD squad. Connolly played both games of that weekend set, which was swept by Denver by scores of 5-1 and 2-1. Lamb was on the blue line for the Friday game, while Kishel played Saturday.

The rest of the roster is walking into practically a foreign environment this weekend, almost as if they are visiting a non-conference venue.

It's a strange twist on what became an enjoyable rivalry.

(The teams met so often that they had no choice but to develop a distaste for one another.)

This weekend, UMD and Denver meet again, and the stakes are somewhat high for this early in the season. The Pioneers lost and tied last weekend at Michigan Tech.

"Last weekend, I thought there were some areas where we were sorely lacking, especially in the compete level," head coach George Gwozdecky told me this week. "We've been working on that area of our game this week."

Gwozdecky has made no secret of this fact, so we all know he is expecting his team to come out and compete harder this weekend than they did last weekend. It should be no surprise to the visitors if it actually happens.

Expect UMD to be ready. They have answered challenges of a different kind the last two weeks, going unbeaten (3-0-1) against opponents (Providence and Bemidji State) that play a grinding style of hockey that UMD typically struggles against.

Denver isn't afraid to try to grind games out, but the Pioneers usually lean more toward a skating game, one that UMD is better-suited for.

The Bulldogs will keep the OCB line intact, and hopefully they're as hungry this weekend as they were Friday, when the line of Jack Connolly, Travis Oleksuk, and J.T. Brown skated circles around Bemidji State. They were on the ice for both UMD goals in the first after BSU jumped to a 2-0 lead. Connolly then scored the final goal in the third period, and the three were on the ice for Lamb's power play goal in the third.

UMD needs a productive top line, because it puts pressure on teams to find a way to slow down the effective third line of the Bulldogs, which features freshman Caleb Herbert centering fellow freshman Justin Crandall and senior David Grun. It's a line that can play multiple styles, with Grun serving as the responsible two-way forward who rarely gets caught out of position, while Herbert and Crandall can offer up a suffocating forecheck that creates scoring chances.

Look for a lot of Jason Zucker and Drew Shore for Denver. The Pioneers will lean on their top players just like UMD does, and Zucker and Shore are the Pioneers' top players.

We don't know what will happen for Denver in goal. Adam Murray was injured last week, but practiced this week and is expected to play at least once. Gwozdecky has hinted at the possibility of a platoon this weekend, with freshman Juho Olkinuora getting the other start after a solid first start in the Saturday tie at Tech.

I anticipate UMD fielding a lineup quite similar to last weekend's, including senior Kenny Reiter in goal.

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