Thursday, December 08, 2011

Anatomy of a Streak

In 2003-2004, Scott Sandelin's UMD Bulldogs ripped off a school-record 14-game unbeaten streak. Included in that run were road sweeps of Denver and Colorado College.

So Sandelin has been through this before.

Less can be said of a guy like senior Travis Oleksuk, who told me this week that he has not been part of a 12-game unbeaten streak since he was a youth hockey player some 15 years ago.

UMD's 12-game unbeaten streak is two off that 2003-2004 record as the Bulldogs make the trip to Madison this weekend to take on the Badgers.

It's a streak that started with UMD sitting at 1-3 on the season, coming off a home sweep at the hands of the Gophers -- two gut-wrenching games that showed that UMD was not notably worse than the Gophers, but not good enough to win winnable games on home ice against a rival.

"I didn't feel we played poorly," Sandelin said. "Obviously, I think the toughest part was losing two games to Minnesota. That's one school that we all want to beat.

"As a coaching staff, we looked at the big picture. We did a lot of good things."

The first games of the streak happened in Providence, where UMD won and tied. Getting on the road certainly wasn't a bad thing for this group.

"It was a perfect time for a road trip," Sandelin said. "(Being on the road) is a great opportunity for guys to bond. It was a good time for the trip. We knew we didn't have a lot of them in the first half. Timing sometimes is a lot of it, and it was nice to go out there and focus on what we needed to do."

The streak has featured some different kinds of games. UMD won a wide-open game over Minnesota State 7-3, took advantage of some poor Alaska-Anchorage goaltending to win 5-0, then got a great performance from their own goalie -- Kenny Reiter -- to sweep the Seawolves.

Oh, and there was the 4-0 stomp of Denver, and last weekend's tough sweep at Michigan Tech, by matching 5-3 scores.

Wisconsin is a different animal. They are probably the youngest team UMD will see this season, with all 12 forwards used in their last game two weeks ago being freshmen and sophomores. That's not to say the Badgers don't have any players. Junior defenseman Justin Schultz is one of the top players in college hockey, with 25 points already this season. He's an absolute beast on the power play, and he's a special-enough defenseman that he doesn't have to get all his points via special teams. He's lethal five-on-five, too.

He'll be hard for UMD to handle this weekend, as will sophomore forward Mark Zengerle. The slick-skating Zengerle is a superb passer who has a better shot than he's given credit for.

Wisconsin is extremely young, and nowhere is that more clear than in goal, where freshmen Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel have shared time so far. Neither has overwhelming numbers, but the Badgers have been good enough to go 7-3 at home, including a sweep over North Dakota and a win over then-No. 1 Minnesota. They're winless on the road, but such a statistic is irrelevant this weekend, since UMD will be playing in front of the WCHA's best student section.

(Well, it's been that way in the past. I've been relayed multiple stories related to Wisconsin not drawing very well this season, so maybe the student section isn't as good as it was even last year, when UMD went in there and pulled off the legendary overtime sweep.)

This is a key weekend for both teams. The Badgers are tenth in the league and in danger of falling into irrelevancy before the halfway mark of the season. UMD, meanwhile, has a chance to head into a three-week sabbatical with the longest unbeaten streak in school history. Not only that, but the Bulldogs keep a hell of a lot of pressure on the rival Gophers if they can keep accumulating points.

Neither team has exactly a cake schedule in the second half of the season. UMD has Nebraska-Omaha (away), the always-grueling trip to Anchorage, North Dakota (home), Colorado College (home), and St. Cloud State (away). Minnesota has North Dakota (away), St. Cloud State (home and home), Colorado College (home), Denver (away), and Nebraska-Omaha (away).

Both teams want to win this weekend to keep the heat on the other. For UMD, the job is tougher because of the four points surrendered to Minnesota in October. That said, it's not an impossible task, and UMD has used an incredible hot streak to make that abundantly clear.

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