Thursday, December 01, 2011

UMD Road Odyssey Begins With Series Against Much-Improved Huskies

The road odyssey begins. Luckily, it's not like pro sports, where teams go on the road and don't come back until they're done playing road games.

We at least get to travel home in between the games, and there's a three-week gap between consecutive weekends on the road.

This weekend, it's a two-game series at Michigan Tech, a team that looks completely different from the one that was swept aside in a four-game season series last year. UMD is 8-2-2 over the last 12 against Tech, but it will take a hell of an effort to take four more points with little resistance, as the Bulldogs did last season.

This Michigan Tech team is better. They're scoring more goals, giving up fewer, and the Huskies have already won twice as many games (eight) as they did all of last season (four). New coach Mel Pearson, fresh off watching UMD beat a Michigan team he was an assistant coach for in the national title game, is back at his alma mater and doing a tremendous job.

Pearson has emphasized a higher tempo, one that keeps the Huskies from spending as much time in their defensive zone. Former NHL goalie Steve Shields is an assistant coach, helping tutor senior goalie Josh Robinson, who actually has a higher save percentage (.929) than headline-stealing WCHA goalies Kent Patterson and Kenny Reiter (.922 each).

In talking to Pearson Thursday, it's clear that he thinks highly of his upperclassmen. He should. Guys like Robinson, team captain Brett Olson (former Superior Spartan), and Jordan Baker have been through a lot at MTU, and most all of it has been negative. Now, something positive is finally happening, and it's hard not to be happy for these kids.

It's hard not to be happy for the town, too. Houghton is a nice place to visit, but MTU fans haven't had much to cheer for lately. It got as bad as I've ever seen last year, with thousands of empty seats in a building that simply isn't very big to start with. Pearson noted that they had well over 3,000 fans at their last home game against Minnesota State, and it makes sense to think that they will draw well with the defending champions in town.

UMD is hot, and the Bulldogs' last game showed a large part of why they haven't lost since Oct. 15. UMD had seven different goal scorers in a 7-3 win over Minnesota State Nov. 18, and they've been getting production out of all their lines throughout the season. Look for little change heading into Friday, though head coach Scott Sandelin might make some minor tweaks to his fourth line as he looks for more consistency out of that group. No reason to touch the other three lines. Jack Connolly has a 12-game point streak, Travis Oleksuk has 12 goals, Caleb Herbert keeps getting better, and J.T. Brown is coming off his best weekend of the season.

The third line of Jake Hendrickson, Justin Crandall, and David Grun continues to be one of my favorites, because of how responsible they are and how strong they are capable of forechecking.

The only negative in that Saturday win over the Mavericks was the injury scare with freshman defenseman Chris Casto, who suffered a minor lower-body injury and will be available this weekend, from the sounds of it.

A healthy and red-hot UMD team starts a long stretch of road games Friday, and Tech brings a much different challenge than they have before. This should be a very interesting weekend in the U.P.

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