Thursday, January 05, 2012

Bulldogs Finally Back At It

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- This break felt like it was six months, instead of close to one month.

In some ways, it feels like the UMD men's hockey team is starting the season all over again. The Bulldogs haven't played since beating Wisconsin 4-2 in Madison on Dec. 10.

The team practiced the following week, then went their separate ways for a two-week hiatus. They returned to practice at the DECC last week, and started serious preparations Monday for a series here against Western Michigan that begins Friday night (6:30, CBS Sports Network on television, 94X and the network on the radio).

To get back in the swing of things, assistant coach Jason Herter -- running practice along with assistant Derek Plante while head coach Scott Sandelin worked with Team USA at the World Juniors -- did a lot of fundamental drills in the team's first couple days back.

Lots of skating, passing, and simple stuff.

The challenge ahead is twofold. For starters, this Western Michigan team is pretty good. The Broncos made the NCAA Tournament last year under one-and-done coach Jeff Blashill. Their performance surprised many college hockey observers, and impressed enough hockye people that Blashill was in high demand. Not even a raise at WMU could keep him from taking an offer to become an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings.

Enter Andy Murray. The veteran coach has worked in Europe, the NHL (most notably with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues), and with Canadian national teams. He'd never coached college hockey.

Until now.

"I firmly believe you only live once," Murray said. "I admire the coaches who work in the business. I had three children that played college hockey. I had a number of players I had coached in the NHL who played here at Western, and when the opening came up, they contacted me and said 'Coach, they need some help here.'"

Murray's team is pretty solid. They have some speed and skill with guys like Chase Balisy and Dane Walters. There is plenty of youth, and guys like defenseman Garrett Haar are slowly getting used to playing at this level.

Western Michigan doesn't overwhelm people with their talent, but there is speed on this team, and a superb work ethic.

The Broncos aren't a high-scoring team, and they may be more interested in slowing down UMD rather than trying to skate with the Bulldogs.

In a 15-minute conversation, Murray mentioned UMD's team speed a number of times, and clearly has great respect for the program Sandelin has built. Murray isn't a stranger to UMD hockey, as daughter Sarah played four years at UMD and was part of two NCAA women's championship teams. She and brothers Brady (North Dakota) and Jordy (Wisconsin) are all playing professionally in Switzerland.

I'm babbling. I mentioned that this challenge for UMD is twofold. The other part of it is fighting the natural rustiness you will see after such a long stretch with no games.

I'd lay in the "this affects both teams" counter, but Western played a series at St. Cloud State, getting a Balisy overtime goal on Friday to earn a split after a three-goal third period got SCSU a win Thursday. The Broncos already kicked off the rust, and they'll be ready to play Friday.

Herter has been guarding against this all week. The reality is that no practice, no matter how crisp, can properly simulate game speed. Game situations, yes. Game speed, not so much.

"As good as we feel we're practicing right now, multiply that by ten for what's going to be happening Friday night," Herter said. "It's right back into the fire. Our kids are prepared for it, and they just have to weather the storm."

The primary responsibility for weathering the storm could fall on senior goalie Kenny Reiter. During UMD's 14-game unbeaten streak, Reiter has a 1.83 goals against and a save percentage of .934. As good as he's been, he may have to be better early on Friday if UMD comes out sloppy or a bit slow.

UMD has a number of things working in its favor. For starters, it's a very mature team. Slow starts, deficits, and adversity don't really bug this team much. Neither does playing on the road. UMD is unbeaten in 12 straight games away from Duluth, dating back to last year's Final Five loss to Bemidji State. UMD is 5-0-3 on the road this season.

The Bulldogs also have a little more scoring depth than WMU, if you look at the teams on paper. The Broncos will probably remind you of a more-skilled version of Providence, another team that had some skating ability and a great work ethic, but didn't overwhelm you with their offensive depth.

Whether or not the streak lives another weekend will probably be determined by UMD's ability to play a crisp, fast game after taking nearly four full weeks off.

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