Thursday, February 02, 2012

UMD Prepares for Desperate UAA

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Expectations were much higher than this.

Our good friend Jess Myers picked Alaska-Anchorage to earn a home ice position for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, something that hasn't happened once during UAA's time in the league.

I thought last year's finish was a real stretch in the right direction for UAA, one that could lead to bigger and better things this season. UAA beat Minnesota twice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at Mariucci Arena, advancing to the second WCHA Final Five in school history. It was part of a 9-4 run near the end of the season before a loss to Colorado College in the Final Five.

It hasn't gone well, though.

UAA started this season 3-0-1, including championships in both their home tournament (Kendall Hockey Classic) and the tournament in Fairbanks (Brice Alaska Goal Rush). The Seawolves, though, have stumbled badly since, with separate losing streaks of six and seven games -- the seven-game skid is ongoing -- on the way to a 6-16-2 mark heading into this weekend's series here against Minnesota Duluth.

During the current losing streak, the Seawolves have scored 14 goals and only been shut out once. It's not the offense that's failing UAA right now, though it has to click at a better clip than 2.5 goals per game. Instead, defense and goaltending are the downfall. UAA has allowed 92 goals in 24 games, an average of 3.8 per game. Over the last seven, the total is 33, or nearly five goals per game. The team save percentage this season is a mediocre .865.

Once tough to handle in Anchorage, which is an insanely long flight for anyone in the league, especially compared to the other travel required, the Seawolves are a mere 2-7-1 at Sullivan Arena this season. UAA has lost five straight home games, and is 1-7 at home since the Kendall Hockey Classic in October.

When the blender -- or the league, I guess -- released the 2011-12 WCHA schedule, UAA had to think its chance to make hey would be in the second half of the season. The Seawolves are playing games three and four of a six-game homestand this weekend, and are in a stretch of eight out of the last ten WCHA games at home.

You read that correctly. UAA has played just six of its 18 league games this season at home. And you thought UMD's schedule was screwy (you'd be right on that).

Anyway, this is a key weekend for UMD, as we all know. The Bulldogs enter Friday having allowed nine straight goals, were probably lucky to get a point out of last weekend's home series with Michigan Tech, and haven't swept a series in Anchorage since 1996 (14-12-6 all-time in Anchorage, compared to 27-7-6 all-time against UAA in Duluth).

UMD needs four points here. Three is a minimum. Two is disappointing, especially if UMD doesn't deserve a better fate with its play. The Bulldogs had a tough day at practice Monday, with several players using Twitter to elude to a bag skate. If Tuesday's pace and intensity was any indication whatsoever, the message was clear. And received.

Standing and watching, it was tough not to wish that the Bulldogs could play a game Wednesday instead of waiting until Friday.

We'll see how a five-plus hour flight and a three-hour time change affects the Bulldogs' legs. It's not a terrible deal for athletes, because they're in such great shape to begin with. But it's a 7pm game that will feel like a 10pm game if you don't put in the work to adjust to the time change beforehand.

I've gotten used to making this trip over the years, but still have my moments, especially on the first full day spent in Alaska. I try to get around and do as much as I can to keep my brain engaged, because it's that down time that can really mess me up.

The start Friday will be a huge key. UAA is a team just grasping for any reason to think it can stay in a game. An early UMD goal and continued push might be enough to keep things positive for 60 minutes. But if UAA finds a way to score early, or even if the Seawolves get a big save early, this could be very interesting. The Seawolves have been outscored 33-17 and outshot 263-189 in first periods this season, so they haven't really been good at starting games.

One area UAA appears to have an edge is on special teams. The Seawolves are at 92 percent on the penalty kill since the holiday break, while UMD has scored just three times in 33 power play chances since Christmas, including no goals in 21 chances since the series at Western Michigan. Head coach Scott Sandelin insists he's not panicking, and he said last Saturday he wasn't ready to make any personnel changes on the power play. He said he felt the team had the right players on the ice, and it was simply a matter of execution.

UMD then got just two chances with the man advantage in that 5-0 disaster, and both came in the third period after it was already 5-0. Hard to judge based on those if they were getting any improved execution.

UMD has lost twice in the last 22 games. This is not panic time. But the Bulldogs need to play better from the outset, and that needs to start Friday night.


Here were the lines at practice this week:

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

I wouldn't expect any significant changes on defense. Tim Smith and Derik Johnson are the players from that "sixth defenseman" rotation on this trip. Dan DeLisle is the 13th forward.

No major line changes from Saturday. I'm intrigued by Herbert on Connolly's line, and hopefully we see some good shifts out of that group on Friday.

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