It's tough to get a real gauge of what we saw from UMD last week against Ohio State, but I keep going back to this sentiment.
I saw a lot more things I liked than things I didn't like, and it has to be considered a good starting point for this Bulldog team that was chalk full of uncertainty entering the season.
With all that being said, however, UMD has to show some improvement this week.
A Thursday-Friday series at Notre Dame is going to provide an impressive test at this point in the 2012-13 schedule.
The Fighting Irish are a formidable foe, or at least it seems that way on paper. No one saw Notre Dame missing the NCAA Tournament last season, especially after starting 13-6-3, with wins over UMD, Western Michigan, Boston College, and Ferris State. No one saw that 6-12 finish coming. No one saw this team averaging a scant 1.78 goals per game over that 18-game limp to the finish line.
The Fighting Irish failed to meet expectations last season, but that doesn't mean the same thing will happen this time around. ND got off to a good start last week, beating Maine 1-0 and then Nebraska Omaha 3-2 at the Ice Breaker Tournament in Kansas City. That doesn't solve the goal-scoring issue that popped up last season, but it does show that coach Jeff Jackson has the kind of defense and goaltending to contend, even if Notre Dame doesn't score a ton of goals.
Goalie Steven Summerhays has 50 saves on 52 shots in two games, and he gets to play behind guys like big Steven Johns, Shayne Taker, and Kevin Lind, and the mobile Robbie Russo and Sam Calabrese. There is a nice mixture of size, experience, mobility, and puck skill in this group, and it's one that could give fits to UMD's top forwards.
It's up to guys like center Caleb Herbert and winger Mike Seidel to use their skill and experience to make plays against a solid defensive group, then make those plays count against a quality goaltender. For UMD to win either of these games, it's going to take the kind of jump the Bulldogs displayed in Friday's win over Ohio State. A sluggish start like what UMD had on Saturday night in an eventual 3-2 loss could doom the visitors very early in either game against Notre Dame.
Of course, if TJ Tynan, Anders Lee, Bryan Rust, Austin Wuthrich, and others start filling the net, the Irish will be as tough to defend as they are to score on.
No matter what happens this weekend, remember that it's early. A lot of people get into a bit of a tizzy over the Pairwise, but it's rare that single games make a significant impact, and when they do, it's only because other losses during the season allowed it to happen.
As an example, everyone liked to point to UMD's loss to Vermont in a holiday tournament in the 2009-2010 season as a reason why the Bulldogs missed the NCAA Tournament that year. What they forget about are late-season losses to Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota, and Michigan Tech, all of which missed the NCAAs.
Yeah, reversing the Vermont loss would have changed things. But it wasn't the only loss like that.
Similarly, the Ohio State loss won't cost UMD a spot in the national tournament. A loss this week to Notre Dame won't, either.
There's plenty of hockey to be played, and this should be a fun series between two quality teams. The result matters, but it doesn't matter as much as many people will try to make it sound. We can grip about the PWR in March. For now, it's hockey season, and it's not like the NHL is playing or something. Enjoy!
Don't expect a lot of changes for UMD, including in goal, where I think Aaron Crandall will start at least Thursday's game. It's too early for big shifts in the lineup, though I'd like to see more of sophomore defenseman Derik Johnson and freshman center Cal Decowski, based on how they played on Saturday night.
Johnson played a smart, mature game, and he was very good with the puck. Decowski was a factor in all zones, and I thought he was the most consistent center UMD had in the lineup Saturday, outside of maybe Jake Hendrickson.
Since this is a non-conference trip, UMD did travel all players, so the ability is there to make changes from one night to the next if Scott Sandelin decides to. Indications are that won't happen, but at least the coach has options if there are injuries or ineffective players on Thursday night.
UMD will play the series, then travel back to Duluth by bus after Friday's game. Even with going through Chicago at night when traffic shouldn't be bad, this is probably going to be a trip that last 10 or 11 hours.
Elsewhere in the WCHA, there is one conference series. Unbeatable, unstoppable, unflappable, completely invincible Minnesota heads to Houghton for probably the last time. Michigan Tech should be able to put up a better fight than Michigan State did last week, largely because of its strong and experienced blue line and the smaller-than-Mariucci ice sheet at the Mac.
All other action is non-conference. Alabama-Huntsville travels to St. Cloud State, RPI is at Minnesota State, Lake Superior State takes on Bemidji State, Northern Michigan is at Nebraska Omaha, North Dakota and Alaska Anchorage play at the Brice Alaska Goal Rush in Fairbanks, Denver hosts UMass-Lowell Friday and Air Force Saturday, and Colorado College plays at Air Force Friday before hosting Lowell on Saturday. Wisconsin has the weekend off before opening WCHA play at UMD next weekend.