Friday, November 09, 2012

Bulldogs Hope Bye Week Cures Struggles

OMAHA, Neb. -- For the UMD Bulldogs, there's good and bad to last week's bye.

The good? Any time a team is struggling, the coach will take the bye. UMD, winless in three and with three goals scored over those three games, certainly isn't in a position to turn down a bye.

The bad? Well, in an ideal world, you can heal some injuries during a bye week. UMD was and is a pretty healthy team, so in that regard, the timing might be a little off.

Either way, the schedule says take the week off, and the Bulldogs did that. It gave them a chance to work on a few things.

"I think for us it was a little awkward," senior defenseman and assistant captain Drew Olson said. "I think it's maybe something we needed to do right away. We were kind of up and down a little bit. I think we needed a little break to look back and see what we were doing good and what we were doing bad."

Olson said youth plays a role in the team's inconsistency, but that's something that has to solve itself.

A good example of the inconsistency was found in the third period of the team's last game, a 2-2 tie with struggling Wisconsin. It was a game UMD led 2-0 through two periods, and the Bulldogs appeared to be in complete control. A turnover created by Luke McManus falling down on his own in the defensive zone led to a Mark Zengerle goal early in the period, and the Badgers had life.

"I think we were a little too tentative (starting the third period)," Olson said. "Once they scored that first goal, it kind of put us back on our heels, and they took it to us a bit."

Wisconsin tied it with around five minutes to go, and Olson noted that UMD picked its game up after that, taking things to the Badgers for most of the rest of regulation and overtime, outside of the time needed to successfully kill off a penalty that carried into the extra session.

It's easy to look at 2-3-1 and think UMD is in for a tough season. However, such negativity should be slowed down by a few things.
  • 2-3-1 was UMD's record through six games last season. The second win and the tie came in a series at Providence, and were the first two games of UMD's 17-game unbeaten streak that carried into the new year before it ended in, you guessed it, Omaha.
  • There is plenty of talent on the offensive side, but while some guys appear to be doing a decent job scoring goals, Mike Seidel hasn't scored since opening weekend, and Caleb Herbert -- arguably this group's best offensive player -- hasn't scored at all.
  • Thought to be a strength going into the season, the defensive corps hasn't rounded into form ... yet. Sophomore Chris Casto -- thought by many to be a solid prospect to turn pro after the season -- had such a hard time with the puck against Notre Dame Oct. 19 that he got benched for more than half the game. Senior Wade Bergman hasn't quite been himself. He's been positionally sound, but I continue to think he's struggling with the puck a little bit. Even the best defensemen fight the puck every now and then, so I think it's just a matter of time before Bergman gets it going again. Olson has been fantastic, and you can see the potential of freshman Andy Welinski, too, even though he's yet to really put together a three-period game since the season opener.
The point here? There's no need to open the plastic lid that protects the "PANIC" button, not after six games, because there are plenty of positives.
  • While the power play was empty against UW, it's been moving the puck, and I thought the man-advantage effort in the Saturday tie was very good at times, even though the unit didn't score. Half of UMD's 14 goals so far have come with an extra body on the ice compared to the other team.
  • Some of these freshmen look like they're going to be very good. Welinski will be a power play quarterback to be reckoned with by mid-season. Tony Cameranesi and Cal Decowski have impressed at center, which is a tough position to play in to start a Division I career. They're clearly improving on faceoffs, and you can see their overall confidence growing in virtually every shift they take. 
  • Junior Joe Basaraba might "only" have two goals so far, but he's been a beast physically. He was cited by multiple people as one of the few bright spots in that 2-0 loss to Wisconsin that no one wants to talk about. He was active in all zones, used his body effectively, and was able to get a couple chances at the net as a result of his strong play.
  • How about that goaltending? Freshman Matt McNeely may already have the ins on the No. 1 job, and it isn't a thing that junior Aaron Crandall has done wrong. McNeely's confidence grew throughout his first start, a win at Notre Dame, and he looked very good in his first back-to-back against Wisconsin. If the lanky, athletic youngster keeps this up, there's a chance he could be a 25-28 game (or more) starter for this team, and no coach is going to turn that down from a freshman. "He's been playing well," Olson said of McNeely. "He's confident in the net, and he makes the big key saves when you need him to. That's what you need as a team, to have that confidence in the goaltender ... so you can take a few more chances."
I know I'm biased, but there's no need to panic here.

UMD has a very tough stretch of games coming up -- with this weekend's set in Omaha followed by a trip to North Dakota and a visit from St. Cloud State. If the Bulldogs can play .500 hockey in the next six games, there's a chance to accumulate some points before the Christmas break.

Given the opposition, it might be a lofty goal for a young team that hasn't quite found its groove yet. But if UMD can be hovering around .500 the week after Thanksgiving, it'll be big down the road. As this team improves, it'll need some quality performances in the coming weeks to keep the ol' power rankings from forgetting about UMD.

(Yes, I just brought up the power rankings. In early November. In my defense, Duluth News Tribune ace Kevin Pates brought the power rankings up in a conversation we had outside Amsoil Arena Tuesday. And if he brings it up, I'm perfectly justified in doing so.)

No comments: