Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bulldogs Seek Snow Belt Slump-Buster

With 12 games played, we are one-third of the way through this UMD season.

No longer can "It's early" be used as an excuse when things go poorly. Instead, it's time to seek solutions and get things going the right way.

I already told you what I think the primary problems are. The biggest issue I'm seeing is how one bad thing spills into another, creating a cavalcade of bad stuff that the Bulldogs are having trouble avoiding.

The good news is that fixing one or two of those problems could solve virtually all of them.

The bad news is they aren't easy problems to fix.

The first of three crucial WCHA series starts Friday in Houghton for the Bulldogs, who have struggled historically against Michigan Tech, but have won the last five games in Houghton, dating back to the 2010 Winter Carnival. In that weekend set, UMD scored three straight goals, including a Mike Connolly shortie in the third period, to win 3-2 after trailing 2-0.

The atmosphere isn't quite what it was at the end of the Jamie Russell era in Houghton, as Mel Pearson has quickly rejuvenated the Tech fanbase. If you've never been to Houghton, you'd understand that -- outside of outdoor activities like skiing and snowmobiling -- there isn't a lot of competition for Tech hockey. It's just a matter of the team playing well enough to be relevant, and people will go to the games.

What are they seeing on the ice? Emerging young players like Alex Petan (freshman), Jujhar Khaira (freshman), and Blake Pietila (sophomore), and David Johnstone (sophomore) are carrying the offense, while Pearson struggles a bit to get his upperclassmen contributing at the level he wants.

(Look out this weekend, however. Junior Ryan Furne has three goals and seven points in six games against UMD.)

Tech's defense and goaltending are currently owned by uppers, however. Senior captain Carl Nielsen and assistant captain Steven Seigo are the top defensemen, while juniors Brad Stebner and Daniel Sova are big bodies who compete. None of Tech's big defensemen are all-zones types, but they are tough to beat in their own zone, and they play a very simple game when necessary. Look to see lots of chips of pucks this weekend from Tech's blue-liners.

In goal, senior Kevin Genoe has emerged as the starter, according to Pearson. He has a .913 save percentage in five games, with a 3-1 record. Genoe's career numbers are ghastly, but he played with confidence against Bemidji State, and as we understand, confidence matters a lot for a goalie.

I said these next six games are crucial for UMD, and I mean that. The Bulldogs have four points through eight league games, a very low number for what's been a competitive program lately. If UMD is going to get this thing turned around in time to make a run, the Bulldogs need to get 8-10 points out of these six games. It's doable, but there's no way anyone can think it's going to be easy.

If you're hoping that sophomore Caleb Herbert can finally get in the goal column this weekend, you might be in luck. Herbert scored twice in four games against Tech last season, and we can only hope that he finds the back of the net somehow this weekend. I still have the feeling that goals might come in bunches once Herbert gets one, but the odds of that happening admittedly become more remote the longer he goes without a goal.

Keys for this weekend, besides the stuff I have already talked about? I think UMD goes -- to an extent -- as its senior line goes. Jake Hendrickson, Keegan Flaherty, and captain Cody Danberg were very good against North Dakota, and so was the team. They were good on Friday against St. Cloud State, and UMD won. On Saturday, I thought they were mediocre at best, and everyone else responded in tow, unfortunately.

Coach Scott Sandelin told Kevin Pates that he didn't think anyone played well on Saturday, which probably isn't going to make him happy if it occurs again.

"I actually don't think we came out that bad (Saturday)," junior goalie Aaron Crandall said, "but we never really rebounded from the second goal," which Crandall noted came off a turnover.

I didn't think UMD was doing anything special before Ben Hanowski's power play goal in the first period on Saturday, but the quick second goal by Nic Dowd absolutely took some life out of the UMD bench. Can't argue that. It's still not acceptable in my view, but Crandall might very well be on to something.

I expect the seniors to play well on Friday, and if everyone responds like they did against North Dakota, there's no reason UMD won't win the game, unless Genoe does a head stand and steals the points for the Huskies.

However, if the team comes out flat or goes flat as soon as something happens, it could be trouble.

It isn't early in the season, but there's still plenty of time. UMD just has to shake out of this slump. America's Snowglobe awaits, and while it isn't the easiest place to get four points, that doesn't mean it can't or won't happen.

Or that it doesn't need to.

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