Thursday, November 15, 2012

UMD Returns to Grand Forks, Trying to Stop Slide

Over the years, UMD has seen some droughts when it comes to trips to WCHA buildings.

Even knowing that, it's really strange to think that the Bulldogs haven't visited Ralph Engelstad Arena in over two years.

It was Nov. 5-6, 2010. UMD fell 4-2 in the series opener before beating UND in overtime 3-2 on a Justin Fontaine winner.

Because it's been so long -- and UMD has struggled so much in that building -- the Bulldogs only have five players who have scored points in Grand Forks. All five are seniors. Jake Hendrickson has a goal, while Wade Bergman, Cody Danberg, Keegan Flaherty, and Drew Olson all have assists.

"I was actually talking to Matt McNeely in class about what it's like to play there (in Grand Forks)," sophomore defenseman Derik Johnson said this week. He then noted that it was a little strange to be asking a younger player what it was like in an opponent's arena, which it kind of is if you think about it.

(McNeely played there while with the U.S. Under 18 Team. He made 38 saves on 40 shots in a 2-1 loss to North Dakota in December 2010.)

Friday and Saturday, UMD returns to The Ralph, looking for a points to end a slump and get the mojo going again. While points have been hard to come by in that building for the Bulldogs, they are 5-6-1 against UND in the last 12 meetings. It's not like UMD can't beat this team, and the opportunities to do so at Ralph Engelstad Arena have been few and far between lately.

It'll change next year, when both teams move into the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. With a 24-game league schedule, teams will have two opponents they don't play four games against in a single season. It increases the frequency of trips to every city in the league, and eliminates goofy droughts like this with schools that are only a four-hour drive apart.


For the Bulldogs, it's a quick turnaround, but that might not be a bad thing. While UMD appeared to wear down with limited available depth in Sunday's loss to Omaha, four days is enough to get ready for another two-game series. This time around, there is no 2pm game. Both games are at night, and it might help settle UMD into a sense of normalcy.

Combine that with the sense of urgency that comes with a five-game winless streak, and it might be a recipe for good things.

Personally, I thought UMD played a strong 50-55 minutes in Saturday's 3-2 loss to Omaha. They forechecked, took the body, and had the better of the scoring chances.

Head coach Scott Sandelin said as much on Sunday. No one was going to let the Bulldogs off the hook for the awful start that saw them fall behind 2-0. But UMD outplayed Omaha badly in the second period after scoring the last two goals of the first.

The weight of nearly eight minutes of shorthanded time brought on by two major penalties that were accompanied by two player ejections.

(One of those, Johnson, was still not pleased when I found him this week. He said he "wasn't trying to do anything too bad, just grab a guy after the whistle." But Matt White's facemask came away from his helmet, and the officials felt they had little choice but to call a major. Sandelin thought the major on Adam Krause was marginal, and I don't disagree, but there's little that can be done about either.)

Discipline is an issue, but in the eight years I've worked with Sandelin, UMD has always walked the line a bit when it comes to penalties. The coaching staff has never wanted to discourage its players from playing hard and playing physical. Along with that comes the potential for a penalty here and there. What Sandelin doesn't want are guys committing unnecessary major penalties or other aggressive penalties, lazy penalties (a list that generally includes hooking, holding, tripping, etc.), or misconducts. UMD has seen two of those, and a ten-minute misconduct isn't good for anyone.

The team traveled to Grand Forks Thursday, will skate Friday morning, and play Friday night. It's the first road trip that follows the "normal" routine, and while no one will use it as an excuse for poor play, I guarantee it won't hurt the group at all.


As for North Dakota, it's not the same type of team we saw last season in Duluth. TAFKATFS (The Artists Formerly Known As The Fighting Sioux) have speed to burn all over the lineup, along with more depth, big and physical defensemen, and quality goaltending.

And if you think head coach Dave Hakstol feels sorry for UMD's little dry spell, or isn't taking this weekend seriously as a result, you're nuts.

"They're young in some areas, but they've got some great leadership up front," Hakstol said this week. "And some of the young skill and talent they have is outstanding.

"I'm basing them on performance now, not their record."

UND can move. On the first goal of Friday's 3-0 win over St. Cloud, the puck went from the North Dakota blue line to the back of St. Cloud State's net in around four seconds. Their transition game is explosive, making it important for UMD to take care of the puck and find ways to negate their speed through the neutral zone.

Duluth native Derek Forbort, a junior defenseman, has really come into his own as of late. Hakstol said Forbort has to adjust to the bigger minutes he's getting, but the coach seems to like what he's seeing out of the former Duluth East Greyhound.

"He's been a key player for us," Hakstol said. "Derek has really shown a lot of growth as a player. Now he needs to continue to grow into a spotlight and prime-time role with our team."

It's not a must-sweep or anything, but UMD needs to start building some positives. The league hasn't been won yet, but "one point in two league weekends" makes for a tough hill to climb for the Bulldogs. They probably can't afford to fall any further behind.

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