Friday, December 14, 2012

UMD Heads North for Final Time With WCHA

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- With more schedule holes to fill, and the attraction of two extra home games in exchange for a trip here, there is no guarantee that UMD is done making trips to Alaska.

However, what is certain is that UMD won't be visiting the 49th state next season, and there are no concrete plans to return after this trip.

The Bulldogs match up with Alaska Anchorage here Friday and Saturday. With UMD moving into the newly-formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference starting in 2013-14, and UAA staying in the revamped WCHA, this is the last scheduled meeting between the two schools.

As is likely the case with the others who are leaving the WCHA, I can't imagine too many UMD players will miss the five hour, twenty-plus minute flight from Minneapolis to Anchorage. As the plane approached the Anchorage airport Wednesday night, there were a few comments from guys about their legs feeling like "microwaved bacon," which is probably not a good thing.

(Though at least they don't have a game until Friday. Plenty of time to get adjusted.)

(Oh, and clearly these youngsters have not tried the new-fangled fully-cooked bacon you put in the microwave. Done properly, it's farrr from rubbery.)

This has never been an easy trip for teams to make. It will continue to not be an easy trip for teams to make as realignment puts college hockey into a blender starting next fall.

That's only a part of the story, however, because Anchorage is clearly a better team at home than it is on the road.

At home, the Seawolves got a point against Minnesota, then controlled five of six periods against St. Cloud State, only to see the Huskies pull off a comeback win on Friday before UAA won Saturday.

Against SCSU, I watched the first two periods live on the video stream while we were in Houghton for UMD-Michigan Tech. The Seawolves played very well, keeping the Huskies largely away from the front of the net, and taking a 3-0 lead in the first period. UAA tailed off in the second 30 minutes, however, and SCSU woke up to stage an impressive comeback in a 4-3 overtime win.

I thought they did a good job pressuring the puck at times, forechecking and making SCSU's usually-poised defensemen look somewhat uncomfortable with the puck at times. That was true in both games, but UAA did a better job sustaining its effort in the Saturday win (obviously).

The Seawolves aren't as big as they've been, but there are still some large bodies to deal with. The top line has some talent, with sophomore Scott Allen holding the team goal-scoring lead (seven) and linemate Blake Tatchell leading with ten points. Alex Gellert has five goals and eight points.

Smallish Scott Warner leads the defense, and it's a smaller group than we've seen here in a while. Not many imposing 6-4 types, but more mobile with puck-moving ability.

UAA is thin up front, thanks to the injury-driven retirement of Andrew Pickering, the loss of Corbin Karl (left the team), and a broken collarbone suffered by Brett Cameron.

UAA still has the two-headed monster in goal, with Chris Kamal having started three straight games. I'd be surprised if we didn't see Rob Gunderson at some point this weekend.

A big key this weekend will be pace. Even though I think there are areas where UAA is vastly improved, they do not want to play an up-and-down game. They want to pack it in around their goalie, keep shot totals low, and try to win a low-scoring game. It's an area UMD struggled in last weekend, allowing Bemidji State to dictate the pace of the games far too often, especially on Saturday. When the Bulldogs get moving and play with an edge, they're tough to beat. But UMD won't have a ton of success this weekend if it lets UAA control the pace of the game. It's not a pace UMD is comfortable with or particularly effective at playing.

UMD is relatively healthy, only reporting an upper-body injury for sophomore defenseman Luke McManus, who is not here this weekend. The Bulldogs shouldn't be making any drastic changes to their forward lines, and I expect freshman Matt McNeely to start in goal on Friday (though I've been wrong before).

Heading into a bye week for the Christmas break, and with final exams looming in Duluth, this is an interesting weekend for the Bulldogs. Four points would be a great way to end an up-and-down first half, and I'd say at least three is a must to keep the good vibes going into the post-Christmas trip to Florida.

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