Friday, December 28, 2012

UMD Prepares for Business in the Sun

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The palm trees scattered around the hotel property add a sense of "Holy crap, we're in Florida" to the fact that we're in Florida.

For hockey.

Holy crap.

Before incorporating some beach time into the itinerary, the UMD men's hockey team has business to take care of. The 13th annual Florida College Classic is underway Friday, with UMD playing Maine after Cornell takes on Ferris State. Maine is the defending champion and an annual co-host with Cornell.

For the Bulldogs, it's a second foray to Florida. UMD was here in 2005, finishing second to Cornell after beating Maine in the semifinals.

This isn't the Maine team that UMD saw in the NCAA Tournament last March. And while the same could be said the other way around, UMD has done much more this season to show it can still field a good team than Maine has.

The Black Bears are 2-11-2, and have scored only 20 goals in 15 games. There are some warning signs heading into this weekend, however. Junior forward Jon Swavely is back after missing 12 games with a lower-body injury. Senior forward Joey Diamond is mad that UMD ended his team's season last March, and he's an explosive player with poor numbers so far.

(Diamond is similar to UMD's Caleb Herbert in that regard. Both players have numbers through half the season that are not indicative of their overall skill and talent. And you can bet that will change in the next couple months, probably for both guys -- hopefully for Herbert!)

Maine has skilled players, but the Black Bears seem to lack the high-end skill they had in their top six last year. Diamond is still a dynamic player, but he doesn't have Brian Flynn, Spencer Abbott, Matt Mangene, or Will O'Neill around him. It makes the Black Bears not as dangerous, neither five on five nor on the power play, where UMaine is only at 7 percent on the power play, down some 75 percent from last year's 26.7 percent clip.

One thing has been obvious lately: Maine will sell out for their goaltender. Junior Martin Ouelette has played six in a row, and he has good numbers (.915 saves, 2.23 goals against) despite a 1-5-2 record overall. In the Boston University game (Maine's last before Friday's date with UMD), the Terriers had multiple sustained sequences in the UMaine zone, but couldn't get many -- if any -- shots on goal. Maine actually outshot BU 28-21 and lost 1-0.

For UMD, a big key in this game is going to be similar to the Saturday game in Alaska. Just stick with it.

The Bulldogs want to play a certain way, and UAA didn't let them do that in that Saturday game two weekends ago. The Bulldogs never trailed, but had to grind out a 2-1 win that was every bit as hard-earned as any win UMD will attain this season. Maine might not be as physical as UAA, but the Black Bears will make it really hard for UMD forwards to get to Ouelette for rebounds, and they're going to block some shots, too, if the BU game is any indication.

Reality is that Maine simply isn't going to score as many goals as it did last season. Not even close. So coach Tim Whitehead has gotten this group to buy into a certain way of playing. It isn't anything sexy, but it's what has to be done to keep the team in games.

If the forwards start producing more consistently, perhaps the style will be further adjusted. But it is what it is, and UMD may have to grind out another 2-1 kind of game to advance.

There were questions going into the season about whether UMD could handle that style. The 2010-11 and 11-12 teams were pretty good at beating teams that wanted to slow the game down, but previous UMD groups had struggled in that area.

Against Bemidji State and UAA -- teams notorious for playing more of a slow-down, grinder style -- UMD went 3-1. We'll take it.

Ahead on Saturday is either Cornell or Ferris State. Those two teams play the early game in Estero, about 15 miles down the road. Both semifinals are rematches of NCAA regional games from March, as Ferris beat Cornell in Green Bay for the right to go to the Frozen Four.

The four coaches in this tournament -- Whitehead, UMD's Scott Sandelin, Bob Daniels of Ferris, and Mike Schafer from Cornell -- have combined to win 1220 games in 69 years as head coaches. Sandelin is the "baby" of the group, in his 13th season as a head coach. Daniels is in his third decade with Ferris' Bulldogs.

Don't expect any lineup changes from UMD. It's safe to say Sandelin will run with the same group of 20 he used in Alaska for both games. Of course, if something goes awry, it's nice to know that he has all his players on this trip. Since it's non-conference, there was no reason to leave anyone at home.

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