Normally, an in-season exhibition game provides an opportunity to work on a few things. An exhibition game in late January can be quite beneficial, allowing a team like UMD to tinker with line combinations and special teams personnel without penalty of losing a game that counts.
Of course, all of that is assuming that it's an exhibition game your team wins.
Saturday at Amsoil Arena, UMD will take on one of the most dangerous teams its played in an exhibition in the nearly 13 seasons Scott Sandelin has patrolled the bench.
The U.S. Under-18 National Team is in town, and unlike past seasons, there's plenty of reason to believe this band of teenagers can easily walk out of Duluth with another win over a Division I team.
The National Team Development Program, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has been around for some time now. The idea is very much what the name suggests. The program is there to help train elite teenage hockey players for international play. The Under-18 Team plays a United States Hockey League schedule, allowing it to match up reguarly with plenty of Division I prospects. The team also plays a number of exhibition games against Division I teams.
This year, the Under-18s have been quite impressive in those exhibitions. Team USA is 6-4-2 against Division I teams this season, including a tie at Notre Dame (1-1), a win at Michigan (5-3), and Tuesday's 3-0 whitewashing of Michigan State in East Lansing. The team also played No. 1 Minnesota to a 2-2 tie at Mariucci Arena earlier this season, and it played nationally-ranked New Hampshire very close, losing 2-1.
The U18s latest victim, Michigan State, is in last place in the CCHA, but the Lansing Journal noted that the team believes Tuesday's loss was a low point.
This is a confident group, one that knows it can compete against anyone in Division I. It won't be intimidated by the bright lights or booming sounds of Amsoil Arena.
Goalie Thatcher Demko shut out MSU on only 22 saves, as the Spartans were outshot 39-22. There are some really high-end talents on this team, including future Denver defenseman Will Butcher and North Dakota commit Keaton Thompson. Future Gopher Hudson Fasching is the only player on the team committed to go to Minnesota, as many high-end Minnesota kids in this age group decided against playing for the NTDP, preferring to either play for their high school team or move into the USHL.
UMD isn't out for blood on Saturday, but the Bulldogs aren't going to be able to take this team lightly. The Under-18 Team has won in Duluth before (2-1 in December of 2007), and in the last trip here, we saw now-UMD goalie Matt McNeely stand on his head to keep his team in a game UMD eventually won 4-1.
(That was the second "live" game at Amsoil Arena, following the North Dakota game we won't be revisiting any time soon.)
It's a game the Bulldogs should and probably will win, but it won't be the typical exhibition blowout. Instead, it's going to be a highly-competitive game we witness on Saturday, and it's one that could actually help prepare UMD for a stretch run that sees the Bulldogs play five conference series (three at home) that will decide their home-ice fate.
Before Denver, Minnesota State, Alabama Huntsville, and Omaha visit to close out a busy home schedule down the stretch, let's enjoy a chance to take down what could be the best Under 18 Team we've seen in some time.
No matter what happens, performances like the ones we've seen from these kids this winter show that things continue to look up for USA Hockey. This is a group that'll have a chance to play in the pretiguous World Juniors in a couple years. When that happens, there's no reason to think they can't contend for a medal and help follow up on our gold medal from this year's tournament.
Since it's an exhibition, UMD can dress virtually anyone it wants. It sounds like senior defenseman Drew Olson, who has been dealing with some nagging issues, might be the only one to sit out.
Also, don't forget that Skate With The Bulldogs is Sunday at 3:30pm at Amsoil Arena. Admission and parking are both free for the event. UMD players will be on the ice with the kids to hang out and sign autographs.