Though only two points back of a home-ice spot in the WCHA playoffs, the Bulldogs have a sub-.500 RPI, and barring a serious run in the second half, are not likely to be in position to attain an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, thanks in large part to a 2-4 non-conference record.
Hurting the UMD cause more is the fact that the team has yet to go more than three games without a loss at any point over 20 games. To get in position for an NCAA bid, UMD needs to start stringing together strong play on a more consistent basis.
"At the end of the year, we want to play our best hockey going into the playoffs," coach Scott Sandelin said this week.
Judging by the first 20 games, UMD's best hockey is still to come. Let's hope it doesn't come too late.
Searching for consistency and balance, Sandelin has tweaked UMD's forward lines. The plan for Friday's series opener against Michigan Tech is to have Tony Cameranesi center Caleb Herbert and Mike Seidel, while Jake Hendrickson centers Justin Crandall and Joe Basaraba. Austyn Young's line with Charlie Sampair and Adam Krause is now the third line, meaning they will justifiably get more minutes after playing quite well over a four-game stretch together. The fourth line Friday has Max Tardy centering Dan DeLisle and Keegan Flaherty.
"Hopefully we can get three or all four lines to contribute," Sandelin said.
Young has been particularly impressive recently, earning time on UMD's second line and power play units during the Florida trip because of ejections and ineffective play on the part of others.
"It's a tough position (center) to play at this level," Sandelin notes. "There's a lot of responsibility. I think he's learning the defensive part of it. It's a work in progress."
If UMD is going to get on a run, it has to start this weekend, at least in part because the Bulldogs need to start getting better at home. UMD has ten home games and six on the road over the rest of the regular season, but the home record so far is a very pedestrian 3-4-1, including 0-3-1 on Saturdays.
"Maybe it's just a focus, a mindset, but we've been pretty good on the road the last four or five years," Sandelin said. "We have to take advantage of playing at home and make this a difficult place to play. Overall, we need to be better, period."
Michigan Tech won the Great Lakes Invitational two weeks ago, posting 4-0 wins over Michigan and Western Michigan to take the crown for the first time since 1982. Freshman Pheonix Copley made 70 saves over the two nights, picking up his second and third career wins. Sandelin said goaltending is a big difference in the Huskies' play from when UMD was in Houghton a month and a half ago. Tech coach Mel Pearson agrees, saying he doesn't think his team is playing better, outside of the goaltending being much improved at the GLI.
I thought Tech's defense gave Western fits in that championship game, keeping people from getting to Copley and disrupting his rhythm and vision. UMD needs to win those position battles this weekend and continue to get pucks to the net. Copley looked a bit shaky with his angles when we saw him in November, but he didn't have those problems at the GLI.
Perhaps a little traffic in his face will change the way he plays the game.
For UMD's sake, the need to win exists, so it'll be really interesting to see how the team comes out in this series. No longer are splits acceptable. Wins are a must.
Violations of team rules have caused the one-game suspensions of senior forward Cody Danberg, freshman forward Austin Farley, and senior defenseman Wade Bergman. They will all sit Friday's game.
Also, freshman defenseman Andy Welinski is injured (upper body). Word is that the plan is to have him sit this weekend and play next weekend at Colorado College, but he has looked good in practice this week.
Junior goalie Aaron Crandall (lower) is day to day. I'm not sure his availability for Friday. Expect freshman Matt McNeely to start either way, even if Crandall is deemed good to go.
There are no other significant injuries or maladies to report. As far as I'm aware, everyone else is good to go for Friday.