Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bulldogs Searching for Elusive Confidence, Consistency

There's no question that UMD's men's hockey team is lacking consistency. Has been all season. It also appears to be lacking confidence, especially as of late.

Perhaps those things are hidden somewhere along Highway 2 between Duluth and Bemidji, where UMD is playing this weekend.

"It's always frustrating for guys when they're not scoring," sophomore forward Justin Crandall said this week. "I think when you miss a few maybe you start tightening on the stick a little bit.

"You can't lose your confidence, especially this time of year."

In the midst of its longest losing streak in five years, UMD is at Bemidji State, a team that hasn't won since a 5-1 triumph over Denver on Dec. 15. Over a 12-game winless streak, BSU has been shut out three times and held under three goals ten times.

The Beavers beat UMD 2-1 in Duluth Dec. 8, and even in non-wins -- like last weekend's games at Wisconsin -- the team has worked hard. It's a hallmark of Tom Serratore's teams in Bemidji. They don't get outworked.

Unfortunately, UMD has been outworked a goodly amount as of late, and the Bulldogs have paid for it. The answers are right there, though.

"Guys have to be willing to get in those gritty areas and work," Crandall said. "I guess it's easy to talk about, so we've got to prove it this weekend. Score some greasy, dirty goals this weekend."

Crandall is right. There is no use continuing to talk about it. The Bulldogs know what they have to do.

Practice appeared spirited on Tuesday. The group also looked like it was loose, which is a good sign considering the spot it's in right now.

"We had a really good meeting (Monday)," Crandall told me. "There's two ways to go, obviously, up and down. It's not acceptable what's been going on, but try to stay positive and work through it. This week, we're focused on working harder and getting stronger in front of our net and their net."

The sweep by Minnesota State was different than the one by Denver. MSU just beat the Bulldogs up in front of both nets. UMD let too many bodies get in front of its goaltenders -- whether it was Matt McNeely Friday or Aaron Crandall Saturday -- and there wasn't nearly enough net-front traffic at the other end.

Justin Crandall talked about "turnaways," instances of forwards going to the front of the net and turning away without staying to battle for position and pucks in front of opposing goalies. Head coach Scott Sandelin brought up the concept on Saturday with me, and while it appeared to get better on Saturday, the defensive breakdowns may have gotten worse. MSU had too many odd-man situations and too much quality traffic in front of Aaron Crandall for anything good to come out of it. I didn't think Crandall was particularly sharp, but it's also hard to totally blame him for any of the goals (at least the ones that counted).

(It's been a tough thing to watch at times. UMD's goaltending has simply not been good enough a lot of nights. When the team loses by three or more goals, it's easy to pass off a tough night for the goalie because nothing else good happened. However, a team save percentage of .887 compared to .924 for opponents is a huge part of the problem right now. It isn't fair to blame the goalies, but when the team is struggling to score, the goalie sometimes has to steal one, and depending on your definition of "stealing one," the last one to do it in a UMD uniform was either Kenny Reiter or Alex Stalock.)

Stephon Williams is a good goalie, and Bemidji has a pair in Mathieu Dugas and Andrew Walsh that have both given UMD troubles in the past. However, UMD did -- in my estimation -- an inadequate job getting pressure on Williams. This was especially true during the first 35-40 minutes of Saturday's game, when both Lee Davidson and I thought Williams was fighting the puck a bit and could have been had, so to speak.

If UMD is to dig out of this thing -- and there's still plenty of time to make good things happen -- Sandelin and his staff needs a full buy-in from everyone on the ice, from the goalie out. The Bulldogs have to play with pace, play disciplined while also not avoiding contact, put pressure on opponents, get pucks and bodies to the net with a high battle level, and get quality goaltending.

All of these things have happened this season, but as is clear with the team's record being five games under .500, they haven't happened often enough. Eight games remain to figure those things out.


Sophomore forward Caleb Herbert (undisclosed) is not playing this weekend. That leaves the lines looking like this, at least in practice:

Farley - Cameranesi - Seidel
Crandall - Tardy - Basaraba
Danberg - Hendrickson - Flaherty
DeLisle - Decowski - Krause

Sounds like McNeely and Alex Fons will be the goalies on the trip, but we don't know who starts Friday.

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