Friday, February 22, 2013

Rivalry Weekend Sees Teams Going in Different Directions

MINNEAPOLIS -- One team appears to be trending upward, while the other is fighting to stay above water.

Unfortunately, this isn't 2009, when surging UMD ended Minnesota's season in the Final Five play-in game.

It's also not 2011, when a destined-to-miss-the-NCAA Tournament Gopher squad fell victim to Mike Connolly's career night (five goals) in a 6-4 UMD win at Amsoil Arena.

No, this time around, the Gophers are trending toward an NCAA spot, and UMD is scuffling, destined to be on the road for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

"It's not the season we were hoping for, but I think we've been making strides in the right direction," senior Jake Hendrickson said this week. "I think we're going in the right direction for these next couple games."

After thinking more about it this week, it's reasonable to suggest Hendrickson is a lot more right than he is wrong.

Last Friday, UMD beat Bemidji State up and down the rink five-on-five, especially over the game's first two periods. Over the 60 minutes, the Bulldogs held a 34-17 shot advantage and the 2-0 edge in goals at even strength. The penalty kill did UMD in, however, as Bemidji scored four goals in six power play chances on its way to a 4-2 win.

That left opponents seven of 12 on the power play over two games, as a once-solid UMD penalty kill had a couple bad nights in a row.

"Some of it's a little positioning, some of it's stick position," coach Scott Sandelin said Saturday before the teams played to a 1-1 tie. Referring to the first BSU power play goal, a deflected poitn shot, Sandelin said "we gave up what we wanted to."

"To be honest, I don't really know (what happened Friday)," a somewhat exasperated Hendrickson said. "There were some breakdowns in positioning, and they capitalized on it."

Needless to say, that can't happen again. BSU's power play was 16 percent on the season before Friday's explosion. Minnesota's is No. 1 in the nation, at over 26 percent. The Gophers are plus-25 on special teams this season (35 power play goals to ten, with two short-handed goals both scored and allowed by Minnesota), while UMD is minus-one (27 power play goals and one shortie compared to 26 power play goals and three shorties allowed).

For UMD, the first key this weekend: discipline.

Yeah, UMD has a bunch of penalty minutes this season. But focus for a second on something that people don't want to talk about when they say UMD is undisciplined.

So far this season, UMD has had 138 power play chances. Opponents have had 133. So for all the dumb penalties UMD allegedly takes, the Bulldogs apparently do a good job baiting the opponents into taking more.

That said, cutting ruts to the cubicle of shame is not a good idea when playing the Gophers. Just ask Wisconsin.

The Badgers gave Minnesota four power plays last Friday at the Kohl Center. Minnesota scored on three of them. Final score: 3-2.

The kicker? There was nothing magical about any of the goal. Not a thing. Faceoff wins, bodies to the net, rebounds, winning battles on the wall, good puck movement, more bodies to the net.

Seems simple, especially watching Minnesota execute it. This is the kind of team no one wants to play against. It's one that works hard and has high-level, elite skill. Dangerous combination, especially when you consider Don Lucia isn't exactly a moron (my level of respect for the Minnesota coach has been discussed many times in the past, and Gopher fans should be eternally grateful that the oft-maligned Joel Maturi stuck with him when many wanted him gone).

This isn't going to be easy in any way for UMD. A year ago, this would be a marquee matchup, especially on the big sheet. Just imagine all that skill that would have been on display.

Now, UMD needs to win by putting its nose to the proverbial grindstone. There is nothing fancy that comes out of these games this weekend for UMD. Just play a solid, strong, simple game, try to outwork Minnesota, and don't parade to the penalty box, because this power play is not one any Bulldog fan wants to see a lot of this weekend.

It's been a hell of a rivalry, and here's hoping that -- against many, if not all, odds -- there is still time to write one more great story before the WCHA candle is extinguished for these two.

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