Friday, February 01, 2013

Stretch Run Begins With Desperate Denver

Last week, we talked about how the UMD Bulldogs needed to find a way to win their exhibition game, in hopes of building some mojo for the stretch run.

Enter the stretch run.

Over the next six weekends, UMD will play 12 games that will rise to near a playoff level in terms of their importance for the Bulldogs. It starts with this weekend's series against Denver, another team looking to springboard toward the top of the league standings over the next six weeks.

Entering the weekend, the Bulldogs sit in eighth place in the WCHA, one point behind Denver in seventh. St. Cloud State leads the league with 25 points, followed by Minnesota and Omaha at 24, then a cluster of three teams (North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota State) at 21.

In the last game that counted, UMD was done in by an opportunistic Colorado College team 5-1 in Colorado Springs. The Bulldogs struggled to get pucks by CC goalie Joe Howe all weekend, and the only goal in this particular game went in off a Colorado defender in front of Howe.

It was a relatively uneven weekend for UMD, from the net out to the forwards. Goalie Matt McNeely was not his sharpest in the loss, and he didn't have a lot of help. UMD struggled on faceoffs, losing the battle both nights. On Saturday, the Bulldogs couldn't get to the net as easily, hindering their second-chance opportunities (the kind of opportunities that brought two of UMD's three goals in a 3-2 win the night before).

These are the kinds of games the Bulldogs can't afford to have over the next six weekends.

Denver comes in a wounded and desperate hockey team. The Pioneers haven't won outside the state of Colorado since Nov. 10 (3-2 at Minnesota State). That and a win in Mankato the night before are the only games Denver has won outside of Colorado this season.

The Pioneers have elite talent, especially on the blue line with David Makowski, Joey LaLeggia, and Nolan Zajac. Nick Shore has continued where brother Drew left off, as he's at a point per game to lead the team in scoring. Chris Knowlton leads in goals with 11, and sophomore Juho Olkinuora has staked an impressive claim to the No. 1 goalie job.

(That's an interesting storyline. The last time I saw Sam Brittain play, he was -- almost literally -- standing on his head to knock UMD out of the Final Five with a 67-save effort in the semifinals last March. Now, he has a .902 save percentage and Olkinuora -- 2.03 goals against and .938 saves -- appears to be the man.)

Denver is exceptionally thin. The Pioneers only had 11 forwards and 17 total skaters available for their series at St. Cloud State two weekends ago. Longtime coach George Gwozdecky has dealt with junior defenseman Wade Bennett retiring before the season due to injury concerns, and then he saw highly-touted freshman Dakota Mermis leave for the OHL's London Knights at midseason. Two forwards are out indefinitely.

With DU at 0-4-2 in its last six road games, and the weight of preseason expectations threatening to sink a once-promising season, the Pioneers will be plenty desperate this weekend. UMD is more than capable of matching that.

Despite that loss to CC, UMD is 7-2-1 in the last ten WCHA games after a poor start (1-5-2 at one point). The Bulldogs have found ways to win close games, they've blown teams out, they've won close games, and they've won high-scoring games. This isn't above UMD. However, the 'Dogs haven't developed the same kind of consistency that the last few teams were able to, and to take the next step, they have to find that game-to-game consistency that can carry them at least to a home-ice position.

The next two weekends will tell us a lot about the Bulldogs' chances. Either UMD has a shot at home ice and maybe an NCAA at-large bid, or they don't. Hopefully, in two weeks, things will still be looking up.

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