Over the course of the last couple-plus seasons, UMD head coach Scott Sandelin has almost always been able to stop the proverbial bleeding. In the rare instances of something really bad happening on the ice, Sandelin always had a line or a couple guys -- players like Mike Connolly, David Grun, Mike Montgomery, Justin Faulk, and numerous others -- he could call on to hop the boards and make sure one bad thing didn't turn to two. He had a goalie -- whether it was Alex Stalock or Kenny Reiter -- he knew would shake off the inevitable bad goal (everyone allows them).
Now, things are a little more up in the air. UMD doesn't have a lockdown line, as it has in the last couple seasons. It doesn't have a line that dazzles with puck possession.
The Bulldogs are what the Bulldogs are.
Unfortunately, what they are this year is a ~.500 team that might be able to do a little better than that, but only if they figure out the importance of playing 60 minutes in a game and shaking off the inevitable mistakes before they start adding on to each other.
This weekend is a whole different challenge for UMD. Last game, the Bulldogs saw a dazzling 52-minute effort completely blown to smithereens in 91 ferociously horrifying seconds. In those 91 seconds, Denver turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead that it would not relinquish.
Can UMD put that horror in the rear-view mirror and take care of business against No. 11 Minnesota State Friday night?
No one knows.
Sandelin wishes he knew. I'm sure he can't wait for the game to start, because only then will he have an answer. Only after the team plays for a few minutes, and everyone gets on the ice, will he know how his players responded to Saturday's gut-wrenching finish.
Moreover, how will the players respond if something bad happens? A bad bounce, an unlucky break, a soft goal, a great save by the MSU goalie, a shot off the goalpost/crossbar. How does this affect the team's psyche?
This isn't the same group as the last couple years (duh). It's not quite as balanced, and it's not as mentally tough. We'll see how it responds on Friday, because it's getting close to too late to figure this stuff out.
No doubt in my mind UMD has the necessary talent to win this game, and the next one, and the one after that. But the Bulldogs have to play the way they did for 52 minutes Saturday and forget those 91 seconds ever happened.
No question Mike Hastings has to be the front-runner for WCHA Coach of the Year. Hastings has a team that finished 11th last season in contention for home ice as the stretch run continues.
Like any good head coach, Hastings is quick to credit his players, noting that sophomores Matt Leitner and JP Lafontaine have gotten better from last year, when they were both pretty good. He also talked glowingly about the leadership he's seen from his seniors, basically from the second he stepped on campus in Mankato.
"When I came in for the first interview, I ended up talking to the team," Hastings said this week. "Senior goaltender (Phil Cook) stepped up and said 'Hey coach, what are you looking to do here?' All five seniors that we have stepped to the forefront in different ways.
"I look at those guys, from day one when I sat across from each guy, I asked them if they could choose, who would they want to lead you? The two guys who were unanimous out of everybody's mouths were Eriah Hayes and Tyler Elbrecht."
In a year where the top of the WCHA is as heavy as it's ever been, and it's full of teams ready to leave the league, MSU is the one holdover that has a real shot at home ice.
The Mavericks have talent across their lines, they are fast, and they like to push the pace. Freshman goalie Stephon Williams has been a great find, helping keep the team in games where it has struggled to score.
For UMD, this is a key weekend. The Bulldogs need to work hard in all three zones, play with speed, take advantage of scoring opportunities, and get quality goaltending. It sounds simple, but until UMD does it consistently, I'm going to keep hitting the drum.