Friday, October 25, 2013

UMD Faces Latest in Long Series of Non-Conference Tests

I'm not a fan of hyperbole, but look at UMD's non-conference schedule:

vs Michigan Tech
vs Notre Dame
at Ohio State
at Minnesota
vs Minnesota State and either Minnesota or St. Cloud State (North Star College Cup)

There aren't a lot of programs which can boast an out-of-league schedule this difficult. It'll be good for a young Bulldog team.

That said, the best of these tests probably comes this weekend, when Notre Dame visits Amsoil Arena.

Last week, UMD rebounded from a 3-1 loss to Colorado College to pick up a dominant 5-1 win on Saturday in Colorado Springs. You could see a bit of a turnaround in the Bulldogs' game in the third period Friday, even though it ended up not being enough.

"We weren't real happy with that effort (Friday), and that's unacceptable," junior forward Justin Crandall said this week. "We knew what we needed to do Saturday."

To be perfectly blunt, UMD kicked the crap out of Colorado College Saturday, in a way I haven't seen a UMD team do to anyone on the road in my eight-plus years doing this. That game was never close in terms of puck possession, scoring chances, or offensive zone time. UMD had 71 shot attempts to 36, 44 shots on goal to 14, and outshot CC 59-20 over the last four periods of the two-game series.

"I think it was our best 60 minutes for sure," head coach Scott Sandelin said. "Our guys controlled the play. I thought they played very hungry to win the game."

Wins like that are fun, even when followed by 4:30am wakeup calls and 5:30am bus rides through the Colorado mountains.

But now the Bulldogs have to follow that strong performance with more of the same. And there will be significant resistance this weekend.

Notre Dame is in town for a pair of games starting Friday. The teams have split weekend series the last two years. The Fighting Irish are 4-0 and ranked second in both national polls, having outscored foes 17-5 so far this season. They are eight-for-40 on the power play.

(You read that right. 40 power plays in two games.)

Notre Dame has experience up and down its lineup. Its leading scorer through four games is a freshman who plays on the fourth line (in fairness, Vince Hinostroza has seen power play minutes and contributed there). Robbie Russo is one of the best defensemen in the country, and Steven Summerhays has a .946 save percentage through four starts.

"They have a lot of seniors," Sandelin said. "There aren't a lot of new faces in their lineup, so they've got a lot of experience."

Traditionally, Notre Dame is a pretty difficult team to play against. In addition to Russo, there are big bangers like Shayne Taker and Kevin Lind back there. Sophomore Andy Ryan has shown promise, too.

Russo is the key to Notre Dame's lethal power play unit. He quarterbacks the top group, and he loves to have the puck. A big key for UMD will be to deny him good looks and force someone else to carry the load. It's much easier said than done, since Russo will go just about anywhere on the ice to get the puck on his stick.

UMD can attack this team with speed, and I'd expect that to be a big advantage for the Bulldogs if they're ultimately successful this weekend.

Staying out of the box would be good, too. I'm actually somewhat confident that Notre Dame wouldn't mind some five-on-five hockey after seeing 40 power plays and 24 penalty kills over 240 minutes of hockey.

Notre Dame's numbers are gaudy, but the Irish have yet to trail this season. Not even for a second. Maybe UMD can rattle the proverbial cages and get a lead at some point. Again, I'm somewhat confident that Jeff Jackson won't think it's the worst thing to happen if his team falls behind. Over 34 games, it's inevitable. Might as well see how the crew responds.

These are UMD's last home games until December, so I'm expecting good and enthusiastic crowds for what should be a very good, fast-paced series.

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