Before the season started, many wondered where the defense would come from. UMD lost three top four blue-liners from last year's sub-.500 team, and while there was plenty of experience back, the Bulldogs knew they were going to be relying on players they hadn't relied on much before.
What's happened through ten games? Lots of pats on the helmet, plenty of ice, and probably some visible bruising.
UMD is blocking shots like crazy.
No matter who is on the ice, guys are making it extremely difficult to get shots through to the net.
"It starts at the top with our leaders," junior defenseman Derik Johnson said this week. "We block shots every day in practice. We're in the training room with ice bags on. I think that sends a pretty strong message to the rest of our team about how we're gonna play. It's sacrificing your body for your teammates."
"It fires up the whole bench," head coach Scott Sandelin said recently.
In last weekend's series at North Dakota, UMD blocked over 30 shots in two games, including 23 on Friday. Willie Corrin blocked six by himself, even though he hadn't played much this season, especially lately.
There is no reason to think any of this will change anytime soon, especially heading into this weekend's series against No. 1 Minnesota.
Some will joke that shot blocks come from being out of position to begin with. Johnson doesn't necessarily argue that, but he notes that the game has evolved to a point where shot-blocking has become vitally important.
"You look back maybe ten years ago, it wasn't done as much," he said. "But with the way guys are able to move the puck, sometimes you're out of position. You gotta put your body in front of it."
UMD will take the blocked shots as long as they come. Between defensemen and goalies, there were plenty of questions about the back end coming into the season. While Aaron Crandall has played well over his seven straight starts, it doesn't hurt to have guys making those sacrifices in front of him.
"They take a lot of pride in what they do," Crandall said about his defense. "I joke with them that sometimes it takes away from my saves, I could pad my stats a little. But it's awesome. They've had some huge blocks on pucks I haven't even seen.
"When you see guys laying out, blocking shots, it makes you want to make big plays. Because it obviously hurts them more than it hurts me."
Of the likely lineup for Friday's game, 15 players are from Minnesota, one more from Superior (close enough, right?). It's hard to find a series on the schedule that would have more guys fired up and ready to go than this one, even though it's non-conference.
Despite not being in the same conference anymore, Sandelin knows his team is facing a huge rival. A big reason for it is the number of Minnesotans currently on the UMD roster.
Sandelin also knows it's a formidable opponent, even though it's one that UMD thinks it can play with.
"I think too many teams go in there and give them too much respect," he said this week. "We know how we have to play. Hopefully we can go in there and do that. It's a big series, a big rival. We've got a lot of Minnesota kids that like beating them."
The Gophers are certainly powerful up front. Hudson Fasching is a power forward-type who has flashed some Nick Bjugstad-type ability along the wall and with a deadly shot. Fasching isn't quite that good yet, but you can see some similarities with his game. Remember, it took Bjugstad a little while to learn how to use his big body and long arms, but once he did, he quickly became one of the best players in the college game.
Forwards like Justin Kloos -- a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey -- and Taylor Cammarata have speed to burn. They are part of a forward group that already possessed the lightning-fast Nate Condon, the underrated (for now) Sam Warning, and the always-dangerous Kyle Rau. Yes, the Gophers lost a lot after last year, but Don Lucia has them well-positioned to continue their recent success.
By the way, if you can get the puck to the net, the reward you face there is dynamic sophomore Adam "Stalock's Cousin" Wilcox, who only has a .931 save percentage so far.
We're an underdog here this weekend, no doubt, but Sandelin is also right. Too many teams play almost scared of Minnesota's speed. But the Gophers aren't unlike any other speedy college hockey team out there, including UMD.
(People seem to forget that UMD has plenty of quicks in its lineup, too.)
Hit them hard enough and often enough, and speed tends to slow a little bit. UMD's gameplan should include relentless pursuit in all zones, hard hitting, and smart plays with the puck. Manage the puck, keep it away from their guys, limit their transition opportunities, and get people to the front of the net to make Wilcox' life a difficult one.
Not easy, but doable. Like I said before Notre Dame, the opponent is definitely good, and UMD believes it's good, too.
Time to forget about the former and prove the latter.