Friday, November 15, 2013

Familiar, Similar Teams Meet in Grand Forks

Couple housecleaning notes before we get started.

1. I've gotten a few emails asking for more UMD coverage. I'll try to get more of that going for you. Balancing work and coaching and calling hockey games is proving difficult, but I'll do my best.

2. Look for info on Red Rock Radio's updated apps soon. For now, I believe the iPhone bit works, but you can still go here and listen to games via your internet browser on any smartphone.

Now, on to business ...

Grand Forks has not been a good place for UMD in a long time. The Bulldogs are 2-7-1 in their last ten games against North Dakota in any building, but the team's history at Ralph Engelstad Arena is cover-your-eyes worthy.

UMD is 36-71-3 all-time in Grand Forks, including a 3-13-3 mark in the new Engelstad Arena, which opened for the 2001-02 season.

Perspective: I've seen UMD win two games in Clarkson's building. I've also seen UMD win two games at The Ralph. It's not something that happens often.

These are two pretty similar teams when you look at the general makeup. Each team is loaded with talented freshmen and sophomores, and some of those good players haven't quite found their stride yet in 2013-14. They have senior and sophomore goalies who have both played and have experienced varying success.

The way things are going, they probably deserve to be teams playing around the .500 mark, which both are (7-7-2 combined). If North Dakota wins and ties this weekend, the teams will have identical 4-4-2 records.

UND coach Dave Hakstol called his team "inconsistent" when I talked to him this week.

"We've done a lot of things well, and we've had time periods where we've done a lot of things poorly," he said. "I thought we were a lot better last week against Omaha."

Could this be a great chance for UMD to end a long string of poor results in Grand Forks? Senior goalie Aaron Crandall hopes so.

"I've never beat them, and that's a huge goal for me this weekend," Crandall told me. "I really want to get on the board against them, especially at The Ralph."

(Crandall is 0-3 in three career starts against North Dakota.)

This isn't the same Crandall that UMD fans saw his first three years. Rattled by inconsistency, Crandall has been fantastic as a senior. He seems much more comfortable in virtually every way. A 1.81 goals against and .925 save percentage serve as sound evidence of that fact. Also, Crandall doesn't think he's started five straight games since high school or maybe juniors. He's earned those five starts, and he's earned the right to take the first crack at North Dakota.

"I think we've played a lot better than our record is," Crandall said. "It's exciting because it's early, and obviously you're not measured on what you do early. It's what you do late."

Both teams have been elite on the penalty kill, in the top three of the nation. UMD is first (93.6 percent), and UND third (92.5).

"You just have to keep things simple, stay within the system," Hakstol said. "Bottom line is you gotta work your tail off, and our group has done that."

UMD is similar. Good kills rely on sound play from all four skaters on the ice, and sometimes the goalie has to come through. For both teams, this has been the case. Crandall has been especially sharp short-handed.

North Dakota should be ready this weekend, despite the short week of prep. Last time on home ice, UND was swept by St. Cloud State. You can bet that we'll see the best this group can give on Friday. Hopefully UMD is sharp off its own bye and can exceed that intensity level.

These teams have hooked up for some very good and often emotional hockey in recent years. For UMD to take another step in its development, it must go into The Ralph and play at least as well as it did last year. Do that, and the result from last year (loss and a tie) could be flipped, or even more than that.

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