MINNEAPOLIS -- Hello, layover.
I come to you from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where I'm spending a few hours waiting for my delayed flight to Omaha. A UMD-UNO series preview is coming later, but for now, let's take a quick gander at where UMD stands with the season about half over.
The Bulldogs have done a very good job preventing opponents from racking up high shot totals. Despite a defensive lull since Thanksgiving, UMD is still highly-ranked nationally, allowing just over 25 shots per game. That's not a bad number, especially for a team we knew might struggle at times in goal.
UMD has to tighten things up on that side of the ice, but we'll cover that in a little bit.
The freshmen have been strong. UMD has 18 goals and 44 points from its rooks so far, and their continued presence gives the Bulldogs some balance across the forward lines.
Individually, I thought Kyle Osterberg, Justin Crandall, Alex Iafallo, and the Cal Decowski line (with Charlie Sampair and Sammy Spurrell) had good or better halves. Decowski's line has great chemistry and has actually showed itself capable of playing effectively with increased ice time compared to most "fourth lines."
(It was funny talking to Cal this week, because you should have seen his face light up when I asked him about his linemates. It's a great trio because of how they compliment each other on the ice, and it's going to be fun to watch their development continue.)
The power play has struggled, but UMD's penalty kill has consistently been in the top ten nationally (sixth entering the weekend) through the first half of the season. That kill and improved performance from the power play lately has propelled UMD to fifth in combined special teams this season (Bentley, BC, Denver, and BU are the top four).
Can't ignore the goaltending. After a good start, UMD entered break with a team save percentage of .884. I'm no math whiz, but that isn't great. Both Aaron Crandall and Matt McNeely have had their moments, but they've also each had their struggles.
(While Crandall's worst game was probably at Minnesota, McNeely's best one was probably the following game against the Gophers. Weird how that works out.)
It's not all on them. There have been plenty of breakdowns that have led to odd-man rushes, breakaways, and other sorts of grade-A scoring chances. yes, there have been some clunker goals at times, but each goalie has also been hung out to dry plenty.
That means team defense isn't strong enough. Odd-man rushes and breakaways don't happen without defensive breakdowns, and many rebound goals could be prevented with stronger play out front, no matter how juicy the rebound might be. Gap control could be better, and defenders have to do a better job of getting in position and occupying opponents so they can't just jam at the puck down low.
There have been communication breakdowns, too. On St. Cloud State's winning goal Dec. 6, what appeared to be a two-on-three turned into a straight one-on-one situation when Tim Smith stepped up on SCSU forward Jonny Brodzinski and no one filled for him after he got walked. Smith seemed to take a gamble because it looked like he had help, but that help didn't read the play the same way. Brodzinski got open and ripped a wrister that beat McNeely for the winner.
Those things happen, but they're preventable, and UMD has to clean that up.
We knew this team was young, especially with the D-corps. We knew the goaltending might be problematic at times. It's hard to be mad at things we expected to happen.
Being under .500 sucks, but let's go back to what I've said before. This team should improve greatly as the season goes on. I expect the Bulldogs to show that improvement in the second half, in all phases of the game.
If the goaltending holds up, UMD could very well make a run in a league that is still very much up for grabs.