Friday, January 17, 2014

Bulldogs Try to Stay Hot Against Streaking Pioneers

Get points on the road, and you've had a good weekend.

Get a sweep in any venue, and UMD coach Scott Sandelin will term it a "great weekend."

The time to celebrate a great weekend in Omaha has passed for UMD, now. The Bulldogs are back on home ice this week to take on a surging Denver team that just handed St. Cloud State its first road loss of the season.

It's a key matchup in the NCHC, featuring teams separated by just two points in the league standings (Denver is tied for third, while UMD is tied for fifth). Moreover, for a UMD team that actually possesses a decent non-conference profile, it's a chance to make more gains in the ever-popular PairWise rankings.

(UMD is 21st as of this writing, actually ahead of a Denver team that had some issues in non-conference play, including losses to Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage, and Canisius.)

The Bulldogs gained a lot of momentum in Omaha, despite being outshot 93-43. The consensus in the UMD room is that while the guys can play better, there wasn't a whole lot to pick at. UNO was willing to throw pucks to the net from everywhere, including center ice. It inflated the Mavericks' shot numbers, especially on Saturday, and it masked the good things UMD was doing on the defensive side.

"They threw pucks from pretty much everywhere," Sandelin said. "Below the goal line, side of the net, up high. It seemed there were a lot of pucks just laying there that they just couldn't get to. I thought our guys did a good job of blocking out, eliminating, tying up sticks."

"That's something we work on," sophomore defenseman Andy Welinski said. "They had a few big guys that they'd post up in front of the net ... that was a big thing we worked on, boxing guys out."

So, yes, it's possible to play well defensively while giving up over 50 shots in a game.

That said, I'm going to throw this out there: It's probably not good form to give up 93 shots on goal every weekend. I don't care who's in goal. At some point, that's going to burn a hockey team.

Of course, there's no reason to believe UMD will do that. Even with the big numbers Omaha put up last weekend, the Bulldogs are only giving up a shade under 28 shots per game. The short-term trend might be for a lot of shots, but UMD's long-term profile defies that.

Leaning on Aaron Crandall or Matt McNeely once in a while is part of the bit. Goalies get it. UMD has no intentions of making either of these goalies win them game after game. This isn't the 2007-2008 team that couldn't score for anything, and needed Alex Stalock to win them game after game. This group is expected to score goals, and it's up to Crandall and McNeely to bail out the occasional defensive lapse with a big save, while not letting in any soul-crushing softies.

Right now, it's Crandall's net. That doesn't mean it'll be Crandall's net until the end of the season, but if he keeps playing like he did last week, it sure will be.

Denver presents some challenges. It's as good a blue line as you'll find in the NCHC, led by Joey LaLeggia and captain David Makowski. Will Butcher, who played in the World Juniors, and Nolan Zajac -- back on the blue line after an experiment at forward -- are also part of the defensive corps.

LaLeggia is especially impressive. He's all over the ice, a factor in all zones. Not afraid to join the forecheck, LaLeggia reads plays as well as anyone and can fly. He is a good passer with a good shot. He's the best two-way defenseman Denver has at the moment, though Zajac and Butcher have a ton of potential.

"We've got to be aware of those guys," Sandelin said. "Their lineup is very solid. They play the game on the right side of the puck. A good defensive team."

Denver isn't loaded up front, but the Pioneers have four solid lines without a ton of holes. No one jumps off the page, though Ty Loney's development has been impressive during his time there, and Trevor Moore has adapted nicely in his first college season. DU isn't as big as DU used to be, but there's some size and plenty of physical on this team.

"They're a deep team, and they're strong," Welinski said.

Oh, and there's Sam Brittain.

After serving as DU's unquestioned No. 1 goalie in his freshman year, I don't think anyone could have assumed Brittain would still be in school as a senior. A blown-out knee and the emergence of Juho Olkinuora conspired to place the uber-talented Brittain on the back-burner. He stood on his head against UMD in the 2012 Final Five (67 saves in a double-overtime win), but Olkinuora made 46 starts to Brittain's 25 over the latter's sophomore and junior seasons. Olkinuora moved on to pro hockey (St. John's in the AHL this season) and Brittain is back to being the bell-cow goalie in Denver.

He's making the most of it, too. Brittain was outstanding last Saturday against SCSU, making 35 saves, including 16 in a second period where the Huskies outshot DU 17-9. Brittain has a .934 save percentage over 21 starts, to go along with a stingy 1.96 goals against average. That save percentage this season matches his number in three lifetime starts against UMD, with the fourth coming Friday night unless he gets hit by the team bus in the Amsoil Arena garage.

This is a tough nut to crack. Denver allows almost 31 shots a game, but when this team is on defensively, it's similar to UMD last week. Lots of shots, maybe, but not a lot of quality shots or scoring chances. The Pioneers are so confident in Brittain that they'll let you throw the puck on net if he can see it. And they'll make sure he can see it.

The penalty kills are both outstanding. They're similar, in that sometimes it's the goaltending, sometimes it's the skaters. Both teams are good at denying speed and good zone entries once they clear the puck. St. Cloud State really struggled at times with zone entries on Saturday, and you can expect UMD to have the same issues if puck movement isn't crisp.

Oh, and then the Bulldogs have to beat Brittain.

And DU has to beat Crandall.

Goals could be at a premium, but it should be a good weekend of hockey.

1 comment:

jsiiter55 said...

I was optimistic till I read this! Yikes.