Thursday, January 30, 2014

More Hard Hockey Awaits UMD in Kalamazoo

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- Sometimes, good luck manifests itself off the ice. It doesn't mean you should look the other way.

A 7am flight out of Duluth Thursday was delayed by snow in the Twin Cities. They call it a "ground halt" in the business. Weather in Duluth was fine and dandy, but it was snowing like crazy at MSP, and that kept our plane from taking off on time.

(I killed some time playing games and interviewing UMD freshman Alex Iafallo. Hear that on Saturday.)

The plane finally took off a little after 9am, a delay of more than two hours. Despite that, the 28-member UMD traveling party was able to meander to the gate for its next flight without missing anything significant.

In fact, we got there before the pilot did.

That delayed flight crew couldn't have worked out any better. If they had been on time (their previous flight was delayed getting into MSP by the weather, which was hideous), we would never had made the flight's scheduled 10:10 departure. In fact, we walked to the gate at 10:08. Pretty sure the aircraft door would have been closed by then, unless someone there was smart enough to realize that 28 passengers were missing, probably for a good reason.

In other words, UMD got its first good "bounce" of the weekend without even putting skates on. And I don't turn down any kind of good fortune, on the ice of off.

Lots to cover as the Bulldogs finish preparations for a weekend series against Western Michigan here Friday and Saturday.

For starters, all 13 available forwards are on the trip. With Charlie Sampair out, that means sophomore Austyn Young traveled. He's the extra for Friday unless someone falls out their hotel room window sometime before faceoff. Don't expect massive line changes. Or any. The Bulldogs rolled four lines against the undisputed No. 1 team in the country and outshot them 42-27, including an eye-popping 29-12 at even strength. Nothing is changing unless it has to.

(By the way, Western Michigan coach Andy Murray told me, unprompted, "We thought they [the Bulldogs] were the better team Saturday, even though they lost in the shootout." Not sure what that's worth to UMD fans, but there it is.)

Unfortunately, defenseman Tim Smith is not on the trip. He hasn't played since going hard into the boards in the Saturday game against Denver, so he's missed two full games and almost all of a third (he was injured on the game's first shift). If there is a change defensively, it'll be Luke McManus drawing in. Don't bet on it, at least not Friday.

What's impressed me most about this team since break is its ability to control the puck despite losing a serious number of faceoffs. Happened again against a damn good Minnesota team on Saturday night. The Gophers won 46 of 72 faceoffs. Won them in all situations and all zones. It wasn't a matter of UMD winning the "important" draws, though the Bulldogs -- mainly keyed by Caleb Herbert, who has really shown improvement in this area, I believe -- did win a few of those.

The games last weekend were similar. UMD would lose a draw against Minnesota State on Friday, and they'd have the puck within five seconds anyway. They hounded the thing and forced turnovers.

Minnesota wasn't as easy a nut to crack, but UMD played sound structurally and kept the Gophers from using their speed to generate scoring chances.

(I think the smaller ice surface helped UMD a bit on Saturday, as I didn't notice guys like Justin Kloos or Taylor Cammarata nearly as much as I did at Mariucci. I doubt they forgot how to play, and maybe it's just a coincidence and they had a tough night. But their speed wasn't as much of a factor this time around.)

It's saying a lot that UMD can be such a strong possession team while currently sitting 54th out of 59 Division I teams in faceoff percentage. The Bulldogs give up puck possession on too many faceoffs, but still own the puck in the majority of their games. When they start getting more consistent in the circle, imagine how good that puck possession will be.

Western Michigan is similar when it comes to faceoffs. They're not much better in the national rankings, but yet you watch the Broncos play, and they limit scoring chances and hound the puck so well that you don't realize they're losing faceoffs left and right.

They're also great at coming from behind. Against UMD Dec. 14, Western was down 3-0 and rallied to tie before UMD won it late. Against Miami, the Broncos trailed 3-0 before coming back and winning late. In St. Cloud, the Huskies took a 4-1 lead in the second period before settling for a 5-5 tie and a shootout loss to Western Michigan.

"Every game's a battle," Murray said this week. "It's not a recipe for success, falling behind. But we're resilient.

"There's a real competitive nature to college hockey, and you have to be on top of your game every night."

The Broncos have been flip-flopping goalies lately. They've gotten some solid play out of Frank Slubowski, but he got yanked in the Friday tie/shootout win against St. Cloud, and Lukas Hafner ended up making 32 saves in a 2-1 win in that series finale. That came a week after Hafner got the hook against Miami and Slubowski stood his ground while his teammates rallied.

"Our goaltending numbers have been pretty solid," Murray said. "But there have been nights where you're shaking your head. Most nights they give us an opportunity to get points."

We saw both goalies in Duluth, though Murray said that wasn't necessarily the plan going in. Hafner got the win Friday, but allowed three goals. Slubowski ended up starting Saturday, but was pulled after UMD took a 2-0 lead. Hafner was between the pipes when his team came back, but ended up being the goalie of record when Iafallo scored a third-period power play goal to clinch it for the Bulldogs.

Both coaches -- Murray this week and UMD's Scott Sandelin the next night -- thought goals came too quickly and too easily for their taste in the first half of their Dec. 13 game, which Western went on to win. The Bulldogs were exceptionally leaky, giving up goals immediately after scoring themselves on two separate occasions. When you consider how much coaches emphasize shifts after goals, this had to be really frustrating for the UMD staff.

Outside of that flurry and UMD's quick start in the Saturday game, those games were pretty tightly played. This won't be like the Minnesota game, with some up-and-down action and lots of scoring chances for UMD. It also won't be like the Minnesota State game. The Mavericks were really vulnerable on defense that day, and the Bulldogs made them pay for mistakes in puck movement or coverage.

Unless Western Michigan is totally off its game, this won't happen this weekend. The Broncos are going to limit scoring chances, and they're really good at keeping players away from rebounds. UMD will have to work hard for loose pucks and take a lot of hits to make plays.

Special teams will also be a factor. UMD has cut back on its penalties a lot since break. The Bulldogs are averaging almost five fewer penalty minutes per game in the six games since break than they did before that. It's dropped UMD from being the most penalized team in the country down to sixth. Western is fourth on that list, at close to 17 minutes per game. Improved discipline has led to more five-on-five play for UMD, and that's led to more success. Not surprising when you look at how strong this team is across four lines.

When UMD can roll four lines, things will go well. I'm not breaking ground with that statement.

That said, you're going to see some special teams time this weekend. It's up to UMD to make the most of that. Getting outscored 3-1 on special teams by Minnesota is the only reason UMD didn't win the North Star College Cup on Saturday. The. Only. Reason.

This should be a great series. If UMD takes at least five points, it will pass Western in the league standings. Sounds like a lot, but if the Bulldogs play patient and get good goaltending, it's not out of the question at all.

No comments: