Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bulldogs Detour to Kentucky in Search of Winning Touch

OXFORD, Ohio -- The UMD men's hockey team is so determined to get back on the winning track, that it traveled to Kentucky Thursday in search of that extra spark.


You see, for those unaware, you actually don't fly into Cincinnati when the plane ticket says you do. The Cincinnati airport is actually located south and west of the main part of the city, and it's across the border in Kentucky.

I'm not going to say who, but a member of the UMD traveling party who may or may not be female didn't believe me when this little factoid started making its way around the bus. Perhaps Suz this person thought the Chick-Fil-A I had for lunch was negatively affecting my brain.

(For the record, the airport code is CVG, which signifies the location of Covington, Ky. It was the nearest "major" city when the airport -- which is actually in Hebron, Ky. -- was built. I wonder how the poor people of Covington and Hebron feel when people fly into that airport and think they're actually in Cincinnati.)

Anyway, about an hour away from Cincinnati Covington the damn airport sits Oxford, a town of around 22,000 people in southwestern Ohio. Oxford is the home city of Miami University, and this weekend marks UMD's first-ever visit here.

The teams' only prior meeting came in the 2009 NCAA West Regional championship game at Mariucci Arena, and we will discuss that no more.

This weekend is a key for UMD. Well, it's big for both teams, but especially UMD. Dreams of home ice in the NCHC playoffs and a potential NCAA at-large spot may have crumbled over the last two weekends, as the Bulldogs lost four straight games to fall to sixth in the league standings and 21st in the PairWise.

Not only that, but while UMD has now been swept three times this season (twice by St. Cloud State), the Bulldogs may have put out their worst 120-minute performance in losing twice last weekend to North Dakota.

"We got beat by a better team," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said this week. "Thought Friday's game was an opportunity for us to win, and we didn't do that."

Sandelin called Saturday "our worst game of the year." He expanded on that.

"They were a step quicker in everything right from the drop of the puck. They were willing to do the right things throughout the game. They really didn't do anything fancy. They just outworked us, and that really doesn't sit well with me ... in our building, after a Friday loss, to get outworked. I can live with losing a game if we gave them a battle, but I didn't think we gave them any sort of pushback at all. I think they dictated everything from the drop of the puck."

Anyone who attended Saturday's game probably knows this. It was crystal-clear. The evidence started early, when UND outshot UMD 7-0 on its way to the game's first goal. The shots in the first ended 22-10, and it might have been the least impressive I have ever seen a goalie look in making 21 saves. UMD sophomore Matt McNeely made some nice stops, but he was clearly fighting the puck, as evidenced by save after save where he looked behind him, and a sharp-angle shot from a UND player that he made enough of a meal of to almost put in his own net (it was close enough that the officials looked at it to be sure). When a goalie is turning the routine into an adventure, it's usually not a really good sign.

The roof fell in on Matt in the second period, when North Dakota scored three times on its first ten shots, and Aaron Crandall came on in relief. The third goal, scored by UND captain Dillon Simpson, was the most damning.

In McNeely's defense, I don't think that result is much different if Aaron Crandall starts. Or if the Bulldogs had found a way to sneak Jonathan Quick on the ice. Saturday was an ass-kicking, pretty much from the start. UND beat UMD to loose pucks, won battles, and forced a dizzying number of turnovers. No goalie was going to hold the No-Names off the board all night.

That said, he didn't play well, and it was not a good weekend for the good guys.

Now, it's time to get this thing turned around. There is no shortage of stuff to play for.

"If we're going to go in there and wallow around feeling sorry for ourselves, we're going to have the same result," Sandelin said. "We have to find ways to play better hockey and win."

Miami has every reason to wallow around and feel sorry for itself. Beaten down by injuries, a lack of depth on the blue line, and sophomore slumps from both primary goalies, the RedHawks are 2-9-1 since holiday break. One of those wins was last week, when Miami took down fourth-ranked St. Cloud State 4-3. The Huskies rebounded the next night for a split.

"I think we've had some situations in games where we've kind of blown up and haven't been able to recover," coach Enrico Blasi said this week. "Once that pendulum starts to go south, it affects everybody's confidence. We've lost a lot of one-goal games this year. It's a sign that guys aren't feeling as good as they need to be. It seems every time we make mistakes, it's in the back of our net."

The numbers back the veteran coach, who is the school's all-time leader in wins. Miami is 1-7 in one-goal games this season, 4-10 in games decided by one or two goals. Conversely, UMD is 8-9 in one- and two-goal games. That's not a great record, either, but it's more in line with "normal."

(There's a modicum of luck in this kind of thing. A .500 record can be expected, or at least something close to that. Anything heavily tilted in one direction or the other is a sign that either good or bad luck has been on a team's side. For example, our championship team was 19-7 in games decided by one or two goals. 13-8 the following year with many of the same players. The tilt dimished, even if only a little bit.)

(No, I'm not saying the 2011 team was merely lucky. Don't read into that. I'm pointing out that no one wins or loses a high percentage of close games without luck being involved.)

(Maybe I'll just use parentheses for the rest of the preview.)

(Maybe not.)

Miami's top line -- featuring captain Austin Czarnik, Riley Barber, and a recently back-from-injury Blake Coleman -- can go. They're good. Legit. Watching Friday's game against SCSU, they buzzed with and without the puck. Coleman had a particularly great shift in the second period, hounding SCSU star Nic Dowd into a neutral-zone turnover that would lead to a Miami goal on the ensuing rush. Czarnik isn't big, but he has wheels and a great shot, and he is a very competitive player.

Remind you of anyone? If you said "Rocco Grimaldi," you're on to something. Czarnik is a little bit bigger, but there are similarities when you watch them, both with and without the puck.

The RedHawks are not a terribly deep team. They have some complimentary forwards who at least flash some skill. I really like Sean Kuraly from watching the tape. Anthony Louis and Alex Wideman can go, too. In the back, Matthew Caito plays big minutes and he justifies the workload with his two-way play. He can move the puck and isn't afraid to get it to the net. But the blue line lacks depth and experience. In goal, both Ryan McKay and Jay Williams have been up and down after great freshman campaigns. As a result, the RedHawks' team save percentage has bottomed out at .897 this season after it was .933 a year ago. With the same guys in net.

"For whatever reason, our goaltenders have struggled," Blasi said. "They've played well in stretches, but not as consistently as we thought they would. They're no different than the rest of us."

For UMD, the formula for success is getting in Miami's faces, playing well with the puck, slowing down Czarnik's line, and scoring the first couple goals. Overall, MU is 2-11-1 when giving up the first goal. UMD provides company there, as it is a cover-your-eyes 1-10-2 when the other guys score first. So that first goal could be largely amplified this weekend.

Even more glaring for Miami: In four of the last five RedHawk defeats, the first goal allowed has been followed by a second within three minutes. When Blasi talks about the pendulum swings, this is the picture you should get in your head. Bad things turn into more bad things when confidence is low. UMD needs to attack that this weekend. Get on top of these guys and take their will away.

It sounds mean, because it is.

And Miami wants to do the same thing to us. Blasi is almost certainly taking time this week to convey that message. Score first, then score second, and they'll wilt. Take their will, and take the six points. Of course, he didn't say that to me.

"I like their depth up front," he said of UMD. "I like the way they play in the offensive zone. The four defensemen that play a ton get a lot of ice time and are very active. They attack well, are good in transition. We better be ready to play some good defense and manage the puck."

This is a great test for UMD this weekend. The Bulldogs have been good on the road, and until last week, had shown a keen ability to rebound and beat back adversity. Six points in Oxford would certainly make a lot of pain from the last two weeks disappear.


A few have asked, and since UMD's last two opponents are tied for first in the NCHC and meet this weekend, here are a few thoughts on the matchup between North Dakota and St. Cloud State.

North Dakota is playing incredibly well right now. I know Dave Hakstol insists health is the biggest factor, but you don't get to put up the kind of win percentage post-Christmas he has without getting some praise for the way the team is coached. It isn't a coincidence that this happens every year.

St. Cloud State, despite the loss last Friday, is also hitting on a lot of cylinders. However, the loss of defenseman Andrew Prochno might be tough to overcome. The junior is easily SCSU's best defenseman, and while Ethan Prow and Kevin Gravel are good players, neither of them is as good as Prochno. I don't wish injury on anyone, but the Huskies are in better position to be missing a forward than they are a top defenseman. The depth there is just better.

That forward depth will test UND, especially on that big ice that the Huskies use so well. But North Dakota's defense is a big reason the team is in this position. Every player in their top four is playing better now than he was when UMD played in Grand Forks in November. That includes Dillon Simpson, who played pretty well that weekend. Jordan Schmaltz, if he stays another year, will be one of the best players in the game next season. He's one of the best sophomores in the NCHC right now. Paul LaDue has come miles since November, and Nick Mattson is having a great season. That top four that Hakstol sports will help keep the Huskies at bay.

Zane Gothberg vs Ryan Faragher will be fascinating to watch in goal. Love how both are playing now, and Faragher was especially good against UMD. We had more than enough chances, especially in that Saturday game, and he was as good as any goalie has been against UMD this season. Gothberg was impressive last weekend, but I also left feeling we didn't test him as much as we did Faragher.

I thought UND had a slight edge, and that was before the Prochno injury was made public. We'll see if St. Cloud State can generate enough puck possession to get the chances it will need to win these games. It will be tough without Prochno in the back, but if there's a team with enough elite and highly-competitive forwards to overcome that, it's St. Cloud State.

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