Thursday, February 06, 2014

Bulldogs Need Sharp Focus to Defend Home Ice

UMD's surge continued last weekend, as the Bulldogs gained all six available points in a weekend sweep at Western Michigan.

"A great weekend, as we call it," coach Scott Sandelin said.

The Bulldogs invaded a hostile environment, played a hot team (unbeaten in six before last Friday), adapted to a difficult style of play, and outscored the foe 8-3 over 120 minutes. As a result, UMD is the hot team -- unbeaten in five -- entering Friday's series opener against Colorado College.

The hot streak has vaulted UMD into 12th place in the PairWise rankings, which mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process. Since one league leader -- Mercyhurst -- is outside the top 16, it's actually the top 15 who would get tournament bids if selections were held now.

The Western Michigan sweep might have been the most unexpected result of UMD's run. The Broncos were playing well (thought they did have a bye week before playing UMD), and the slower style they play is one that can be tough for UMD -- a group that wants to play the game with speed -- to adjust to.

"I thought it was a playoff type of intensity," Sandelin said of the WMU sweep. "I thought our guys showed me a lot. We had a high compete level, and the last 40 minutes (Friday) I thought we were a very good hockey team."

The Bulldogs were patient, limited the opponents' chances, and did a good job maximizing their own chances. Usually a good recipe for success no matter the opponent, but it's especially valuable when you're playing a team like Western Michigan that works so hard to keep teams to a minimal number of quality chances.

When WMU got desperate on Saturday, down by two goals for the second half of the game, the Bulldogs took the play to them. In fact, over the two third periods, UMD outscored the Broncos 3-0 and outshot them 29-11.

The NCHC standings (UMD is one point out of a three-way tie for second, and three points out of first) didn't show immediate return, bumping the Bulldogs up one spot to fifth. However, UMD has gained 13 spots in the PairWise in the last two weeks. That's put the Bulldogs in position to make the tournament.

There are five weeks left in the regular season. Unlike some leagues, the NCHC is done with non-conference play and done with weekend byes. It's going to be a five-week sprint to the finish to decide the first Penrose Cup champion.

"We have an opportunity this weekend to keep moving up, and that's what you try to do," Sandelin said. "It's the old cliche, but you have to focus on each weekend. Last weekend was last weekend. This weekend, we've got to do the same thing."

With the four teams ahead of UMD playing head-to-head this weekend (Denver at St. Cloud State and Nebraska Omaha at North Dakota), it's a great chance for the Bulldogs. But Colorado College is not your typical 3-17-4 team.

Well, in some respects, the Tigers fit the profile. They can't score, despite out-shooting their opposition on the season. They don't prevent goals very well (team save percentage of .888). They're generally awful on special teams (11 percent power play, under 80 percent penalty kill).

Not much there suggests this is a winning team.

But watch the Tigers play. They're not quitting. They're not laying down. Outside of a 20-minute stretch against Miami where they took too damn many penalties and gave up a bunch of power play goals, the Tigers generally outplayed the RedHawks two weeks ago. In the Friday game, they hung a three-spot in the first and did a very good job defensively after that, keeping Miami from peppering goalie Josh Thorimbert with too many chances.

In honesty, there are parts of this CC team that remind me of the 2007-2008 Bulldogs. That was a team that worked hard a lot of the time, but couldn't score goals. That UMD team scored 74 goals in 36 games (2.06/game). CC is under two goals per game right now.

The difference? That UMD team had Alex Stalock, and he gave his team a chance to win every game, no matter how few they put on the board. Thorimbert hasn't been as consistent, and the lack of scoring becomes more glaring when a team isn't getting sound enough defense and/or goaltending.

This is where UMD has to take advantage of the Tigers. Score on the power play, get to the net, and make Thorimbert's life difficult. Sound defensive hockey is also a must. CC is outshooting its opponents on the season, so the Tigers are getting pucks to the net. UMD doesn't care if teams get shots. Instead, it's about creating one-and-done situations for teams while limiting their Grade-A chances.

The Bulldogs can't rely on CC to lay down. The Tigers simply haven't done that this season. They've been blown out a few times, but there aren't weekends where they've been non-competitive the entire time. They'll compete, and if UMD isn't ready to play, the Tigers will steal points in this series, just like they did in St. Cloud a couple months ago.

Despite a sub-.500 record at Christmas, UMD can win this league. To do so, this series must be a win. Probably five or six points, but I think even four would be okay in the end. Easier said than done, but that can be said of any opponent.

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