Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Ugh

Friday was not a good night for the home team.

Where have I said that before?

UMD fell to an unacceptable 4-6-3 at Amsoil Arena with a 3-0 loss to North Dakota Friday night. Bluntly, it wasn't much of a hockey game. Many of the announced 6,762 (I'll eat my headset if the in-house was within 1,000 of that) sat on their hands -- or, in the case of the students, stood with their hands in their pockets -- throughout the game.

It was such a blah game that even the North Dakota fans were largely quiet, and that never happens, especially at road venues.

I don't have an explanation for UMD's home woes. Strength of schedule comes to mind. The Bulldogs have only two home series against opponents currently under .500 (Colorado College and Michigan Tech). UMD is 2-0-2 there, which isn't world-beating, but also isn't bad in any way.

The other nine home games? 2-6-1. Swept by St. Cloud State, split with Notre Dame and Western Michigan, loss and tie against Denver, and Friday's loss to UND.

North Dakota won in faceoffs 28-21, had the majority of puck possession, won races and battles, and generally kept UMD's offense on the perimeter. Sophomore Zane Gothberg made 33 saves, but many of them came on outside shots with little traffic available. He was seeing the puck very well, which certainly made things tougher on the Bulldogs. And UND is a very hard-nosed team. Want to score on them? You have to get your hands dirty, so to speak. Wasn't enough of that, in my view, in the areas where it could help UMD score.

The faceoff bit seemed more harmful than it was in past games where UMD lost the faceoff battle. The Bulldogs are 55th in faceoff percentage out of 59 Division I teams, but it usually doesn't hurt them because they hound the puck, get it back, and end up being the ones with most of the possession in a game.

Not so much on Friday. UND was outshot badly, but had the puck a lot, especially in the second period. UMD's possession was limited more in this game, and it started with clean faceoff wins.

I doubt the forward lines will change a ton. We are what we are at this point. I don't want to see Dominic Toninato's line broken up, so maybe swap a few other guys, but that'd be about it. The magic bullet isn't in the press box with this team. The Bulldogs only have one extra forward available, and the blue line is still banged up.

One thing that could change, conceivably, is the starting goalie. Aaron Crandall has started 14 straight games, and he's earned that. Crandall kept UMD in a few games over that stretch, but I thought he was shaky in both games last weekend against St. Cloud State (less so on Saturday, when he had a little more control of his rebounds and I believe was more decisive with his positioning), and he looked a tick off to me on Friday. He uncharacteristically bobbled pucks he had been devouring earlier in his run, and he wasn't as aggressive.

It might be time for sophomore Matt McNeely to return to the cage. After he played the last 40 minutes of last Friday's loss to St. Cloud State, coach Scott Sandelin told me he was "proud" of McNeely, who had a strong week of practice. Sandelin praised McNeely's readiness again when I talked to him before the North Dakota series, and noted that the sophomore could very well get a start before the season ends. He hasn't started since Dec. 13.

It isn't an indictment of Crandall. We aren't in a position to make the NCAA Tournament without his contributions. It's probably more about the guys in front of him, who weren't necessarily as sharp in this game.

No telling if a goalie change would jolt improvement there, but we need something good to happen before it's too late.


Miami upset St. Cloud State 4-3, and Colorado College won 3-2 at Denver. So, yeah, just another normal night in the NCHC, where worst beats first and seventh place wins at fourth.

Nebraska Omaha hung three in the third to pull away from Western Michigan 5-1.

So first place is a tie between SCSU and UND, and UNO is three points back. Denver stays in fourth, now four out of third, and UMD and Western Michigan sit tied for fifth, one point behind DU.

Still crazy, but we could start seeing some separation at the top.

Of course, St. Cloud State hosts North Dakota next week, so that could change again, too.

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