Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Loose Defensive Coverage, Lack of Big Saves Doom UMD

ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- Hockey games are 60 minutes long.

Sometimes, a failure to do the right things for 26 seconds can doom a team. Friday night was a good example of that.

At the start of Friday's UMD-St. Cloud State game, the Huskies won the draw and pushed the puck into the UMD zone. A couple Bulldog mishandles later, and Andy Welinski's free hand grabbed a hold of an SCSU forward. To the box went Welinski, and the Huskies would score on the power play for a 1-0 lead 2:03 in.

The Bulldogs weathered a bit of a storm after that, started generating some puck possession, but then were victimized by more poor play in the defensive zone. A turnover at the UMD blue line led to a Joey Benik rebound goal, then Kevin Gravel scored off the rush 33 seconds later for a 3-0 lead.

St. Cloud would make it 4-0 before the first period was over, and Aaron Crandall's night would end when the first 20 minutes had run out. On came Matt McNeely, who wasn't asked to do a ton, as the Bulldogs started playing better.

That said, defensive zone coverage was a bit of a theme for UMD throughout the game. And I don't mean that in a good way.

The Bulldogs were sloppy in their own end. After cutting the lead in half during the second period, the third started with UMD in its own zone, unable to get control of the puck and then losing coverage on two (!) SCSU players out front. McNeely made a nice save on Nic Dowd, who is about the last player on this St. Cloud team that you want to leave in front of your goalie all by himself, but he was clipped (I believe) by a UMD player as a scrum ensued, and he wasn't able to get back up in time to stop Jimmy Murray's rebound shot, since he got free, too.

SCSU also hit four pipes, including a couple in the first period that could have made that 4-0 score much worse.

On Murray's first goal, the fourth SCSU goal of the first, the puck was in the slot. Just laying there. Crandall froze, and so did all four UMD skaters. Murray only had to skate to it, grab it, and shoot. Mission accomplished.

The first goal might have been a nice shot by Dowd, but it was started by the poor shift from UMD to start the game. Eventually, Welinski takes the penalty behind the net, and the team is behind the 8-ball early on.

All that said, this game could have been a whole lot worse than the 5-3 final. In fact, had this game been played in November, I believe it would have been.

This Bulldog team has come a long way, especially from a character standpoint. The group's confidence is high enough right now that it believes it can overcome anything, including such a rotten start to a road game in a tough environment.

Getting that goofy-bounce goal from Welinski 22 seconds into the period was a nice start. And while Kyle Osterberg's tip for a power play goal halfway through the second cut the lead to 4-2, the Bulldogs missed a couple glorious opportunities to make a bigger dent. SCSU goalie Ryan Faragher was huge, making some big saves, most notably one on Caleb Herbert as UMD got loose for an odd-man opportunity.

Justin Crandall had five shots, as did Joe Basaraba and Alex Iafallo. Basaraba had UMD's best chance in the first period, but was stonewalled. The chances were there, but Faragher shut them down.

I believe three things sunk UMD in this game. The poor start, shaky defensive zone coverage throughout the first period and again to start the third, and the lack of big saves from its goalies when compared to St. Cloud's goalie.

That's not to indict Aaron Crandall. He of the .928 save percentage over 11 straight starts was clearly not his sharpest in this game. I didn't think he was great in the North Star College Cup, but his 'mates picked him up. Not on this night.

Crandall wasn't as good as he's been, but sloppy coverage and a bad start doomed this team. SCSU is so good on the power play that mistakes are magnified when you make them. On the first power play, UMD didn't do a great job getting out on Dowd, and he had enough time to tee up. On the second power play, the puck sat in the slot for what felt like a minute (I know it wasn't), and not one UMD player closed on the loose biscuit.

Could Crandall have stopped Dowd? Sure. Could Crandall have dove out and covered that loose puck? Probably.

But the point is that he wasn't getting much help in that first period. For that reason, I firmly believe UMD comes back with Crandall on Saturday. It isn't a knock on McNeely. He played just fine after going in, especially for a guy who hadn't played a game -- outside of the exhibition -- in more than two months.

Instead, it's a nod of thanks and some faith in the senior. After a .928 save percentage over 11 straight starts with a 7-1-3 record, Aaron Crandall has earned that. Give him the chance to respond to a tough start, while his teammates do the same.


Elsewhere in the NCHC Friday night, the good night for home teams continued. Josh Archibald's two goals included the game-winner in a 4-2 win over Denver for Nebraska Omaha. The Mavericks got 20 saves from freshman goalie Kirk Thompson in the victory.

In Grand Forks, North Dakota held on to beat Miami 3-2. Mark MacMillan scored twice as UND jumped to a 3-0 lead. The RedHawks tried to rally, getting within a goal with 30 seconds left, but were unable to get the equalizer by Clarke Saunders (31 saves).

Colorado College took a 3-0 lead over Western Michigan in Colorado Springs, but the Broncos eventually adjusted to the pond hockey-like sheet at the World Arena. WMU scored four in a row to take a 4-3 lead, but Alex Roos tied it in the third period for Colorado College. The game ended in a 4-4 draw, with Western Michigan winning the shootout 1-0 to tie UMD for fourth in the league standings.

St. Cloud State has 33 points, UND and UNO each 30, then UMD and WMU each have 28. Seven games left for everyone.

Yeah, this is fun.

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