Friday, February 14, 2014

UMD Two Points From Top of NCHC as St. Cloud State Looms

The fact that we're even having this discussion is a testament to the character of the UMD room.

No one person gets all the credit for UMD being in a position to potentially take over first place in the NCHC with a good weekend.

Of course, that doesn't stop some from trying to hand out credit.

"I think it starts with (Aaron) Crandall," St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko says. Motzko openly praised Crandall's play in goal.

"You can't do it in our league without a goalie. They are a national contender. They needed that goaltending. It sure seems that's been the thing that's put them over the hump."

Now, Motzko isn't wrong. It is no coincidence that Crandall has a .928 save percentage over UMD's 7-1-3 spurt that has brought the Bulldogs to within two points of the NCHC lead entering this weekend's series at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

Like Motzko says, this is a confident group right now, and that starts with the play of Crandall in goal. But it doesn't end there.

"The guys just started clicking (since Christmas)," sophomore defenseman Willie Corrin said this week. "You can feel it in practice. Everyone's in a really good mood. The guys get together out of the rink more often. There's just an energy that we didn't have at the beginning of the year. There's just an energy that we didn't have at the beginning of the year.

"Winning's contagious."

St. Cloud hasn't been good to UMD over the years. The Bulldogs haven't won a regular season game there since 2004, and they haven't won any game there since 2007. That said, UMD hasn't played there in almost two whole years. The Bulldogs didn't play in St. Cloud in their 2010-11 national championship season, and they've only played two games there since October of 2009.

Point? This group of UMD players knows virtually nothing of the program's struggles in that building. This group has succeeded on the big sheet, and that's all this is: Two games on the big sheet.

Add in a little extra juice for a Bulldog team that hit its low point of the season the last time it played St. Cloud State, getting swept at home 4-2 and 5-1. The latter might have been the worst game UMD has played all season.

"It's not something I'm going to make a big deal of," coach Scott Sandelin said this week. "Players don't forget that. We don't need to harp on that."

"Friday night (the 4-2 loss), their goalie stole one from us, and we owe him for that," Corrin said. "Mostly, we're going to work on what we do."

No question, however, that the December losses to St. Cloud are in the back of many people's minds ahead of this weekend. It doesn't have to be front and center -- actually, it shouldn't be -- but there's nothing wrong with drawing a little additional motivation from the keister-kicking that was delivered two months ago.

SCSU has struggled a bit since sweeping UMD, but the Huskies have all the tools to turn things around. They get elite goaltending from Ryan Faragher, who sat out Saturday's win over Denver as a healthy scratch on planned rest, according to Motzko. They have a deep group of forwards led by the dynamic Nic Dowd and Jonny Brodzinski. Defensively, they aren't as deep, but get quality minutes from Andrew Prochno, Kevin Gravel, and the emerging Ethan Prow. They're good on the power play, and while the penalty kill struggles, SCSU averages around half the PIMs per game that UMD does. The Huskies might not be good on the kill, but they don't take enough penalties to truly pay for those struggles.

This is going to be a crazy final four weeks in the NCHC. No reason to think this is the last time the first and second place teams in the conference meet. North Dakota plays SCSU, Western Michigan, and UMD before the end of the season, UMD meets Omaha, etc. There's a lot that can still happen.

Not lost here is the race for NCAA positioning. The NCHC is a two-bid league at the moment, but if North Dakota keeps playing well, I expect UND to work its way in off the bubble. I also think UMD stands a very good chance of improving its position, even if it only plays .500 hockey down the stretch, thanks to a strong non-conference resume.

(Starting the weekend, St. Cloud State is eighth in the Pairwise, UMD 13th, North Dakota 18th, Western Michigan 22nd, and Denver 23rd. All are in position to make it above the cutoff line of -- probably -- 15th by playing well down the stretch.)

It's a great setup by the NCHC, and when I told Motzko I thought it was cool, he initially cracked back at that terminology before eventually buying in.

"This is exactly what we were talking about in the offseason, and everyone knew it was going to happen," he said. "There are six teams battling, and it's going to be survival every weekend. It's going to be difficult for anyone to get on a roll. The fans are going to be treated to some great hockey because so much is on the line.

"I'll go with your word, and I'm actually gonna use that. It's going to be cool."

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