Friday, March 14, 2014

New Season Begins, and Desperation Ensues for Bulldogs, Broncos

Each is two games over .500 overall, and exactly .500 in league play. They have identical NCHC records, separated only by a head-to-head tiebreaker that shows a 3-1 edge for UMD.

However, what that 3-1 edge doesn't tell you is that two of those three UMD wins over Western Michigan this season were tied at some point in the third period, while the other was tied in the second period before UMD scored twice. Hardly blowouts, even though UMD was clearly the better team in the Kalamazoo games.

"They were really good," Western Michigan coach Andy Murray said this week. "Great team speed, played real hard."

Why the success against a WMU team that plays so tight and is this difficult to beat in front of the net?

"I think they bring out the best in us," junior forward Justin Crandall said. "They force you to play intense, up and down the ice. We really like playing that team. I thought that was one of our best weekends, going in a tough building and beating a good team back to back."

This runs counterbalance to some UMD teams of the past. Western Michigan plays a hard-nosed, physical game, and the Broncos are really good at outnumbering opposing teams deep in the defensive zone. It keeps teams from mounting sustained attacks because it's difficult to forecheck effectively against them. However, the Broncos struggled at times with UMD's speed.

Expect them to come out hitting early and often this weekend. They have some bigger guys like sophomores Colton Hargrove (ten goals) and Josh Pitt (nine goals, but suspended for Friday due to getting a third game misconduct of the season last weekend). Like UMD, Western has some scoring balance. Justin Kovacs, Shane Berschbach, Chase Balisy, and Nolan LaPorte can all get in on the act.

They have speed guys who can get the puck through the neutral zone in a hurry, and the forwards are generally responsible defensively. The line of Will Kessel, Sheldon Dries, and North Dakota transfer Mike Cichy is the go-to defensive line for Murray, but he doesn't get his choice of matchups this weekend as the visiting coach.

The Broncos have an active and often effective blue line, led by experienced guys like Dennis Brown and Jordan Oesterle, and supplemented with talented sophomore Kenney Morrison.

UMD won three straight after a four-game skid before dropping Saturday's season finale to Nebraska Omaha.

"After the four-game streak, we could have gone the other way," Bulldog head coach Scott Sandelin told Jim Rich of the NCHC Radio Show this week. "I thought our guys regrouped and went into a tough place in Miami and got a couple wins. I think our guys understand how we have to play to win games."

Make no mistake: They better figure it out. This is it.

UMD is probably not going to make the NCAA Tournament without going on an extended run in the NCHC playoffs and possibly winning the league tournament to get the autobid. Intrepid PairWise mind John Forsyth (@blackbear93 on Twitter) has UMD listed as a team that can play its way in without the automatic bid (though he says it's an outside shot). My assumption is this would require two wins this weekend and a win over St. Cloud State in the NCHC semifinals next Friday, but my math isn't good enough to figure it out beyond that.

The equally intrepid Jim Dahl believes UMD can work its way back to the immediate tournament bubble by winning this series. His graphic seems to indicate UMD's chances of getting in the top 15 after this weekend sit at around 20 percent if business is successfully taken care of against the Broncos.

Bottom line: UMD needs to win this weekend, or it's all over for 2013-14. That would mark the end for UMD seniors Aaron Crandall, Joe Basaraba, Max Tardy, and Tim Smith, along with retiring junior defenseman Luke McManus.

"I think we're too good of a hockey team to be done after this weekend," the younger Crandall brother said. "I think we've got too much talent and grit in that locker room to be done."

One can only hope he's right. Unquestionably, Western Michigan will bring out every bit of that talent and grit, as the Broncos have all season.

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