Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bulldogs, Mavericks Both Rely on Experience, Good Leadership

As we work our way to Friday's home opener, it's interesting to look at how similar UMD is to this week's opponent, Minnesota State.

There are differences. Mike Hastings has led MSU to the NCAA Tournament in each of his two years at the helm in Mankato. The Mavericks have gotten there, in part, thanks to quality goaltending. Stephon Williams led MSU to a .910 team save percentage in 2012-13, and Cole Huggins helped MSU post a .908 save percentage last season. Both years, the Mavericks dwarfed UMD's team save percentage, which was .896 in each season.

Not surprisingly, Hastings is impressed by his team's opponent this weekend.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect (for UMD)," he told me this week, noting UMD did a great job against a Notre Dame team we all knew would come out desperate on Sunday. "I think we mirror each other a little bit. Strengths up front, you look at (Dominic) Toninato, (Alex) Iafallo, (Tony) Cameranesi, (Austin) Farley I could keep going there. They've got different guys that can beat you up front. And the guys on the back end are guys who can play offense, defense, play 200 feet.

"I think you're going to see two styles that are comparable. Both teams like to get up and down the rink. It should be very challenging for both teams, but very entertaining for the people that are coming through the turnstiles."

Want similarities? MSU has nine players -- Zach Palmquist, J.P. LaFontaine, Matt Leitner, Chase Grant, Brett Stern, Bryce Gervais, Max Gaede, Dylan Margonari, and Teddy Blueger -- who have combined to play 820 games for the Mavs. Those nine have combined for 521 career points (188 goals). Guys like Palmquist, LaFontaine, and Leitner have been consistent scoring threats, but all nine have been significant players.

UMD has six players -- Justin Crandall, Adam Krause, Andy Welinski, Tony Cameranesi, Derik Johnson, and Austin Farley -- who have combined for 504 career games. Those six have a total of 236 points between them (92 goals).

The key difference? As Krause notes, he, Crandall, and Johnson weren't expected to step in and play major minutes in their freshman seasons (the 2011-12 season). UMD had enough significant players back that they didn't need the freshmen to step in as top-line players. They could learn their way a little bit.

"That was the situation when I came in as a freshman," Krause said. "I wasn't really looked at to contribute. I think the last couple years we relied a lot on our freshmen.

"I think it hurt us in some spots for sure."

This is where it benefits UMD, however. That junior class -- even the sophomores -- bring a lot of experience to the table, and it's up to them to carry the water.

Over the weekend, sophomores Toninato and Iafallo did that. So did juniors Welinski and Cameranesi. And seniors Krause, Crandall, and Johnson.

Freshmen had their moments, but this is a team that will lean on its experience, not its lack thereof.

So will Minnesota State.

See? Similarities.

"When you start looking at teams that are there in the end, very seldom do you see teams that are freshman- and sophomore-oriented," Hastings says. "I think that leadership is something that needs to be earned over time. The more experience you have, the better decisions you're going to make."

MSU's head coach also spoke glowingly of -- arguably -- his top three players: LaFontaine, Leitner, and Palmquist.

"Palmquist could have left after last year, and decided that it was important for him to come back and develop as a player, and to get his degree. We're leaning on these guys right now.

"Leitner and LaFontaine are two guys that just love playing. And I love their commitment level this time of year."

Hastings gave those three players a ton of the credit for the team's turnaround from a 5-3 loss last Friday in Omaha to a 4-2 win Saturday. In the Saturday game, MSU rallied from an early 2-0 hole by out-shooting UNO 31-9 over the last 40 minutes and scoring four times in the second period.

When UMD is on, it's playing like it was on Sunday. Still wasn't perfect (never is), but the Bulldogs had an edge, an intensity to their game, that was really impressive. It's the way this team has to play all the time, but it won't happen immediately. But Sunday was a very good step. In all, Scott Sandelin and his staff are probably happy with 75-90 of the 120 minutes UMD played in South Bend, depending on their level of pickiness.

It was a good first step, but look at this schedule:

No. 12 Minnesota State (home and home)
No. 16 Denver (home)
No. 11 Miami (home)
No. 8 St. Cloud State (away)
No. 1 Minnesota (home and home)

Then it gets easier, as we head to Omaha the weekend before Thanksgiving.

(Note sarcasm. Nothing's easy about UNO.)

UMD has to ramp things up every week, win some games, and get through what will again this year be one of the top schedules in the nation. If the Bulldogs can do that, they'll be a factor in the end, for certain.

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