In 2012-13, the UMD men's hockey team was outscored 109-99, despite outshooting opponents by an average of 5.6 shots per game. The Bulldogs were a pretty solid possession team that struggled to put the puck in the net, but one that also struggled with the back end.
Last October, in the run-up to the 2013-14 season, I mentioned the Bulldogs needed to score more, yeah, but the elephant in the room was a team save percentage of .896. Making that number even more ghastly: UMD's 2012-13 opponents posted a save percentage of .922.
Despite losing seven percentage points off the power play (23 percent in '12-'13, 16 percent last year), UMD actually scored more, going from 2.61 goals per game to 2.89. The Bulldogs did that despite what was unarguably a tougher schedule last year versus the year before.
The goals came, and the team had more balance across forward lines and more speed all over the ice. But the team save percentage? .896 again. Opponents were at .911.
Doesn't sound like a huge gap, and maybe it isn't, but UMD both scored and allowed 104 goals last year. If opponents had matched UMD's .896 team save percentage, that would have meant 18 more goals, or exactly one-half goal more per game on average. UMD lost five games by exactly one goal (not accounting for two-goal games with empty-netters at the end). Flip a few of those five games, and suddenly UMD is in the NCAA Tournament.
(The contrast of that is taking away enough opposition goals to get UMD's team save percentage up to .911. That's 15 fewer goals allowed, and probably has a similar impact on the bottom line of 16-16-4.)
A few things to watch for in 2014-15:
Improved goaltending. Doesn't matter who is in net. The play of the goalie must improve, and I believe it will. This team makes the NCAA Tournament this year if it can get a team save percentage of even .905 or .910, which is right in line with where UMD's number was when it won the national title (.906) and the following year, where UMD got to the Northeast Regional final (.907).
UMD has freshman Kasimir Kaskisuo competing with junior Matt McNeely. I don't pretend I know for a fact what will happen in a week when we play the Gophers in South Bend, but I believe one of these two will hook the job on a semi-permanent basis by December.
At least, I hope so. UMD has never won consistently with a goaltending carousel, and I'm not a fan of trying now.
New volunteer assistant Brant Nicklin will work on every facet of this team's goaltending, including puck play and rebound control, two areas UMD seemed to struggle last season.
Stronger defensive zone play. Too many times last year, UMD players went up the rink before possession was secured, failing to support the puck in the defensive zone and cleanly execute a breakout. First passes weren't strong enough, leading to turnovers, or the puck would get coughed up on the Bulldogs' side of the red line, leading to odd-man opportunities.
The defensemen return this season, outside of the graduated Tim Smith. St. Scholastica transfer Brenden Kotyk is eligible after sitting out last season, and don't be surprised if he makes an impact. UMD is going to be bigger, stronger, and hopefully more confident in the back this year, thanks to Kotyk's insertion into the lineup and some added strength for sophomore Carson Soucy, who will play big minutes again this winter alongside junior assistant captain Andy Welinski of Duluth.
Better special teams. I'll throw both the power play and penalty kill in here. I mentioned the power play decline already, but the kill also lost a step, falling from 82.3 percent to 81.7, and seeing its goals allowed go from 29 to 33. It wasn't as huge a fall-off as the power play, but UMD has to improve its discipline and its special teams play to take the next step and become a legitimate NCAA Tournament team.
UMD is an aggressive, in-your-face team, but the Bulldogs took some silly penalties and cost themselves power play time here and there with undisciplined play. Remaining an aggressive team that hounds the puck but cuts down on the penalties is paramount, and it isn't the easiest thing to do.
Not everything is necessarily going to be improved right away. But when we look back at the 36, 40, or however many games UMD ends up playing, we're either going to see these areas improved over 2013-14, or we're going to see a UMD team just miss on the NCAA Tournament, or barely get in and exit early.
Expectations are higher this year, and I believe UMD can fulfill them. No matter what, I'm pumped for the season and ready for another winter on the NCHC World Tour.