Thursday, October 23, 2014

Parade of Ranked Opponents Continues for UMD

Opening weekend, it was No. 1 Minnesota and No. 12 Notre Dame on the road.

(I guess, technically, Minnesota was a neutral site, but you get the point.)

Last week, a home-and-home with No. 12 Minnesota State.

Now, the UMD Bulldogs continue to run the gauntlet in their early-season schedule. A visit from No. 11/No. 13 Denver looms for the 19th ranked (votes but no ranking in USA Today poll) Bulldogs.

Assistant coach Derek Plante referenced the schedule when we spoke this week, talking about how it compares to a 2013-14 schedule that was ranked as one of the toughest in the nation.

We're doing it again.

After Denver, UMD entertains ranked Miami next weekend before heading down Highway 23 to take on ranked St. Cloud State in two weeks. After that, a non-conference home and home series against current (almost-undisputed) No. 1 Minnesota.

The Bulldogs are off a split against MSU which followed a split (loss to Minnesota and win over Notre Dame) at the Ice Breaker. Once again last weekend, Plante says they only felt they got "four out of six periods" out of the team.

"We spotted them three goals," head coach Scott Sandelin said this week when referencing last Friday's 5-4 overtime loss to Minnesota State. "Yeah, we tied it, but you can get away with it once in a while.

"We can't keep doing that. It's a lot more fun to play like we did against Notre Dame, and in Mankato."

In Saturday's win over the Mavericks, "they kind of stormed us a little bit," Sandelin said of the first period. But he never felt they were going the wrong direction because they weathered that storm and started taking the play to MSU in the second period.

Finding that consistency will be the next challenge.

"Every coach talks about it," Sandelin says. "The first four, five shifts, five or ten minutes of a game, is critical. It's not like it hasn't been discussed. I don't have the answer. The guys have to do it. They have to prepare mentally for a tough start.

"I don't know how you can't be ready to play. I don't think guys aren't ready, but sometimes that stuff happens."

The Pioneers are formidable. Denver is led by its backline, primarily senior Joey LaLeggia, who might be the best defenseman in college hockey. He's the kind of player who has always been dangerous with the puck, but he's really developed his skills without it. LaLeggia isn't a big guy, so he'll never be a thumper, but he uses his stick really well, understands leverage, and knows how to play his position.

He isn't the only dangerous defenseman for second-year coach Jim Montgomery. He also has Nolan Zajac and Will Butcher at his disposal, and all three can wreak havoc offensively. The Pioneers have been known to use three defensemen on the power play, with Zajac working down low as a forward-type. That's how dangerous these players are in the offensive zone.

If that's not enough, Montgomery has some nice pieces up front. The 48th Shore family member to play hockey for DU, Quentin, is one of the Pioneers' centers. You'll notice guys like Ty Loney, Zac Larazza (probably best-known for scoring the winner in the 2012 Final Five double-overtime semi against UMD), and Trevor Moore.

In goal, Montgomery started both Evan Cowley and Tanner Jaillet last week, but the latter was upended by Zach Schroeder of RPI less than 2:30 into Saturday's game and left with an injury, so Cowley ended up playing over 117 minutes on the weekend. Stepping in for the graduated Sam Brittain, the two only combined to stop 42 of 43 RPI shots in a weekend sweep.

Montgomery has indicated that both will play this weekend, as he tries to sort through what he has at the position.

Sandelin is still trying to do the same thing at all positions, but he was happy with freshman Kasimir Kaskisuo on Saturday. Expect him to start Friday's game.

As for other positions, when asked about the tough decisions he has to make about the lineup for every game, Sandelin said "It sucks, actually. But it's nice to have a depth problem.

"Our guys were kindly reminded by me that it doesn't matter who you are. If you're not playing the way we think you can play, we have other guys who can step in. We have some guys who are chomping at the bit to play more. We don't have time to wait."

That quote from earlier this week is in line with what Sandelin told me Saturday, when he added that he is "not a patient person."

While he generally liked what he saw in Saturday's game, look for a few changes throughout the weekend. Most notably, Sandelin said freshman left winger Blake Young will make his debut this weekend, though he wouldn't say which night. Young is the only skater yet to appear in a game. We've discussed the logjam at left wing before, and he's been firmly caught up in it.


Don't forget that former UMD star Bill Watson's No. 14 will be retired after the first period of Friday's game. Sandelin calls it an "awesome honor" for a "good friend." Bill will join our broadcast after the second period Friday.

Also want to welcome Matt Wellens to the UMD hockey beat. Matt is the Duluth News Tribune's new UMD men's hockey dude. He's an all-around nice guy, a Packers fan, and a dog owner. He worked in Marquette prior, and put in a good amount of time analyzing Walt Kyle's mock turtlenecks while covering Northern Michigan hockey.

His Twitter is @mattwellens, and he will be blogging on the team here. Give him a follow and check out the blog.

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