"Every coach talks about it," head coach Scott Sandelin said earlier this week. "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."
Friday night, UMD started its top line, centered by Dominic Toninato, along with the defensive pairing of Derik Johnson and Willie Raskob. A lost faceoff, two UMD defensive zone turnovers, and a wired Ty Loney shot later, UMD trailed 1-0 at the 33 second mark of the game.
There were more bad plays in the defensive zone before the night was done. Unfortunately, struggles in the back were just the beginning for a scattershot -- at best -- offensive effort as Denver won 3-1 in both teams' NCHC opener.
A few things:
- UMD has now lost five straight home games going back to last season: The finale to Omaha, two playoff games to Western Michigan, last Friday to Minnesota State, and Friday to Denver. UMD has scored 11 goals in those five games. UMD was 5-10-3 at home last year, 0-2 this year.
- Speaking of not winning at home, there have been five NCHC games so far this season. The road team is 5-0. Combined score? 21-6. Average score? 4.2-1.2. UMD has its own issues at home, but so far the NCHC has been owned by away teams. It's an insanely small sample, and I have no other explanation for it at this point.
- Then again, I've been watching UMD struggle at Amsoil Arena for a while now, and I still can't figure that out. It's easy to blame empty seats or a general malaise that sets in too easily with our crowd. That's been the case since we were at the DECC. And UMD has won plenty of road games in front of large gobs of empty seats (Omaha comes to mind because of that huge arena they play in for one more year, and there were tons of empty seats at the Ice Breaker). I know those empty gold seats down in front are an eyesore, but they aren't a viable excuse for the Bulldogs' struggles at home.
- For a third straight game, a UMD player got ejected. This time, it was Sammy Spurrell for a highly questionable checking from behind call. Questionable or not, this is how reputations are developed. And they aren't good reputations. Through the early part of the season, only Bentley (26.5) is averaging more penalty minutes per game than UMD (23).
- UMD's power play cashed in for the fifth straight game to start the season. That's great, but the other four power plays were more like power outages. The last one -- a five-minute power play that ran until 11 seconds were left in the game -- produced five shots on goal, but Denver blocked a bunch, and the first half of that major power play was ugly at times, as UMD flubbed passes, failed to support the puck, and struggled to set anything of note up.
Raskob and Willie Corrin struggled, I thought. Raskob had issues making plays all over the ice, especially in his own zone. More than once, he panicked and threw the puck up the boards, only to have it intercepted with ease at the point. Corrin made mistakes with the puck, too. They weren't the only ones. UMD's puck management in general was very poor on Friday, with silly turnovers playing right into Denver's hands, because the Pioneers just don't make many of those mistakes. When UMD established a forecheck, it was effective. But the lack of crisp passing and solid puck management made it really difficult to keep that forecheck going.
Earlier this week, Sandelin said freshman Blake Young would make his UMD debut this weekend, so I'd expect at least one forward to come out to allow for that Saturday. On defense, freshman Nick McCormack should play, but I'm not sure who comes out.
No reason for a change in goal. Kasimir Kaskisuo had a pretty solid effort, and he made a couple significant stops in the second to keep his team in the game when they just couldn't generate any sustained attack.
If UMD can get more going offensively, it should mean more pressure on whoever plays goal for Denver Saturday (we'd heard this week that Tanner Jaillet would get a game, but can Jim Montgomery take Evan Cowley out after another strong performance from him?).
The good news is that Denver didn't run UMD out of the building. But the Bulldogs showed that there is still plenty to work on.
It starts with the start.
The NCHC didn't have a great night. Union pounced on St. Cloud State early, putting up three in the first half of the first period on its way to a 5-1 win. The defending national champions held SCSU off the scoreboard until the final seconds of the game.
In another matchup of ranked teams, North Dakota beat Providence 6-1 at The Ralph. Drake Caggiula had a goal and three assists, while the Brothers Schmaltz combined for five assists (Jordan had three).
In other games, Boston College beat Colorado College 6-2, Alaska-Fairbanks got a third-period power play goal to upend Western Michigan 1-0, and St. Lawrence jumped to a 5-1 lead and held on to beat Miami 5-4.