Friday, November 07, 2014

Banged-Up UMD Heads to Stearns County on Hunt For NCHC Points

The fact UMD has played five ranked teams in its first eight games, yet is 4-4 and drawing consistent praise from coaches and observers, is a very good sign. At some point, the Bulldogs are going to have to make some headway against a very tough schedule, but you can't really deny they are off to a fine start despite the pedestrian record.

Now, throw in that UMD has played two games without senior captain Adam Krause, who is out for probably all of November with a broken wrist. Krause continues to be at the rink, even though he can't practice with the team yet, and he seems anxious to start getting his strength back as the injury heals.

But don't forget that UMD also played a pair of games without senior assistant captain Justin Crandall, who tried to battle through an injury in the Minnesota State series, sat out against Denver, and returned last week in the split against Miami.

"Maybe would have been a little smarter to take a weekend off and rest it a little bit," Crandall said this week. "Pretty tough to sit out at all, especially during your last year. But I wasn't happy with how I was playing, and I think this (past) weekend was a little more of what I need to do to help this team."

Crandall and sophomore Kyle Osterberg got going last week, especially on Saturday, both showing a willingness to go into the hard areas and make plays when they knew hits were coming. It was something they weren't doing as much earlier in the year. While Crandall refuses to use his injury as an excuse, it was clear neither were playing at 100 percent, and it was affecting their game on the ice.

UMD is still not completely healthy. A few players are dealing with lingering injuries, and it may end up affecting this weekend's lineup at St. Cloud State. The No. 7 Huskies are similar in a few ways to UMD, including the .500 record and very tough schedule to start.

And like most coaches, veteran SCSU mentor Bob Motzko wants no part of excuses for his team's underwhelming record.

"I want to hear the coach who said he's had an easy schedule," Motzko said. "We like the direction we're heading. We've just got to keep getting better.

"In the three wins, we've been pretty good. In the three losses, we've made enough mistakes not to win."

For the Bulldogs, this will be a fantastic test of a couple areas that we know need work.
  • Starts. UMD had a good start last Friday against Miami, but did not on Saturday. Starts against Denver were both subpar, even though the Saturday result (6-1 win) was overwhelmingly positive. Crandall called the Friday Miami game -- at least the first ten minutes -- "our best start of the season." He isn't wrong. That has to carry over, quickly, because you'll get buried in St. Cloud if you start slow. UMD needs to look no further than last year's trip there for evidence.
  • Discipline. When I talk about discipline, I'm not just talking about controlling the penalties, though that's surely a priority. It's more than that. It's about playing the right way in all phases. UMD has to stick to its defensive structure when SCSU starts buzzing, and that's bound to happen at some point. The Huskies are one of the best big-rink teams around when it comes to actually using the 200-by-100 surface to their advantage. More room doesn't always equal more time, but where Motzko's teams have become really good is in creating seams in the offensive zone that teams aren't used to defending. More than anything, using the Olympic sheet is about changing the angles a defensive team has to take care of, because it's all different. Most teams that play regularly on Olympic surfaces can adjust in a hurry, but they don't do that if they don't maintain their structure. Last year, UMD was burned a few times by not defending the right lanes, as well as taking some untimely penalties (especially in the first period of that Friday game, which got away from us in a hurry). All of that said, penalties are a part of this. SCSU is hot on the power play early on, especially at home. Don't go short-handed against these guys, because bad things will happen.
Motzko talked a bit this week about how good his team has become at using the big rink to their advantage, even though he's quick to admit teams adjust in a hurry once they gain experience on the surface.

"A little bit on the angles on the penalty kill," he said. "We like to spread it out and try to find more seams, which you can on the big sheet, if someone's going to try to be aggressive.

"Teams will adjust through the weekend, and teams like UMD will adjust very easily because they have so much talent. And they have a lot of rink sense players and good hockey sense."

UMD's Scott Sandelin says it's basically "the same game."

"(Faceoff) Dots are still the same. Protect the middle of the rink."

Sandelin agrees with Motzko in that SCSU may have an edge with its power play.

"Sometimes it allows you to spread teams out a little more, and that's what they're very good at. When you get a little tighter, those seams may not be as big."

That said, "the dangerous areas are between the dots. You still have to move the puck quick and skate."

As a team that likes to play with pace and intensity, UMD should be just fine in this area. It usually is, SCSU numbers notwithstanding. The next three games are UMD's only scheduled Olympic-size ice games this season (this weekend at St. Cloud and next Friday at Minnesota).

Another .500 weekend might not shock anyone, and it'll probably be considered a good weekend for the Bulldogs. However, keep in mind that the schedule isn't going to ease up, and the Bulldogs eventually need to win more than they lose on a few of these weekends.

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