Friday, November 14, 2014

Special Weekend Ahead for Minnesota-Stocked Bulldogs

What has always been a special in-state rivalry never had a chance to fade away.

Even after it was announced that Minnesota and UMD would be going their separate ways (cue Steve Perry) in terms of conference affiliation after the 2012-13 season, it was abundantly clear that the two would continue playing one another.

It's doubtful that anyone could have seen this kind of frequency coming, however.

The teams met for the 221st, 222nd, and 223rd times in history last year, with two November games at Mariucci Arena and one at the inaugural North Star College Cup, where the teams tied 4-4 before the Gophers claimed a shootout to take the tournament title.

Meeting No. 224 has already happened this season, with Minnesota winning 4-3 at the Ice Breaker in South Bend, thanks to two breakaway goals inside of the first six minutes. UMD rallied after trailing 4-1, but couldn't complete the comeback.

"We let him (freshman Kasimir Kaskisuo) out to dry against the Gophers, but he's been just great back there (since)," junior forward Austin Farley said this week.

"We didn't play great, didn't have a great start, but finished good," head coach Scott Sandelin said.

For 18 UMD players who were born in this great state, this weekend home-and-home series that begins in Minneapolis Friday marks an incredible opportunity. Whether they dreamed of being Gophers as kids or not -- something the self-righteous portion of the "Main U" fanbase believes every hockey player in this state does -- it's a chance to take down the most visible hockey program in the upper Midwest.

(All due respect to North Dakota on that one. They can't quite claim that crown.)

Even the non-Minnesotans on the UMD roster catch the fever.

"I don't know the tradition between them," Farley (Niles, Ill.) said this week. "I've heard that they don't get along very well. I want to help my team win.

"I've always been good against them, and I just want to continue, because I know how bad our guys from Minnesota want to beat them."

That October meeting was a bit sluggish. I don't know if it was the crowd ("500 people," as Sandelin said), or the afternoon start, or the fact it was the season opener, but the game just didn't have the pizazz I expect out of UMD-Minnesota.

I do expect to see the pace and intensity ramped up for this weekend.

"Both teams are a lot different than they were in Game 1," Sandelin noted. "We've got a big challenge. I like our guys' mentality right now after last weekend. We have to play with the same confidence that we did last weekend."

That should make for some interesting matchups. I firmly believe UMD can play with this team, especially across the four forward lines. It'll hurt not having Adam Krause available, especially as the series shifts to Duluth and the regulation-size rink Saturday. That's where things should become much more physical.

(As evidence, think back to the games in Minneapolis last year, then the game in St. Paul at the NSCC. The latter game was much more physical, at least in my view, and therefore much more emotional and intense. I'd expect Friday to be a little bit more firewagon-type hockey, up and down the rink and a good test of UMD's blue-line depth. Saturday will still be a fast pace, but it won't quite be the same kind of game, and that should benefit UMD a little bit. Sandelin is quick to note that Minnesota is really good, but they're especially good at home, "because they use the big rink so well.")

Defensively, Minnesota has a bit more high-end talent with guys like Mike Reilly, who has to be accounted for at all times when the Gophers have possession. Even with Brady Skjei out, I have to concede the Gophers probably have the advantage when it comes to defensive depth. And if UMD is to succeed this weekend, it's likely that Kaskisuo needs to outplay stud goalie Adam Wilcox of the Gophers.

Even before last weekend's first-since-1999 sweep at St. Cloud State, the Bulldogs were a confident bunch. Now, Sandelin knows the challenge is to keep them from getting too confident.

"I thought we had a really good week of practice (last week)," he said. "And I think it showed on the weekend. We had a lot of jump. We need to do the same thing (this weekend)."

A good start and disciplined play is critical. On the big sheet, a huge key is making the Gophers players think they have less room than they do, whether it's five-on-five or a power play. But in doing so, UMD has to maintain enough discipline to avoid getting caught with too many guys in single areas.

In talking with assistant coach Jason Herter, who does a lot of work with the UMD kill, this week, he said there wasn't a whole lot his guys could have done differently on a couple of St. Cloud State's power play goals last weekend. He specifically noted Jonny Brodzinski's goal from Friday night, saying "guys were in the right spots," and Brodzinski did what Brodzinski does: He made a great play.

And most coaches will say that if someone can beat their team while their players are doing the right things, more power to that someone. Sandelin said something similar on Saturday when we talked about the Friday game in St. Cloud. As a coach, if you watch the tape and see your guys doing the right thing, and the adversary makes a play anyway, you can only tip your cap and move on.

That said, if UMD is consistently in the right spots this weekend, it will score more goals than it allows.

A good start is only the first key both nights. As the teams get started Saturday in Duluth, I expect an atmosphere we haven't seen much of at Amsoil Arena. It'll be packed, and it should be very loud. Minnesota hasn't visited since the second weekend of the 2011-12 season, so we're at more than three years since the Gophers were an adversary in UMD's still-new building.

They've already played a couple classics there, with Mike Connolly's five-goal game in February 2011 and the back-and-forth Gophers overtime win in October 2011. But this fanbase is starving for a chance to see the Bulldogs play their longtime in-state rivals in Duluth, and they'll finally get that on Saturday.

They won't be disappointed. The North Star College Cup title game had everything, largely because of the smaller ice surface leading to more physicality. I expect a similar formula Saturday, and it should be great to watch unfold.

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