Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bulldogs Tangle With Longtime Rival Michigan Tech in Meaningful Non-Conference Series

Every game counts.

Part of the beauty of the NCAA PairWise system is that every game will matter in some way, shape, or form. Some end up meaning a bit more than most.

This could be one of those weekends.

The way No. 9 (polls, that is; No. 2 PairWise) UMD and No. 4 (No. 5 PWR) Michigan Tech are playing, this weekend's series in Houghton could go a long way to deciding placement in the final and all-important PairWise when it comes out in March.

It's something that hasn't escaped UMD coach Scott Sandelin.

"I think we all know how important every game is," he said this week. "Obviously, they are having a great year. I think it's going to have a playoff-type intensity. You look at how we've played each other over the years, it should be a great series. I think both teams know how important it is to try to win some games before break."

Tech coach Mel Pearson is looking forward to the weekend.

"I just enjoy the way Scott and his team play," Pearson said. "They play the game the right way. They skate, they have skill. They play hard, they're physical, but they play within the rules, and I like that. These are the games your players want to play in. They want to be pushed."

For Sandelin, he's still a bit hot under the collar when talking about his team's 3-2 overtime win over NCHC cellar-dweller Colorado College, a game that saw the Bulldogs fall behind 2-0 before a second period awakening. When asked about the return of senior captain Adam Krause last week, Sandelin noted something he said to me Saturday.

"He was the only guy in the first period on Friday who was playing, compared to the other 19."

Certainly, the team was sparked by a play Krause made in the first period, when he drove hard toward the net with puck possession and ended up crashing into the goal after he lost an edge. It was the hardest offensive play UMD made in the first period. Once Karson Kuhlman set up UMD's first goal in the second period, the Bulldogs were off and running.

"It's been great playing with Tony (Cameranesi) and (Austin) Farley," Kuhlman said this week. "We've been getting a lot of chances, and luckily we've been putting the puck away when it counts. That's led to goals by other lines. It's a great motivation boost for us."

Kuhlman keys a penalty kill that has slipped under 80 percent for the first time this season. Expect to see more of Krause on the kill if the penalties pile up in Houghton. That's not a given, given the way things have been going for UMD. The Bulldogs, once the nation's most-penalized team by a lot, have seen their penalty minutes decrease precipitously. UMD has dropped to tenth at 15.9 minutes per game, good for fourth in the NCHC. Fewer penalty minutes? Fewer power plays to defend.

Unfortunately for UMD, the kill has sprung a couple of leaks. Sandelin said Saturday that a UMD defensive mistake led to CC's Friday power play goal, a back-door tap-in by Sam Rothstein. Sandelin noted UMD had done a great job in the first 1:45 of that kill, but two players went toward the puck carrier, leaving Rothstein wide-open. The Tigers scored off a net-mouth scramble on the man advantage Saturday.

The Bulldogs have still taken a few silly penalties recently, but not nearly as many as they have been. The issues they've had on the kill appear to be correctable. Remember, these are Division I athletes UMD is facing, too. They're going to make a play once in a while. UMD just needs to be a little more consistent on the kill. This isn't far off.

Tech has a ton of veterans. Pearson's forward group is as deep as he's had it. Blake Pietila, David Johnstone, Tanner Kero, and Alex Petan should be familiar names, as should Malcolm Gould. They're all back and they're all contributing. The blue-line might not have a bona-fide star, but guys like Shane Hanna, Cliff Watson, and Riley Sweeney are all solid defensively while contributing at the other end of the rink.

Oh, and there's goalie Jamie Phillips. His save percentage? A solid .943. It's not an accident. He's played over 800 minutes, all but 2:31 of Michigan Tech's games. UMD has a heck of a task trying to get enough pucks by him to win games.

No matter what happens, remember these results. For both teams, this weekend could mean a higher or lower seed, or it could mean the difference between making or missing the NCAAs*. Intensity should be as high as it's ever been between these two longtime WCHA rivals.

(* - Don't believe me? The 2009-10 Bulldogs missed out on the NCAA Tournament by a margin so slim that UMD would have made it if any one of about three losses it suffered during the season were flipped to a win.)

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