Friday, January 16, 2015

Bulldogs Know They Face a Battle with Western Michigan

We've said this before, but it merits another mention.

There are no byes in the NCHC. No weekend is easy, and no points can be taken for granted.

This weekend is a great example. UMD hosts Western Michigan for its only home games of January, and while the Broncos are in seventh place in the NCHC, they are every bit a formidable opponent.

Case in point: Western Michigan owns an 8-2 win over defending national champion Union, which hadn't given up that many goals since losing 8-0 to Colgate in February 2008.

Don't mess around with these guys.

"They've got a very big team," head coach Scott Sandelin said this week. "They pose a very different challenge from a physical side. They're a team that's hard to play against. They don't give you a lot of room."

The Broncos are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, but veteran coach Andy Murray believes he knows why WMU struggled out of the gate.

"We've got a lot of young players," he said. "We normally dress three seniors who play, and we have four or five juniors that play. The rest are freshmen and sophomores. I think our team is maturing as the season goes on. We're competing hard."

Western has 17 skaters who tip the scales at over 200 pounds. Their average weight of a shade over 202 pounds is about ten pounds higher than the average UMD player weight of 192. It doesn't sound like a ton, but WMU will try to bring the physical game. The Broncos want to play on the wall, where they're very good.

UMD has to outsmart and outfox Western Michigan.

"We're going to have to utilize our speed," sophomore defenseman Willie Raskob said. "If we can get up and down the ice, try to wear them down a little bit, that's how we have to beat these guys. In the defensive zone, we're going to have to be good with our sticks, make sure we're smart in the corners. Try to stay out of the box, not get into the stuff after the whistle, because that's where they'll beat (us)."

Raskob, who isn't exactly a big guy himself, also talked about the smarts he has to use defensively. He knows he shouldn't be trying to hit a guy like Colton Hargrove straight up, but there are ways he can position himself and use his speed, smarts, and leverage to win battles from Hargrove, or any other bigger Western Michigan forward.

"It's going to be one of those things where if I go into a corner, I'm not going to go in and bang him into the corner and beat him that way," Raskob said.

This is going to be a battle. It might not be as simple as suggesting that UMD play its pace game and wear down the Broncos. You're assuming UMD is able to control the puck long enough and execute well enough to dictate the pace of the game like that. It's not that easy, and it might take a slow build to get to the point where the Bulldogs can play at a higher pace than we think Western Michigan will be comfortable with.

If UMD comes right out and is easily able to play its racehorse hockey, Murray won't be pleased, and he'll demand adjustments from his players.

This isn't to discount Western's talent. WMU has some guys like Justin Kovacs, Sheldon Dries, and Nolan LaPorte who aren't the biggest in the world and can surely get up and down the rink. Hargrove is "going to make a lot of money playing this game after his college games are done," Murray believes, assuming he continues to improve and become more consistent on the ice. He isn't an elite skater, but he's very good for a man his size. It certainly isn't holding him back.

The Broncos' back line includes impressive goal-scoring junior Kenney Morrison and talents like Matt Stewart and Taylor Fleming. Lukas Hafner has gotten the bulk of the work in goal and has been very good for Western Michigan so far. In fact, he's supplanted the best nickname in hockey, Frank "The Big" Slubowski, as the unquestioned No. 1 goalie for Western.

Murray is very appreciative of Hafner's work.

"He's a guy that walked on to our team," Murray said. "He's still a non-scholarship player. He's on academic scholarship. He's an outstanding person, a really good student.

"He joined our program, he had 14 percent body fat, about 15 pounds overweight. This past summer, he was in the top five of our conditioning test. He's a solid 205 pounds. He's athletically really gifted now, and he handles the puck really well."

Murray joked that he doesn't know much about goaltending. "Just stop the puck," he said, but Hafner's been doing that. And Western Michigan has been winning as a result.

The Bulldogs might have to grind out a win or two this weekend, but we know they're capable. It takes strong defending, keeping to the structure when the pressure mounts, and quality goaltending. Freshman Kasimir Kaskisuo didn't have a great Saturday in Grand Forks, but he also didn't get a lot of help. This weekend, Kaskisuo and the skaters have to be ready to take care of the puck in the defensive zone first. UMD struggled Saturday to move it out of its own end, and North Dakota made the visitors pay. Western will do the same thing if UMD is making mistakes with the puck.

And the Bulldogs have to be ready to win some battles. The game won't be played entirely in the middle of the rink. It never is. And Western has a size and strength advantage virtually across the board. UMD will need to use positioning and good sticks to win pucks along the wall and avoid getting hit too much by the bigger Broncos.

Oh, and despite the notable size advantage, remember this: The biggest advantage either team has in this series is UMD's speed and depth up front against WMU's. Murray knows this, too. He says he has speed on his team, but he concedes that UMD is "the best team we've played this season," and he said this will be a very tough series for his team.

If UMD can exploit that advantage, then UMD will get the money this weekend, and the pressure will be on Omaha to do well in Colorado Springs to keep first place in the conference.

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