Thursday, January 29, 2015

Bulldogs Return to NCHC Play With Tough Assignment in Denver

DENVER -- Outside of next weekend's non-conference games against Northern Michigan, it's nothing but rematches the rest of the way for UMD.

The North Dakota series Jan. 9-10 was the last one for UMD that came against an NCHC team it had not previously played. Prior to that, UMD hosted Colorado College in December for its only meetings of the season against the Tigers.

This weekend, it's a rare trip to Denver.

Yes, I said "rare," which was not something that could be said about UMD trips to Denver just a few years ago. After going there regularly for a period of time starting in the spring of 2005, when the Bulldogs won a best-of-three WCHA playoff series at Magness Arena, UMD has not visited Denver since being led to a three-point weekend Nov. 4-5, 2011, by the likes of Jack Connolly, J.T. Brown, Travis Oleksuk, Brady Lamb, and Kenny Reiter (who stopped Jason Zucker on a penalty shot in a Saturday shutout win).

The 2012-13 WCHA schedule didn't feature a trip there, and neither did the inaugural season of the NCHC. So it's suddenly foreign territory for UMD, to the point where members of the Bulldogs' smallish senior class -- namely captain Adam Krause and assistant captain Justin Crandall -- didn't have much recollection of what Magness Arena was like.

(Crandall played in both games, while Krause was in the lineup that Saturday for a 4-0 victory. The Friday game ended 3-3 after UMD rallied from two goals down for the draw.)

There's no time for trips down memory lane this weekend. UMD coach Scott Sandelin liked a good chunk of what he saw in the first two periods of a 2-1 win over Minnesota at the North Star College Cup Saturday in St. Paul. It was a nice rebound for a Bulldog team that put in probably its worst performance this season to date in a 4-0 loss to eventual tournament champion Bemidji State on Friday.

But Sandelin was quick to note that, despite those good things through 40 minutes, "we were on our heels" in the third period, as the Gophers outshot UMD 11-2. Krause's goal at 17:49, the game-winner, was UMD's first shot on goal in the third period.

And, no, the game plan wasn't "lull Adam Wilcox to sleep by not doing anything of real significance offensively for almost 18 minutes."

Sandelin took a page out of the early-season playbook, actually, saying this week that he's more concerned about having his team ready to play than flooding their minds with information about the Pioneers, a team UMD faced Oct. 24-25 in Duluth and split against.

"Right now, I'm more focused on the things we need to do. You can put so much in their heads about what other teams have and what they do that you forget about what you need to do. That's been our focus."

Denver coach Jim Montgomery -- in his second year at the helm -- thinks there's something to be said in going back to the earlier meetings to see what UMD tried to do to his team.

"You compare their last couple games to those games and see how much they've changed," he said this week. "There's a lot of relevancy when you play a team and what they try to do you, besides what they tried to do against (other teams)."

It makes some sense. UMD wasn't off the rails in a one-point weekend against Western Michigan. I've said this before, but I felt there was intensity and drive in that weekend set, even though the results weren't there. The Broncos played extremely well and earned the five points, and to say UMD no-showed those games would be a disservice to Western Michigan's performance.

But at the risk of doing that to Bemidji State, Friday was as close to a no-show as we've seen from the Bulldogs this season. And Saturday was a much-needed response. That said, UMD didn't "finish" that game. Matt McNeely was on in the third period, the Bulldogs did hold their defensive structure more effectively than in past games, but as Sandelin said, they were on their heels and didn't create much pressure. Certainly not as much as they had in the first two periods.

(By the way, we don't know who's starting in goal Friday. Don't ask. I would guess UMD goes back to Kasimir Kaskisuo, but I've been wrong on the goalies so often over the years that these words should be taken with a grain of salt. I just think I'd like to see how Kaskisuo looks after being able to watch a whole game from the bench. He's played well for the most part this season. Even in these recent struggles, Kaskisuo hasn't allowed many -- if any -- "bad goals," the kind that just deflate a team. He just hasn't made the big saves he had been making earlier.)


The Pioneers present a different challenge than Minnesota. The Gophers have some big forwards with elite ability, but they're shakier on the back line. Denver's back line -- featuring Hobey Baker candidate Joey LaLeggia, Nolan Zajac, U.S. World Junior star Will Butcher, and the big, underrated Josiah Didier -- is as good as you'll see anywhere in college hockey.

Of LaLeggia, Montgomery says he's special "at both ends of the ice.

"He can change the momentum of a game in one shift. He can dominate a game throughout."

LaLeggia has 42 career goals, which is pretty good for a blue-liner. What's interesting is that he doesn't have a Shea Weber shot. He doesn't beat goalies with big velocity from the blue line. There aren't a lot of players in Division I who have LaLeggia's ability to get shots through traffic, and he's very good at finding soft spots in defensive coverage and exploting them by pinching from the point and making himself available in better scoring areas.

And when he's not putting pressure on the opposition to account for him all over the ice, it's probably Zajac doing that. Butcher has offensive ability as well, but he has a bigger shot -- at least in my opinion -- than the other two. Butcher played in the World Juniors after Christmas, and Montgomery said they're still monitoring his fatigue.

"With the emotion and the mental exertion you go through, we have seen Will be a little tired," the coach said, noting they're still monitoring his minutes.

"It's more the mental (side). When you play in big games, the mental toll it takes on you really catches up to you, usually about three weeks after it's done."

While UMD will surely want to hit Denver's defensemen whenever possible (and it's not as often as you might think), Denver will probably want to do the same with UMD junior Andy Welinski. He says he'll be ready.

"Being a bigger body, it's easier to prepare yourself," he told me this week. "It's something you get used to. It's no fun having to turn back and get the puck every time. It's a teaching point for our forwards to get the puck in and bang bodies in their end. Personally, I think it's just being aware and moving the puck quick."

Welinski noted it helps that he's put on some muscle since his freshman year, but it's still impressive how good he's gotten at avoiding big hits. Part of that is improved skating, and part of that is knowledge of the system and just understanding where the puck has to go. If he's quick getting rid of the puck, the other team can't knock him into the middle of next week.


One other matchup to watch this weekend would be special teams. UMD's power play is, in a word, struggling.

Since going a respectable 3-for-11 in a home-and-home sweep of Minnesota Nov. 14-15, the Bulldogs have scored a meager four power play goals in 44 chances. That's nine percent, and it ain't good.

Despite that, UMD is 6-5-1 over its last 12 games. Doesn't sound impressive, but considering UMD has four special teams goals in 12 games, it's actually a decent record.

(The UMD kill is 29-for-37 over the last 12 games, which is a shade under 80 percent and not a great number. But the killers were trending upward until allowing opponents five goals on 18 chances the last two weekends. Small sample size there, but the penalty kill absolutely has to improve, too.)

UMD's power play faces a tough matchup this weekend. The Denver kill is 17 for 19 this month and is clicking at nearly 87 percent on the season, allowing just 11 goals in 84 chances. For reference, UMD scored four times in 13 chances during the October series in Duluth, and the Bulldogs would be doing very well for themselves if they could repeat that performance this weekend.

(It's unlikely, not just because DU's kill is elite, but because UMD hasn't had 13 power play chances in a weekend since then, and hasn't had more than eight in any weekend since the start of November.)

The Pioneers are typically very aggressive on the kill, something that tends to give the Bulldogs fits. Sandelin has talked about "controlled urgency" in the past when he brings up how to beat very aggressive penalty kills, and this weekend will be no different. The key is making sure everyone knows what their options are on a play when they have the puck. Denver will force everyone on the rink to make quick decisions and quick moves. It risks leaving guys open, but the Pioneers will take a chance that their aggression will work, and if it doesn't, they'll put trust in goalies Tanner Jaillet and Evan Cowley, both of whom have save percentages over .920.


Sandelin has talked in the past about the need for UMD's best players to be its best players when the team is struggling. The top line took those words to heart Saturday against Minnesota, as Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo set up both of Adam Krause's goals in that 2-1 win.

The Bulldogs have shown balance across all lines this season, and that balance will be needed against Denver.

Yes, the Toninato line has to keep going. But they can't be the only guys doing so. There will be pressure on Tony Cameranesi's and Cal Decowski's lines to produce. They both had their moments Saturday, generating sustained offensive zone time while the six players on these two lines combined for 10 of the team's 26 shots on goal (Karson Kuhlman led with three and played well after, in my view, struggling quite a bit on Friday against Bemidji).

The more balance UMD shows, the harder it will be for Montgomery to match his top defensemen up with one forward line.

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