Thursday, January 22, 2015

Bulldogs Venture Out of NCHC to Battle 'Baby Geniuses,' Bemidji State, at North Star College Cup

For UMD, it's time to put last weekend's disappointment in the rear-view mirror.

One point against Western Michigan? Sucks, but it's time to move on.

A new challenge awaits, as the Bulldogs head to XCel Energy Center for a Friday date with Bemidji State in the North Star College Cup.

Head coach Scott Sandelin has been quick this week to point out that this isn't the Bemidji State that Bulldog fans are used to seeing. Virtually gone are the days where it seemed a good hockey play for the Beavers was "chip the puck off the glass and hope someone beats an opponent to it."

That said, you're dead wrong if you don't think Tom Serratore's team will work hard in every game it plays. It's just that the Beavers aren't as big as Western Michigan, last week's difficult opponent. That doesn't mean anything will come easier for UMD. It means this game will be different, no matter how many similarities exist in the teams' styles.

"They don't have the size that Western does," Sandelin said this week. "They're a different team this year. They've got a little more skill, trying to play a different game themselves. But they've always been good defensively. They always work hard. They compete extremely hard."

"They're probably one of the hardest working teams in the nation," senior forward Justin Crandall said. "It's a team you want to get off to a good start against."
"Overall, I like our team," Serratore said. "I think we have a lot of good pieces in place."

Bemidji has plenty of youth. Of course, the way Serratore and his staff recruits, "younger players" are still 20. The Beavers had a seven-game losing streak in October and November, a frustrating run but one where Serratore was still not completely displeased.

"They kept their nose to the grindstone," he said, "and their work ethic never wavered. We were outshooting teams. I think over the course of the streak, five of the seven games we had more scoring chances. That's the picture you want to paint for your guys.

"We got out of it pretty good and had a little success."

However, Serratore says his team "took a step back" last weekend against Lake Superior State. In 1-0 and 4-2 losses, he said "our urgency was never there."

He said shot numbers on Friday (44 for his team) were inflated. Oh, and he wasn't happy with the net-front traffic.

"It's what I told our guys before the second game. 'I don't want you around the cage,'" Serratore said. "'I want you in front of the cage.' There's a difference. I thought we were just around the cage. This day and age, you have to manufacture offense any way you can."

Bemidji State has always been good at this, and I would expect it to be better on Friday. They'll get their noses dirty and make UMD outwork them to stop them from getting second or third chances on the Bulldog net.

They'll also reunite their triplet line.

Yes, BSU has a triplet line.

Not just any ol' triplets.

Myles, Leo, and Gerry Fitzgerald are freshmen for Bemidji State. They're not the biggest guys, but they lit up the BCHL last year and they have played well for Serratore so far. They got a little bit of buzz when they committed because of their background. The three appeared in the 1999 blockbuster hit movie "Baby Geniuses" with such luminaries as Dom Delouise and Kathleen Turner.

Gerry has played in every game, while Myles has missed two and Leo seven. They've combined for eight goals (Myles has four), 16 assists (Gerry has eight), and 24 points (Gerry leads the trio with 11). Myles missed last weekend, but all three should be in the lineup Friday. It's a play-by-play guy's dream nightmare.

"They're fun players," Serratore said. "They're clever out there. They skate. They compete. We're fortunate to have them. I think their body of work over the course of four years is going to be pretty exciting."

(At least Serratore said the plan is to keep them on the same line, as they were before Myles was injured. Or was it Gerry who was injured? Or Leo? Great, I'm already mixing them up and it's not even gametime yet.)

It's a similar game plan that we expect UMD to employ. Sandelin has made it clear this week that he wasn't happy with the missed scoring opportunities his team had against Western Michigan. The Broncos don't give the opponent much, and when the door was open last week, UMD didn't take full advantage nearly as often as necessary.

"We left some chances out there," Sandelin said.

The fact UMD led for exactly 0:00 out of the 125:00 played last weekend is a clear part of why the Bulldogs only got one point. I've seen UMD sweep series that they never led in (overtime goals to win games that were either tied or saw the opponent ahead the entire time prior), but that wasn't the ideal opponent for testing that kind of strategy.

This isn't, either. UMD has to get out to a lead, no matter what the pace of play is. That can't be an excuse. The Bulldogs have to bear down in the offensive zone, get pucks and bodies to the net, and bang away for second chance opportunities. Michael Bitzer and Andrew Walsh have been solid in goal for Bemidji, but neither has dazzled. Throw in seven empty-net goals allowed late in games, and BSU's team save percentage is a pedestrian .894. UMD needs to drive the net and pounce on pucks. Play with pace and wear down Bemidji State.

At the other end of the rink, UMD has to manage the puck better. There have been too many own-zone turnovers in the last few games, and there's no question those turnovers and defensive play that isn't as good as it was overall are big reasons why freshman goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo has a .865 save percentage in his last five starts. It's absolutely not all on him, and that number won't improve without a better team effort in front of the goalie.

As the season goes on, it will be harder to score, not easier. The teams that best do the little things will be the successful teams.


One interesting nugget in the tournament format this year is this: Last year's UMD-Minnesota shootout for the NSCC championship will not be repeated.

Tournament organizers have decided to go with NCAA Tournament overtime rules for the championship game of this event. That allows for 20-minute overtimes as we keep playing until someone puts the puck in the net.

Sandelin said he didn't know about it until this week. Neither did the rest of us.

"Last year's game, how could you not want to keep playing?," Sandelin said. "The kids want to decide it the right way, I think. It's good."

Asked if he's concerned about continuous overtime in a midseason tournament, Sandelin quipped, "If it goes too long we'll just give them two days off (during the week)."

"That's awesome," Crandall said. "I think I'm one of the advocates for doing that all year. You only play two games on a weekend.

"I think we were all pretty unsatisfied, including the fans, last year, having a great hockey game ending in a shootout. Hopefully it doesn't get there, but if it does, that will be a little bit better for everybody."

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