Friday, January 23, 2015

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Bulldogs Turn in Clunker at North Star College Cup; Questions From Twitter

ST. PAUL -- You guys probably know me well enough by now.

I'm not much of a sugarcoater.

(Yes, I know that's not a word. The squiggly red line under it is plenty of evidence of that.)

So I'm not going to sugarcoat what we saw Friday afternoon/evening at XCel Energy Center. It wasn't very good. In fact, it was about as putrid a performance as we've seen all season. Probably not even close, to be frank.

Bemidji State took it to UMD for the better part of 60 minutes in a 4-0 win here that sends the Beavers to Saturday's championship game. UMD will play Minnesota, a 4-2 loser to Minnesota State, for third place at 4pm Saturday. It's the fourth meeting this season between the longtime rivals, and they've come at four different venues (Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena, Mariucci Arena, Amsoil Arena, and now XCel Energy Center).

Things didn't start great for UMD, and they got much worse. Bemidji had four shots on goal before UMD even got close to one, but the Bulldogs generated some pressure after the first media timeout, which came just past the five-minute mark of the period.

UMD took a couple of penalties in a row, and Bemidji burned the Bulldogs on the second one, as Matt Prapavessis pinched from the center point to the high slot and put a screened shot by UMD goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo for a 1-0 lead. I would question the screen, as it appeared obvious there was a BSU player screening Kaskisuo while his skates were in the blue paint. By NCAA rule, that should be a no goal.

(The relevant part of the Rule 73.1 goes like this: "The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within the goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by these actions, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to defend the goal either visually or physically, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed."

There is no question that if you watch this animation of the goal, Markus Gerbrandt's skate or skates are in the crease when the puck comes through. It's also clear Gerbrandt is doing his job, providing a screen and making it hard for Kaskisuo to see the shot. Letter of the law, this is supposed to be a "no goal" call, and I've seen it reviewed to that "letter of the law" standard on multiple occasions in my years on this job.)

Luckily, any controversy was averted by the rest of the game (note some sarcasm there). It wasn't good for the Bulldogs.

The Beavers made it 2-0 halfway through the second when the Fitzgerald triplets struck. Well, two of them, as Gerry fed Leo for a shot from the slot. It was an example of UMD's not-very-good puck management and defensive coverage in this game. BSU took control of the puck in the defensive zone and UMD just didn't get back well enough.

Bemidji State tacked on two more goals in the third off UMD turnovers to get to the 4-0 final score. It hastened the inevitable, because even at 2-0 after two, I remarked to someone in the press box that it felt like 8-0. UMD just didn't have anything going.

UMD had scoring chances, but the Bulldogs missed the net on 15 of 55 shot attempts in the game, and didn't do enough to make freshman goalie Michael Bitzer's life difficult. In 23 games, I'm not sure I've seen the kind of poor execution and battle level in the offensive zone that plagued UMD Friday. And it was a near-constant from start to finish. Races and puck battles were lost all over the rink, and those types of things will kill a team when it's on the power play.

It did that on this day, for sure.

UMD's power play struggled through a five-minute chance in the first period when Gerbrandt leveled Kyle Osterberg and was whistled for a charging major. Five shots on goal in five minutes isn't terrible, but UMD lacked the prime scoring area shots ... then and throughout the game.

Credit to Bemidji State. They were ready to play. The Beavers have more speed -- not just with the Fitzgerald kids, who are going to be a hoot to watch get better, because man you can see there's talent there -- than they've had in the past, but they still bring the proverbial lunch buckets to the game. Even with improved talent, it's the work ethic that will win them hockey games, just like Friday.

This isn't necessarily on Kaskisuo. Coach Scott Sandelin told me before the game that Kaskisuo's .865 save percentage over his previous five starts was a combo platter. Kaskisuo's play -- in a sense -- reflected that of the guys in front of him. Uneven, yes, but probably not solely responsible for the poor stat line in those starts.

Well, now it's .862 over six starts. And Friday was more of the same. I'd expect Sandelin to start Matt McNeely on Saturday against Minnesota, but I honestly thought McNeely might get the call Friday. So now you know what I know.

For UMD, getting beat is fine. It happens. The Western Michigan series was a dogfight from start to finish, and UMD didn't back down. Even when the Bulldogs weren't playing their best, they were battling. They won races, fought through checks, and found ways to make plays to the net.

None of those things really happened Friday. It was Bemidji State winning puck battles, winning races, and getting to the UMD net. More than anything, that's almost assuredly what concerned the coaching staff as it watched the events unfold.


What's the answer?

Honestly, it isn't that easy. Without Matt Wellens of the Duluth News Tribune tweeting that there was a players-only meeting after the game, I could have predicted that outcome.

I'm not a big "blame the coaches" guy. At least, I'm not anymore. And especially in hockey. Coaches can't do anything for the players, outside of try their damndest to prepare them for what lies ahead. They can't execute the plan for the players, as badly as they might want to sometimes. This isn't football, where coaches are constantly making decisions from the sideline that can change the course of a game.

When you have a game like this one -- an absolute throw-the-tape-in-the-garbage clunker -- it's probably time for the players to take a look at what they're doing.

It's hard to believe that only two Fridays ago, UMD was largely carrying the play against then-No. 1 North Dakota. But as hard as it is to fathom UMD falling this far in just two weeks, it's only been two weeks. And there is a lot of hockey left to be played.

UMD has 13 games left, starting Saturday against the Gophers. It only took four to get to this point, and there's no reason the Bulldogs can't get back where they were just as quickly.

But it starts in that room, hence the players-only meeting. They have to figure out where they went wrong and get back to what was going so well.


Because of the early start, I had decided on the drive down Friday that I would take questions after the game from fans via Twitter. Never did I think the game would go the way it did, but I figured I'd do it anyway.

The only stipulation was I would not accept questions or comments that went after individual players. This isn't the NHL. No one played well Friday, and no individual deserves to be called out in a public forum.

So here are a few questions from actual Twitter followers @bruceciskie. Thanks to all who submitted on the fly Friday for asking good questions and not letting frustration get to them.

@biddco: "why do we have this slump around this time of year? Teams figure us and we don’t adjust?"

It's a common thought that we have this kind of slump every year. Here's what the numbers say. They're 0-3-1 in the last four, and we hope it doesn't get worse than that. But it's a slump, for sure.

UMD had a four-game slide in February of last year, but the losses came to very good St. Cloud State and North Dakota teams. UMD responded by winning three straight. There was no big slump outside of that, really.

The 2012-13 team was up and down all year, so I'm not sure a winless streak that hit nine games (eight in February) really was all that meaningful towards this argument.

2011-12's team, a very good one, went 1-3-1 over a five-game stretch that included a 5-0 loss to Michigan Tech and a loss to Alaska-Anchorage.  UMD responded by going unbeaten in its next five games on its way to the NCAA Tournament.

The 2010-11 team had a pretty famous 8-2 loss to St. Cloud State as the big negative in a six-game run where it went 1-3-2. That season ended well.

So there have been three pronounced slumps in the last five years. I'm not sure that makes or breaks that question, but I think it's just part of the normal ebb and flow of a season. It's not fun, for sure, but I don't see it as being anything more than that, unless it keeps going.

Tony Schmaltz asks "Was this by far, the sloppiest game of the season?"

I don't think there's a question. The only game where UMD was close to being this poor offensively was the Friday game at home against Denver in October. And no disrespect to Bemidji State, but Denver's blue line is elite. The Pioneers make a lot of teams look virtually inept offensively.

UMD wasn't hard on pucks, didn't make good decisions (the multiple turnovers during a five-on-three should provide plenty of evidence of this), and just didn't have enough battle level to win this game. Those things haven't all been the case in any other game to this point, in my opinion.

Craig Berry asks "Were they looking past Bemidji to UofM or Mankato?"

Geez, I'd hope not. You'd have to ask the players to be sure. I'd imagine that wasn't the case.

Oh, and it's "Minnesota State," Craig.

Corey Lange: "what's it gonna take to bring back the teams intensity and drive?"
Jon Fischer: "how can the bulldogs get back to how they were playing before the break."

Would hope it doesn't take much. It was just there a week ago.

See, I could argue a lot of things about UMD's games against Western Michigan. But I can't argue that the Bulldogs lacked intensity or drive last weekend. They didn't execute well enough, but it wasn't for a lack of effort.

I didn't like the effort level on Friday, but that's quite the rarity with this group, even going back to previous seasons.

As for Jon's question, which was somewhat similar to Corey's, I'd argue the Bulldogs are very similar to the Wild. They aren't built on a star player with a bunch of followers. For UMD to win, it takes a 20-man effort. Everyone has to "pull on the same chain." Sandelin coined "sticktoitness" when we were chatting on Friday. When UMD is going good, it sticks to the game plan and plays the way Sandelin wants the team to play.

When it goes off the rails, like Friday, those things don't happen.

It isn't as simple as flipping a switch, but UMD can get it back as quickly as it seems to have lost it.

Paul Clusiau: "Here's a question. Why are we turning over the puck so much lately?"

It's a combination.

There have been times this season where forwards have been caught up the rink before the puck is out of the defensive zone. It's almost as if they're hoping the puck gets out, and they're thinking a few seconds ahead of where the play is at. If everyone executes and does their job, this isn't a huge deal.

But teams are putting more and more pressure on the defense, which means forwards need to help out and give the blue-liners options to get the puck out of trouble. Flying up the rink isn't providing that option.

The lack of options will make the blue-liners look sloppy. To get the train back on the tracks, UMD must first get back to the 200-foot game it was playing so effectively before Christmas.

Finally, Al Onken asks, "Game #2 at Grand Forks took a lot more out of this team than anyone thought at the time, I think. Agree/Disagree?"

I don't know that I do.

What I do think is that UND exposed UMD's defensive zone issues that I just discussed. Now it's time for the Bulldogs to adjust.

It doesn't matter if you win a game 1-0 or 8-5, but the 1-0 game will be much easier to watch if the guys are taking care of their goalie and their own end of the rink first.

There have been times this season where UMD's defensive breakdowns have been caused not by a lack of defensive acumen, but instead by players thinking too much about the offensive side of things. There have been quite a few odd-man rushes lately, and many of them have been caused by players being caught too far up the rink because they're trying to make things happen offensively.

More than anything on Saturday, I want to see UMD take care of its own zone, whether it's McNeely or Kaskisuo in net. If that happens, I'll be happy regardless of the end result, because I know that other things will take care of themselves.

They have to be good defensively first.


As mentioned, No. 1 Minnesota State beat Minnesota 4-2 in the other NSCC semifinal. Bryce Gervais scored twice for the Mavericks. Hopefully the Gophers have forgotten about that home-and-home sweep in November. Ah, who are we kidding? The third-place game should be very salty Saturday afternoon.

In the NCHC, North Dakota got a short-handed goal from Michael Parks in the third period to beat Colorado College 2-1. Zane McIntyre made 30 saves as CC actually led in shots 31-27. Just when CC was looking like an easy out for the NCHC regular-season champion, the Tigers are playing much better hockey. That could mean no easy outs for any home team in the league tournament.

Denver went into Oxford and beat Miami 3-1. With the score tied at one in the second, DU killed off a five-minute major on Ty Loney, who was ejected for a check from behind. Then Trevor Moore scored twice in the third, including an empty-netter with ten seconds left. Tanner Jaillet got the win in goal with 27 saves.

St. Cloud State blasted Western Michigan 7-0, sending the red-hot Broncos to just a second loss in 11 games. Western had been 7-1-2 over ten games, an impressive run that came against some strong competition. But WMU had nothing for the Huskies Friday night. David Morley scored twice, while Joey Benik had four assists for SCSU while Charlie Lindgren pitched a 23-save shutout.

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