While the other seven NCHC teams are playing either one or zero games this weekend, UMD is set to complete its non-conference schedule with two games against Northern Michigan of the WCHA.
It's not surprising that UMD would find a way to get games in on a conference bye week late in the season. In fact, you have to go back to 2011 to find the last time UMD took a full weekend off after Christmas break.
"I think guys would rather play than take a week off," head coach Scott Sandelin said this week, referencing the fact that UMD's opponent next weekend -- St. Cloud State -- is one of three NCHC teams not playing at all this weekend.
(Omaha and North Dakota are the others. Denver, Colorado College, Miami, and Western Michigan each play one game.)
So UMD forges on with its 20-games-in-ten-weekends second-half schedule. So far, so good. There was a scare in the second period Saturday when sophomore forward Alex Iafallo went down with an apparent (-ly obvious) right leg problem. Luckily, our awesome trainer got him back on the ice to score a goal later that period. He was practicing Wednesday and didn't appear to have any serious limitations. I'd imagine he plays, unless the decision has been made to rest him as a precaution.
Even better is that defensemen Dan Molenaar and Nick McCormack were both practicing this week. So UMD had its (now) full compliment of 13 forwards and eight defensemen on the ice at the same time for the first time in the second half of the season. Molenaar was felled by mono out of break, while McCormack had missed time with an undisclosed injury.
Don't expect much change to the forward lines. All four of them played well in Denver, helping UMD establish a strong forecheck while also doing a pretty good job defensively. I'd expect all 13 forwards to play this weekend, with Sandelin working Charlie Sampair in one night. Not sure what the plan will be with the defensemen. Molenaar made the trip to Denver and looks much healthier than when he first got back on the ice. If either "extra" is cleared, one would think they play one game.
Beyond the chance to get everyone on the ice, it's going to be a key non-conference series. Northern Michigan has been streaky. The Wildcats started 7-1-1, endured some injuries and went through a rough patch (1-5-4 in their next ten games), and are now unbeaten in three.
"We went through a stretch there where we struggled," coach Walt Kyle said this week. "We feel like we're coming out of that right now. I feel like we're getting close to getting our game back in order."
NMU swept Alaska-Anchorage last weekend in Marquette, but it was a costly sweep. Sophomore goalie Mathias Dahlstrom went down on Friday after a collision with a UAA player. He will not be available against UMD.
The Wildcats will get back to league play next weekend, very much in the thick of things for home ice advantage. Kyle says the WCHA is obviously strong at the top, but he notes that isn't all.
"I think there's strength right through it. There's not much difference between a Bemidji State and a Bowling Green. There's a lot of good teams in our league. I think it's real good top to bottom."
Kyle notes that the league is now comprised of a lot of Division II schools that are prideful about playing Division I hockey. I hate the term "like-minded," which was popularized during realignment a few years ago, and Kyle didn't use it here, but it does work. These schools are as like-minded as it gets when it comes to running their athletic programs.
On the ice, Dahlstrom's absence creates trouble for Northern Michigan. He's been a big key to the team up to this point, with a .924 save percentage in 21 games. NMU's save percentage drops to .908 when Dahlstrom isn't manning the pipes.
The Bulldogs were beaten two Fridays ago by Bemidji State at the North Star College Cup. Sandelin said he doesn't think his team had the right mindset going into that game, which ended up 4-0.
"Our focus needs to be building off what we did the last two or three games," Sandelin said. "Continue to do that and get better. If we go into it with any other mindset than we need to play hard and do the things we need to do, we won't have success.
"I think our guys understand. Certainly what we went through a couple weeks ago. We didn't go into it with the right mindset and you saw what happened."
The first ten minutes will tell us a lot. Hopefully the Bulldogs come out with intensity and don't need to be "shocked" into the game, whether that comes from NMU scoring or just pinning the Bulldogs in their own zone for a spell, or from someone getting knocked into the middle of next week.
Sandelin talked extensively about special teams at his Wednesday press conference. He said freshman goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo was his team's best penalty killer on Saturday, as UMD killed off two Denver power plays in the third period after DU had closed within 3-2.
He also lauded his killers for their effort on a five-minute penalty kill in the third period of Friday's loss. The kill kept the margin at one goal and gave UMD a chance to tie late.
"I thought Kas played outstanding (Saturday)," Sandelin said. "Made two or three key saves. They were huge kills at the time."
The power play didn't score, but UMD got two goals in the first ten seconds after man advantages expired last weekend.
"I think there's good things," Sandelin said, "but we're not putting the puck in the back of the net. We're going to try to measure power play success based on some tangible things that give you success on the power play and not if you score. The ultimate goal is to score, but we have to do a lot of things well."
Sandelin said they've devised four or five categories to measure success by. He didn't get into specifics, but I'd imagine faceoffs, shot attempts, and shots on goal are on the list, along with some sort of measurement of zone entries, puck retrievals, and puck battles. Those latter things go toward puck possession, something UMD has struggled with.
Over last weekend, if UMD won the faceoff to start a power play, things generally went okay until Denver got possession and cleared. Zone entries were a bugaboo all weekend. Once DU got it out, UMD struggled to get it back in cleanly.
It's something to watch. I've seen improvement by UMD on the power play, but not in all areas and not all the time. I liked Saturday's power play chances, but they didn't score. If they keep doing more good things than bad, that will come around.