Thursday, March 05, 2015

NCHC Season Wraps Up With UMD Facing 'Skating Refrigerators'

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- When I tweeted the quote Wednesday, a UMD fan responded by asking if it was bulletin board material.

I've listened back a few times now, and I don't believe it was.

In fact, UMD assistant coach Jason Herter -- conducting the weekly men's hockey press conference Wednesday in place of head coach Scott Sandelin, who was making his way down I-35 to watch son Ryan play and score a goal in the state tournament -- was referencing how he doesn't think UMD matches up wonderfully with Western Michigan.

It actually started with a question about the teams' meeting in January, one that saw Western Michigan take five of a possible six points. The question framed that series as "disappointing."

"Disappointing? I don't know. You look at our league, every weekend so far, we've gotten points," Herter said. "Points matter. Yes, disappointing we didn't get three points, but as close as our league is and as hard as it is every weekend, playing against a team I would say we don't match up great against because they're like a bunch of skating refrigerators.

"They're big men who have a decent amount of skill. They work hard and they're well-coached."

Herter wasn't trying to insult the Broncos. Instead, the point was to show why UMD doesn't necessarily match up very well against them. That is especially true when the Bulldogs -- who probably have a speed and skill advantage in these games this weekend -- aren't moving their feet and are maybe trying to be too physical themselves.

Times have changed. When Western rolled into Duluth, Andy Murray's Broncos were, well, rolling. After starting 3-8-1, WMU ripped off a pair of three-game winning streaks in going 7-1-2 over a ten-game run that ended in Duluth. The Broncos split the following weekend at St. Cloud State, and since beating the Huskies 3-2 on Jan. 24, Western has won just one out of eight games (outscored 24-14, but half that margin came in Saturday's 5-0 loss to Colorado College).

Murray, however, says that doesn't tell the whole story.

On the North Dakota series, which ended in a UND sweep, Murray noted "we liked our compete level." He said UND goalie Zane McIntyre was the difference.

Murray thought his team played very well against North Dakota, but McIntyre (Murray called him the MVP of the NCHC) helped the adversary get all six points on the weekend. The Broncos rallied from 2-0 down in the third period of the Saturday game to force overtime, but gave up the winner in the extra session.

Last weekend, however, Murray wasn't as pleased with what he saw. Western outshot Colorado College 52-25 in the Friday game, which ended in a tie and a WMU shootout win. Saturday, the Tigers pummeled a Bronco team Murray described as "arrogant."

"Most disappointing game, probably, that I've had as a college coach," the former NHL bench boss said this week. "We knew we were going to finish seventh (in the NCHC), and did not show enough respect for our opponent. We were undisciplined in our game, and we got what we deserved.

"How can you play arrogant as a seventh-place team? I've always told people that if you don't stay humble, you'll get humbled."

That's the backdrop for this weekend.

Murray is an exceptional coach, one of the more intense individuals you'll ever come across. If you think he hasn't reminded his players of what happened Saturday -- whether it be subtle or blunt -- you're nuts. He's a smart guy. He'll use that as motivation for this weekend, when Western Michigan knows it will play at Lawson Ice Arena for the final time this season.

WMU only has four seniors -- Justin Kovacs, Will Kessel, Matt Stewart, and goalie Frank Slubowski -- but Senior Night can be a catalyst for everyone on the roster. Especially when the group knows it isn't playing at home again, no matter what.

My point? The Broncos will be ready.

UMD should be, too. The Bulldogs didn't play poorly last time out against this team, but UMD is 0-3-1 over four meetings against Western going back to last year's NCHC playoffs, when WMU ended UMD's season at Amsoil Arena.

(Murray said he felt his team's goaltending was the difference that weekend.)

As Herter said this week, UMD needs to do a better job using its speed as an asset. In January, there were times where the Bulldogs looked liked they were playing more at Western's pace, which is slower. Most opponents will try to -- at least to an extent -- slow UMD down. There aren't a lot of Miamis out there who can skate with the Bulldogs.

If the Bulldogs can quicken the pace and make Western chase more, they'll find more success this weekend.

It's a vital one for UMD's home-ice chances, which took a significant hit with the two ties/shootout losses against Omaha. UMD now trails Denver by two points for fourth and UNO by three for third. With UNO hosting last-place Colorado College this weekend, odds are high the Mavericks will go "over .500" and pull far enough ahead of UMD to hold on to third place. Denver is the kicker. UMD owns the tiebreaker, and DU is at St. Cloud State, which still has an outside shot at improving its position.

UMD will be trying to move up the standings without speedy sophomore Alex Iafallo, who will miss a second straight weekend because of illness. Herter was quick to point out Wednesday that both he and Sandelin were sick for extended periods of time. He forgot that his favorite radio nerd was also sick -- started with respiratory flu symptoms and then a persistent cough and off-and-on stuffiness and sore throat -- for close to two months. There's some serious crud going around, and it sounds like Iafallo is the latest victim.

It stinks, because this is the time of year you want your optimal lineup out there consistently. It's not the time for experimentation or rotating players. North Dakota, for example, has pulled away from the pack by going 11-1-1 since losing to UMD Jan. 9. The lineup hasn't changed much over those games, though it will now with senior forward Mark MacMillan (finalist for both the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award and Hockey Humanitarian Award) out indefinitely.

UMD hasn't been able to field its best lineup since a Feb. 6 win over Northern Michigan. The Bulldogs are 3-2-2 while dealing with the five-game absence of Dominic Toninato and now the two games Iafallo has missed (you can add these two to that record once we know the results of the games).

So it's "GOHUSKIESWOOOO" this weekend for UMD fans (that's a real Twitter handle, y'all), while hoping for the best in Kalamazoo.

That's all for now. I'll return at some point and post all the standings scenarios and the tiebreakers the NCHC will use. For now, know that UMD can finish anywhere from second to sixth, so there are a lot of possibilities in play. Obviously, some are more realistic than others.

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