Thursday, March 12, 2015

Playoffs Open in NCHC as Bulldogs Meet Pioneers Again

DENVER -- Denver coach Jim Montgomery joked this week that he was hoping to not see UMD again until the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Target Center.

Well, that's next week, and Montgomery won't be getting his wish. Instead, his Pioneers host the Bulldogs in the NCHC quarterfinals.

Despite being third in the PairWise, UMD finished fifth in the NCHC standings. It was really the Bulldogs' own doing. They played 12 NCHC series -- a total of 24 games. In those 12 series, UMD won or tied the Friday game nine times (lost series openers to Denver and Miami in back to back weekends at home, then to Denver again in January).

That's nine chances to either sweep or win a series by winning on Saturday. UMD's record in those Saturday games? 2-6-1.

Valuable points left on the table, and UMD had some winnable games in there. The Saturday game in Omaha saw UMD outshoot UNO 40-18, take 85 shots to the Mavericks' 31, and lose 4-1. The Jan. 17 game vs. Western Michigan was tied 2-2 in the third period before the Broncos scored the game's last two goals. UMD had leads against Miami (3-1) and Omaha (1-0) in back-to-back Saturday games that ended with an overtime loss (4-3 to Miami) and a tie with Omaha (1-1).

Win a couple of those games, and the Bulldogs are sleeping in their own beds this weekend, instead of staring a 3am wakeup call in the face for the trip home on Monday.

(Yes, I realize the shootout losses made a big difference. I'm choosing not to give them too much of the credit, however, because they're so random and dumb.)

And as much a fan as I've always been of this city we're in, it's hard to argue with the comforts of home, especially given UMD's obvious improvement as a home team this season (5-10-3 last year to 8-5-3 this year).

Montgomery's joking aside, this is going to be a great series, and the fact it's the 4/5 matchup isn't the only reason. Denver and UMD play very well against one another. As Montgomery noted back in January, these are two teams that "play the game the right away." Montgomery eluded to that again this week when we chatted.

"I have the utmost respect for Scott Sandelin, their staff, and that team. To think someone's going to sweep this series is a little naive."

They aren't exactly the same, but the purpose is.

Denver wants to push the pace, and the Pioneers do it while being led by their back line. Joey LaLeggia is a sure-fire All-American, a Hobey Baker candidate, and possibly (probably?) the best player at his position in college hockey. When he isn't out there, it's likely DU has Nolan Zajac or Will Butcher on the ice. Or emerging freshman Adam Plant, who I thought had a nice weekend against UMD in January and seems to be coming into his own at the right time.

Similarly, UMD wants to push the pace, but the Bulldogs' horses are up front. Sophomores Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo have led the team in scoring much of the season, but it's the line of juniors Tony Cameranesi and Austin Farley with freshman Karson Kuhlman that -- I believe -- defines this team and its style of play. Those three can play a puck possession game, are dogged on the forecheck, and use their speed to both make plays and get back defensively if they happen to lose possession.

When UMD is healthy, I'll take the Bulldogs' four lines against anyone in the nation. Other teams might have a dynamic top line or two (Denver's top line of Daniel Doremus, Danton Heinen, and Trevor Moore is as good as any in the nation right now), but the Bulldogs' depth is what makes them so dangerous.

Of course, illness to Iafallo and an injury to freshman Blake Young -- along with the earlier injury to Toninato -- really has done harm to UMD's depth. Young didn't make the trip to Denver, and with Adam Krause suspended for Friday's series opener, UMD is expected to dress ten forwards and eight defensemen for Game 1.

It'll mark the tenth straight game where Scott Sandelin can't field his optimal forward lineup. It isn't an excuse for the 4-3-2 mark over the last nine games, but rest assured the head coach would like to pencil in his best lineup. Injuries happen, and illnesses happen. The former is the price we pay for playing such a high-speed, high-intensity game. The latter is the price paid for 20-some guys hanging out in close proximity. These things happen, but they preferably happen in January and not March, when the intensity ramps up and the stakes rise.

Luckily for UMD, the PairWise has been friendly all season. UMD earned that by taking care of non-conference business. Wins over teams like Minnesota (three out of four), Minnesota State (one out of two), and Notre Dame (won the only meeting) look increasingly good now. Minnesota State won the WCHA, Minnesota could win the Big Ten this weekend, and Notre Dame has fought its way back to .500 at 17-17-5 for the first time since it was 9-9-2.

It doesn't hurt that the rest of the NCHC did well non-conference, and it's helped UMD greatly that the Bulldogs got points every weekend in conference play. Not even UMD's higher-seeded opponent this weekend can brag about that (Omaha swept Denver Jan. 9-10).

After all, the only NCHC teams to get points out of every weekend series were UMD and North Dakota. Yeah, UND won the league and UMD finished fifth, but look at the PairWise.

The top two NCHC teams in the PairWise? No. 1 North Dakota and No. 3 UMD. It isn't a coincidence. None of the NCHC's five were slouches in non-conference play (UND 9-1-1, DU 7-2-1, UNO 6-2-2, UMD 8-4, Miami 7-3), after all.

With that nice PWR ranking of third, it doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that UMD can lose this weekend and still make the NCAA Tournament comfortably. Just don't tell anyone affiliated with the Bulldogs this. It's not that they don't know. They aren't stupid, after all. They can act like they don't know or don't want to know, but they know. They just don't want it to affect the mindset of the players.

For them, it's about that mindset being to go take care of business this weekend, not "try hard and see what happens." And if UMD can win Friday without Krause, it's about not letting the guard down on Saturday.

I believe it was Red Wings coach Mike Babcock I heard talking about this. His team was up 3-0 or 3-1 in a best-of-seven, and he was asked about his team having more margin for error because of the big series lead. His remark was something along the lines of "It's a race to four wins, not a seven-game series."

Same applies here. It's a race to two wins. No law says a team needs to play three games to get there. While I'm sure neither coach can see a sweep happening, I think it's a huge chance for one of them -- hopefully the Bulldogs -- to make a statement.

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