Thursday, November 05, 2015

Bulldogs' Road Success Tested in New Venue

SOMEWHERE IN, Iowa -- Greetings from I-35. Yes, my wife is driving.

As far as you know.

Anyway, UMD opens NCHC play this weekend at Omaha, and the Bulldogs will get to see the brand-new Baxter Arena, which just opened two weekends ago for a visit from Air Force.

"At least they're one of the teams that won their first game in their building," cracked UMD coach Scott Sandelin, referencing UMD losing to North Dakota in the Amsoil Arena opener, and numerous other teams losing their first games in new buildings (including Sandelin's alma mater, North Dakota, when it opened new Ralph Engelstad Arena).

"The neat thing is I think it's gonna be a great atmosphere," Sandelin said. "It's a little smaller venue than their last one, so it's hopefully going to be a lot like our building. I'm sure the people are very excited. It'll be fun. I think that's what kids want to play in."

Baxter Arena has only been "used" once, a UNO sweep of Air Force Oct. 23-24. The Mavericks have played three of their first four series on the road, including non-conference sweeps of Minnesota State and Vermont, and last weekend's sweep at the hands of Western Michigan.

(We'll have time to talk about this in December when UMD plays the Broncos, but that team is going to beat some people up this year, including possibly the Bulldogs. They are just as big and tough as usual, and they have a great freshman class and some criminally underrated skill guys like Sheldon Dries and Nolan LaPorte. Much of the media is going to regret picking them seventh in the preseason poll, as understandable as that pick was.)

UMD is coming off a tough weekend of its own, losing 6-3 Saturday to UMass-Lowell after a Friday victory. Sophomore forward Jared Thomas of Hermantown is quick to point out that, while UNO is probably a bit irritated over getting swept, his teammates aren't exactly thrilled with their weekend outcome, either.

"They had a tough weekend, too," Thomas said, "so Blais is probably working them hard this week. They'll be ready for us. We'll be ready for them. We weren't satisfied with how we played Saturday."

Assistant coach Brett Larson agrees.

"We're not happy, either, after losing a game Saturday night," he said. "A lot of teams will say 'Let's go in and weather the storm,' but we have a different attitude. We want to try to match their intensity. We respect them a lot, but we want to go in and match that emotional level and compete with them right from the first faceoff."

The Bulldogs are no strangers to hostile environments. UMD is 22-15-2 on the road since the start of the 2013-14 season. Its play away from home helped spark a school record 17-game unbeaten streak in 2011-12. In recent years, it's no secret some of UMD's best work has come on the road.

"The number one thing that makes us that way is we're not afraid to put our fourth line on the ice," Larson said. "We've got a lot of faith in our fourth line. Having that depth, and having third or fourth lines that I think would be second or third lines on a lot of teams, gives you a lot of confidence when you go to play on the road."


That depth will be tested this weekend. Senior forward Tony Cameranesi is not on the trip and will not play in the UNO series. Cameranesi suffered an upper-body injury in the third period of Saturday's game (watch it here, courtesy of the wonderful @UMDHockeyGIFs Twitter account) and did not return.

Watching the GIF, it appears he hurt himself trying to finish a check along the corner boards while forechecking.

Cameranesi skated this week, which is certainly a good thing for his conditioning, but he wasn't cleared for contact and didn't do much in practice besides skating. It was pretty clear he had little chance of making the trip and playing.

Larson said it was a pretty easy call to keep him out -- "considering where he was at physically" -- and noted that this weekend is important, but not the endgame.

"It's hard for a lot of people to think about, but it's a process. We're building toward something. This weekend is huge, no doubt, but the rest of the year is even bigger than this weekend."

"I just told him to keep skating," Sandelin said. "He'll be back, hopefully, for Denver."

Not having Cameranesi for this series stinks. It's a matchup I would expect him to thrive in, because Omaha prefers to play an up-and-down game with lots of pace. Of course, it's not like UMD doesn't have speed and skill guys up and down the lineup, and like Larson said, the depth is strong.

Expect Jared Thomas to center Alex Iafallo and Kyle Osterberg to start off Friday's game. Dominic Toninato should work in between Austin Farley and Karson Kuhlman, with Cal Decowski (ahem, CAL DECOWSKI!!1!1!) centering Adam Johnson and Austyn Young. It's an opportunity for chemistry with new linemates for a lot of guys, but I do see benefits.

Osterberg has been playing very well so far this season, and I think his grit complements Iafallo's speed very well. Thomas has been solid on faceoffs lately after a rough start (28-16 the last four games, including 17-7 last weekend). Decowski's experience lends well to him playing a third-line role with a high-skill player in Johnson and a hard worker in Young, who might see some power play time this weekend in Cameranesi's place. Young's a versatile guy with offensive skill who has played a lot of third- and fourth-line minutes and penalty kill, where it opportunities to flash offensive ability are more limited.

"Last year, mentally he had a better approach," Sandelin said last week of Young. "He was a pretty gifted offensive player, and never really got a lot of opportunities. I think last year he realized he needs to be a different kind of player. He's a good faceoff guy, he's got a good stick, he has the ability to score goals.

"He's worked hard, and it was nice to see him get a couple goals."


This should be a fun weekend. Beyond the atmosphere we already talked about, the teams just tend to play a fun, watchable brand of hockey.

Omaha features a couple local stars. Former Duluth East center Jake Randolph is a sophomore and is off to a good start with five goals in eight games. 2014 Mr. Hockey winner Avery Peterson from Grand Rapids is pointless in seven games, but scored ten goals as a true freshman. It stands to reason the Minnesota Wild draft pick will get going eventually.

Randolph plays center and wing, and generally is part of a potent second line for UNO. The top line includes the very talented and explosive Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega. UMD will need to corral and contain those two to have a lot of success this weekend.

UNO's goaltending took a hit with the graduation of star Ryan Massa, who carried the Mavericks at times last season. After a hot start to the year, Kirk Thompson and Evan Weininger were lit up last weekend in Kalamazoo, allowing ten goals in two games, including a 6-1 loss on Saturday to finish the sweep. UNO looked leaky on defense, giving up a lot of chances in front of the net, and UMD's ability to win races and battles in front of UNO's net will be a huge key this weekend.

I wasn't convinced UMD used its speed enough the last two weekends, but both series were against tougher defensive-minded teams. This should be a different style of hockey, and we'll find out if it lends itself more to UMD's speed and skill.

No comments: