Friday, December 04, 2015

Bulldogs Open Homestand With Slumping Broncos

For the second straight time, UMD heads into a weekend series simply trying to keep a slumping team slumping.

Two weeks ago, UMD got the job done, outscoring Colorado College 11-0 over a two-game sweep to keep the Tigers winless.

Now, it's Western Michigan, a team that has been quite the thorn in UMD's side in recent years. The Broncos have lost six straight, outscored 27-7 in those games. Western hasn't led in a game since Nov. 13, a span of over 352 minutes.

Last weekend, coach Andy Murray was quick to point out that his team really only scored once in losses to RPI and Notre Dame at the Shillelagh Tournament in South Bend, Ind.

"Ended up losing the hockey game 4-1 (against RPI)," Murray said. "And the only goal that we did get, they shot in their own net. Our ability to finish has been a problem for us."

Murray also wasn't mincing words when asked about his team's recent struggles.

"We haven't been playing good hockey," Murray noted. 

It seems like a broken record. We went through this two weeks ago. But this is different animal. Western might not have a lot going on, but the Broncos have basically made Duluth a second home in recent years. WMU is 4-1-1 at Amsoil Arena, including a win and a tie (shootout win for a five-point weekend) last January.

And the style Western Michigan plays lends itself to much more success if the Broncos can come out and play well early in a game. Murray coaches his guys to play a very structured game, giving little room in the neutral zone and often outnumbering teams below the faceoff dots. The little battles in the corners that you see become really tough to win against the Broncos, and those little battles are bound to happen over the course of a game.

When UMD went to Colorado Springs, we talked almost incessantly about the importance of the first goal. That's the case this weekend, too. Murray basically admitted it. He told me his team had 28 scoring chances against the Engineers, "and when you aren't scoring you tend to open up a little bit." That leads to more opportunities for the adversary, and Murray said there were some goals his team has allowed in recent weeks that he wasn't pleased with.

The Broncos are constructed to play with a lead. We saw it twice last season, though UMD was able to rally for a tie in Duluth. When Western loosens up a bit, teams are able to generate scoring opportunities. Get a lead and try to drag the Broncos into a style of play they don't want anything to do with.

Assistant coach Jason Herter summed it up nicely this week.

"They have an exact opposite makeup in their hockey team than we do," he said. "We're exact opposites. It's going to be us trying to get them to play our game, which they're going to be very good at, and them trying to get us to play their game, which I don't think we're very good at. It's going to be the team that finds that middle ground, that can do pretty well at both, that's going to win this weekend."

Herter is the one who coined "skating refrigerators" to describe WMU last year. It's still correct. This is a big team. But that's not the only component of the Broncos that demands the attention of opponents.

"Some of those guys, they have some skill," Herter said. "You have to play against those guys who lean on you and play physical. They can back it up with offense and they can back it up with skill. That's why it's so important that we keep them down."

As I mentioned earlier in the week, there's plenty of skill on this team. Captain Sheldon Dries leads in goals with five, and he has speed to burn. They have guys like Fredrik Tiffels, too, who could play for any program in the country. They lean on you with that size, and then Murray can turn to his skill players to blow by unsuspecting opponents.

"In a run and gun game, we're faster," Herter said. "In a tie-it-down, lean on you game, they're fast enough to do some special things."
Western Michigan swept Omaha. Convincingly. Yeah, it was a month ago, but it still happened. If UMD isn't careful this weekend, the Bulldogs will find out how capable the Broncos are.


UMD enters with plenty of confidence and momentum, right?

Not according to Murray. He'll have nothing of either word.

"There's two words that I don't allow our players to use," Murray, who has plenty of coaching experience in college, juniors, and pro hockey, said this week. "I don't like the word 'confidence,' and I don't like the word 'momentum.'

"Bottom line to me is when you play poor, you feel bad. When you play good, you feel good. To me, you have to go out and earn it. Normally, you get in life what you deserve. At this point, we haven't been deserving enough.

"Everybody talks about 'We won, so we have momentum.' But do you think the next team really cares? They want to knock you off, and they're going to be ready for you."

Murray admits that his team probably doesn't have a lot of either right now, but "that doesn't mean we aren't capable of playing good hockey."

It's an interesting look at things, and one that UMD senior forward Austyn Young doesn't necessarily agree with. Whether you want to call it confidence or not, he says that series in Colorado was just what the doctor ordered.

"It's good for a team to get that," Young said. "When you're struggling putting the puck in the net, you have to keep looking at the positives. It's really helped our guys. I can tell on the ice that everyone's upbeat."

Herter agrees.

"A lot of times kids confuse confidence with trust," he said. "The trust in the process and the trust that what they're doing is the right thing. When it doesn't work, we tend to say they don't have confidence. I think the kids are starting to trust that what they're doing is the right thing. If they're consistently doing it, they'll have a chance to win every night."

Herter also quipped he would have "cried" -- because he just wouldn't have known what to say to them -- if he had to look at the players after the Nov. 14 game against Denver if the Bulldogs hadn't rallied to tie the game and win the three-on-three for an extra NCHC standings point.

If UMD gets hot here before break, there's no question that will be looked at as a turning point in the first half of the season.

Call it "confidence," "momentum," "trust," or coin your own term for it. But clearly UMD has a chance this weekend to show that CC wasn't a fluke or the byproduct of a good team playing against a bad one.


Just a quick programming note. The normal Saturday blog will not appear this week. I'll give you some expanded thoughts with the pregame lines on Saturday, but my son has a hockey tournament in Hoyt Lakes we're leaving for at 6:30 in the morning.

As always, follow me on Twitter for more -- pregame, in-game, and postgame, as well as during the day Saturday. 

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