Monday, December 14, 2015

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Stumble Into Break

I was calling games in 2007-2008, a season I have (somewhat playfully) dubbed "The Year of No Goals." Over 36 games that season, UMD scored 74 goals. The leading point scorer was then-junior MacGregor Sharp, who had seven goals and 17 points. No one had more than five goals in UMD's 28-game WCHA season, in which the Bulldogs scored all of 55 goals. The Bulldogs were shut out six times, including three straight home games in February and March.

On Feb. 22 and 23, Colorado College goalie Richard Bachman blanked the Bulldogs in 3-0 and 4-0 CC wins. UMD ended up not scoring for over 230 minutes, almost four full games.

Simply put, it was the most frustrating season I've been a part of. Great people to be around, but nothing went well enough on the ice. Hell, Alex Stalock was amazing, and had little to no chance most nights because the team simply couldn't score.

This past weekend reminded me of that season.

Credit, first, where it's due. Cam Johnson played great both nights for North Dakota. He had luck on his side more than a couple times, but largely he did a great job making himself big, tracking pucks, and smothering shots to prevent good rebound chances.

That doesn't mean UMD did everything it could have done to score. The Bulldogs didn't get the net enough, especially on Saturday. While there was plenty of contact around Johnson, his rhythm wasn't disrupted enough for the Bulldogs to find success and get some pucks home.

UMD gave North Dakota fits all weekend. The Bulldogs were a beast on the forecheck, and their speed through the neutral zone was something to behold. But UND did a great job in a lot of areas. Outside of a short-handed breakaway by Kyle Osterberg in Friday's game, the Bulldogs didn't generate many odd-man rushes. That's a credit to UND's ability to get back defensively. It goes back to something Denver coach Jim Montgomery said last week. UND's best players are playing 200-foot hockey, and all their guys are following suit. Hard to beat a team when everyone is that committed.

North Dakota's transition game, which is elite, killed UMD on Friday. North Dakota's power play struck midway through Saturday's game after a game-changing boarding major (and game misconduct) to UMD captain Andy Welinski. I still disagree with the call, but the reality is UMD had to find a way to kill that off, and that didn't happen. UND struck twice in 31 seconds late in the power play, and that was all the offense Johnson needed.


I don't rip individual players for performance-based reasons, as a general rule. These are amateur athletes and college students, and you might not like the performances, but the effort is usually there. Execution and precision aren't always, and you can bet North Dakota wasn't exactly pleased with its play on the weekend. UND was beaten to a lot of pucks and didn't generate any consistent offense at even strength (outshot a staggering 66-27 on the weekend at even strength). But you can't question either team's effort.

And preseason polls don't matter. They take into account what's happened in the past and returning players, not the relative talent of the teams in the here and now. Because we don't know the relative talent of the teams until they've played.

That said, I have coach after coach telling me how strong this UMD team is. How fast the Bulldogs are. How improved they are defensively. How well their respective team will have to play to beat UMD. I was around in 2007-2008. Dave Hakstol didn't tell me in 2008 how his then-Fighting Sioux would have to play their best hockey to even have a chance against a team that hadn't scored in two games and averaged fewer than two goals per game overall. Brad Berry told me that last week about this year's team.

Yeah, coachspeak has evolved, but Berry didn't need to say that if there wasn't a shred of truth to it.

My point? This team is 7-7-3 at the halfway mark of the season and, while there have been some very good performances in there, combined with what I believe to be an inordinate amount of bad luck, 7-7-3 isn't good enough.

Forget about winning a conference title that means very little big-picture. Look at the big picture. A .500 record, even against this tough a schedule, won't get a team into the NCAA Tournament. If the ultimate goal is to finish the business that went unfinished after BU got that late power play last March, this isn't a way to give yourself a chance.

As I've said in the past, there comes a point in the season where you are what you are. I don't know what that point is, but right now UMD is a .500 team that struggles to win games despite very good goaltending and vastly improved defensive play.

UMD did a lot of good things against a very good -- best I've seen this season -- North Dakota squad. What the Bulldogs didn't do was score, and that's a problem.


What will UMD look at during its two-week break? Well, there are a couple changes that we could see to the lines, nothing of significance. My opinion only, but I wouldn't mind seeing centers Cal Decowski and Jared Thomas swap lines. Thomas hasn't scored since Oct. 17, a span of 14 games. Decowski hasn't scored all year, but his line has been productive, and he's shown he can play well with virtually any linemates. He's had time on this line -- with Kyle Osterberg and Austyn Young -- before. And Thomas, a little better offensive player, might give that fourth line another shot in the arm. You aren't losing much in the faceoff circle by making this move, by the way. Both guys are just under .500 for the year.

The power play has improved, but UMD has one group -- led by Tony Cameranesi -- that appears to be playing ahead of the other, which is headed by Dominic Toninato. That Toninato grouping has only combined for 38 points total this season, led by Welinski with ten. If their power play production were better, the overall numbers wouldn't be like they are. I don't know what personnel changes could help the power play, but I wouldn't be shocked if we saw some out of the holidays.

I also think UMD needs to improve its commitment to getting to the front of the net. Too many times on Saturday, players were standing to the side trying to get a stick in the shooting lane and tip pucks. Watch the good net-front guys in this sport, and you don't see them standing off to the side. It's a small thing, but when you have the kinds of struggles we're seeing UMD experience, it could be a huge factor moving into the second half.

The good news is that this team isn't far off. They're close. I'm convinced of it. But this team isn't there yet, and there is a lot of work to be done to get there. Undoubtedly, the coaches will spend time on self-scouting this week, and they'll basically have two weeks out of the break before they play a game that counts, thanks to the Jan. 2 exhibition.


That's it for me, barring news that we need to get out there (unlikely). I hope you all have a great Christmas holiday season and a joyous New Year. Be safe and let's all hope for some snow up here to make things a little more white.

UMD plays the Under 18 Team Jan. 2, and is at Miami the following weekend. I'll talk to y'all again before the U18 game.

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