Thursday, January 07, 2016

Bulldogs Must Find Consistency in Multiple Areas as Second Half Starts in Ohio

OXFORD, Ohio -- Scott Sandelin isn't trying to put down the competition. He's also not unhappy his team scored 24 goals over a four-game winning streak around its Thanksgiving bye.

"We had that four-game stretch where we scored 24 goals," he said this week, "and that's almost half of what we've scored all year."

(Actually, it is half. UMD has 48 goals in 17 games, so take away that four-game run and UMD has 24 goals in 13 games. At the risk of being overly blunt, that's not very good. In fact, it's 2007-2008 territory.)

(For those newer to UMD hockey fandom, the 2007-2008 team scored 74 goals in 36 games, failing to take full advantage of a great season from sophomore goalie Alex Stalock. Don't fret, Stalock was even better the following year, and UMD stepped up the offense with help from a freshman class that included a couple guys named Connolly.)

Yes, scoring was a bit of a problem in the first half of the season. Over 17 games, UMD put up 482 even-strength shots on goal, but only 31 even-strength goals for a hideous shooting percentage of 6.4.

(Counting power play and short-handed goals and shots, UMD's overall shooting percentage is 7.5. It's low, but not as low as the five-on-five numbers are.)

So Sandelin isn't coming down at all on Colorado College and Western Michigan, the opponents during UMD's four-game winning streak.

(CC has since gone 4-4, including a sweep of NCHC rival Miami, the team that UMD faces here this weekend. Western Michigan, meanwhile, has lost three straight since UMD took the Broncos behind the woodshed Dec. 4-5 in Duluth (13-2 aggregate).)

Instead, the longtime Bulldog head coach is lamenting his own team's inability to take advantage of a pleothora of scoring chances on a game-by-game basis in the first half.

"You can look at goal-scoring, no question," he said. "The number of shots we've had and the opportunities we've had, and I hope they continue, it tells you we're doing a lot of good things. But we have to get hungrier around the net.

"Hopefully, we can get the power play clicking more consistently."


The power play, overall, is a respectable 15-for-78 (19.2 percent). It's not in the low- to mid-20s like UMD's NCAA teams of recent years, but it isn't bad by any stretch. But Sandelin hits the nail on the head talking about consistency. Ideally, he'd like to see his team get a power play goal in every game. And while UMD is averaging nearly that per game, it's had some long dry spells. The Bulldogs have had two stretches of three games where they didn't score a single time on the man advantage, going 16 and 11 opportunities goalless, respectively, between Oct. 17-24 and Nov. 7-14.

Obviously, UMD didn't score on the power play either night against North Dakota, missing on nine chances in the weekend series. That drought continues into this weekend's series against a RedHawks team that's allowed a grand total of four power play goals in 64 chances so far (to put that in perspective, it's the same number of short-handed goals Miami has conceded so far).

There are times UMD has struggled against aggressive penalty kills, and the Bulldogs will face another of those this weekend. But UMD also tasted some success on the power play in the first half, going four-for-12 in a three-game run that started Halloween weekend against UMass-Lowell and nine-for-21 in that four-game winning streak. It's that consistency Sandelin and the coaches crave.

That said, for the coach of a 7-7-3 team that was picked to win its league and put in the top five of (admittedly meaningless) preseason polls, Sandelin is far from panicking. He doesn't believe his team's performance so far reflects a .500 squad, and only time will tell if he is proven right on that hypothesis.

"We can pick apart where we want improvement, but I liked a lot of things our guys did," Sandelin said. "Overall, we just need some more production out of key guys."

"Our record reflects that we are a .500 team, but I don't feel we are," senior captain Andy Welinski said.

Sandelin compared his wishes for this team to what he saw out of Lowell, a team where the four forward lines are indistinguishable. It's a hallmark of past UMD teams, including last year's. When that team was "going," you didn't necessarily know which line was on the ice because they all play the same way. That's a trait that's only been shown a few times by the 2015-16 team. If it can redevelop that in the second half, good things will come as a result.

Sandelin: "Probably the only game I was disappointed with was the Friday Denver game (Nov. 13), where we didn't play very well after the first ten minutes. Even the North Dakota series, I thought we were the better team Friday night."


It isn't just an offensive issue. Scoring took all the headlines -- largely because of the UNO and UND sweeps -- but the Bulldogs have a few other areas of their game they'd like to clean up as the second half begins Friday.

For starters, North Dakota's 3-0 win over UMD on Dec. 11 came on the back of three transition goals by the, ahem, Fighting Hawks. Yes, UND is an elite transition team, and if you watch back that game, you'll see that about the only true scoring chances UND got in 60 minutes came on transition plays. It's a sign that UMD possessed the puck well and generally made good decisions. But the bad decisions cost the Bulldogs on that night.

And those aren't the only transition (or, as Sandelin terms it, "rush coverage") problems UMD has encountered in the first half of the season. The Omaha sweep saw UNO score six non-empty net goals, and five of them came off either rushes or transition plays off turnovers.

It seems like nit-picking, because UMD is doing a lot of things well defensively, but this is a huge part of the game nowadays. It's not going to get any easier for teams to score when facing a five-man defensive unit. These teams are so well-coached and well-prepared that you have to find ways to break them down to score goals. It's become obvious that the best way to do that is to catch them before everyone is back. The days of everyone grinding down opponents for goals are still alive and well, but the teams that can make big plays in transition will have a leg up unless they're very shoddy in their own zone.

"We gave up some goals through the year because of that (transition)," Sandelin said. "We need to take care of the puck better. Our rush coverage has to improve."


Admittedly the margin for error in the second half isn't high. UMD trails second place St. Cloud State by ten points and top dog North Dakota by 13. Omaha, with two games in hand, is only one point behind UMD in fourth place, while fifth-place Western Michigan has crawled within two points of the Bulldogs. At this point, UMD may be more in the race for home ice than it is in the race for the league title.

Things do change. I don't expect UND to be a .935 save percentage team the rest of the season, and while SCSU's team save percentage of .927 is also probably going to drop a bit, so is a power play humming along at nearly 31 percent right now. It's just the odds. Similarly, UMD's shooting percentage has gone up since that Denver series, but it's still on the low end of what you might consider "normal," and it stands to reason we'll see an increase, even if only a marginal one.

Unquestionably, things have to change for UMD. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where Sandelin is looking for increased production from. Big-minute forwards Dominic Toninato (6-1-7) and Alex Iafallo (2-6-8) have combined for 15 points. Center Jared Thomas has six points and hasn't scored a goal since Oct. 17 (14 game drought). Junior Kyle Osterberg (2-5-7) has no goals and one point since Nov. 6 (nine games). The eight-member blue line has seven goals this season, but outside of Willie Raskob and Carson Soucy each tallying in the Nov. 20 win at Colorado College, no defenseman has scored since Nov. 7. It's not necessarily their job to score goals in bunches, but going seven out of eight games without anyone scoring is not a good thing.

Sandelin will be the first one to tell you he thinks Toninato has played well, especially as of late. "His last month was a lot better, and when you continue to do those things, you get rewarded. I liked how he was playing even before that (hat trick against the U18 team)." So by no means am I trying to argue that anyone listed above isn't playing well. Thomas is vastly improved in the faceoff circle after a rough start to the season (after going 5-19 on draws in the first three games, he's improved to being basically a 50/50 proposition overall, with a number of 60-plus percent nights). Osterberg is a valuable 200-foot player. Iafallo still has game-breaking speed and is a very smart and responsible player.

Oh, and that blue line is a big reason for UMD outshooting opponents 28.4-19 per game at even strength this season. The Bulldogs' overall shot differential is plus-12.1 per game, easily the best in the NCHC (North Dakota is plus-8.9 and St. Cloud State plus-6.5). Only Penn State -- at plus-15.67 -- is better in Division I.

"We are in a position where we need to go on a run to make a push in the league," Welinski said. "I think we only have three games out of conference in the second half. Every weekend is going to be important for us to get points. We're going to be playing good teams, and we need to figure out how to get points every single weekend."


The first of those weekends is here against Miami University starting at 6:30 (Central time) Friday. The RedHawks have experienced struggles of their own this season.

After winning the NCHC playoff title and earning a No. 1 NCAA regional seed, Miami is 6-10-2 after a split against RPI last weekend at home. In Sunday's game, the RedHawks scored three in the third and outshot the Engineers 15-5 to erase a 2-1 deficit and win 4-2.

"I thought our third period was about as good as we played in a long time," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said this week. "The energy, the executing of the game plan was there for pretty much the entire third period. Real good step forward."

We already talked about UMD's search for improved rush coverage. Part of that is managing the puck and making sure the adversary doesn't have opportunities to rush up the rink with extra bodies. Blasi addressed that this week, too, only in the context of his team making smart decisions against a UMD team that possesses the puck as well as anyone in the country.

"You have to play well away from the puck," he said. "You gotta cut your losses at times, and live to play another day. Understand the situation you're in, and know where the danger's coming from. All in all, I think our guys understand that. Teams like UMD and other teams we'll face force you to make tough plays."

Miami could get a boost on its blue line, as sophomore defenseman Louie Belpedio has returned to Oxford after helping the United States earn a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in Finland. Belpedio didn't arrive here until late Wednesday (at least that was the plan as of Tuesday per Blasi), and Blasi termed him a game-time decision for Friday night.

"We'll just have to see how it goes. There's a chance he'll play, there's a chance he won't."

It's all hands on deck for UMD. Senior forward Austin Farley, the team's leading scorer with ten goals and 19 points, missed the exhibition game with an undisclosed minor injury but will play this weekend. I don't know the final defensive pairings for Friday yet, but junior Dan Molenaar will be available after also missing Saturday's game.

This isn't the same Miami team that won the NCHC postseason tournament a year ago. Stars like Austin Czarnik, Riley Barber, and Blake Coleman have all moved on, and the RedHawks are led in scoring by freshman Jack Roslovic, who has nine goals and 18 points. In all, three of Miami's top five scorers (Roslovic, Josh Melnick, and Kiefer Sherwood) are freshmen. Senior goalie Ryan McKay has played in 16 of 18 games and has a .911 save percentage. However, fellow senior Jay Williams got the start in Sunday's win over RPI and made 17 saves for the victory.


I'll have my normal review of Friday's game available either late night or early Saturday morning. In addition, I'll publish my annual (admittedly meaningless) NCHC mid-season honors this weekend for your review and hate mail.

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