Thursday, January 21, 2016

'Road Warriors' Need to Rekindle Magic Away From Duluth

DENVER -- Count Duluth News Tribune scribe Matt Wellens and me as probably the only members of the media who have descended on Denver for something other than the AFC Championship Game Sunday.

Instead, we'll be at Magness Arena for a key two-game NCHC series between UMD and Denver. The No. 15 Pioneers lead fourth-place and 19th-ranked UMD by one point in the NCHC standings, but DU has two games in hand that the Pioneers will be able to take advantage of over the next three weekends. UMD has a non-conference series and a bye mixed in there, so this is one of just two chances for the Bulldogs to gain league points before the stretch run starts with a Feb. 19 game at North Dakota.

The Bulldogs have prided themselves on being "road warriors" in recent years.

No, not them.

Since the NCHC formed for the 2013-14 season, UMD is 18-11-1 in league games away from home, including 3-2-1 this year, and 3-0-1 in the last four (goal differential is 17-3 in those games). Over the same stretch of time, UMD is 10-15-7 in NCHC home games, including 2-4-2 this year, and 0-3-1 in the last four (outscored 10-2 and shut out twice).

And, no, no one really knows why.

"We really haven't performed extremely well at home," head coach Scott Sandelin said this week. "It's unfortunate, because that's a building that we need to take advantage of.

"For whatever reason, we've been a much more consistent team on the road. The results have been much better on the road than at home. Somehow, we have to continue that, and find a way to be a better team at home."

"I think we're a super close team," senior Austin Farley said. "Spending time on and off the ice, you get away from just being in Duluth. Playing in other people's buildings, with other fans, it's fun to go out there and play against them."

"When we go on the road, we play that hard-nosed hockey," senior Cal Decowski said. "We're ready for a battle in other teams' buildings. I think coming in with that mentality, trying to be road warriors really helps."

Decowski might be on to something, but I wish it was easy to bottle up so UMD could use it at home, too. Whether there should be or not, it's undeniable that there's a different mentality that goes along with playing on the road. And in recent years, the Bulldogs have played some of their best hockey when backed against a wall and sent on the road.

--> I know it was "just against Colorado College," but UMD took a five-game unbeaten streak on the road the weekend before Thanksgiving and swept the Tigers by an 11-0 aggregate.

--> Armed with an up-and-down 4-4 record, UMD went to St. Cloud Nov. 7-8, 2014, and took down the Huskies in two straight games, sweeping at the National Hockey Center for the first time.

--> Losers of four straight and threatened with a first-round road trip in the NCHC playoffs, UMD won twice at Miami Feb. 28-March 1, 2013, and eventually earned home-ice two weeks later. We won't talk about what happened that weekend.

There are a myriad of examples of UMD getting the job done on the road, and that better be the case with this team. At 8-8-5 after last weekend's loss and tie against St. Cloud State, the Bulldogs can ill afford to miss many more chances to earn points. Screw the league title, now home ice is very much up in the air.

Maybe there's no better place to go than Denver. Going back to the 2003-2004 season, UMD has played seven regular-season series at Magness Arena. In those 14 games, the Bulldogs are 7-6-1, including 2-1-1 in the last four meetings, a span of time that actually takes us back to the 2011-12 season (UMD didn't go to Denver, somehow, for a full two regular seasons after that).

I don't know much, but I do know this: Three of UMD's next four NCHC series are on the road, and they're against ranked opponents ahead of them in the league standings (Denver, North Dakota, St. Cloud State). This team is good enough to go 4-2 in those six games, and if that happens, and UMD can properly handle business at home, the Bulldogs will be at home to start the NCHC playoffs.

If there was ever a time to get those road fires burning again, now is it.


Nov. 13's game between these two teams in Duluth might still stand as UMD's worst 60-minute performance of the season. The Bulldogs had very little going that night, outside of the first ten minutes or so, and DU got a power-play goal in the first, another in the second, and then a transition goal after that, for a 3-0 win. Goalie Evan Cowley only had to stop 27 shots for the shutout, and a practically listless UMD team made it perhaps the easiest shutout of his career.

(Last Friday against St. Cloud State was bad, but I felt UMD was more competitive throughout the game. The oh-fer on seven power plays makes that game look worse than it probably was five-on-five.)

But that next game against the Pioneers showed some of the potential -- and frustrations -- of this Bulldog team. UMD outshot Denver, a really good team, by a 46-20 margin that was the worst for Denver in roughly two full seasons. Of course, DU goalie Tanner Jaillet stood on his head, and the Bulldogs only got one goal in regulation that night before getting the extra point with a Tony Cameranesi three-on-three tally.

DU struggled through the first half, losing four straight (outscored 20-5 by North Dakota and St. Cloud State) to limp into the break. The Pioneers have found their stride out of Christmas, however. Denver is 3-0-3 since break, with two home ties against Notre Dame, a road sweep at Omaha (UNO's first two losses at Baxter Arena), and last weekend's win and tie against Western Michigan.

"They're playing much, much better," Sandelin said of DU. "They look like a much different team than they did before break."
"Our details and our habits, our preparation in practice has been better," coach Jim Montgomery said this week. "That's allowed us to have more puck possession time in games."

Jaillet has started all six games after rotating with Cowley in the first half.

"The way he's matured, how vocal he is in the defensive zone and on breakouts," Montgomery said. "He's taken another step as far as ownership on our team."

Jaillet, by the way, has a .938 save percentage over those six games, giving him a .922 for the season.

I talked in my Monday blog about how similar these teams are. Needless to say, both coaches are aware of this, and they agree special teams will be a huge determining factor in the weekend.

"The seasons we've had, lack of production five on five, we're almost mirror images," Montgomery said. "For us, the inconsistency on the power play has hurt our ability to win games."

UMD has spent a lot of time working on the power play this week. There have been personnel changes on the units. The players and coaches know this streak of 22 straight scoreless power plays has to end. And as it becomes harder and harder to score five-on-five, the urgency only ramps up for the power play to produce.


For those who have heard my occasional whining about the return of obstruction in college hockey (credit to Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press for really getting the ball rolling on this issue), the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee -- headed by Michigan State coach Tom Anastos and Big Ten/NCAA Supervisor of Officials Steve Piotrowski -- released a four-page memo this month addressing, among other things, interference.

The key part of the memo is this:
The committee’s consensus is that defenders should be allowed to engage/bump/contact an attacking player “immediately” after the puck is released on a dump in, but players are expected to release the attacker and pursue the puck or retreat following this initial contact. The same standard would be applied regardless of whether or not the attacking player was knocked down. However, it ultimately was decided that the ‘immediacy” of the contact continues to be a determination made by the officials on a case-by-case basis.

Therefore, as a reminder, immediate contact may be made against the attacking player who dumps the puck past a defender. The defender is obligated to release immediately so as not to be guilty of interference. The standard is no longer two seconds or two strides after releasing the puck. It should be noted that allowing offensive players more freedom here must not be taken as license to create collisions at higher speed. 
Time after time, we're seeing either late contact or a situation where the defending player doesn't just bump and release the attacking player. That's interference, even when a UMD guy does it.

You want to know why scoring is down? Yeah, goalies and better-coached defenses are making an impact. So are uncalled rules infractions. Either more power plays would come from consistent enforcement, which should help increase scoring, or teams will adjust to existing rules if enforced, and there will be more room to make plays as a result of that.

As I said on KFAN a couple weeks ago, don't make new rules. Properly call the ones that exist. You'll see a difference.

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