COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- With Denver and UMD both sitting at six games left in the regular season, and the Pioneers a one-point lead on the Bulldogs in the conference standings, it's obvious what UMD needs for the league title it so covets.
(And make no mistake, guys, UMD wants this. Ask any of the players. Ask the coaches. This means something to them, and they're operating right now with the full intention of going for the NCHC title and not resting in the final weeks now that a home-ice spot is clinched. UPDATE: Or maybe it isn't clinched. UMD still needs one point. Long story. Please don't make me tell it. Thanks to Michael Weisman of the NCHC for setting the record straight.)
The stretch run should be fun for fans of both teams. Obviously, there are bigger fish to fry, but I've been given no indication that either team is going to fade away and just be happy with home ice in the first round.
For UMD, it starts here in beautiful Colorado Springs. Great weather greeted the team as it arrived Thursday, and that theme is expected to continue into the weekend. Of course, the focus is elsewhere.
Normally, the No. 1 team in the polls and PairWise facing a seven-win team that is last in its conference wouldn't lead to a lot of conversation. However, Colorado College got the better of a two-game series in Duluth last month, and that fact has the undivided attention of these Bulldogs.
UMD coach Scott Sandelin was blunt this week in talking about what happened in that January weekend set.
"I don't think we gave them enough respect," he said. "I thought they were the hungrier team."
If that was an issue in January, it isn't now.
"Especially them coming into our building and taking those four points," senior captain Dominic Toninato said this week, "it makes us want it more."
What has to happen?
Well, for starters, UMD can't be shocked into playing, as the coaches might say. The home team fell behind early to CC in a 2-1 loss on Jan. 7. The Bulldogs never led, and weren't a serious threat once CC took the lead for good in the second period. It just wasn't a great night, as UMD made mistakes in the neutral zone and fed into the Tigers' defensive ways.
"We didn't get inside the dots very much," Sandelin said. "They just wanted it more than we did, and we didn't respond very well."
The Bulldogs struggled against Colorado College freshman Alex Leclerc, who made 69 saves on 72 shots in what was his best weekend of the season. Leclerc was pressed into duty when incumbent Jacob Nehama proved insufficently recovered from offseason surgery and was once again shelved. He's had his moments, including the win and tie in Duluth and a 3-0 shutout of North Dakota Jan. 28 that still stands as CC's only home win this season to date. After a tough start, Leclerc has rebounded a bit to a .901 save percentage on the season, as CC's team save percentage has improved to .894.
Part of that is predicated on third-year coach Mike Haviland getting his team to buy in to his more defensive-minded system. Under Scott Owens, Colorado College was as wide-open a team as any you could find. The older guys -- namely senior forwards Luc Gerdes, Sam Rothstein, and Matt Hansen -- are holdovers from that system. That they're among CC's leading scorers this season, along with being among the top guys in plus-minus, underscores the buy-in Haviland is getting.
What appears to be true, however, is that Haviland's system is tougher to perfect on the Olympic ice sheet CC calls home.
In 12 games at the Broadmoor World Arena, Colorado College is 1-11, outscored by adversaries 53-24, basically 4.5 goals allowed per game to two scored.
In 16 road/neutral site games (all but one played on NHL-size ice), the Tigers are 6-8-2, and that goal differential is only 41-34.
The sample size isn't exactly gargantuan, so this could be a coincidence. But it's worth noting that the Tigers succeeded against UMD, in large part, by forcing the Bulldogs to dump pucks and win races and/or battles to gain offensive zone possession.
On the big sheet, will UMD have to resort to dump-and-chase hockey? I doubt it. The extra width of the rink could very well play to the Bulldogs' advantage this weekend. Now, this is predicated on UMD maintaining an attack mentality, playing with speed, and executing the plan, three things that didn't really happen against CC in Duluth. Combine a better commitment to that style of hockey with the additional room players will have in Colorado Springs, and you could be looking at a better recipe for much-needed NCHC points this weekend.
Sandelin said a couple different times this week that clean plays will be very hard to come by against this team. The Bulldogs have thrived on transition opportunities and odd-man rushes this season. We're hard-pressed to think of any of either happening in the earlier meeting between these teams. A bigger ice sheet isn't going to create them, either. UMD is still going to have to show a willingness to win board battles, win races for loose pucks and to be smart about puck placement when it's time to dump the puck and go after it.
"Hopefully the bigger rink will help," Sandelin said, "but they're a team that doesn't give up very much. Sometimes, you have to be patient and take what the game gives you.
"If we can get cleaner transition out of the (defensive) zone, come through the neutral zone with some speed and get pucks behind their D, and if you're going to do that you have to forecheck."
One thing that works in UMD's favor this weekend is a roster as close to full health as it's been all season.
Sophomore forward Parker Mackay returns after missing six games with an upper-body injury. He was able to skate while he was out, but it's doubtful he'll be in full game shape this fast. That said, no one will complain about his return.
"I'm not expecting him to go in there and be where he'll be a week or two from now," Sandelin said. "I hope he brings that energy and is a good 200-foot player.
"His impact, the type of player he is, we've missed that. He's kind of that gritty power forward type guy who has some skill. Can kill penalties, too. It'll be nice to have him. One of our most competitive guys."
Mackay should slot on the second or third line, which will necessitate some changes to UMD's forwards. Projections below. If everything works out well, UMD will be as heavy a team as it's been all season, and there will be smart 200-foot players on all four lines. The Bulldogs are never going to be a big-hitting type of team, but the third and fourth lines will present good size and intensity and difficult matchups for opposing coaches.
Projected UMD lines
Iafallo - Toninato - Anderson
Osterberg - Johnson - Mackay
Tufte - Peterson - Kuhlman
Young - Thomas - Exell
Soucy - Raskob
Pionk - Kotyk
Wolff - Molenaar
Miska - Deery
Back in Duluth, the UMD women finish the regular season with Friday night and Saturday afternoon games against St. Cloud State. The Bulldogs still have a small chance to finish second in the WCHA standings, as UMD trails Minnesota by four points in the standings heading into the weekend. Minnesota is home to take on Wisconsin, which is unbeaten in 14 games since losing to Minnesota in early December.
No matter what, the Bulldogs know they'll host a first-round WCHA playoff series next weekend (SCSU, Bemidji State, or Ohio State will visit). That will be a Thursday-Friday-Sunday (if necessary) series, so make your plans now.
Wins this weekend will also help UMD keep in position to host an NCAA playoff game, something second-year coach Maura Crowell doesn't want to look at now ("We haven't talked about the home games coming up," she said, "just what's right in front of us"), but certainly a source of pride for everyone involved in the program.
(UMD is No. 2 in the PairWise rankings, but Minnesota is right behind the Bulldogs in third, and there's a chance even a split against Wisconsin is enough to push the Gophers past UMD. The top four host quarterfinal games, but UMD needs wins this weekend to avoid needing another big win to stay in the top four. One thing is certain: The WCHA is getting at least three teams in the NCAA Tournament after years of only getting two despite being the strongest league in the country. And there's a money chance three WCHA teams are hosting quarterfinals. Break out the checkbook, NCAA. You'll be flying teams west this year, whether you want to or not.)
Another source of pride: The five-player senior class (six players when you count junior Maria Lindh, who will also be honored after Saturday's game). Two-year captain Ashleigh Brykaliuk and two-year assistant Sidney Morin will play their final regular-season game in Duluth Saturday, along with forwards Demi Crossman, Lara Stalder, and Katie McGovern.
The impact of the six is not measured in numbers. But if you'd like, they average 126 career games between them, and they're over 400 points with nearly 175 career goals.
"I can't say enough about them," Crowell said. "I love them. They empty the tank every game. They go as we go. The character and personality of the team is based on them. They set the tone every day in practice."