Monday, November 28, 2011

WCHA: Who's on First?

Mixed Results Keeps Us Wondering Who Is Tops?

Does anyone want the MacNaughton Cup? Parody might be the word of the season for the WCHA.

After a weekend of the haves getting beat and the have-nots winning, the middle and lower end of the conference keeps moving up creating more of a log jam at the top of the WCHA.

The facts are that it is early in the year and not all of the teams have played equal games, but we are at the end of November and the next games will start the December part of the schedule, real hockey time. There is no more saying, “Yeah, but it is still early…”

Right now in the conference standings the difference between first and seventh is six points. The biggest jam-up is in the middle where 4th through 10th is separated by four points.

And it’s not just conference games that are perplexing. The perennially non-conference dominant WCHA is showing weakness in games around the country.

This past weekend:

  • Minnesota – Twin Cities, once thought to be unbeatable with their goalie alone, surrendered 8 goals in a loss and tie at Michigan State (4-3 and 4-4),
  • Denver “split,” beating Princeton 3-0 then losing to Miami 4-2 both at home,
  • Michigan Tech continues their up and down road season by losing to St. Lawrence 3-2 before beating them 3-1,
  • North Dakota may have turned their season on high by sweeping our pre-season league favorite Colorado College (PS, who is going to be the Tiger’s goalie?) and
  • Saint Cloud State keeps plugging away and not going away by getting points here and there. This past weekend they stuck with Nebraska – Omaha to take a point with a Sunday tie on the road.
The early season is over as we look towards December, and right now, it looks like no team is going to run away with the thing. We will just have to keep on watching to see how the parody of the WCHA will play out.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

UMD: Taking Care of Business

UMD Uses Favorable Schedule to Get Rolling

UMD has done what they needed to do. A team that has aspirations of being tops in the nation has to beat lesser opponents, especially at home. And beating them soundly is always a positive.

In the first 14 games, UMD has played top teams in their conferences like Notre Dame, Minnesota – Twin Cities, Denver and Providence (debatable whether Providence should be included here). In those games the Bulldogs have compiled a 3-3-2 record. In the other games, really against the bottom half teams of the WCHA, UMD has a 6-0-0 record. In total, UMD has outscored opponents 56-33.

There are so many things that UMD is doing right. Arguably, the rebound the team made from the less than stellar (1-3-0) start. This team is good and it has been noted by players that they believe the best is yet to come.

Enjoy the Thanksgiving break Bulldogs team and fans. There are many UMD Hockey accomplishments to be thankful for.

Around the WCHA. With the holiday weekend, we have many non-conference games that will play an important role in WCHA SOS and PWR when the end of the season rolls around.

Alaska – Anchorage at Minnesota State Mankato: This maybe the weekend to decide who will be last in the WCHA. The Mavericks did show signs of hope from returning players from injury in the games against UMD the previous weekend even though they were swept. This weekend the Seawolves who have played poor on the road come into Mankato after winning their first conference game at home. We don't think UAA has the mustard to find a win on the road, but maybe enough to sqeek out a tie. Mavericks take 3 points.

Colorado College at North Dakota: UND hockey fans might still be in denial, but CC is the better team. However, with the ups and downs in the net for CC right now, UND finds a way to get a split.

Saint Cloud State at Nebraska – Omaha: This might be the most even match up of the weekend. Other than a sweep in Marquette, Michigan, SCSU has be able to at least a split in every weekend series this season. This should continue in Omaha as the teams split.

Mercyhurst at Wisconsin: Mercyhurst is currently at the top of Atlantic Hockey and did beat a pretty good Cornell team on the road earlier in the season. And they may be going to Madison at a good time as the Badger's are 1-4-1 in their last 6 games. But this Badgers team has played decent at home. This will be a good test for both teams and end in a split.

Minnesota – Twin Cities at Michigan State: A future Bi6 Ten matchup in East Lansing should be a good series and a big test for the Gophers. After a slow start the Spartans have been playing pretty good hockey as of late and have played good defense. The Gophers will have to work to get some goals and playing better on the road. Gophers are 1-2-0 in their last three away from Mariucci and thus it will be a split

Princeton at Denver and Miami at Denver (Denver Cup): Denver may be righting the ship after a tough spot in the schedule. The Tigers of Princeton are not the team they were a few years ago when they beat Denver in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Pioneers beat the Tigers. Miami (Future NCHC matchup) is finding their legs at the same time as Denver which really makes this the better of the two games. Miami will win giving Denver a split.

Michigan Tech at St. Lawrence: The Saint's are looking to get some wins at home. They have been somewhat inconsistent this season, which is a similar story for MTU on the road. So something has got to give. Tech will look to continue the positive momentum from the road win in Anchorage by leaving Canton, NY with 3 points.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Up, Up, and Away!

UMD Hosts Minnesota State - Mankato to End Home 2011 Season

The Superman reference fits the Bulldogs well.

Since the 1-3-0 start to the year, the Bulldogs have not lost, upping their standing in college hockey. And the teams that they have beaten have been decent teams. Maybe not Alaska – Anchorage last weekend and maybe the same could be said for this MSUM team coming to Duluth. And that is what makes this series dangerous, the Mavericks have struggled and UMD cannot look past them.

The “away” part of the column title is also fitting. After this weekend, the Bulldogs do not play in Duluth until January 20, 2012. That will be eight games away from Duluth. It really does make sense, though. The Bulldogs played 8 of their first 12 at home and now will play 8 of their next 12 on the road.

All that said, this weekend is a launching pad for the surely difficult road stretch in the UMD schedule. Can’t you see Superman in a UMD uniform getting ready to take flight?

StatPack. Sporting the second longest unbeaten streak in the country at 6-0-2, the Bulldogs host Minnesota State – Mankato this weekend. MSUM is currently 10th in the WCHA sporting a 3-7-0 overall record. Here is how the two teams’ stats compare:

Compiled by College Hcokey HighHorse

Prediction. UMD has an 8 game unbeaten streak on the season going into this weekend’s series at AMSOIL with the Mavericks. UMD is clicking on all cylinders right now and there is no reason to think that this trend will change. UMD sweeps.

Around the WCHA. It will be refreshing to have all 12 teams playing in league games. This is one of only four weekends this season where all will be in league action.

Wisconsin at Colorado College: UW might be going to CC at the perfect time as Joe Howe has struggled in net as of recent. CC has a high power offense and should be able to get 2 points on the weekend. Split.

Nebraska – Omaha at Denver: Great match up at this time of the year. Both teams have good scorers and have be up and down in the net. UNO is currently playing better between the two teams, but perhaps the win against in state rival last weekend will inspire the Pioneers play. Split

Minnesota – Twin Cities and Saint Cloud State (home and home): The number one team in the country will be playing an injured Huskies squad. This is a big rivalry series for SCSU and should be able to play well enough to get 2 points on their home ice. Split

Michigan Tech at Alaska – Anchorage: Is Tech for real? This weekend will let everyone know. Tech was not good in their only road series this season getting swept by the Beavers in Bemidji. UAA cannot find the opposing team's goal as of late. MTU is the better team and will get 3 points on the road.

North Dakota at Bemidji State: The US 2 battle by Lake Bemidji should be a good one. Looking at the names alone this would appear to be a lopsided one in favor of the UND Men's Hockey Team (we are phasing out the nickname here at the HighHorse), but in reality it is nearly a pick’em. UND has not played well on the road this season and the Beavers have been up and down at home. The easiest pick is a split, which we go with. However, if BSU slows the games down and keeps UND shots in check they will get 3 or 4 points.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

First Intermission: Bulldogs One Third Through Season

A Report Card on UMD's First Trimester of the 2011-12 Season

The first third of the 2011-2012 UMD Bulldog’s season is in the books. In following with our past precedent, we are issuing our first trimester report card.

First, a disclaimer...overall the team would be receiving all A’s except for the really rough streak to start the season. The first four games, two against Notre Dame and two against Minnesota – Twin Cities, really put a damper on the season and made many fans wonder how big the drop off from National Champions this season would be. As we have seen in the last eight games, the kinks were worked out and the Bulldogs are now nicely on track.

Offense: A-. There was little concern over the offense entering this season. The players have lived up to, and in many cases, exceeded early expectations. One of the most positive stats is the number of players on the scoring sheet. Of the 44 goals for the Bulldogs, 15 different players have tallied at least one.

Of note:
  • Jack Connolly (6-11-17) and JT Brown (3-11-14) have been the strong points of the offense, as expected. Each are #4 in the nation for assists.
  • Pleasant surprises include Travis Oleksuk (11-3-14, #2 in the nation for goals) and Mike Seidel (5-2-7) who is chipping in the third most goals for the Bulldogs.
  • Strong freshman presence is noted from Caleb Herbert (3-7-10).
  • We want to see more from one of the heroes of the national championship, Max Tardy. With only two assists to show for this year, we were definitely expecting more.
Stick salute:
  • We would have really liked to see Cody Danberg finish off his career at UMD in the playoffs, but the injury bug struck him again ending his season after the first game this season. He was coming off a medical redshirt from last season and now can just watch his team play. Little consolation, but Danberg did tally an assist in his only game this season, his 100th as a Bulldog.
Team Defense: B+. Maybe it isn’t fair, but the three game losing streak and the soft goals against Minnesota – Twin Cities is stuck in our craw. The team has bounced back nicely, but there were some scary moments in the first four games that include two losses from ahead and the Friday Gopher game where the game tying goal was scored with an extra Gopher attacker and the loss in OT. Since that low point, the defenders have come together including goalie Kenny Reiter (see goaltending below). The defense corps and Reiter bettering their play begs the question of who sparked, or even carried, who? The defense is better, but we believe it is ultimately Reiter who is playing the best defense.

Of note:
  • Wade Bergman has really stepped up to the leadership role on the blueline as a junior. His one goal and six assists doesn’t put him the lead for defenseman scoring on the team, but his solid play makes him top notch.
  • The strong freshman presence from Chris Casto (2-3-5) after a couple of tough games to start the season is very encouraging.
Special Teams: B-. What can you really fault as of late? It again was the beginning of the year that put this facet of the Bulldog’s game in question. Look at the facts: UMD penalty kill is tied for 31 in the nation at 81.2%, but they have not given up a power play goal in six games and only one in the last eight. Those are great stats, but when you add in the 33% penalty kill rate against the Gophers (3 for 9 killed) it is your stats that get killed. On the power play, the national rankings don’t look great (#17), but the power play rate is really good (22.2%). It is difficult to give a lower grade to a team that is really clicking right now, but we feel the whole body of work needs to be taken into account. If things stay on track, this category will have the biggest grade jump at the next grading period.

Of note:
  • Oleksuk (4 PP goals) and Connolly (3) leading the way on the PP.
  • Mike Seidel is making hay on the PP too, scoring three of his five total goals with the man advantage.
  • We like the way that Brady Lamb is chipping in on PP (2 goals), but we are concerned about the seemingly large number of shots coming from the blueline on the PP.
Goaltending: B+. This is maybe the biggest travesty in our grading. Reiter should really have an A all by himself, but he did have his own rough start (1-2-0). Additionally, this category is for all the UMD goalies and Aaron Crandall has been disappointing in his only game this season. His 0.783 saves percentage and 5.05 GAA is alarming even though it was only one game. Reiter is playing lights out (0.923 and 2.05), but the Bulldogs need a capable backup and so far Crandall has not given the coaches a real reason to try him again. If he is needed, hopefully practice has been getting him more ready.

Of note:
  • Reiter now has 3 shutouts, good for #2 in the nation.
  • Reiter’s 2.05 GAA is 12th in the nation.
Coaching: A. For all the strife in the start of the season, the coaching staff has kept with this team and got them to perform to high standards. Additionally, the recent changes in forward lines has sparked more offense. By not staying with a safe status quo, the coaches have made the team more potent at scoring.

Overall Team: B+. Again, we can’t overlook the slow start, but we are loving the current team’s level of play. A long season may be on the menu again this year.

Looking Ahead. The schedule so far has been quite favorable for UMD. Of the 12 games, four have been away from Duluth. That will change with a vengeance as the opposite will occur for the next 12 games when UMD plays at home for only four games. It will be a challenging test for this team to see if they have the mettle to be a top tier team in the WCHA.

Of note:
  • Two of the next six series will be against future NCHC teams, Nebraska – Omaha and Western Michigan.
  • During this last grading period UMD was 1-0-1 against future NCHC teams (Denver).
The next grading period will end after playing Alabama – Huntsville on January 21, 2012.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Goaltending Hit and Miss in WCHA

Goaltending is Boon for Some, Bust for More

It really is no secret if you read our columns, we put emphasis on the goaltender position. It is the great equalizer, or downfall, in college hockey. An otherwise really good team can look terrible in the standings and an average team can go far in the postseason all depending on their goaltending.

To cut the chase, so far we have really blown our pre-season prediction. Our #1, Colorado College, goaltender Joe Howe has not looked like two-thirds the goalie has was last season. He has struggled mightily at times leading now to talk of a goalie controversy in Colorado Springs. But the season is still young, just ask Minnesota – Duluth.

The Bulldogs, who looked like a rudderless ship until Kenny Reiter took control of the wheel, have surged after a slow start. The team has an eight game unbeaten streak (6-0-2) including shutouts in three of the last five games. The only goaltender in those games, Reiter, the same guy who had to battle to get his saves percentage above 0.900 after the team’s 1-3-0 start.

The Gophers really can’t complain, or seriously say that they expected, what Kent Patterson has done in the nets. Patterson has five shutouts while going 10-2-0 for UMTC. The Gopher’s scoring has been great and abundant, buoyed by 15 goals in two games against Sacred Heart, but the real story of success lies between the pipes at UMTC.

CC isn’t the only team not getting what they expected from their goalie play. Coming into the season, one thing that Saint Cloud knew that they could not lose is Mike Lee, their only goalie with experience behind now graduated Dan Dunn. And here it is, SCSU now has to rely on a senior who has never played a minute in a college game that counts and two freshmen as Lee is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery. A Huskies season with some, albeit limited, promise of competing has turned into an all out fight for home ice for the first round playoffs.

Yet another story of goalie trial by fire is taking place in Denver. Sam Brittain last year made Denver into a real force backing up all the Pioneers scoring with good goaltending. A knee in Denver’s last game in the 2010-11 season forced Brittain to have surgery and will keep him out until at least mid-January. All coach George Gwozdecky asked is that backup Adam Murray keep the Pioneers in the hunt while Brittain heals. Not going as planned as Denver has used freshman Juho Olkinuora in relief of Murray on multiple occasions, because really, he couldn’t have been any worse than the starter…but he was. It got so bad at Michigan Tech that Gwozdecky was compelled to try no goalie.

In the meantime, while Denver waits for their goalie to come back from injury while showing up rival CC’s Howe in a game last Saturday, 5-4. The place holder beat the expected league #1...go figure.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Minnesota - Duluth Hosts Alaska - Anchorage for Two Game Series

UMD Meets UAA in First of Two Home Series for Bulldogs

Make hay when the sun shines. It is an old adage that is still used extensively be people in sales. In this case, it is the perfect outlook and mind set for UMD. The Bulldogs host Alaska – Anchorage this weekend in Duluth and then UMD will close out their 2011 home games hosting Minnesota State – Mankato the following weekend. The next home game for UMD after November 19 is January 20, 2012.

The Seawolves started the season on a tear going 3-0-1, but have since gone 0-4-0. The difference is clear, the first four were non-conference and the last four were WCHA conference games. Dig deeper in Anchorage’s record and their story becomes murkier.

UAA played some decent non-conference teams, most notably two WCHA teams. The Seawolves went 2-0-0 against Saint Cloud State and Nebraska – Omaha in their non-conference portion of the early season. Even more intriguing is UAA traveled to UNO for their first WCHA games and were swept in Omaha 4-1 and 3-1.

The first meeting between UAA and UNO was in Alaska so maybe it is a home state thing for Anchorage. But Anchorage hosted Minnesota – Twin Cities in their most recent WCHA action and were decidedly swept 5-0 and 3-1.

The Seawolves’ struggles should give UMD confidence on the weekend, but measured confidence. UMD has seen the lows this season and have fought their way back to being very competitive. It is no time to sit back on recent laurels.

UMD’s Turnaround. UMD has the third longest national unbeaten streak in the nation at six games. It is the longest currently in the WCHA. There is no secret about the improvements. It comes from goaltender play of Kenny Reiter.

Reiter’s impressive weekend at Denver earned him the WCHA Defensive Player of the Week honor beating out the likes of UMTC’s Patterson.

To us at the HighHorse, we saw the vote going to either University of Minnesota net minder, but then you see the stats of Reiter at Denver where he put up five shutout periods after giving up 3 goals in the first period Friday. So that first period wasn’t good, but how he responded on the road for the next five definitely makes him deserving of the honor.

Sleeping Around. As stated prior, UMD has two weekends of home games left before mid January of 2012. In between the Bulldogs will play four series, eight games, away from home. Those opponents are Michigan Tech, Wisconsin, Western Michigan, and Nebraska – Omaha.

These next two weekends are important games for UMD to keep the momentum going before the extended road trips.

By the Stats. This week we are trying a new format and have embedded the StatPack for UAA and UMD here in the preview.

It is refreshing to see UMD finally come around on their stat categories and have the edge against an opponent. UMD has to remember that stats don’t win the games, but they should be well aware as they have been battling back from a subpar start to the season.

Weathering the Storm, SOS? It is embarrassing to be talking PairWise (PWR) this early in the season, but here it goes. The advantage of looking at the ratings this early is to judge the strength of schedule (SOS) of games played so far.

In the PWR, the Bulldogs have played eight games against the top 25 in the PWR going 4-3-1. The only team with more games against the top 25 (known as the TUC or teams under consideration) is Northern Michigan who have played 10 games against TUC.

Prediction. The UMD defense has come together and Kenny Reiter is playing at the top of his game. UAA has not showed much after a hot non-conference start. Finding the goal has been difficult and will likely continue to be difficult this weekend at AMSOIL Arena for the Seawolves. This will be a UMD sweep.

Around the WCHA.

Nebraska – Omaha at Bemidji State: After a tough start, the Mavericks have been playing better and finding some scoring. The Beavers have played well at home and should be able to hold off the Mavs enough to earn a split.

Saint Cloud State at Minnesota State – Mankato: SCSU has been playing very good hockey recently, but have struggled early in the season on the road. The Mavericks have had a tough season so far at home and on the road mainly due to injuries. If Austin Lee can play well enough MSUM can get 2 points, but we think SCSU is the better team and will leave Mankato with 3 points.

Minnesota – Twin Cities at Wisconsin: UW is back at home after a tough trip to St. Cloud. The Badgers have played well at home and should be able to continue even against a Gopher team that is really clicking right now. This is the second rivalry series for the Gophers in two weeks and will again bring the fireworks. Bottom line, you should expect to see top efforts from both teams and thus a split.

Colorado College at Denver (Saturday only): In a strange scheduling move, these teams play one game this weekend and play the second of this “series” on December 2. Denver's struggles in net will continue and CC will come home with the win.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Still Trying to Make Statements

UMD Makes First Trip to Denver in Two Years

In a season of tests, UMD is embarking on their most difficult in the young season. Denver is a very inhospitable place for the Bulldogs in recent years. Granted they did not play at DU last season, but the seniors on this UMD squad are 1-5-0 at Denver including playoff games.

This is a new year and UMD is 1-0-1 on the road…not much of a road record to go off of and it is against a (arguably) weaker non-conference opponent. The challenge is definitely present and waiting for UMD in Denver.

Conversely, the Pioneers have only played two games that count at their home building. They are a perfect 2-0-0. And the Pioneers are not to a great start in the record book just like the Bulldogs, but they are playing at home and that means something especially this year in the WCHA.

Shoot Away! UMD has outshot their opponents in every game this season and their record is what it is. Denver has outshot their opponents in all but one of their games. The Pioneers are 2-2-1 when outshooting their opponent and 1-0-0 when being outshot.

See the College Hockey HighHorse UMD/DU StatPack for a breakdown.

Prediction. It is too tall of an order to think that UMD can go into Denver and sweep the series. Reiter has been getting stronger in the net, which had to happen. He will really be tested this weekend by some really good players for the Pioneers. UMD will be able to score, but score enough is the question. The last time Denver was swept in a WCHA series was November of 2008, almost three years ago. Maybe they’re due? Nah, but this won’t be a wasted weekend for the Bulldogs as they salvage a split at Denver.

Around the WCHA. There are some really hot teams in the league and we see them staying hot this weekend.

Minnesota State – Mankato at Michigan Tech: Tech seems to be a good team at home and will continue to be against a bad MSUM. Huskies sweep in Houghton.

Wisconsin at Saint Cloud State: Both teams are playing inconsistently…meaning: a split.

North Dakota at Minnesota – Twin Cities: UMTC is playing teams at the right time and are definitely one of the best teams (quite possibly the best) in all of NCAAs right now. Currently the goal tending is top notch and the defense is good because the offense has been so good. We see a couple very high scoring very close games similar to the series against UMD and UMTC come out with a sweep of the down spiraling UND. This series will likely be another 90 shots per game weekend for both teams.

Colorado College at Nebraska - Omaha: Finally, a good test for CC. It looks like a sweep for the Tigers of CC, but in the end we see this being a 3-pointer for Colorado College playing at Omaha.

Bemidji State at Lake Superior State: LSSU will continue their winning ways and take 4 points in a home sweep of the coming-back-to-earth Beavers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

UMD at Denver: The StatPack

UMD is still diffing out of their statistics hole and things are getting better.  In comparison to opponents, it still isn't up to par for an upper half WCHA team.  This weekend against the Pioneers will be a challenge and the stats will not get padded when playing a strong team like the Pioneers.

This weeks StatPack:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

WCHA: Gwozdecky the Mad Hatter; Power Outage in Grand Forks

Goalie Injury Brings out Mad Hatter in Gwozdecky

The injury bugs seems to be catchy.

After taking advantage of an injury riddled Minnesota State – Mankato team in a home sweep, the Pioneers of Denver found themselves using their back-up goalie due to an injury to starter Adam Murray. Freshman Juho Olkinuora was pressed into duty in the Friday night game at Michigan Tech. The Huskies won the game 7-2, but that isn’t the real story here. The real story in the game is that the Mad Hatter of the WCHA, George Gwozdecky, struck again.

Olkinuora’s performance must have been sub-par, or maybe it was the whole Pioneer team that disappointed their coach. Gwozdecky, known for regularly practicing without a goalie, pulled Olkinuora for 1:26 in the 3rd period. And it wasn’t the end of the third, it began at the 13:04 mark of the period. He must have seen enough and wanted to send a message by pulling Olkinuora. Message that night wasn’t received because the Pioneers gave up three empty net goals in that 1:26 stretch in the third to fall behind 7-1.

Gwozdecky is a great coach and his views on playing without a goalie is always interesting. It stretches back in my experience to a Saturday night game in Duluth during January of 1995. Down by 2 with about minutes to go, Gwozdecky pulled his goalie and Denver did tie the game after multiple minutes of extra attacker play. The game ended in a tie and went to overtime where it stayed a tie. In the post game comments, Gwozdecky remarked that his team’s empty net play was so good that night he thought about pulling the goalie in OT. Truth? Maybe not, but it very well may have crossed his mind.

In another game featuring a freshman goalie, Saint Cloud’s Ryan Faragher made quite the entrance into WCHA play with a shutout of the Sioux at North Dakota.

The 4-0 loss by North Dakota either showed the brilliance of Faragher or the hot/cold nature of the traditionally great Sioux scoring machine.

In the game SCSU took two 5-minute major penalties, one at 7:35 of the first and the second at 1:44 of the second. So the Huskies played almost two thirds of the game two skaters disqualified, not to mention the ten minutes of shorthanded play. Additionally, during the second major, SCSU took a minor penalty to go down to three skaters to UND’s five for a full two minutes of the major penalty.

In all UND 0 for 7 on the power play to start the season 0-3-0 in the WCHA before their first league win the next night, 3-1, against the Huskies. Can this be the slow Sioux start we got so accustomed to in recent years?