Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Another Top Team, Another Split

Here we are half way through the hockey season. UMD continues its prosperous ways with another split against the top tier teams of the WCHA, this time Denver. After a well played Friday game that saw UMD on the short side of a 3-2 score, they follow it up with an offensive show in a 6-3 win.

Friday’s game saw a furious finish where the Bulldogs had many really good scoring chances with the extra attacker in the last minute. It still didn’t matter. The Marc Cheverie show was phenomenal Friday keeping the Bulldogs out of sync. It was just another example of having the backstop in hockey can make the difference, and it also helps that Denver’s offense can light it up too. And don’t get the idea that UMD’s goalie, Brady Hjelle, played poorly. He played very well keeping DU to 3 that night. Many great shots from DU were coupled with great saves by Hjelle.

Saturday’s game started much differently than Friday’s scoreless first period. In the span of the first 9:00 the score was 3-1 in favor of UMD. It was a scoring output unexpected against Cheverie. It continued from there when UMD piled up a total of 6 against DU in route to a mostly convincing UMD win. What wasn’t convincing about the win is the evolving troubles in the second period. We will talk about that more in the mid-season report card coming soon.

The bottom line is that UMD has had opportunities to play the top teams of the WCHA and nation at home over the last couple weeks. The Bulldogs have not done poorly by any means, but they also did not take the giant step forward that an opportunity like this presents. The McNaughton Cup is getting further and further in the distance, but top three is definitely in the possibilities. And the possibilities for this team are still very numerous.

#1 Guy.  It is good to see that the Bulldogs are moving towards a #1 goalie.  I say good because it was, and still is, becoming very clear that Brady Hjelle is the guy a team wants in net.  Hopefully his play continues at a high rate and his talents continue to develop.  Hats off to Kenny Reiter who will take this as an opportunity to get better and push Hjelle to continue to be that #1 guy UMD needs...or Kenny will take his job!

WCHA Teams-To-Be Update. Bemidji State took a step backwards this past weekend. Playing Mankato in Bemidji should not be a tough task for a top ten team. Either Bemidji has been shown to be a mirage or the WCHA is back to being tops in the nation again because the beavers were handily swept by the Mavericks. That puts BSU at 1-3 against WCHA teams this year. Next on the list for the Mavericks of Mankato are the Mavericks of the University of Nebraska – Omaha, another WCHA team entering next year. Will Mankato’s streak of beating future WCHA teams continue?

Rankings. UMD’s rankings have stayed constant in the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey Polls at #12 and #14 respectively. The INCH Power Ranking for UMD dropped one position to #15.

Next up is the Catamount Cup in Vermont starting January 2 against Mercyhurst.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Main Ingredient

The age old hockey question is finding that one key ingredient to make an OK team a really good one…or at least a contender. As UMD proved last season, the goaltender can be just that kick. Denver University is also going from the same script. The Bulldogs last season appeared destined for sub-expectation finish. The play of Alex Stalock said, “Get on my back.” And that is exactly what propelled UMD into the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.

Denver is not an underachiever this season, but their consensus pick to be WCHA Champion is mainly for the reason of Marc Cheverie. With his 1.77 GAA and 8-1-1 mark, the Pioneers are poised this weekend to take over first in a move that would likely secure it for the remainder of the season. Having swept North Dakota and split with CC the last two weeks makes the case on its own.

What stands in DU’s path is a UMD team that scores and wins, especially at home. A team that can puzzle you as much as they can blow you away with their prowess for the back of the net. Putting together a complete game is still the goal of this year’s Bulldogs, and it is a must if they want to stay in the race for McNaughton Cup.

Game Plan. Scoring is a must. It has been hit and miss as of late and that is because opponents are keying on the main Bulldog scorers. What to do? Get used to it and make adjustments. From here on out it will take a team effort to free the Connollys, Fontaine, and Bordson. Or, while those four get the attention, others have to pick up the slack as in recent weeks with players like Kyle Schmidt.

Give Me a D. The rotation at goalie between Reiter and Hjelle has worked as well as one could want thus far. It has to be close to making one of them #1. Hjelle is not fully where you want a number one goalie to be yet, but Reiter is still letting too many weak goals. I for one want to see more of Brady Hjelle. What is for sure is that both netminders could use a big boost from solid defenseman play, which ahs been coming around as the year has progressed.

End of the Year Exam. The Bulldogs are finishing the 2009 portion of their schedule this weekend. Three points would be a great way to finish it off, but a split is most likely. Hopefully it will not take the last second heroics of last weekend.

Other Series in the WCHA.

Wisconsin at North Dakota: The Sioux are trying to get into their holiday break without dealing with more injuries. On top of the players missing, North Dakota is playing the top teams in the WCHA. Wisconsin has definitely been coming on as of late, but they will only get no more than one point this weekend.

Colorado College at Saint Cloud State: SCSU has also been surging as of late, like the Badgers. For SCSU it has been ever increasingly solid play in the net. Home games for the Huskies will help their cause and will get them a split in this series.

Minnesota at Michigan Technological University: This is being dubbed by the HighHorse as the Cellar-Dweller Showdown. Last season goalie Alex Kangas hit his rock bottom in a split at Houghton being pulled from net in each of the games. He recently talked to the St. Paul Pioneer Press explaining his emotional and physical reality check he had at MTU before the up and down end of the Gopher season. Let’s face it MTU is not what they were last season, and that is saying that they are bad. But they do get pumped up to play the Gophers just as they do against UMD. It will not be a sweep by the Huskies, but Minnesota will not leave the UP with more than two points.

MSU at Bemidji: Beaver sweep.
Enjoy the last full weekend of 2009 play!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Restart That Heart

The Bulldogs of UMD are still looking for that 60 minute complete performance. It was certainly not to be found Saturday night against North Dakota. After slogging through 2 plus periods of sloppy, uninspired play, UMD turned it on and scored the game tying goal with 0:33 left in the third and the game winner 0:12 into overtime. Look out Randy Moss, this team also plays when it wants to play. OK, maybe that is likely not the case, but sure could seem that way.

Two nights in a row this past weekend, the Bulldogs played very well in parts and quite poorly in other parts. Now that the penalty problem seems to be solved, there is a new issue to tackle, urgency that all games count. Whether we are talking about WCHA points or posturing for NCAA consideration, they all count no matter the month on the calendar.

Coming off of the “Miracle at Mariucci” last March against Princeton, the Bulldogs have started a trend of “cardiac kids” syndrome. Take the two games against the Gophers last month in which both UMD wins, the Bulldogs trailed 2-0. Exciting, but not a habit that should be continued.

Rankings. With the split the University of Minnesota – Duluth Bulldogs are in a three-way tie for third place in the WCHA. UMD is unchanged at #12 in the USCHO poll and moved up one spot to #12 in the USA Today/USA Hockey poll. Inside College Hockey Power Ranking moved the Bulldogs down one spot to #14.

Next weekend's opponent and WCHA leader Denver is #1 in the INCH Power Rankings and #2 in USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

"I" for Incomplete

As Meatloaf once said, “Two out of three aint bad.” That is unless you are playing hockey where that one period where your team doesn’t play well sinks the entire effort. That is exactly the case at the DECC last night as UMD played arguably the best two periods of hockey this season in the first and third, but gave up the three killer goals in the second to the Sioux of UND. Throw in great scoring opportunities not converted down the stretch for UMD and a Sioux open netter to get the 4-2 final.

Talk at the end of the game was that the scene is set for tonight’s rematch by UMD playing it close and tough right to the end. The reality that can’t be denied is that two of the three UND goals were unassisted. Why? Because they both came off of bad UMD turnovers in their defensive end.

After a well played first period that saw UMD jump to a 1-0 lead on Drew Akin’s third goal of the season, Kenny Reiter attempted a clearing play early in the second that lead directly to Darcy Zajac’s open net goal. First unassisted UND goal. Later in a defensive breakdown in the UMD end, another giveaway and another unassisted goal, this time by Ben Blood. Later in the second, a long range shot by Jason Gregoire found the net though Reiter.

Although it seems that Reiter let himself down with two of the goals, it was the Bulldog netminder that really kept them in the game stopping 13 of 16 UND shots, many of which were decent scoring chances.

In the third, the Bulldogs came out firing and kept it going. The effort was great, but it only resulted in a goal by Kyle Schmidt. UMD did log 16 shots in the third, but Eidsness was up tot the task stopping 15.

Looking over the scoring sheet it becomes apparent quickly that both goals by UMD came from the third line. Names missing from the scoring log were Connolly, Fontaine, and Bordson. The question all along has been how the Bulldogs will respond when a team makes an effort to shit down the big scores of UMD? The answer, as of right now, is that the Bulldogs will be fine, if they play a solid defensive game. More to come tonight.

The Blues in Minneapolis. The Gophers lose another one Friday night, this time to the MSU Mavericks, 3-1. The interesting outcome of that game was the captain, Tony Lucia’s, comments. “We just need to make sure that our morals are where they need to be and make sure we’re playing for all the right reasons, and that’s for the ‘M’ on the front of our sweater.” Decoded, it sounds like discord in the M locker room. I will say now that Jordan Schroeder will have a great World Junior tournament and that he will leave. The smoke and mirrors from the rumored earlier departure are not all wrong, it will just take the right time to have the NHL sniffing around and that will the Juniors.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The First Big Weekend

Here we go! Staying away from the clichés, it can be simply put that if UMD is to be in the upper half of the WCHA, or in the race for the championship, these next 6 WCHA games are important. They are importance is evident when you look at the opponents and the game locations.

The teams on the schedule in order are North Dakota, Denver, and Colorado College, the other teams in the top four of the WCHA with the Bulldogs. The location of all six games is the usually friendly confines of the DECC.

UMD has been a team nationally recognized for their work and wins this year by consistently being ranked in national polls. This next stretch will determine if the Bulldogs are where they should be, or maybe they could make strides towards the upper echelon of the WCHA and the nation.

North Dakota comes to town. It was a memorable game last time UMD and UND played. It was the 3-0 UMD win in Saint Paul during the Final Five last year. Those memories should be put aside when the skates are laced up Friday because Und will be bringing a good offense and a very good goaltender to Duluth. The Sioux have five players with 10 or more points in a fairly even distribution. No big stars here, but many well-known key players who can get the goals. Goalie Brad Eidsness is currently posting a 1.89 GAA and is solid in net.

Trend or Mirage? The Bulldogs are off to their best start in 14 years and are currently third in the WCHA. Coming off of 3 straight wins, the Dogs will have to work hard to make it four. The solid start and rising stock in the national spotlight will be put to the test in the games against the Sioux, Pioneers, and Tigers.  UMD will have to put up or fade into the pack in the WCHA.  The good news is that they have the offensive arsenal to put up the big numbers and that will help the young netminders get the valuable game time against the really good teams. 

What are those Numbers?  UMD is 5-1-1 on Fridays and 4-3-0 on Saturdays. Maybe more importantly the Dogs have lost only twice at the DECC, and as said, the next six are at home. Additionally, 16 of Justin Fontaine’s 20 points, 16 of Jack Connolly’s 21 points and 12 of Mike Connolly’s 14 points have come at home.

On the flip side, UND is 6-1-0 of Fridays and 2-3-2 on Saturdays. The Sioux are riding a two game unbeaten streak that they definitely want to extend after the being swept in their last WCHA series at Denver two weeks ago.

We will see which are trends and which are mirages. We at the HighHorse see a split this weekend. We are split ourselves about which one the Dogs will win, though. What we do agree on is this will be a very important stretch of games for this year’s Bulldogs!

Other WCHA Action this Weekend:

Saint Cloud State at Alaska – Anchorage: The streaky (and split-a –plenty) Huskies make the long trip to Alaska this weekend. In the end each team will win one because neither are good enough to sweep.

Michigan Tech at Wisconsin: As much as it hurts, both because I am a MTU fan and that they beat UMD this year already, Tech is a doormat in this league. Badgers are getting better and they will sweep.

Minnesota State – Mankato and Minnesota: First of two home and home WCHA series this weekend. Minnesota should be feeling the urgency to right the ship and that urgency will make the grip on their sticks tighter. The Gophers will not sweep this one, but MSU will not take more than two points.

Denver and Colorado College: A big rivalry home and home series that pit the two teams tied for first in the WCHA. It would be easy to say split for so many reasons, but this will be a Denver sweep turning the tide on CC and starting to make it clear that they have been a mirage for the first part of this season.
Stay tuned this wintery weekend, recent results have been surprising in the WCHA, so all predictions may not be worth their weight in snow.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Surprising Results; Hard Work Ahead

Just when you think that you have everything figured out, Saturday rolls along in the WCHA. It goes to the old cliché why the games are played on the ice, not on paper.

Friday’s WCHA tilts went down as expected. Then Saint Cloud and Alaska – Anchorage made the choice to not read the rankings and play the games and win their games completing the Saturday night sweep in the Centennial State, Colorado. Both results kept UMD in second only losing two points in the race for first in the conference during an idle weekend.

Meanwhile, in the prairies of North Dakota, Bemidji State and UND were having their way with #1 Miami. BSU beating them Friday and NoDak tying the Redhawks on Saturday.

So what is the news here? The race for the McNaughton Cup is going to be tight if the first part of the season hold to form. The second is that UMD ahs their work cut out for them the next three WCHA series. The Bulldogs straddle the holiday break with home matches against North Dakota, Denver, and Colorado College. If UMD plans to make a run to the top, these games will be the pathway, the key, the “take us seriously” games. Even though UMD is at #12 in the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey polls, the upcoming opponents are currently at #3, #2, and #6 respectively in the USCHO poll (the positions are the same in the USA Today poll except CC is #6), they have yet to play the top teams and prove that they deserve the accolades bestowed upon the WCHA elite.

A night of upsets Saturday sets the stage for the showdown games against the others striving for McNaughton.