Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Dawn

A bad weekend doesn’t slow down the onslaught of games. It doesn’t speed them up, either. This is evident in listening to what the players are saying. To sum it up, they want to get back on the ice and get back on the right track. And that is good because some teams have the tendency to pack it in and ride the spiral down.

Talk is good and team meetings are good, but now the time is up and it must be put together on the ice. The trouble is that it is a very good team coming to Duluth, the Wisconsin Badgers, to play the next two games with UMD. It will be a real test of the physical and really the mental side of this Bulldog team. The weekend games will be very telling of the place UMD belongs in the WCHA.

Holding On. The Bulldogs held onto sole possession of first place in the WCHA in thanks to other teams that could have taken first place splitting their games. Nonetheless, it is now in the hands of UMD to keep first place by completing a good weekend series against Wisconsin who is two points behind and tied for fourth place in a jammed up WCHA.

Streaks That Crumble, Continued. I wrote about the UMD streak of scoring three and not losing falling last Saturday night against BSU. What may be more alarming is that the UMD streak of holding, or al least not relinquishing, a lead going into the third period. It was a good run going 36-0-3 when the Bulldogs had the lead going into the third period. It is may be one of those things that just ends or is it another red flag to the down side of last weekends lack-luster performance against the Beavers.

Who’s On First? Who’s In Net? UMD goaltending was called out by Coach Sandelin after last Saturday’s game. He stated that both in games goalie play was not good. Reiter was pulled from Friday’s game and Hjelle was just off all Saturday night. It will be interesting to see if UMD goes back to a rotation after riding a Reiter hot streak out of Holiday Break or if something happened in practice this week to warrant going with one over the other for the series. Which ever way it goes, much of UMD’s successes, or failures, will be pinned to keeping the puck out of the net.

Power Disruption? We look forward to seeing how the leading scorers of the Bulldogs rebound after a neutered weekend. Maybe that is a misuse of the word neutered, but scoring is the hallmark of this year’s team. If scoring is going to be troublesome, the wins are going to dry up.

The people I talk to always ask how I think the Bulldogs will do on a given weekend. I always have trouble in that department as evidenced by last weekend’s predicted split. I don’t really have an inkling of how they will do this weekend. What I do know is that the Badgers come in with a great offense and a great defense. Also, the Bulldogs are coming off of their first time being swept this season. I will decide to sit back and follow the games and see where they lead.

Around the WCHA this Weekend:

It is a full weekend of conference play. First through fifth place, the top half, is separated by two points. The bottom half is separated from the top half by four points. With the matchups this weekend, we should see more clarity of where teams will place out.

Saint Cloud State at Colorado College: The Huskies are garnering lots of national attention for their nation high 8 game winning streak. During that time they have jumped up to second place, one point behind UMD. CC is a team that coaches and the media did not expect much out of this year, but they have shown flashes of greatness in consistently staying in the top half of the WCHA. I have liked what I see from CC and have not been impressed with SCSU. But I do believe the Huskies are putting something together and CC has not been the same since being swept by UMD. In Colorado Springs so I see a split.

Denver at North Dakota: North Dakota is currently in sixth place. Not a familiar place for them in the WCHA, especially after the calendar switches. The Sioux are a team that rolled into Minneapolis and laid an egg against the Gophers, so I have no idea what is up with them. Maybe the win at Cornel is the turning point, maybe not. They are playing a top tier team and it is in Grand Forks. Denver has been wavering of late, but these two teams always have great games when they meet. It will be a three point weekend. For whom, I do not know, but probably the Sioux.

Minnesota at Alaska – Anchorage: Minnesota was on a nice little streak until they met SCSU last weekend. They are taking the long trip to Alaska and that leads me to call a split here. That and the Gophers haven’t brought it all together yet.

Mankato at Michigan Tech: The Huskies have only two wins in the conference, one against UMD and the other against SCSU, teams in first and second place. That being said, they were swept by Alaska most recently. It pains me to say it, but MSU will sweep at snowy Houghton.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tables Turned

In an absolute gut punch of a weekend, the Bulldogs took what was a promising streak to the top of the WCHA and #3 in the PairWise (PWR) to still top in the WCHA, but losing big points in the PWR to #8. All of this was because of a sweep at the hands of the WCHA members to be Bemidji State Beavers. That punch was delivered when BSU used a UMD drama script in scoring a tying goal in the last two seconds of regulation and then scoring on the first shift of overtime. I think the Bulldogs faced the stark reality that it can happen to anyone, including them. Lost in all the dramatics is that MD lost their first game of the season when scoring 3 or more goals.

It can be summed up by the aforementioned gut punch, but Coach Sandelin said it best, “We didn’t do a lot of smart things with the puck; we played way too loose. We gave the puck away, and they played hard for 60 minutes, and we didn’t get the goaltending we needed in either game. It seemed as though the games meant more to Bemidji’s players than ours. They played well.” And that is the facts.

After seemingly finding the #1 goalie of this team, it is again up in the air. Reiter played decent, but the goals poured in Friday night bringing Hjelle off the bench. Then Saturday night, Hjelle turned in a lack luster effort where he looked out of position and a step behind the whole game.

How important is the goalie when you can score like UMD can? Well, UMD didn’t score this weekend like they have been. Yes, four UMD goals came on Saturday, but for the weekend, Fontaine was absent from the score sheet and each Connolly only picked up a point each from assists. In the end, it is a goalie that can lift a team and propel them to beat highly ranked opponents like Bemidji. “This was unbelievable and I can’t say enough about the character of this team,” said Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore. “They just willed themselves to win and our goaltender was our best player.” Again, the facts.

In a Minneapolis Star Tribune article a couple weeks old, it was written that UMD has the easiest WCHA schedule for the second half. With the way it looked last weekend, they will need every gift of easy opponents to stay on top of the WCHA, or even near it.

The bottom line is that the team needs to pull together and find that gel that brought them together as a team and made them play, and win, like a team. Two games does not make a trend, but it could be a start if they continue. The surging second place Wisconsin Badgers are in Duluth next weekend for a two game series against a UMD men’s hockey team. Which one will show up is still a valid question.

Rankings. UMD falls to #8 in the all important PWR as mentioned above. They fall to #9 in both the USCHO Poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey poll. The INCH Power ranking has the Bulldogs at #10, sown six places from last week.

Friday, January 22, 2010

New WCHA Preview Weekend

The Bulldog schedule rolls on outside the WCHA this weekend. The opponent is Bemidji State who will be on the UMD schedule next year as a member of the 12-member WCHA. University of Nebraska – Omaha is the other newcomer for next year. A home and home series will start tonight in Bemidji and move to the DECC Saturday.

The Bulldogs are truly on a roll after the new year. Since the start of 2010 UMD is 5-1-0 and 4-0-0 in the WCHA winning their last 5 conference games. Meanwhile the Beavers started out fast, but have run into some bumps over their last six games going 2-3-1 highlighted by being swept at home by Minnesota State University – Mankato, tying Western Michigan and losing their first CHA game last weekend to Niagara.

With the diverging routes of the two hockey teams meeting this weekend in Northern Minnesota, I have to say that UMD will sweep BSU. Until UMD shows me different, I can’t see them losing. They are on that type of roll that could go for many games. That being said, one must be guarded to not overlook the nonconference opponent (they are more than just nonconference as they are #7 in the PWR). Wisconsin is the next WCHA opponent who is also a hot team, but it is BSU first.

A Look Into the Future. An article came out this week discussing the new 12 team WCHA playoff format on USCHO. The Final Five name will live on is the current plan. So six teams in the Final Five like 11 teams in the Big Ten? It is explained that it will be the Final Five games, thus eliminating the 3rd Place Game as has been requested for years by WCHA coaches. The story goes on to say two games would be played Thursday with the top seeds getting byes to Friday when two more games will be played before the Championship is played Saturday. We will have to wait for final word, but this is likely the best for the WCHA.

Around the WCHA this Weekend:

Denver at Wisconsin: This is the marquee match-up of the weekend. Denver is trying to regain first place from the Bulldogs and Wisconsin is attempting to continue their rise in the standings. It should be a good series with teams that will likely meet again in the playoffs sometime. This time we will see a split.

Colorado College at Alaska – Anchorage: CC will get back on track this weekend with the possibility to tie UMD in the standings. This looks good for CC on paper, but with it in Alaska, this will be a 3 point weekend for CC.

Saint Cloud State and Minnesota (home and home): If SCSU wants to prove that they belong in the upper half of the WCHA, this is the weekend to make that statement. With their rival neighbor for a series, stakes and emotions will be running high. The other obstacle for the Huskies is the Gophers are on quite a streak of their own going 8-2-1 in their last 11, but those teams all are all in the lower halves of their conferences. This one has all the makings of a split, but look for each team to win on the road.

North Dakota at Cornell: It is getting late for the usual North Dakota second half push. Playing outside the WCHA may get them on the winning track, but it doesn’t help them move out of 6th place in the WCHA. The Sioux will continue the WCHA nonconference success with a sweep.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Its All Coming Together

With Friday’s win, hanging onto a 2-1 lead, the Bulldogs achieved their first victory when scoring less than three goals. As a side note, UMD is 15-0-1 when they score three or more goals.

In Saturday’s come from ahead win 4-3 in overtime, the Bulldogs achieved a four game winning streak for the first time this season.

This season’s UMD team has chemistry. They have the will and confidence that they can come from behind, score goals when they need them, and beat any team that they face. It will be an exciting finish to the season to see where this Bulldog team lands.

Rankings. USCHO’s Poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey Poll has UMD ranked at #4. Inside College Hockey Power Ranking puts the Bulldogs at #4 also, saying:

Mike Connolly scored 3:43 into OT to give the Bulldogs a 4-3 win over Minnesota State Saturday. UMD is 3-0-1 in the extra session this season and 5-0-9 in OT since dropping a 2-1 decision to North Dakota on March 2, 2008.
The most important ranking of them all that we will focus on from now to the end is the Pairwise Ranking (PWR) that ultimately selects the NCAA Tournament participants. The current PWR ranks UMD at #3 just above #4 Wisconsin who is the UMD opponent the last weekend of January at the DECC.

Friday, January 15, 2010

First Place Attainable

This is the weekend that UMD has the opportunity to take over 1st place alone in the WCHA. A sweep or near sweep over MSUM would put UMD alone on top. Denver is currently two points ahead of the 2nd place Bulldogs and Denver is off this weekend.

Score to Win. I know, if you don’t score, you don’t win. But with UMD it is a tale of how much scoring occurs. When UMD scores 3 or more goals, they are 14-0-1 and when less than three are scored, the Bulldogs are 0-7-0. So the whole team has to keep pushing forward, not relying on the previously mentioned big 4 (Fontaine, JConnolly, MConnolly, and Bordson). And that has been happening over the last games. As long as the whole team knows that they are all needed to win, it doesn’t seem to matter what the opponent does to try to shut down the MConnolly-JConnolly-Fontaine line.

That being said, the Bulldogs do seem to struggle on the road. 4-3-1 is the current road record going to Mankato this weekend. If the Bulldogs are to keep contending for the a top three spot in the WCHA, and even for the McNaughton Cup, road wins will have to be a part of that. Mankato may be a great place to pick up two road wins.

The Roads Traveled to Mankato. The Mavericks are coming off being swept at North Dakota last weekend as UMD was sweeping Colorado College in Duluth. Who does that favor? Is MSUM out to turn it around and take advantage of home ice or will heads be hanging low? Is UMD rolling and inertia will carry them through Mankato or will they look past MSUM? Both good questions, but this is the WCHA and teams do come out and play the games to a high level. But what also has to be noted is that UMD has not pieced together four wins in row this season and MSUM has not had four straight loses yet this season. If the Bulldogs are going to take advantage of the 8th place team in the WCHA, those streaks have to be broken.

Who’s in the Net? It will be interesting to see if UMD has found their #1 goalie in Kenny Reiter. I would expect to see him in net tonight and likely again Saturday. He is on fire and Coach Sandelin has ridden his hot goalies in the past.

A Bulldog Sweep is Great, but… A UMD sweep would mean first place in the WCHA as Denver is idle this weekend. A UMD sweep would definitely help their rankings nationally, except maybe in the Pairwise (PWR). Currently MSUM is a TUC helping UMD’s PWR. Two loses at the hands of UMD will likely take them out of the TUC. If that happens, UMD would want MSUM to get more wins, at least enough to keep them in the TUC.

Around the WCHA:

Wisconsin at Colorado College: A telling tale of tow teams highly regarded in the WCHA and nationally. CC is on a little slide after a trip to Duluth broken their unbeaten road record. Wisconsin is on a tear and many national writers and observers are talking that the badgers are the team to beat in the WCHA. After a Badger near sweep (3 points) early in the season, this Colorado Springs series looks like a split.

North Dakota at Minnesota: Another rematch of an early season series. The earlier results were a Sioux near sweep. This time North Dakota will better that with a sweep over a Gopher team that is still trying to find who will stand up and take the lead to make this group of NHL draftees a team. Think back to the NY Ranger’s attempts to make mega-star teams that missed the playoffs because they couldn’t come together. The Gophers are starting to fit that mold.

Alaska-Anchorage at Michigan Tech: The 9th place at the 10th place team. If Tech can play the way they do against Northern Michigan, or UMD for that matter, they will take a sweep. Likely this will be a split.

Saint Cloud State at Quinnipiac: This will be a good road test for the Huskies. If the WCHA non-conference record is the trend, this would be a 3 to 4 point SCSU weekend. The long travel could be reminiscent to NCAA tournament travel. SCSU has never won a Division I NCAA tournament game, so this may be a challenge. Not knowing much about Quinnipiac, I will sit back and watch the scores come in.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Vote for Hobey

The voting for the Hobey Baker award has begun and this year the Bulldogs have three players who could be candidates. Currently the voting is for the fans to narrow the selection down to a group to 10 players. This first phase will run through March 7th. Phase two will follow consisting of voting on the best from the group of 10 which will begin on March 19th. The final three finalists will be selected on April 1st and the winner awarded on April 9th.
The three UMD players on the ballot for the first round are Jack Connolly, Justin Fountaine and Rob Bordson. All three are having a great season so get out and vote to get them through to the next round.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sweep Completed, Rankings on the Rise

In a show of force and talent, the UMD Bulldogs powered through the Colorado College Tigers Saturday night 4-1 to complete the sweep in Duluth. The scoring started for the second straight night by Kyle Schmidt with plenty of JConnolly, MConnolly, and Fontaine mixed into the scoring sheet.

The fact that the top line for UMD is producing points in the newly started second half of the WCHA season is very promising. The addition of other Bulldog players taking the opportunity of opposing teams paying so much attention to the top line has aided in the great success of Schmidt, Rob Bordson, and Travis Oleksuk.

Kenny Reiter has solidified the goalie situation with three strong games in row in which he started in net. Granted his defense in front of him has been improving greatly, Reiter still does have to make the plays and he has been.

Next the Bulldogs take this upward bound team on the road to Mankato for a key test. This road trip against the bottom-half dwelling Mavericks will be telling if the Bulldogs will continue to push for #1 in the WCHA and the McNaughton Cup. As of now, they are alone in second two points behind Denver. A sweep against Mankato would make leaps and bounds towards the cup.

Rankings. The USCHO poll released today places UMD at #10 up from #13 last week. The Inside College Hockey Power Rankings has UMD up six spots to #8. From INCH:

Let's dub the Bulldogs' forward trio of Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly, and Justin Fontaine the FCC Line. They can't be regulated, combining for six goals and seven assists in the weekend sweep of Colorado College.
With success comes expectations. Many are starting to expect a lot from this seaon’s Bulldogs.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Keep it Rolling as a Streak is Broken

No preview was written this week as I was battling the traditional winter cold this week, but did not miss the call of this big match of Minnesota – Duluth against Colorado College.

A great effort by the UMD Bulldogs at the DECC snaps the season-long, undefeated road record for Colorado College in a convincing way 5-2. After a stalemate in the first, 1 goal and 10 shots on goal for each team, the Bulldogs started the period that has killed them for most of the season, the second stanza. The Bulldogs may have turned a new leaf in taking the second period 3-0 over the Tigers.

As usual the Big 4 hit the tally sheet with Fontaine 2-0-2, JConnolly 0-2-2, MConnolly 1-2-3, and Bordson with 0-2-2. And as the Bulldogs have become very good at is adding scoring from the other lines with Drew Atkins and Kyle Schmidt tallying goals on the night.

Proving me wrong yet again was Kenny Reiter in the net. Another strong game may have tipped the scales in his favor as the #1 guy. We will wait until tomorrow night to see if a rotation is in play.

Now it is up to the Bulldogs to take care of business and finish the effort and take CC again tomorrow night. First road loss, why not make it two? And in the meantime further solidify the second place standing in the WCHA that UMD claimed tonight.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Uncertain Returns

With a disappointing loss to the host Vermont Catamounts in the Catamount Cup Finals the UMD Bulldogs keep at least two streaks alive, and neither of them are good.

UMD still has yet to win a game when they score 2 or fewer goals. So on continues the march of trying to solve the schemes other teams are putting up against the high scoring Bulldogs. Additionally, this is the second non-conference TUC team that UMD has lost to making them 0-2 for the season in that obscure category?

What is TUC? It is the first mention of it this season, so a definition is in order. TUC = Teams Under Consideration for the NCAA tournament. TUC is a comparison tool used in the PWR rankings that ultimately choose the 16 team NCAA field. As UMD picks up nice TUC wins against North Dakota, Denver, CC, and UMTC (they move in and out of the TUC) they could have really helped their stats with wins against Northern Michigan and Vermont.

Another opportunity to earn wins against CC are in order this weekend in another series at the DECC.

Trend or Mirage? After I came out and said that we need a number one goalie to emerge and that I thought it would be Hjelle, I was definitely proved wrong. In the Catamount Cup, Reiter proved to be the better of the tandem, and not by a small margin. It will be interesting to see what the performances of last weekend leads the coach to do this pivotal weekend.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

UMD Brings Cold Blast to Mercyhurst

UMD came out and showed why they are a contending team in the WCHA Saturday night in the first round of the Catamount Cup in Burlington, Vermont. With strong defensive play and balanced scoring, the Bulldogs gave the cold shoulder to ACHL co-leader Mercyhurst 6-0.

Six different Bulldogs scored the six goals with Justin Fontaine leading the point getters with 3. Four other Bulldogs notched 2 points.

Some rustiness was evident early in the game given both teams were coming off of three week breaks, but UMD showed its fire power with three second period goals. The second period goals are important for UMD because of their documented troubles in the middle period thus far in the season.

Kenny Reiter posted the first shutout of the season for the Bulldogs stopping all 26 shots by the Lakers.

“Kenny’s performance and the fact that we got rolling in the second period, a period we haven’t done well in this season, made the difference in the game,” said Scott Sandelin, coach of the Bulldogs. “It was a good way to start the New Year.”

Tonight the team keeps playing for the Catamount Cup taking on host Vermont at 6:00pm CST.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Catamount Cup

Taking on Mercyhurst in the first round of the Catamount Cup seems like the easy way to the championship. The Lakers, an ACHL team that is at .500 (9-9-2) playing a high flying offense in the UMD Bulldogs, may be the closest to that hated cliché of a “trap game” that UMD will see this year. It can be deceiving as the Lakers are unbeaten in their last 8 games coming into the tourney. It is a matchup that should, and will in our opinion, swing the way of the Bulldogs without too much trouble.

The “holy grail” in this set-up is the possibility of playing the Catamounts in the championship. We at the HighHorse look forward to that challenge and besting Vermont to catapult UMD towards another NCAA berth.

What ever way it goes this weekend, expect great things from the Connolly-Connolly-Fontaine line and just enjoy the action.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mid-Season Report Card

Here on the first day of 2010 and watching the end of the Winter Classic NHL game, we at the Hockey HighHorse take time to look back and give some “mid-term” grades as the second half of the season starts up tomorrow. In no particular order we will look at some facets of this season’s UMD squad.

Offense: B+. Who can argue with the 6th, 9th, 16th, and 35th leading scorers in the NATION as Jack Connolly, Justin Fontaine, Rob Bordson, and Mike Connolly. Looking at the WCHA games it gets better as JConnolly and Fontaine are tied for 1st, MConnolly 4th and Bordson at 5th. That foursome (fearsome?) combines for 55% of the total UMD output. Now look to the future where Coach Sandalin has vowed to keep a Connolly-Connolly-Fontaine line together at least to start 2010, and we may have some fireworks. But maybe not. Teams have been successful in slowing the Big Four down when they make a game plan to do so and thus a question of consistency arises (see Worst Loss below).

As far as the team as a whole goes, 12 members have goals and are scoring 3.44 goals per game. This team is a far cry from the scoring woes of two seasons ago and should eclipse last year’s team in scoring.

Defense: B. The addition of players like Dylan Olsen and drew Olson paired with the hard-nosed, experienced play of Chad Huttel, this crew is on pace to improve and become very solid.

Goaltender: A-. Between the two netminders, Kenny Reiter and Brady Hjelle, they had less than two games total of college experience coming into this season with only one start and that was for Hjelle. There have been ups, downs, soft goals, and outstanding game by them both thus far. But in looking what they are to replace from last year, Alex Stalock, they are deserving of the grade! We look for the team and staff to continue to play both goalies while focusing in on one main goalie for the stretch run.

Coaching: B. Scott Sandalin and his staff have done a good job getting this season’s team ready to play and playing well. This is one area where the consistency question pops up. Does it fall on the players or the staff? Likely both.

Best Win. We always love to see the sweep at Mariucci over the Gophers and the last second heroics and OT winner in the Saturday North Dakota game, but the best win of the season is the most recent one. The 6-3 win against Denver was as close to a complete performance as we have seen this year and is the “best” win so far.

Worst Loss. This one is too easy and hopefully a great second half can erase it as much as possible from the rankings. The 3-2 defeat to the hapless Michigan Technological University Huskies has the potential to be the nail that keeps UMD out of the NCAA’s, or home ice in the WCHA tourney for that matter. Rebounding the next night for a 8-1 drubbing was good, but the Friday defeat just should not have happened.

Overall, we give the team a B. They are definitely beating the expectations of the coaches of the WCHA and the pollsters on the various college hockey publications. The sheer talent that the team brings is what makes it an exciting ticket to have. What is troubling is the inconsistency both inside of games and from game to game. The coaching staff and many others have talked about not having the “full 60 minute effort” yet and that too is troubling. But if they can get it together, the second half should be a wild ride like last spring.

The staff here is still split looking at a 6th or 5th place finish in the WCHA based on the first half performance.

We also want to note that this is the start of the year in which we will say farewell to the old DECC at the end of December.

Have a Happy New Year as we look to tomorrow’s start of the Catamount Cup in Vermont.