Friday, February 26, 2010

Nearing the End with a Rivalry Weekend

A Gopher fan and co-worker stopped by my office this morning to give me his take on this weekend’s UMD/UMTC series. He stated, “If the Bulldogs don’t get at least a sweep this weekend, they are done.” Interesting statement in that it is likely on many people’s minds in Duluth, but I would dare say that most would never verbalize it. This steak UMD is on, 2-6-0 in the last eight, is moving into the real mental block category. They can’t seem to score, or play consistent defense, and special teams have fallen off the map. This UMD squad is extremely talented, but for some reason they have hit an invisible wall.

Hit a wall… That is exactly what topic our writers’ meeting at the HighHorse went to this week. It seems as if the team is either mentally spent or they are physically tired. Which ever, it is strange as they just came off of a weekend off before the weekend losses at North Dakota. It was even suggested that when the team gets to a high level in the WCHA, they can ‘t handle the pressure of being the favored team and not the underdog.

Either way, or maybe neither way, it is time once again to lace up the skates and play for the future of the season by focusing on the only on the game at hand.

Power Play Ups and Downs. The power play will always be a key to this UMD team’s success. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs are on a 4 for 39 streak in power plays. That stat still leads UMD to be the 6th overall in the nation for power play efficiency at 21.4%.

Returns and New Faces. Mike Connolly who received a black eye and a concussion in the third period of Saturday night’s game returned to practice on Wednesday and is expected to play this weekend.

A new face on the Gophers since the last meetings of these two teams is Jacob Cepis who joined the team midway through the season. Cepis has been very successful after transferring from Bowling Green in scoring and setting up important goals for the Gophers in their resurgent 2010.

Last Call? This is the last scheduled meeting of the Bulldogs and Gophers at the current DECC arena. Next year’s series will be in the new arena. Of course, this series could also be a preview of the first round of the WCHA playoffs depending on how it all shakes out. And I have given up on predicting the final standings of the WCHA!

Other Action Around the WCHA. Saint Cloud State has the weekend off and Alaska – Anchorage is playing their rival Alaska in a non-conference series.

Denver at Minnesota State Mankato: The MacNaughton should be in Mankato for this weekend series. No, not for the Mavericks, they will have to wait for that event for a later year. It will take two wins for Denver to clinch the regular season title assuming that Wisconsin wins all their remaining games. Denver will take care of business and sweep for a conference championship.

North Dakota at Colorado College: the Sioux are mounting a push for home ice. Currently tied for the last home ice spot with CC, this will obviously be a pivotal series for both teams. CC is slumping and will relinquish the 5th place spot in route to giving up 3 points to the Sioux.

Wisconsin at Michigan Tech: Other teams can do it, why can’t the Bulldogs? Wisconsin will sweep the Huskies.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It's Not Time Yet

Alright, I have been persuaded, at least for now by the co-writer of the HighHorse, to not push the panic button. It is getting close both by the play on the ice and actions off the ice. As a side note, I wrote this piece and before publishing saw that Drew Akins Blog had the same cliché in his article for today.

The quality of play is still inconsistent, just like in the more successful days of late 2009. The exception is the scoring has really dried up. It is a drought. Not a severe drought, but it is getting close. UMD is still the only WCHA team to not be shut out this season, but it is of little solace in this 2-6-0 streak.

Watching the Friday night effort against the Sioux showed that UMD did control play in 5 on 5 situations for most of the game. UND’s goals were three on power play, one short handed and one open net goal. The observation of carrying even strength play likens back to a Vikings/Saints game in recent football memory where you can win every statistical department, but it doesn’t translate to the win column. Apologies to those I just ripped open a healing wound for. As I wrote last week, it is time to end the “well played game, but we didn’t get the goals” leading to a loss.

The telling tale of the psyche of this year’s Bulldog squad is what is happening of the ice. Fans know well the magical run that reaped the Broadmoor Cup and an NCAA berth. One of the feel good stories of the run was the head shaving some underwent to show their determination and last ditch mind frame. Well, they’re at it again. According to Rink & Run, the Bulldogs clipped hair again to try to regain the magic lost in this season. It didn’t work…yet? It really begs the question of what this team believes is the answer to ending the downward spiral in the WCHA standings and the PWR. Closed circuit to my friend and PhD in Sports Psychology, help me out on this superstition gone wrong predicament.

On The Shelf. Mike Connolly continues to miss practices due to a black eye and concussion from a late game hit from behind/elbow in the Saturday game. Mike is important to this team in the scoring spark department. Without him times may continue to be tough. The team members who stepped up earlier this year need to pick it up again and carry some of the scoring.

Saint Cloud State Continues. I have said all year that SCSU is overrated and they keep winning. I was wrong again this weekend on my prediction and I have to be honest, they are playing well. I still contend and will strongly argue that SCSU and UMD are very equal except for the confidence factor that leads to the scoring output of SCSU and not to UMD at this point in the season.

Rankings. It really isn’t worth looking at the rankings if you are a Bulldog player or fan. The team really needs to start winning and then worry about rankings. But as a side note, UMD has fallen in the PWR to a tie for 12th. Besides the losses, the main factor that is keeping UMD down in the PWR is their poor TUC (Teams Under Consideration) record. Remedy to that is more wins!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Trip to Grand Forks to Prove Pivotal

It has been two weeks, or there abouts, since UMD laced up the skates for a game. It is an important series with playoff implications abounding. My previous article from yesterday had my prediction about the finishing order of the WCHA after looking at all remaining games. From that analysis two main points emerge:
  1. UMD was listed in a tie with SCSU for third. I mistakenly said that the tie-break would go to UMD. The implication of that is the 4th place possibility looking ahead to the Final five. Top three is important so a team doesn’t have the possibility of three games in three days. But this may be cart before the horse. 
  2. Of the “wild card” teams I wrote about that the possibility of turning it on this time of year with the talent they have, UMD plays both in the next two series. The Bulldogs are at North Dakota this weekend and home against Minnesota the next.
With as tight as the standings are, every game is turning into a must win to keep pace with the teams around UMD. The next four games are going to be intense and could go any way for any number of reasons.

The fact still remains that the Bulldogs need to pull together and shake this funk they are in (2-4-0 in the last six) and play like the solid team they were earlier in the season. The funk leading into UMD’s run in the playoffs last year (being swept be Alaska – Anchorage at home) is not a habit to make.

Power is King. UMD is currently second in the WCHA for power play at 22.2% while North Dakota is also second, but in the penalty kill department. The Sioux kill penalties at 86.3% and were 7 for 7 against SCSU last Saturday night.

All together the power play is the catalyst to this Bulldog squad. The Bulldogs are 1-5-0 when they do not score a power play tally. On the flip side, when the UMD penalty kill goes 100%, the team is 6-0-0. The bottom line for special teams is that the power play has to pick the coring roll like earlier in the season.

Where Does It Go? I can’t see any other way then a split this weekend. A good showing by the Bulldogs is important, but the effort needs to translate into wins for the Bulldogs to stay at the top of the pack, or at least in the top three.

Around the WCHA. It is a full slate of conference games this weekend as we are three weekends away from the end of the regular season.
Saint Cloud State at Wisconsin: Important series concerning the championship of the WCHA and placing for the playoffs. SCSU had a bad outing last Saturday against UND, losing 8-1. That may show SCSU’s downside that I have been writing about most of the season. I believe SCSU has overachieved all year and now they are going up against a strong Badger team. UW is tied with UMD for third in the WCHA right now and the Badgers will pass UMD with a sweep over SCSU. 
Colorado College at Minnesota: It is the next chapter of the enigma season for the Gophers underachievers. Minnesota may get one point, but likely this is a sweep for CC.
Alaska – Anchorage at Minnesota State Mankato:  I really don’t know which way that this one is going to go, but I do know that UAA plays UMD for the last weekend of the regular season. The meaning of that? I don’t have answer here either. This weekend is a three pointer for MSU.
Michigan Tech at Denver: Denver is on the march to the MacNaughton Cup and they will continue with a sweep this weekend.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

UPDATED: Push to the End of the WCHA Season

It was an entertaining yet unsurprising weekend in the WCHA. One could easily say that the North Dakota win was not a surprise, but the way that they dominated the Huskies of Saint Cloud State in the 8-1 win Saturday.

North Dakota is known for their second half season comebacks and domination, but it hasn’t been there this year. Maybe this is the giant awakening. Or the games at Saint Cloud meant more seeing that Marvin of SCSU put Chay Genoway on the shelf earlier in the year from an illegal hit. One way or another, the Bulldogs are in Grand Forks this weekend and have to deal with the Sioux.

Rankings. With an off weekend, the Bulldogs climbed in the polls. Their rise was due mainly to other teams, namely Bemidji State, losing games. UMD moved up to #6 in both the USCHO Poll and USA Today/USA Hockey Poll. INCH Power Ranking places the Bulldogs at #9, up two places from last week. And in the all important PWR, UMD is currently tied for 9th place.

WCHA Men - 2009-2010 Standings

                    Pts GP Record
1  Denver            32  22 14- 4- 4 
2  St. Cloud State   31  24 14- 7- 3 
3  Minnesota Duluth  29  22 14- 7- 1 
   Wisconsin         29  22 13- 6- 3 
5  Colorado College  25  22 11- 8- 3
6  North Dakota      21  22  9-10- 3
7  Minnesota         18  22  8-12- 2
   Alaska Anchorage  18  24  8-14- 2
9  Minnesota State   13  22  6-15- 1 
10 Michigan Tech      8  22  4-18- 0

WCHA Outlook. Sitting down and examining the remaining three weeks of the conference season has taken me to make the ultimate prediction of looking where all the teams will finish. Without going into all the wins and losses, I have included below my believed final standings with conference points.

HighHorse WCHA Men - 2009-2010 Predicted Standings

1 Denver            41
2 Wisconsin         39
3 St. Cloud State   36
  Minnesota Duluth  36
5 Colorado College  33
6 North Dakota      27
7 Alaska Anchorage  22
8 Minnesota         21
9 Minnesota State   17
10 Michigan Tech     8

Hopefully, and likely, I under counted the UMD remaining wins. They are not playing good hockey leading into their week off last week, so it may be a good prediction in the end.  According to Drew Akins Blog, the team is rested, focused and ready to play.  In this scenario, UMD would lose the 3rd spot in the tie breaker and get the Seawolves in the first round.  The 4th place woul be awarded to SCSU based on their 3 head to head points out of 4 against UMD.  Thanks for commenter who alerted me to my mistake.

Saint Cloud State has a hard road in front of them in their remaining games and that sees them take a drop.

Wisconsin is surging and will try to make the top, but will run out of time.

Two teams that are “wild card” teams in the bottom half of the standings meaning that they have it in them to be a top half team, but have ended in the bottom half. Those two teams are North Dakota and Minnesota. Drawing Minnesota in the first round will likely be a challenge, but there is a reason why they end up on the road for the first round. And really, the reason that Minnesota ends in 8th is a win that I counted by Alaska – Anchorage against UMD. Again, I may have underrated this UMD team, but they are the ones who have to go and win the games to prove this prediction right or wrong.

Friday, February 12, 2010

One Year Later

Today is the one year mark of the Hockey HighHorse. It has been a great calendar year of hockey and a fun time following and commenting on the Bulldogs of UMD along with the rest of the WCHA.

As it was when we started last year, UMD is on a bye this weekend and the article for this week will focus on rankings, namely the PWR and WCHA standings. Important games are being played this weekend in the WCHA that will affect UMD’s standing.

This Weekend in the WCHA: Alaska – Anchorage, Colorado College and Michigan Tech are all off this weekend along with the Bulldogs.

North Dakota at Saint Cloud State: Return to the scene of the crime, or at least a return of the match-up of teams, but in a different venue. It was the last series these two teams met that Chay Genoway was injured by an illegal hit. Any number of calls, including charging, boarding, or checking from behind, could have been made on the play as over the top it was. Genoway has been out since the hit and the Sioux have taken a slide in the standings all the down to 6th. This weekend is the time for the Sioux to let off some frustration and dampen the hopes of the Huskies to keep a close hold on first place in the WCHA. Both teams are currently in the PWR top 12.

Looking at this series from the UMD point of view, a Sioux sweep would help the Bulldogs in the standings and in the PWR. At the same time, North Dakota is UMD’s next opponent, so for them to get it really rolling now maybe isn’t the best thing. Honest pick is a split.

Minnesota at Denver: Can Minnesota break the cycle? The Gophers have shutout the last three meetings against Denver and Marc Cheverie in net. The Gophers are currently in 7th place and their schedule isn’t conducive to moving up into the upper half for home ice in the playoffs.

From the Bulldog perspective, Minnesota needs to be a TUC to help out in the PWR. At the same time, Denver is one point behind UMD for WCHA standings, so Minnesota could help out with a win or two. Most beneficial to the Bulldogs is a split in Denver. Honest prediction is a DU sweep.

Minnesota State Mankato at Wisconsin: A split occurred in Mankato between these teams earlier this season, but it won’t happen this weekend. Most beneficial to UMD is wins by MSU, but in reality it should be a Wisconsin sweep.
So, on this one year anniversary of the HighHorse, I want to say thanks to Andy who co-writes with me and our traveling photographer Andrew N. May the Bulldogs and the HighHorse continue their successes.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lost Chances Mounting

It is an age old problem. As Denny Green once said, and I am paraphrasing here, when two teams want to win, when that happens, only one team can win. I am not quite sure that two teams wanted to win this past Friday night in Houghton, MI. I know that seems harsh, but really, when one team is dominated on the stat sheet like the Huskies were, it really begs the question if the Bulldogs were ready for the game or even if they were motivated to win?

The Huskies were highly motivated. It was Winter Carnival, their big series that is circled months in advance every year. The thing is that UMD know that too. To come out and play sloppy, be it even for a few minutes of the third as Friday night, is not the formula for winning. Teams that do have letdowns in game can’t rely on one goal to get the job done. It was an uneasy feeling I had when UMD entered teh third period with only a one goal lead at 1-0.

The way things were going, it was just one of those feelings Friday night.  Is that the team that UMD has turned into? The type where you expect bad things to happen? Against MTU this year, for sure. In general, it is starting to be a yes. A strong win Saturday night would have likely dispelled those feelings. But again, the Bulldogs found themselves fighting for every last opportunity and needing special teams to account for all the scoring to do in the Huskies 3-2 for a “salvage” of the series.

In the grand scheme of things, it was a lost weekend. It will be interesting where this team is headed. It looms that there will be a big difference in first round opponent in the WCHA playoffs depending on placing 1st – 3rd versus 4th or 5th. Right now North Dakota and Minnesota occupy the 6th and 7th places respectively. It is not a stretch to say that no one really wants to play those teams in the first round. If UMD is to keep in the top three, they will have to figure out their issues and find the scoring touch that has seemed to be nullified.

Broken Record? It is getting old, the non-consistent performances of the Bulldogs. This is especially true of the forwards and the scoring touch. From Coach Sandalin on Friday’s game:

I’m going to sound like a broken record, but we didn’t come out and get the job done. A five-minute stretch cost us the game. We got sloppy with the puck and couldn’t catch a pass in the first 10 minutes of the third period, and we were ineffective on the power play. “Michigan Tech stuck with it, and their goalie played well [35 saves], and they found a way to win.
And then on the comeback win Saturday:

That was a tough hill to climb, but I never felt we were out of the game. We hung in there but we were facing a great goalie [in Kevin Genoe]. I don’t know how he wasn’t named MVP of the Winter Carnival.
The Bulldogs players and coaches have two weeks now to get ready for a tough and important series at North Dakota February 19-20.

Rankings. UMD is seeing a fall in all polls and rankings after their split in Houghton. USCHO Poll places UMD at #7, one spot blow last week’s result.

INCH Power Ranking has UMD falling 3 spots to #11 stating:

Maybe the Bulldogs want to avoid finishing first in the WCHA to steer clear of a first-round playoff series against Michigan Tech. UMD has been the victim in two of the Huskies’ five wins this season, the most recent coming Friday in Houghton.
A good observation that may not be as much in jest as it seems.

USA Today / USA Hockey Poll has not been release at the time of this article.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Its Carnival Time!

It is a great time of year to be a hockey fan in Houghton, no matter how much the hometown Huskies have struggled. It is Winter Carnival, a time when the students forget about the long winter and use its bounty, the UP snow, to create really awe inspiring sculptures. Oh, and there is a hockey series also.

If you can take yourself away from the snow art and the other events of winter, you can go inside to see the MTU Huskies play their hearts out for a packed house. It is the for sure one of the times the whole year that the games mean something more to the whole MTU community. Not to mention that MTU always plays a little harder against UMD as evidenced by heartbreak at the DECC earlier this year.

That will then be the task, to overcome the hardest rink to play in the WCHA, when it is full that is. The band directly above your goaltender for two periods, raucous fans, and a hard hitting defensive oriented team just to name three things going for Tech this weekend.

It may start to become clear that I have great respect for MTU and especially for Winter Carnival, and that is because I do. The successes in Houghton have been long forgotten by newer fans of the WCHA, say anyone under 45. The Huskies have played in national championship games. Michigan Tech has won national championships (yes, plural is correct here). True scholars of college hockey should have respect for this program that has been down now for many years.

If you are going to Houghton or are already there, live it up and take in the “Games we Know Captured in Snow.”

Power is Key. UMD comes into the matchup with the second best power play in the WCHA at 22.5%. The Bulldogs put that squad up against the last ranked penalty kill in MTU at 65.8%. The special teams opportunities will provide the key for UMD success this weekend. That being said, UMD and MTU are 4th and 5th, respectively, in the penalty minutes rankings of the WCHA

Defensive Minded. Tech has always made defense a key to their team. That is how they came to Duluth and took (stole) a win from the Bulldogs earlier this season. As of late, though, the Huskies have taken some big goal total losses. It all adds up to MTU having let in the most goals in the WCHA at an average of 4.23 goals per game. Compare that to UMD’s 2.71 and defense is likely the second key of the series as long as Kenny Reiter continues on his tear.

What Road Woes? UMD is currently on a 4 game winning streak on the road in WCHA that dates back to a loss in Colorado Springs on November 7. With six of the last eight games in UMD’s regular season coming on the road, it will be important to continue the streak in Houghton as the Bulldogs continue to press for the MacNaughton Cup. MTU is a good place to start the push for the cup which is owned by Michigan Technological University and is on loan to the WCHA for the regular season title.

So Who Wins? Again, I hate to make predictions, but it what is wanted by readers and pundits. So again, who will win? With all the unknowns I have no way of making any type of an educated guess. With Winter Carnival and the pride of a downtrodden Huskies team it is an almost impossible prediction. Of course, I would like to see a Bulldog sweep, improving their PWR.

Around the WCHA this weekend.

Only one other WCHA series this weekend as teams get ready for the final stretch.

Alaska – Anchorage at Saint Cloud State: SCSU coach Bob Motzko has taken his lumps this week as the WCHA has issued a public reprimand that reads:

MADISON, Wis. - The Western Collegiate Hockey Association today (February 2) issued a public reprimand to men's head coach Bob Motzko of St. Cloud State University for actions at the conclusion of the Jan. 30, 2010 game at Colorado College that were in violation of the WCHA Code of Conduct/Sportsmanship Rules.
SCSU will take their frustration of having their winning streak ended last weekend on the Seaswolves. The Huskies have a chance for first as they sweep the Seawolves this weekend and I predict they will.

Denver and Colorado College hosting Mercyhurst and Air Force: In an interesting kind of opponent swapping deal that CC and Denver do most years, they play a lower team in Mercyhurst and fairly prominent team in Air Force. With the way CC and Denver are playing, they are the favorites. The only “upset” I can see is Air Force over CC.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Still Working Their Magic

Well, the Bulldogs managed to come together and pull off a win on Saturday against Wisconsin. Surprising? Yes and no. No because this UMD team has the scoring power and decent enough defense to beat most any team. Yes because of their performance against BSU and their awful performance Friday night against the Badgers.

The article that was scheduled for Saturday was going to talk about a must win type of game, and it was. The problem was that I didn’t want to go as negative as my thoughts were leading me. I decided to sit back and allow the weekend to unfold, and good thing.

The loss Friday night put UMD in the double digits for losses this season, and it seemed that the downward spiral might be nearly impossible to pull out of. But as they have all season, UMD gained the series split against a very good team that keeps them in WCHA championship contention and in the national spotlight. And it wasn’t a last second, tightly matched game. In a decisive 4-0 win, the Bulldogs broke free from their losing streak as they gear up for their last eight games of the regular season.

After being kept off the scoresheet on Friday, the Big Four in scoring for UMD came out and shook the shadows of the aggressively checking Badgers to score 2 goals (Fontaine and MConnolly) and 3 assists (MConnolly (2) and JConnolly). Freeing up the FCC line is the continuous task for the Bulldogs to do. In fact, the FCC line was so bound up Friday night that Coach Sandelin was changing lines mid game. Then on Saturday the FCC line was broken up and the goal production came through. The age old question of putting all your big talent on one line or not to, has reared its ugly head. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here towards the postseason.

Net Fun. Reiter got a poor performance in front of him Friday night. To his credit, he kept the team in a game where the level of play and shots on goal were extremely lopsided. It was a 3-2 Badger lead until late in the third period.

The next night, Reiter again did his job well and the skaters did the same. The net result, the first WCHA shutout for Kenny Reiter.

On Tap. Winter fun during Winter Carnival at Michigan Tech in Houghton. If you have not been, it is a great time with many traditions and fun things to see. Unfortunately, the HighHorse cannot make it to the UP. I will say what I did last time UMD was in for Carnival, I will go next time they are playing for Carnival.

Rankings. The Bulldogs relinquished first in the WCHA to Denver who is currently one point ahead of UMD.

Upward movement based on the strong showing Saturday night was seen in all the polls. The Bulldogs currently hold 6th in the USCHO Poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey Poll. Inside College Hockey has UMD at #8 in their power rankings. And finally, the most important ranking, is the PWR where UMD is tied for 6th.