Sunday, March 28, 2010

Badgers Best Huskies in West

In a rematch of WCHA semifinal opponents playing now for a trip to the Frozen Four, the only commonalities were jersey color and venue. The main difference being the outcome. The result is Wisconsin skating out of Saint Paul and into the Frozen Four with a 5-3 win against Saint Cloud State.

Wisconsin clad in their white home jerseys came out and clearly took control of the game from the opening puck drop. Their energy and puck movement kept play in the SCSU end, except for the special teams play from seven penalties in the period.

Wisconsin scored three goals in the first, two of which were shots off of big rebounds from SCSU goalie Mike Lee. “the message is that you need to get pucks and bodies to the net and then make [Mike Lee] make saves,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, “Early in the game we were able to get pucks [Lee] did not control very well.” As a result, thr Huskies starting goalie was replaced by Dan Dunn at 15:21 of the first. Still the score at the end of the first period was 3-1 Wisconsin.

Through the second period, the Huskies continued to be outplayed, but no scoring occurred.

“Our tanks weren’t full tonight,” said SCSU coach Bob Motzko regarding the Huskies overall play. “Wisconsin earned the victory. To our guys’ credit, we made it interesting at points.”

Still, the game was tight into the third with the Badgers still coming strong but not showing anything on the scoreboard for their efforts. It was eventually SCSU who scored next at 4:16 of the third to trail 3-2. Wisconsin countered 2:38 later to regain their two goal lead. The Huskies still would not say die scoring with the extra attacker on a delayed penalty at 17:10 of the third to again pull within one again at 4-3. It was shortly thereafter that Wisconsin iced the victory with an open net goal.

The Wisconsin win crowns them the West Region Champion and ends the season for SCSU.

How College Hockey Works. It is easy to see the effects of the seniors on the Huskies team this year, and maybe no one more than Garrett Raboin. When asked about his time at SCSU, Raboin stated:

They are going to keep making number 7’s and I’m sure coach has somebody ready to throw out there next year. I can’t say enough, it’s a tough loss and it’s sad that it is over…it’s tough to be disappointed with my career at St. Cloud, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
As far as the importance of having highly regarded juniors return as seniors, Coach Eaves had some parting thoughts. Eaves believes as more and more early departing athletes return to campus, their stories get out of long bus rides, three games in three nights, and the general grind of the minor league system. As more alumni come back with the same experiences, more players like Blake Geoffrion will stay to play their senior seasons.

Friday, March 26, 2010

West Region Final Set: Badgers and Huskies

The conventional region’s final is now set. The West Region higher seeds both won tonight unlike in the east, after Wisconsin’s 3-2 victory over Vermont.

In what can be termed as a sleeper of a game, Wisconsin converted 3 of 6 power plays and used solid defense to oust Vermont, the last at-large bid awarded by the NCAA.

Vermont showed some life in the first and took advantage of two Badger defensive breakdowns to take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.

In the second the Badgers poured on the offense out-shooting the Catamounts 16-3 while taking a 3-2 lead. Wisconsin’s dominance in the second set the stage for the win in the third period.

The third period was without scoring, but did turn ugly in middle as multiple shots to the head, hitting after the whistle, and knee to knee hits were called and observed without call.

For the second time tonight, the goalies played as well as could be expected and were the stars for each team.

Tomorrow night Wisconsin will meet Saint Cloud State for the second time in two weeks at the Xcel Energy Center. This time it will be for a trip to Detroit and the Frozen Four.

Monkey Off the Back of SCSU

In what turned out to be a dramatic finish, Saint Cloud State finally has their first Division I NCAA Tournament win.

What started out as a dominant Huskies game with SCSU leading throughout and 3-1 at one point in the second period, Northern Michigan gained their legs, calmed their jitters and the game was tied at three at the end of regulation.

“We were very nervous early and we did not get in a rythm at all,” said NMU coach Walt Kyle.  “It was a goalie battle tonight.” And it was NMU goaltender Brian Stewart that really kept the Wildcats in the game. With 50 saves he is my pick for player if the game.

SCSU was not going to be denied. Just as though it seemed a repeat of the game last Saturday when they took a lead against North Dakota and lost the game, the Wildcats took control of the game in the third period and eventually tied the score for overtime.

In the first overtime, it was just what a hockey fan would want, open skating and scoring chances on both ends. When asked about shootouts that are used in the CCHA that NMU is a part of, Kyle said, “Shootouts get old quick.”

A suspenseful first OT lead to a short second OT when Tony Mosey tipped in a Garrett Roe pass 0:23 into the period.

“Both goalies played great,” is how SCSU coach Bob Motzko summed it up. With a total of 99 shots on goal, the goalies were the key to the game for both sides.

The Huskies will play the winner of the Wisconsin – Vermont game tomorrow night for the West Region Championship.

Brackets Busting

As predicted, my bracket is on its way to being busted. Denver has lost 2-1 to RIT in the East Regional.

To my credit, though, I did say that if Denver was not to win the region, they would lose in the first round. So it is partial credit, albeit very little credit.

NCAA Slightings and Predictions

First off I want to comment on the fairness of the brackets. According to Coach Eaves, Wisconsin is happy to be in Saint Paul as they should be. Madison is a relatively close drive, many grads live in the Twin Cities, they are a #1 seed, and they are coming off of 2nd in the WCHA regular season and winning 3rd in the tournament.

I believe that North Dakota should have been placed in the West for their performance at the WCHA Tournament, that they too have many grads in the Twin Cities, and proximity to Saint Paul is good. North Dakota should not have to travel to the East Coast allowing SCSU to play in its backyard. North Dakota deserves the close region over SCSU.

On to the Picks. For conservation of space and time, I am just going to go with my Frozen Four.

West: Wisconsin. See West Region Preview for more info.

Midwest: Michigan. It is that time of year when Michigan teams excel and this one seems to be on a run. And many people really want the Bemidji/Miami rematch and that will be the downfall of the Beavers, looking ahead too far ahead.

East: Denver. This is the toughest for me to pick as I do not know what to expect out of this Pioneers team. It could a first round exit like last year for the way they have been playing as of late. But looking at the rest of the field, they are the choice that I make.

Northeast: Boston College. It seems too easy to pick North Dakota to win this one with the tear they are on. The downside to the Sioux is that they played six games in nine days (two sets of three straight games, actually) culminating with the WCHA Playoff Championship. Now they have to travel east and face a good BC team. BC will use their “home” ice advantage in Worcester, Mass. to win this region.

There you have it, this writer’s predictions. If you are filling out a bracket yourself, you should know that analysis is my strong point, not predictions. And I’d like to hear how your bracket does in the first round. Leave a comment and show your knowledge!

Motzko Under Pressure?

Bob Motzko says he hadn’t heard questions about the SCSU 0-8 NCAA record, but he obviously has been thinking about it. Of course he won’t admit that, but his quote provided by Kevin Allenspach of the St. Cloud Times:
Huskies coach Bob Motzko on the inevitable 0-8 in the NCAAs question: "I’ll be honest – we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year, so it was never asked then. And I’ve only heard it twice this week. Once was when the boys were in here (the media room) and the second time was from you (a reporter, and not me). So I’m not sick of it at all. It’s one of those things that we don’t talk about, ever. Some of our guys were 2 years old when it started, and a couple weren’t even born yet. So it’s ridiculous. I know, as the coach of the program, and I know the frustration of our fans. But all you can do in the short-term 20-plus years St. Cloud State’s been at the Division I level, we’ve been in the tournament a lot – and a lot in the last decade. In the old days, you used to play on your home campus. So a lot of teams that have these records, they were getting wins on campus.

"If we were 1-7 because a team would’ve won 12 years ago, would it make a difference? It has no bearing on this team. We have to live with it, and I have to live with it. I feel for our fans, though, because they want it so bad. Fans are passionate. They want to see good things happen. Our hockey team wants to advance. The only way we can get to that round of eight is to win a hockey game. I was involved in a couple of (NCAA losses), but if you want to beat me up on 0-for-8, I can’t answer it. I’ve got so many things to think about. I’ve got three little kids and these guys and I’m trying to figure out where we’re going to have dinner. Worrying about some losses from I don’t know how many years ago, I don’t."
Yikes, it seems he is on the edge and ready to explode. Hopefully, his energy will be channeled to his players as they take the ice today against Northern Michigan in the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

NCAA West Regional Preview

Wisconsin, Saint Cloud State, Northern Michigan, and Vermont will be converging this weekend in Saint Paul for the NCAA West Region at the Xcel Energy Center. That combination of teams is very interesting in that they have at least one common factor, they have all played UMD this year. Bulldogs record in those games is 1-4-1 with the lone win coming against the Badgers. One more interesting fact that leads UMD out of the NCAA Tournament.

What is also interesting about this field is that two of the teams have lost to Michigan Technological University. SCSU and NMU account for two of MTU’s five wins this season. UMD twist on this is the Bulldogs account for two more of the five MTU wins. The fifth was against Minnesota State – Mankato.

Two of the four teams just played at the X in the WCHA Final Five, Wisconsin and Saint Cloud State. Actually, they played each other in the tournament with SCSU winning 2-0, before losing 5-3 to UND in the Championship game. Wisconsin won the last WCHA 3rd Place game over Denver 6-3.

A Look At the Teams. The HighHorse will be at the X to take in the west Regional, so a more in depth preview of the teams is below.

Wisconsin (#1): Coming off of a convincing win over a Denver squad is good for the Badgers. Of course, the Pioneers were pretty much mailing in their effort in the 3rd Place game as it was never close on the scoreboard or in the quality of play.

Wisconsin went 1-1 in the Final Five and that is the way the second half of the season has gone for the Badgers. From Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal:

The casual observer might not have noticed, but the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team spent much of the second half of the regular season getting by on its good looks.

“We played OK,” UW coach Mike Eaves said. “We found ways to win games.”

Outside of a fantastic Western Collegiate Hockey Association series performance against then-No. 1 Denver in late January — a 3-3 overtime tie and a 4-3 victory in a playoff-like atmosphere at the Kohl Center — the Badgers were maddeningly inconsistent.

They could be dynamic one night, like the 5-2 win at Minnesota-Duluth when they put up 52 shots against a top-10 team. They could be disconnected the next, like the 6-5 loss at Colorado College when they allowed four goals in the first 15 minutes to another top-10 team.
Even with the variability of the team, they are talented on offense and defense and that is why they will win the West Region.

Saint Cloud State (#2): Perseverance, attitude, and confidence have propelled this Huskies team into the NCAA Tournament and a #2 seed. The question is can they keep the attributes listed above going to win two games here to advance out of the West Region.

Or should the question be if they can even win one game in the NCAA tournament? The Huskies are 0-8 in NCAA Tournament play since entering the Division I ranks in the 1987-88 season.

The addition of Garret Roe who was injured during the Final Five would be a big boost to this team. According to the St. Cloud Times, Roe has been practicing and is expected to play in Friday’s game.

Nonetheless, I cannot help but look at the spotty play late in the season highlighted by the collapse in the WCHA Championship game where the Huskies scored two goals in the first minute of the game only to surrender four unanswered in losing to the Sioux. Therefore I will say that the Huskies winless NCAA streak will continue when they lose to the upstart Northern Michigan Wildcats.

Northern Michigan (#3): In an up and down season that ended on a 10 of 13 game winning streak, the Wildcats of NMU qualified for the Tournament. Their record against teams in their year’s tournament is 4-5-4, nothing to write home about. But this team wins when they need to. Evidence the late season run into the CCHA Championship game which they lost to Michigan 2-1.

The key to this NMU team is their goaltending. Even though they cannot rely on it every night to totally shut down the opponent, it has been enough to allow the scoring to take care of the game. If netminder Brian Stewart plays his game, the scoring will be there and NMU will beat SCSU before falling to Wisconsin.

Vermont (#4): With an overall record of 17-14-7 the Catamounts secured one of the last at-large bids to the Tournament. In a down year for Hockey East, Vermont had an unimpressive 9-11-7. In fact, Vermont just barely bested Northeaster for the last spot in the Hockey East Tournament by one point even though Northeastern had 11 conference wins. As a note, Hockey East only has 8 of the 10 teams in the conference qualify for their tournament.

The reason Vermont is in the Tournament is their non-conference wins over ranked teams along with taking out New Hampshire in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament. Wins over Yale, Denver, and UMD propelled Vermont’s PWR and thus landed them in the Tournament.

Some say that Vermont doesn’t belong in, but they have the numbers to back it up in the PWR. Their accomplishment is great, but their stay will be short lived. Wisconsin will take them out in the Region Quarterfinals.
Again, prediction here is Wisconsin will emerge and go on to the Frozen Four. We will ad the predictions for the other regionals in an article in the near future.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bordson Signs with Anaheim

The first of hopefully few pro signings have hit the Bulldogs. On Sunday after it was official that UMD’s season was over, Rob Bordson signed a contract with the Anaheim Ducks. Bordson forgoes his senior season by signing.

You can’t really blame him. After the breakout season Bordson had, now very well could be the time to cash in. Going from no points in 15 games as a sophomore, he scored 12 goals and added 28 assists for 40 points. Quite the breakout season.

Where does that leave the program? The UMD program that Bordson grew up watching as he is a native of Duluth. Said Bordson, "It was definitely very difficult. I love everyone at UMD. They were very professional about it, very supportive. They were very helpful. It was tough leaving them. Everyone wants to be a professional hockey player. I think it was the time to do it." His production and the promise of being a top line producer next year is a hit to the team.

In the Final Five teleconference, Denver University coach George Gwozdecky was asked what it takes to make a successful WCHA team. The question was posed by a writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, one of two newspapers that cover the Gophers. It is a really good question for two reasons, Denver has been very successful over the years and the Gophers are in a current run of down years.

Gwozdecky answered that a team needs, “…good players and great goaltending.” Simple enough answer, but let’s speculate and read between the lines. His use of good in front of players and reserving great for goaltending should make one pause.

In today’s world of hockey, the great position players are being signed early every year to play in the pro ranks. I believe that Gwozdecky is saying to get the best players with a thought on whether or not they are going to leave early. Early departures can really pull at the seams of a good program. Evidence the Gophers and their current 20 drafted players out of their 26 rostered players.

Great goaltending is the cornerstone to any run to a championship in today’s college hockey. It is perennially the team with “the hot goalie” who makes it all the way to the trophy.  Threfore, great is reserved for your goaltending position.  Additionally, good coaches can build a whole program around the play of a great goaltender, but a great team won't go far in the playoffs without great goal play.

UMD has prepared of the future in recruiting many good players. Fontaine, the Connolly’s, and Oleksuk are all in the category of good players who will likely stay four years and bring success to the Bulldogs. Those players named, along with Bordson, are undrafted players who may be undersized for the NHL. That is likely a blessing to UMD as they will likely stay for four years. Bordson was expected to be one of those before his surprise departure.

One last thought on early departures and draftees. WCHA Scoring Champion Rhett Rhakhshani, drafted by the New York Islanders, stayed with the program for all four years. His leadership and playmaking ability has made Denver an elite team that is poised for a possible championship run. Not totally knowing the circumstances, I will say that he probably had offers to sign. If that is the case, I commend him for staying to better the Pioneer’s program. If he was not offered to sign, the Islanders are going to be getting a very skilled player now that he is done at Denver.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sioux Are WCHA Champions

It has been printed here and we still believe it: UMD and SCSU are basically mirror images of each other in team make up and skill. And SCSU tried their best Bulldog impersonation in tonight’s WCHA Championship game by starting off strong, two goals in the first 0:55 of the game, before letting up and allowing North Dakota to pick up steam and score four unanswered goals in route to a 5-3 loss.

Even the Huskies’ fans are very similar to UMD’s. Shortly after the X was as loud as I have ever heard after the two quick goals, the fans even let up and became passive observers of the match that SCSU let get away.

Well, SCSU was outshot in the first 17-7 and also in the second 16-10, so the offense really did take a break. North Dakota’s defense never really did change intensity or play, it was Saint Cloud.

Of Saint Cloud’s performance, the hero of Friday’s game, goalie Mike Lee, was pulled after the fourth Sioux goal. Replacement Dan Dunn, third team All-WCHA, played a respectable game in making 11 saves and allowing no goals. But the damage had already been done and the fate of the Huskies sealed.

At the other end of the ice, Brad Eidsness played like the All-Tournament goalie that he was named. He was aggressive coming out to challenge shooters and take away angles. He had a great defense in front of him, especially after the flurry of the first minute.

Not to take away anything from UND, they also made their run at a UMD impersonation by becoming the second play-in team, and the second in two years, to win the Broadmoor Trophy. The Bulldogs were the other play-in team to win the Broadmoor.

So that is it from the WCHA Final Five as we watch the Fighting Sioux hoist the new hunk of hardware and prepare for the NCAA Tournament.

No Suspense for UMD Tomorrow

Michigan just defeated Northern Michigan 2-1 to take the CCHA auto-bid.  With Michigan's win, UMD has no chance to make the 16 team NCAA field.

End of an Era: Final Five

The changes previewed this past season are now official concerning the Final Five along with some unexpected changes that start tonight.

Starting with the unexpected, at least for us here at the HighHorse, is that UMD is the last team to win the old Broadmoor Trophy. Starting tonight, a new Broadmoor Trophy will be awarded to the winner of the WCHA Tournament. The new trophy is a cast likeness of the Broadmoor Hotel which hosted 11 NCAA Ice Hockey Championships between 1948 and 1969 in their Broadmoor World Arena along with being the home ice of the Colorado College Tigers.

The main part of the announcement was to confirm the format of next year’s Final Five. The name will remain, but instead of referring to five teams, it now describes the five games in Saint Paul for the WCHA Playoff Championship. The WCHA achieves this change by adding a game to Thursday’s quarterfinals and eliminating the third place game.

The first round will not look unfamiliar from other years. All WCHA members will enter the first round and top six seeds will play at home in best-of-three weekend matches. After the first round, the Final Five will again commence at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul.

Starting next year the six teams in the Final Five will be placed into brackets prior to the weekend starting. The Gopher Rule is still in place and the brackets will be made to have the Gophers playing in the late game Thursday and Friday if they make it in both rounds. The Gopher Rule was created to bolster attendance.

The new schedule at the Final Five is to have two games on Thursday tentatively starting at 4pm and the second at 7:30pm. Team #3 will play team #6 and Team #4 will play Team #5. There will be one ticket needed for both games of the session and just as other years, the losers are out of the tournament.

Friday’s games will look the same as other year’s with a 2:00pm game and a 7:00pm game. There are separate admission tickets for each of the games. New to the Friday games is that the loser of each game is done for the tournament with the elimination of the third place game.

Saturday will then only have the Broadmoor WCHA Championship game.

Additionally, representatives from the new WCHA teams, Bemidji State and Nebraska – Omaha, spoke about their excitement to join the league and to be in Saint Paul next year for the Final Five. Only time will tell who is at the X next year.

Rankings and A Prayer. Jayson Moy of USCHO stated in his blog:

If Maine wins Hockey East or Union wins the ECAC or Michigan wins the CCHA or RIT wins Atlantic Hockey or Ferris State wins, Minn.-Duluth is eliminated. Yikes.
Sacred Heart has won already tonight and Michigan is on their way to winning. With 10 minutes left in the third Michigan 2, NMU 0.

Thinking about a season wrap article…

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sioux Keep Marching

The Sioux just finished their next page in the newest story of a Thursday Play-in winner going for the WCHA Championship in an exciting 4-3 win over Denver.

Highlights quickly were Evan Trupp scoring his second and third goals of the tournament breaking a 21 game scoring drought and another Sioux shorthanded goal as the game winner. That is the second straight night UND’s game winner was a shorty.

The opponent of the Sioux for tomorrow night's WCHA Championship will be Saint Cloud State who took care of the Badgers 2-0 earlier in the day.
Rankings. Right now UMD is hanging onto life at #14, but looking at the PWR Predictor things look dicey with the Michigan win. As of now, one of the key games to UMD’s last hope to get to the NCAA Tournament is to have Northern Michigan beat Michigan in the CCHA final. If Michigan wins, it is a sealed season for the Bulldogs.

Sioux "Live to FIght Another Day"

The game is over. The season is over, most likely, but we’ll get to that later. As tight as it was on the scoreboard, it really was a Sioux team a half step ahead of the Bulldogs.

If it wasn’t for Kenny Reiter making his best Stalock impersonation at the Final Five, it might have been a 5-0 game instead of only 2-0. “That has to rank right up there with my best performances…I just tried to give us the best chance to win,” said Reiter. He is correct and he was one of few outstanding player wearing maroon and gold Thursday night.

Even the coach, Scott Sandelin, believed that was the case as he said in his post game conference. “After the first shift we really didn’t show a spark…we were a half step behind all night.”

Both teams played three games last weekend, so that really can’t be the breaker. The teams are very familiar with each other as this was the fifth match between the teams this year. So why did the game go the way of the Sioux? The better team on the ice was the Sioux. But the Bulldogs would not go away. They had their moments and stuck around waiting for their chance to take charge.

That chance came early in the third period when Cody Danberg took a swing at a high puck in the slot. He made a connection and the puck bounced off goalie Brad Eidsness, off of Darcy Zajac’s skate and into the net. Red light on, refs in the review mode.

“I was told that two views showed a high stick,” said Sandelin concerning the waved off goal. The review was not was not affirmed on press row with many questions remaining about what those views that showed a high stick were. The issue of the puck going in off the Sioux player’s skate is still to be resolved in the minds of UMD faithful. Either way, UMD had to find ways to score. Those ways just didn’t happen.

It was a sluggish game for the Bulldogs. When asked about the “half step behind” comment, Sandelin talked about the team lacking speed and urgency to get the puck up the rink most of the night and the power play was not clicking (0 for 5).

"We live to fight another day," said Sioux coach Dave Hakstol after the game.  The same as last year's Cinderella Story Bulldogs.  The bottom line is that UMD was not the better team, but they were in this game and now must play the waiting game to see if this was the last scene for the 2009-2010 Bulldogs.

PWR and Rankings. As I write this article back in the press box after the SCSU 2-0 defeat of the Wisconsin Badgers, I cannot help but be interrupted by the other conference games on the TVs up here. Is there hope? Yes, but hope and a prayer is about all the Bulldogs have. It will take the other conferences to go in line as far as higher seeds winning…and it will take help from higher powers in the NCAA selection committee to get the Bulldogs in the tourney. I really don’t want tot be correct, but I put the chances of entrance into the NCAA’s at 1%, or even less.

Rankings Frustrations Part II. The CHA two game tournament pickle has been aired here already so we will move to Part II, the ECAC predicament.

This is not about the top ranked Yale Bulldogs being ousted in the first round. No, this is about the fact that no team from this eight team conference will have enough games played to make their TUC count in the rankings. The minimum is ten to kick in TUC.

We are talking about a major conference here and the top two teams, Yale and Cornell ranked 8th and 9th respectively, have not played tem games against the top 25 in the PWR yet…and they won’t until the NCAA Tournament when rankings are done being compiled!

Taking two teams from this conference will happen due to computer rankings. At some point, though, we must look up from the computer screens and use our heads to look at who teams are playing more than how many wins they have, and Common Opponents is not the cure to this problem.

We will stay tuned and keep running the PairWise Predictor to see what effect the games tonight have on UMD’s future of their season.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Three is Key

Not much to say today except for the clich├ęs of which we will dispense of. The bottom line is if UMD loses, their season is over. If UND loses, they wait their destination in the NCAA Tournament. So is their more to play for on UMD’s side? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that UND will roll over. It will be a competitive game tonight no matter the winner.

UMD’s record when scoring three or more goals is the key tonight. To win, the Bulldogs must score at least three and rely on their defense to shutdown the Sioux scoring. This is an achievable task, but it will be difficult. We at the HighHorse put the biggest emphasis on UMD scoring at least three.

PWR Predictor. I have run more situations and have found that UMD still needs to win tonight to keep their NCAA hopes alive, but a second win is not necessary. At the same time two losses after Thursday will not do it either. It sounds strange, but the possibility of a tie in the third place game is possible and would more than likely push UMD into the NCAA Tourney.

The next column will come after the game tonight and will hopefully include a preview of a Friday game. Go Dogs!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On To Saint Paul

Goal one achieved: advancing to the Final Five in Saint Paul. One cannot take away the success in the best-of-three game series, but the fact that the Bulldogs needed three games to do it may prove to be costly for the goal of making the NCAA Tourney.

Behind stellar goaltending, solid defense, and balanced scoring the Bulldogs surged to the second round of the WCHA Playoffs with a 4-0 win over Colorado College at the DECC. The loss by CC ends their season.

To not follow CC to a season end, the Bulldogs must win. UMD is entering the Final Five as the only team of the five to not be as close to a guaranteed NCAA berth as it gets. In fact, UMD needs to get through Thursday’s Play-in game against North Dakota and even win one more to get a chance at the NCAA field. Bold statement, but how do we know what it takes is the question.

Again this year USCHO has their PairWise Predictor running. It is an interactive scenario generator where you choose the winners and losers and the PWR is calculated based on your choices. Without spending too much time yet on it, I have tried many possibilities and have come to the conclusion that UMD needs at least two wins to get in.  Also, again this year I challenge you to look at the possiblilites and find if there is a way for UMD to get into the NCAA Tourney with only a Thursday win.  Remember, at this point the top 14 get in because of the CHA and AHA champions not being in the PWR.  Good luck and post comments if you find anything.

It again all comes down to how many conference winner “upsets” we see like Alabama – Huntsville’s CHA championship.

The bottom line remains that to continue the season UMD has to take care of their business and let the chips fall where they may.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bulldogs Need Sunday; Bemidji Doesn't Pull Through

Here we are again. Another great chance for the Bulldogs to solidify their NCAA aspirations in route to the Final Five squandered. Instead, the team is headed to another home playoff series Sunday night game three. This will be the fifth straight home playoff series that will need a game three in 17 years. UMD is 4-1 in those games winning their last four.

It isn’t from lack of trying that UMD finds themselves playing on Sunday. Numerous great chances were had at CC goaltender Joe Howe, but Howe played an excellent game and staved off the Bulldogs. Total shot on goal did end up in UMD’s favor 40-31.

The part that really hurts is that a win would have propelled UMD higher than the #12 PWR ranking they were at prior to the WCHA games ending last night. Instead, they go back to limbo again, tied at #16 and out of the NCAA playoffs for now.

Not being able to be in Duluth for the games, the HighHorse staff is following the games in the internet broadcasts. Except for the part that after working very well all year, now we cannot get Bruce Ciskie’s call, so we are reduced to listening to the CC feed. What is interesting about the Tiger announcer is that he keeps referring to, “If the Tigers season is to continue…” And now it is if either team’s season is to continue, they must win tonight.

So much for my hope that the Tiger spirit would be crushed in OT fashion Friday and mail it in Saturday, but I guess that is how close these teams are. And it gives testament to the competition of the WCHA as all the series have been good match-ups, excluding the Anchorage losses at Wisconsin.

So off to Colorado Springs we go via the internet again tonight to listen to the last game for one of the teams in playing in Duluth tonight.

Dying Vengeance. The illustrious CHA took its final curtain call last night with their championship game in Niagara Falls, NY. I know that this is the way that college sports are supposed to work with the tournament winner getting an auto-bid to the NCAA (the Gopher Men’s Basketball team plays for the Big Ten title today in CHA style). But this is ridiculous.

There likely would be more of an outcry for the CHA to not have their auto-bid in a four team league if it wasn’t for Bemidji State’s run to the Frozen Four last year and the way they have competed this year nationally. But one of the CHA teams being over .500 (BSU) shows the competitiveness of this league.

I believe that everyone was OK with this year’s last hurrah also because Bemidji (#7 in the PWR) would waltz in and take the championship and that would be the ride off into the sunset that the CHA could take. In the style of March madness, that is not the script that was chosen.

Instead we get the old Hollywood script of the dying man taking vengeance against the living taking their secrets or treasures to the grave with them. BSU went to Niagara Falls and absolutely laid a pair of rotten eggs. First BSU lost to Niagara Friday night and then tied Robert Morris Saturday afternoon for the 3rd Place game. Alabama – Huntsville was the eventual CHA champion by beating Niagara last night. See their team photo showing all their index fingers in the air here.

The fallout from the events in Niagara Falls is that two teams from the now defunct CHA will be taking spots in the 16 team NCAA tourney. BSU will get a spot based on their PWR along with the CHA Champions Chargers. Couple that with the Atlantic Hockey auto-bid winner also going to the championship and we have the top 14 in the PWR now going. And that is assuming that another team in another conference doesn’t make an unlikely run to their league’s championship.

That truly would be an accomplishment worthy of an NCAA berth. Why? Because it would take more than two straight wins to do it like in the CHA.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tiger Taming

Here it is, the playoffs are upon the WHCA. In an up and down season, the Bulldogs fought their way, and then hung on, to finish in the upper half of the conference, earning a home playoff series. Their opponent is Colorado College.

UMD has had the opportunity to play CC four times this season giving each team a good idea of their opponent. The season series ended with UMD on top with three wins, with a sweep at the DECC.

CC has had a season similar to UMD’s. They started hot and have cooled off from there going from an entrenched upper half team and likely NCAA participant to now being on the road for the first round and needing help to have a shot at the NCAA tourney. And similar in this case is used loosely. UMD sustained their early season success longer than CC and finished off strong enough to host a playoff series. And again, let’s not forget that Bulldogs swept the Tigers in early January.

Last Weekend. Both teams are coming off of splits into this series. UMD, unlike CC, won their last outing. The Bulldogs beat the Seawolves 6-3 while CC lost to their rival Denver 7-3.

Tales that the Tape Give. Looking at the amassed stats from this season some keys to the series for the Bulldogs jump out. CC has a penchant for early period goals. The Tigers have tallied goals in the first minute of a period eight times this season and in the first two minutes of a period 20 times this season. UMD will have to be ready to play from the first puck drop because getting the first goal seems to be important to this Bulldog team. UMD is 12-3-1 when getting the first goal.

Special teams still play a large part of success for both of these teams. CC kills penalties better than UMD and the Bulldogs convert on power plays more often than the Tigers. In league games, UMD is first in PP at 24.8% compared to CC’s #3 ranking with 21.1%. For PK, again in conference stats only, CC kills off 82.4% good for fourth and UMD stops 81.4 % for sixth place. Combine special teams together, for whatever significance that stat brings, and UMD ranks at 5th in the league while CC is 8th. What it means is that UMD needs to keep converting power plays and playing good defense, especially when a man short.

One more stat to chew on, UMD has killed 23 of their last 24 penalties dating back to the Saturday night loss at North Dakota. During that streak, UMD kept opponents shutout on power plays for four straight games.

Friday Nights are Right? Friday games have been a documented struggle for the Bulldogs as of late. The Bulldogs have lost their last six Friday night games. A Friday loss is not a good way to start a best of three series, in fact it could be a killer. It is of the opinion of the HighHorse that Friday’s games will likely be the tell of how the series will end. As a side note, the Bulldogs are 13-4-0 in Saturday games and 1-1-0 in Sunday games this year.

It Takes Three. The mark of three goals is still important for UMD who are 19-1-1 when they achieve that mark. When held to less than three goals the Bulldogs have only one win.

The number three is also important to home playoff series. The last four home playoff series have needed the Sunday game. The good news is that UMD has won the previous three home Playoff series with a Sunday win. The last loss was against Michigan Tech in 1996 in OT.

Overall Thoughts. I will go out on my limb and predict that UMD will be aggressive and take care of this series in two games on their way to Saint Paul for the Final Five.

In the Other WCHA Playoff Series.

#10 Michigan Tech at #1 Denver: It is just not Tech’s year, unless they are playing UMD, and they aren’t this weekend. DU sweep this weekend.

#9 Alaska – Anchorage at #2 Wisconsin: This same match-up ended in a three game upset in 2004, but no this year. I won’t say that it won’t take three games, but I will say that Bucky Badger will win the series.

#8 Minnesota State Mankato at #3 Saint Cloud State: I know that the Huskies will not admit it, but I would be willing to bet that this is the one team that they would not choose to play from the bottom half in the first round. In fact, MSU has done quite well at the National Hockey Center going 7-1-1 there in the last nine played. With the way the Mavs carried play last weekend I see this series as the best chance at an upset, MSU in three games.

#7 UMTC at #4 North Dakota: This series seems cut and dried Sioux win, but those Gophers have been pesky, and streaky, as of late. As much as UMD needs UMTC to stay a TUC for the PairWise, this series doesn’t look good for the Gophers. I will not rule out the need for three games, but I will say that the Sioux will take the series.
We at the Hockey HighHorse are looking forward to taking in the games this weekend and are not planning on this being the last weekend of UMD Hockey for the season.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Small Numbers, Big Problem

Another weekend and another split. To be more specific, another split with a Friday loss and a Saturday loss. This one is more special, though, as it was the first chance for Anchorage to have a series sweep this year at home. Yes, it was the first Friday home win in a series this year. Actually, it was their fourth Friday win out of 17 Friday games. The stat is another example of UMD being on the negative end of a small number, an alarming trend for this year’s squad.

Small numbers and little company…or consolation. Some of the small numbers that UMD has been apart of this season:

The fourth Friday win for the Seawolves and the second at home. The first was the first game of the season, a part of the Kendall Hockey Classic.
  1. Michigan Tech won five games this season, four in the WCHA. Two of the Huskies’ wins are against UMD.
  2. To this point, UMD has won one game when scoring less than 3 goals.
Small numbers add up, or add down depending on how you look at it, to a 5th place WCHA finish, but has also allowed the Bulldogs to host a first round series. This weekend the Bulldogs will go for a larger number, a five, as in the number of wins this season against Colorado College.

PWR Conundrum. Currently UMD is sitting at 15th in the PWR. They started the weekend at 12, dropped to 18 after Friday’s loss, and buoyed to 16 after Saturday’s win. The move to the current place was due to the Gophers win against the Badgers Sunday afternoon.

At one point, the Bulldogs were ranked third in the PWR. That was before the current 4-8-0 streak. Quite a fall in ranking puts an NCAA berth in peril. The set-up is similar to last year and a postseason run will be necessary to make the playoffs. UMD will need to make it to the Final Five and most likely get to one of Friday’s games to have a chance of the NCAA’s.

Reasons for this Year’s Predicament. Besides the losing streak, the main reasons for the #15 ranking is lack of wins against TUC teams and the loss to Vermont on January 3. That’s correct, we can trace the current ranking back to one specific loss, another small number working aginst UMD.

In looking at the PWR Comparison Table, UMD is in a strange position. They win the comparison against three teams ranked above them (Michigan State, Ferris State, and Northern Michigan) and lose the comparison to four teams below the Bulldogs (UMass – Lowell, Massachusetts, Maine, and BU).

All four teams below UMD that win the comparison are all from Hockey East, the league that Vermont is in. The teams win the comparison because Vermont hasn’t done well this season losing to all those teams. In addition, the four teams have better, albeit slightly better, TUC records than UMD. But the real “killer” here is the common opponents criteria, games against Vermont in particular.

The only way to remedy the problem is UMD to put together some wins and watch for those four to lose. And they may just all lose this weekend. Three of the four teams play the first round on the road and likely any series loss by these teams will result in a TUC reduction. Those possible losses paired with UMD wins, the Bulldogs PWR can benfit greatly.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saturday Night Set-Up

As we wait for the puck to drop in the last regular season game for the Bulldogs many thoughts are racing through my mind. I will dispense with most of them for now and focus on UMD’s now assured slot in the WCHA playoffs.

As it turns out, the unimaginable happened in Saint Cloud tonight. The Huskies and Mavericks played to a tie, 2-2. That result along with the Maverick win Friday night is what was needed coupled with a UMD sweep for the Bulldogs to move up the WCHA standings instead of down. A UMD sweep would have moved the Bulldogs into 3rd place and looking towards a possible Thursday reprieve in the Final Five, but that is really putting the cart before the horse as the sweep is not possible.

As it stands, and it will not change not matter the outcome of the game starting in less than five minutes, the Bulldogs will finish in 5th. Their draw will be to host Colorado College at the DECC next weekend.

Tonight is a set-up game for next weekend and it may prove to be important. Currently Denver is taking it to Colorado College 6-0 midway through the second period.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ending on a High Note, Long-Distance

Cohesive, resilient, confident…all things that one wants to see in their favorite hockey team. But which of them, if any, describes the UMD Bulldogs as they jet off to the 49th state to take on the Seawolves of Alaska – Anchorage? The season is still a story in the making. A season story that has two distinct sections that can be looked at two different ways.

One way to bisect the season is looking at the calendar and splitting the season into the winning first half before 2010 and the losing second half. The second way to look at the season is games against the “better” teams and the “worse” teams…in essence, TUC teams and not TUC teams. Either way, it has been a high flying ride at times and a rocky ride at other times. And it all comes down to the games in Alaska determining the final seeding of UMD in the WCHA playoffs.

Anyone Out There? Moving into the playoffs on a good note is important. Not too many teams can do what UMD did last year after getting swept by the Seawolves at home for the last series. A repeat, I fear, has very slim chances to succeed.

To win, a team needs to score and there has not been much of that going on in recent years by the Bulldogs. The only current Bulldogs to have tallied a goal against UAA ever are Justin Fontaine (4), Jordan Fulton (1), and Drew Akins (1). That should lead to no surprise that UMD is currently on a 0-4-2 streak when facing UAA.

Scoring, Part II. UMD has been playing better hockey as of late, but the goals are still fewer than the averages indicate. In this series scoring and taking leads into the period intermissions is of utmost importance. UAA is 0-14-0 this season when trailing after one period and 0-18-0 when trailing after two periods. Not even a tie in there is amazing. It is also interesting to see that intermissions are the key, because the Seawolves are 4-14-2 when their opponent scores first.

What Makes this Series a Struggle. Many factors are working against the Bulldogs. It is a long trip with major time zone difference, some players are fighting injuries, and others are sick. UAA is also very similar to two teams that UMD has faced this season with varying results, Mankato and Michigan Tech. UAA is a grind it out defensive oriented team that can shut teams down if they are on their game. Evidence their 8-0-1 mark when leading after two periods.

What Makes this Series a Success. The Bulldogs have had their struggles as indicated in this article. I believe that UMD has been broken down and are now building themselves back up for the playoffs as shown last weekend in two games that were very well played even though not many goals were scored. Games like the two coming up will show how far they have come and indicate how far they can be expected to go into spring.

Around the WCHA this Weekend. A full slate of games to end the regular season.

Michigan Tech at North Dakota: With the Sioux two points behind UMD and holding the tie-breaker, the sweep this weekend by UND will necessitate at least three points by UMD to keep at least fourth place.

Saint Cloud State and Minnesota State Mankato (home and home): SCSU is two points ahead of UMD in the standings and they hold the tie-breaker. It has to be at least a three point weekend for Mankato for the Bulldogs to pass the Huskies. As much as I want it to happen, I see this series as a split.

Wisconsin at Minnesota: This series is interesting for UMD’s prospects. The Bulldogs could theoretically move as far up as second place because they have the tie-breaker over Wisconsin assuming a Gopher sweep. At the same time, UMD could use Gopher wins to keep them in the TUC. Honestly, though, this series will be a sweep for the Badgers.

Denver and Colorado College (home and home): Denver is the only team to have their first round match-up solidified. Again, CC winning would keep them as a TUC which would benefit the Bulldogs. Even so, Denver will take their rival who can still change their playoff destination for three points.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Split Keeps UMD Alive; North Dakota and Sioux Supporters Head to Court

Still alive in the hunt for the NCAA tournament, but that is about the best thing to come out of the weekend series with the UMTC Gophers. In two games that really could have gone either way, the Bulldogs did not show the fire, or firepower, that they will need to advance on into late March and early April.

The difference between the nights was Bulldog goaltending. Brady Hjelle played about equally well both nights making 21 saves Friday and 22 saves Saturday. Not that much difference as far as stats go. It shows that the defense was doing their job in limiting shots. Unfortunately it shows that either better scoring chances were given up on Friday or the goaltending was better on Saturday. It is the latter of the two. Inconsistent UMD goaltending need to be shored up soon. If UMD wants to repeat the successes of last season, the lesson of having good, no, great goaltending is necessary.

What is also concerning is the type of goals that are being scored. Of the five UMD goals, one was 5 on 5 and two were power play. It is good to see the power play coming back, but a balanced attack from all 3 or 4 lines is what is needed this time of year. Is this sounding repetitive?

Last concern is the fact that going to North Dakota the stat was touted where UMD was 6-0-0 when holding their opponent to no power play goals. Since that stat surfaced, the Bulldogs have twice allowed no opponent power play goals and lost both games, one against the Sioux and the other against the Gophers.

I did get the go ahead from my co-writer Saturday morning to push the panic button, but now I am on the other side and will wait to see what comes of the tough conference season-ending series in Anchorage. It will be a challenge to sweep. It will be a challenge to take three points. But three points is likely needed to stay in position number four in the WCHA. But is fourth in the WCHA a good match-up in the first round? More on that later this week.

Rankings. Polls are now out the window and the PWR is all that matters. Sixteen get into the NCAA Tournament and with auto-bids, usually the top fourteen in the PWR get in. After Saturday, the Bulldogs were perilously holding onto #16. After a win Saturday, they are now perilously holding onto #14.

Inspecting the PWR Comparisons, it is puzzling, just like the tale of two sections of the UMD season, of why the Bulldogs are at #14. They own the comparisons over three teams above them in the ranking. But they also lose comparisons to the #17, 21, and 23 teams. It all comes down to TUC (Teams Under (PWR) Consideration). UMD has done very poorly beating the good teams and it is starting to hurt in the ranking. The good news is that when the playoffs come, they should all be good teams that UMD plays, so there is the chance for redemption.

Who is in Control of the Name?
In what seems to be a wacky turn of events, the Fighting Sioux are heading back to court over their name in a report from the Grand Forks Herald.

The reason for the move isn’t what most would assume. In this case, it is the North Dakota Sate Higher Education Board asking the courts to help them drop the Sioux nickname. The plaintiff in the case is the Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation who are in favor of the nickname and want it to stay. The Higher Ed Board wants it to sunset so they can host NCAA tournament games and allow UND and North Dakota State University to join the Summit League athletic conference who have a ban on nicknames like the NCAA. The twists and turns of this issue are getting more interesting all the time.