Friday, October 28, 2011

Special Teams Key When Bemidji Visits Duluth

Special Teams, Goaltending Favor Bemidji

It is not secret that UMD was sparked by their power play last season. Couple that with a better than decent penalty kill and we all know where that took the Bulldogs.

Fast forward to this season.

The power play has started to come around and be productive. After last weekend, the Bulldogs convert power plays at a 20% rate good for 16th in the nation. No reason to panic, in fact the rate is good and should get even better as the power play units get more chances.

The penalty kill has been a glaring low spot for this year’s Bulldog team. They are currently at a 70% kill rate which is not in the top 40 in the nation. That is an improvement from the 55% kill rate before last weekend’s series at Providence. That is not a misprint, 55% four games into the season. The current rate is bad, but looking at where the Bulldogs came from, it is a great improvement.

See all the stat comparisons in the HighHorse StatPack.
The test gets more difficult this weekend on both ends of the special teams. The most glaring mismatch is the 4th ranked BSU power play against the UMD kill. The Bulldogs will have their hands full especially since UMD averages 18.67 penalty minutes per game, eighth highest in the nation. Arguably, the series will be won and lost based n the UMD penalty kill versus the BSU power play.

You might think that UMD would have a chance to extract their own goals on power play because a 20% conversion isn’t bad. But the Beavers are a well disciplined team committing only 10 minutes per game on average.

Special teams are important this weekend as with any college hockey series. But with the way both teams are going, it likely could be the determining factor of the series.

The other factor that is a close second to special teams in determining the series will be goaltending. Bemidji seems to have it clicking while UMD is still trying to feel their way through.

Reiter has seemingly been deemed the number one, but likely not because of his play. Instead it is the lack of good play in the nets for back-up Aaron Crandall.

Crandall has played only one game, but it was a forgettable outing where he stopped only 78% of the shots he faced. Now that is only one game, but it must also be showing up in practice for Reiter to have the last four consecutive starts.

We said it last week and it applies here again, a Bulldog resurgence needs to start in goalie play. The late tying goals by opponents need to stop. The team must be able to trust themselves and their netminder that they can hold a one goal lead to the end.

Keep Shooting?  UMD has outshot their opponents in all six games this year, but are still 2-3-1.  The total shots on goal are UMD 221, Opponents 158.  The Bulldogs need to start burying those shots or keep the fewer shots faced out of the net.  Better yet, do both!

Prediction. This will be the weekend that UMD comes out in their building and wins a series. Now we don’t see a sweep occurring, but UMD will take three points from the Bemidji.

Around the WCHA. Besides the UMD – BSU series, there are four league series and one non-conference set.

Denver at Michigan Tech: Denver comes in playing really good hockey and shouldn’t really have a problem in Houghton. Tech is trying to regain their magic before they fall into a downward spiral like last year. Home cooking for the Huskies won’t be enough as the Pioneers sweep.

Saint Cloud State at North Dakota: This is a bad weekend for SCSU to get the Sioux. UND will be ready to make a statement and they will with a sweep at home against a struggling Huskies team making their WCHA season debut.

Nebraska – Omaha at Wisconsin: These are two teams that have Jekyll/Hyde problems this season. Both teams are coming off of home sweeps, but inconsistency still reigns. This series will end in a split.

University of Minnesota – Twin Cities at Alaska – Anchorage: The Gophers aren’t invincible as demonstrated in a home loss to Vermont last Sunday. It was the Gophers first loss and first goals given up this season at home. Anchorage has shown they are formidable in Alaska and that is why this series will be a split.

Colorado College at RPI: We still strongly believe that the Tigers are the best of the WCHA and they will have little trouble dispatching RPI in New York.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Minnesota - Duluth vs Bemidji StatPack

The numbers are getting better for the Bulldogs as more games are played, especially the games that UMD wins.  This weekend won't be easy, but it can't be as grim as this week's HighHorse StatPack looks.

Monday, October 24, 2011

WCHA: The Land of Sweeps

Home Sweeps Dominate Conference Play; UMD Gets Three in Providence

Welcome to the land of sweeps, the WCHA. Twenty-eight games into the WCHA season and all fourteen series have been sweeps. Make that all have been home sweeps, excluding the Gopher sweep at Duluth.

In a conference that is usually predictable about who is tops and who will be the doormats, this season has started off as the season of parody. Not all teams have had the chance to play more than one conference series, and SCSU still has to play even one WCHA contest, but a few questions are coming to the forefront.
  • Are the Sioux a top tier team? After Wisconsin gets swept at Tech, they turn around and sweep North Dakota in Madison. Maybe NoDak isn’t that good…or Tech maybe claiming their trophy (MacNaughton Cup) after all these years.  It doesn't bode well for the Sioux seeing that Tech got swept by the Beavers in Bemidji this past weekend.  But it is too early in the season to making those type of comparisons...or is it? 
  • Is Michigan Tech for real? A much heralded sweep over Wisconsin brings Tech to BSU and a thump as they get swept.  The Huskies did look good at times, especially late in both games.  If only the games were seven minutes longer...  As stated here last week, MTU started 3-0-2 last year before going 1-30-2 to finish the season. New coach Mel Pearson knew he was in for a tough time, but it started good and now he has to get the Huskies to stop the skid.
  • Is there a home ice advantage in the WCHA? Normally I would say no, but who can argue with the results so far? Let’s see after this weekend when Denver travels to Tech and the Gophers visit Alaska – Anchorage.
  • Will Minnesota State – Mankato become the new bottom dweller in the WCHA? So the Mavs got swept in Denver topped by a 10-2 drubbing Saturday night. They didn’t have any reserve skaters on the trip due to injuries and were forced to dress 19 skaters Saturday because of a new injury. This weekend off could help with the issue, or maybe they should take one of the three goalies they brought to Denver and make him play forward…couldn’t hurt.
Bulldogs Take Three in Providence. The road series is a nice rebound to the beginning of the year. The Bulldogs never trailed during the weekend and got to bolster their penalty killing numbers against a mediocre Friars team.

The one issue that still lingers is the finishing instinct of this Bulldog squad. Again, UMD surrenders a late goal that this time resulted in a tie. It is a better result than the loss to UMTC earlier this year when UMD gave up a late tying goal, but the trend is concerning. This weekend’s games against Bemidji isn’t time to be on shaky ground. The scrapping Beavers have given UMD fits for years now, especially last season when the teams went 1-1-1 against each other with all the games going to overtime.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

UMD - Providence StatPack

It is still early, but troubling trends are mounting in the Bulldog's statistics.  This year's Friars team isn't a push over.  It would be a great weekend to get things on track while being away from Duluth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Work in Progress; Derailed Again

Gophers Gain Sweep in Duluth 5-4 OT and 5-4

No one said this season was going to be easy, but the struggles and bad bounces for the Bulldogs have been ridiculous. It is the “every way to lose a hockey game” tour in this early season.

Kings of overtime no more. After quite a streak of OT wins, UMD was snake bitten last Friday after taking their first lead with 2:00 left in the third. An extra attacker goal by the Gophers that went in off a UMD player’s skate led the game to overtime. With less than a minute left in OT the Gophers finished with the game winning goal.

After the game winner, the Gopher players mobbed one another like they had won a playoff game. And why wouldn’t they, after squandering a lead and fighting their way to a win in OT over the reigning national champs? It was a well deserved win for them.

While the celebrating was going on, the Bulldogs were trying to shake off the gut punch they just endured. Another game, another way to lose.

Saturday night brought an about face on the UMD side. The Bulldogs came out buzzing looking to put Friday night in the past and move on. Up 2-0, the Bulldogs found themselves cruising until the bad bounces again got them down. After a Gopher goal and a UMD self-inflicted goal, the Bulldogs went to the locker room for the first intermission tied 2-2 but leading in shots 18-4. Enter the mental game.

Early in the second, 1:10 to be exact, the Gophers wrested the lead for good with a Nick Bjugstad goal. Follow that up by two more Gopher goals and the Bulldogs found themselves on a Gopher five unanswered goal streak.

What else could go wrong? Really, nothing, and this is where the light may be in the end of the tunnel.

The Bulldogs could have curled up and sacrificed themselves, but they did battle back to come very close to tying it up before eventually losing 5-4. I know that “very close” is worth nothing in the league standings, but the team does need to start back from somewhere.

What we are finding out about this UMD team is that offense is good, at least five on five. The once vaunted power play that has clicked for two years now doesn’t. Chemistry does take some time to develop and it needs to happen now.

The defense corps appears to be adequate even above average on blocking shots and reducing chances. It is goaltending where the big question lies. Many have speculated that Reiter really can’t be faulted for the goals, that they were good shots. So who does it fall on? The defense held UMTC to 16 shots Saturday. I guess they must have been waiting to only take quality shots to score 5 goals, that’s a 31% shooting efficiency! When UMD gets this thing turned around it has to start at the goaltending and work out from there. Goaltending is everything in college hockey. It can make a decent team great or keep a good team from reaching its potential. Let’s get the goaltending up to par and see what kind of team the Bulldogs are this season.

Up next for UMD is a road trip to Providence to face the unbeaten Friars.

Elsewhere in the WCHA.

Michigan Tech swept a home series against the Badgers. It marks the first WCHA sweep for MTU since 2007. Both games went to OT and ended 3-2. That puts Wisconsin on a 0-3-0 OT run this season and a combined 1-12-19 OT record since 2007. Tech just needs to sustain now. They did start off 3-0-2 last season before going 1-30-2 to finish the season.

Anchorage went into the Goal Rush and found two wins to take their record to 3-0-1. In the process they beat Nebraska – Omaha, their second WCHA non-conference opponent in two weeks, 3-0. SCSU was the other last weekend. For the record, UNO barely found the goals in the Goal Rush, scoring one in a pair of losses in Alaska.

Hats off to staffer Andrew Fiskness who picked the Denver win correctly. DU went east for a challenge and came away with a win over BC and a loss to BU.

Colorado College swept Bemidji State in Colorado Springs, as expected. But it wasn’t without drama. BSU had the lead four times in the Saturday night game, but CC had the answer every time to gain a 6-4 win.

The UP resurgence took a toll on Saint Cloud State as Northern Michigan swept the Huskies in Marquette. The UP teams (MTU, NMU and Lake Superior State) are a combined 11-1-0 this season and all are WCHA bound in 2014.

Totally unexpected results in Mankato as UMass – Lowell came to MSU and swept the series. Who saw that coming?

Finally, Maine traveled to North Dakota for a pair of games. Whatever suspicions NoDak fans had should start to be quelled as the Sioux won Friday then found themselves behind 2-0 Saturday only to battle back for a tie. In all, it was a respectable three point Sioux weekend.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Intrastate Rivalry Heats Up Between Bulldogs and Gophers

Gophers Make Second Trip to AMSOIL

The season is young, but you can’t tell from the comments of players and fans from each side.

This is UMD’s big rivalry series and UMTC has always tried to down play it as a regular WCHA series. That has changed in recent years as UMD has taken the spotlight of the state sporting world. The Bulldogs are coming off of the men’s hockey national championship, two years removed from the women’s national championship and two of the last three D-II football national championships.

Has it really trickled to the players? Look at the quote dug up by Bruce Ciskie from Gophers captain Taylor Matson on UMD winning the championship, "It really bites you. We've beaten them ... twice last year, so it's really hard to take that in. Especially for a Minnesota team, you hate to see the spotlight go to them." No, Taylor, that would be one win, one loss and two ties last year, but it must sound better to say the Gophers beat the eventual National Champions twice. If anyone thinks that this rivalry is one way, they really should think again.

Last night at the Wild game, the highlights shown during the “State of Hockey” anthem had two scenes of UMD winning the national championship and no gopher puck scenes. A very telling tale of where we are in the State of Hockey.

So what does that all equal up to? The Gophers are in the role of having something to prove this year to the Bulldogs, role reversal from many years leading to this weekend. The Bulldogs in turn have to be ready to back up their body of work and keep the Gophers wanting the spotlight, a terrible feeling many Bulldogs from the past have felt.

Get the statistical breakdown in the HighHorse StatPack.

Got Defense? The Gopher defense is off to a remarkable start by giving up zero goals in their opening series last weekend. The opponent was Sacred Heart of the Atlantic Hockey Association, a conference that perennially has only the auto-bid representing in the NCAA tournament. In fact Sacred Heart is ranked at #56 in INCH’s Great 58 ranking of all D-I hockey teams. They come in just ahead of Alabama – Huntsville and American International.

If we take it back to the exhibition game, the Gophers have scored 18 goals and allowed zero. It is impressive, but nowhere near the level of competition they will face in the WCHA. The real question is what will happen to the team when they do give up a goal? It will be a mental test for the Gophers of how they respond.

Got Defense? Part II. Goaltending is setting up to be a challenge for the Bulldogs. A team 0.800 saves percentage is not acceptable for a top half WCHA team…not even a bottom tier team. The goalies, especially Crandall, need to pick it up now. There is not time to figure things out when you start with weekends against teams like Notre Dame and UMTC.

Brooms For, Not Against. The Bulldogs were one of two teams nationally not to be swept last season, Boston College being the other. Against the Gophers, UMD went 1-1-2 last season and are unbeaten in seven of their last nine match-ups. The Bulldogs are 1-0-1 against the Gophers at AMSOIL Arena.

Prediction. This weekend has all the makings of a late season marquee match-up. Instead, and unfortunately, it is early in the season when teams are still trying to find their legs for back to back games and their team chemistry.

The Gophers will not get out of Duluth without giving up goals, just how many will the Bulldogs score? Enough to take one game, but not both. This series will be a split. Which night will UMD win? I hate to say it, but the night Crandall is not in net, if the current goalie rotation is kept.

Around the WCHA. Two other conference series occur this weekend with plenty of quality non-conference match-ups.

Wisconsin at Michigan Tech: MTU has a habit of making early season runs and UW was not at all impressive last weekend at home against the green of Northern Michigan. Can Mel Pearson turn around the Huskies program? Not right away, but he something going UP there with two wins where Tech had to come back. This weekend Tech will see more positives by gaining a split with the Badgers.

Bemidji State at Colorado College: The Beavers pulled quite the upset last weekend winning at Miami. Don’t expect the same when they face the Tigers. CC sweep in Bemidji.

Maine at North Dakota: Last year this match-up proved to be interesting as the Black Bears swept the Sioux in Maine. It is a different year in a different venue. Some are questioning whether the Sioux have the scoring punch they traditionally have had. They will be put to the test this weekend that ends in a split.

Saint Cloud State at Northern Michigan: NMU showed their potential on the road in Madison last weekend with a closely contested split. This weekend the Wildcats are at home and the WCHA opponent is SCSU. NMU has shown their stuff and will sweep the Huskies.

Massachusetts – Lowell at Minnesota State – Mankato: Don’t expect too much from the Mavericks this season, but expect even less from Lowell. A home series for MSU equals a sweep for the Mavericks.

Denver at Boston College (Fri.) and Boston University (Sat.): A difficult undertaking for the Pioneers to travel to Boston. DU will gain a split, but who will they beat? Our staff is also split on the team the Pioneers beat.

Nebraska – Omaha and Alaska – Anchorage at Alaska Goal Rush Tournament: Other teams in this tourney are Alaska and Mercyhurst. Tournaments are difficult to pick, but what we do know is that both UNO and UAA will split their games.

Next weekend the WCHA schedule expands to four conference series as we start our way to the MacNaughton Cup.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bulldogs and Gophers by the Numbers

Our first StatPack for the season, though it is sparse on data.  Each team has only two games of record and the opponents are on the opposite ends of the college hockey spectrum.  But stats is one criteria to judge teams.

UMTC at UMD October 14-15, 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bulldogs Learning Against the Best

UMD Earns a Split Against the Irish 4-3 and 3-5

Lessons learned is the goal of the early hockey season. The first series for UMD provided many lessons, let’s hope that learning was also occurring.

The Bulldogs gained a split against the top ranked Irish of Notre Dame over the past weekend. All facets of the game, offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and mental play provided highlights and low lights for the weekend.

Scoring was present from multiple players. Eleven Bulldogs tallied at least a point on the seven goals for the weekend and four players scored goals. Mike Seidel is the leading goal scorer with three on the year. Also worth noting is that no freshman players recorded a point for the weekend. Offense is off to a good start considering the losses from last year.

Defense was suspect at times and as a group showed their inexperience. Players were put into pressure situations they were not accustomed to, but is what happens when you are the national champions playing the new number one team in the nation. Defense as a whole has some maturing to do, but it seems as though they should come around.

Special teams had their struggles, as would be expected knowing the departures from last year. Power play looked good as they went 3 for 14 over the weekend (21%). The power play also struggled a bit in giving up a shorthanded goal that allowed Notre Dame to tie the game 2-2 Saturday and build momentum that UMD just could not break. Penalty kill did well, but the numbers don’t look good, 7 of 9 for 78%. The percent of penalties killed needs to go up, and it should as UMD gets deeper into the season.

Goaltending for the weekend showed promise, but also concern. Yes, the Bulldogs played the top ranked team in the nation, but they also beat them. So it is concerning that the goalies are below 90% for saves percentage. It goes beyond there, though, Reiter is an abysmal 82.4% and Crandall is at a remarkably low 78.3%. Again, this is early in the season and these averages should even out, but it is not like UMD plays Sacred Heart next weekend. The Bulldogs get the Gophers who outscored Sacred Heart 15-0 last weekend in a two game series.

Saturday’s loss could be chalked up to mental breakdowns. Early in the second, UMD had a 2-0 lead and seemed to be rolling towards a sweep. Then the unexpected happened. A fluky goal unleashed the Irish attack. Or was it the Bulldog’s mentally broke down and let momentum beat them? It is a point of concern because the Bulldogs as a whole seemed to lose the drive to compete in the game giving up goals that were too easy for the Irish scorers. The team needs to find leaders who will take the team out of the funks that inevitably happen in games.

Expectations abound for this season’s UMD team, especially after beating the Irish opening night. The question still remains, did the Bulldogs learn from their mistakes? Next weekend against UMTC will let us all know more.

Elsewhere in the WCHA.

Two WCHA teams completed sweeps this past weekend and no WCHA team was swept.

UMD’s next Opponent, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, swept, or dismantled, Sacred Heart 9-0 and 6-0 in Minneapolis. Ten different Gophers scored in the 15-0 weekend.

The other WCHA sweep occurred in Houghton where Michigan Tech swept American International fro their second 2-0-0 start in two years. The 4-3 and 3-1 wins propelled Huskies over the #58 ranked American International as ranked in INCH’s Great 58.

Unbeaten Alaska – Anchorage gets ready for their second tournament in as many weeks after tying Clarkson 4-4 and beating Saint Cloud State 4-3 in OT.

Speaking of Saint Cloud, the Huskies SCSU gained a split despite losing in OT to UAA by beating Alaska Friday night in Anchorage.

Wisconsin staved off a sweep by coming back from a 2-0 deficit Saturday to beat Northern Michigan 3-2. NMU bested the Badgers Friday 3-2 in OT.

Minnesota State – Mankato used defense to shutout RPI Friday night 1-0 in New York. RPI got the best of MSU Saturday winning 4-1.

The surprise of the weekend comes from Ohio where Bemidji State beat Miami 5-3 Friday night. Who knew BSU could find that kind of scoring especially against the #2 team in the nation. Miami did come back Saturday to split the series with a 3-2 win.

Nebraska – Omaha held their annual tournament this past weekend and rode the rollercoaster of Faulkner’s goaltending to a split. Friday was a 5-1 win over Mercyhurst followed by a Saturday 4-3 loss to Colgate.

North Dakota also hosted a tournament, the annual Ice Breaker, with a split weekend. After sneaking by Air Force 4-3, the Sioux lost to now #1 Boston College 6-2.

Finally, in exhibition play, both Denver and Colorado College took turns shutting out the US Under 18 team. DU was first with a 3-0 win Friday followed by CC with a 5-0 win Saturday.

Next weekend the WCHA looks forward to two series to start the conference season along with some great non-conference matchups.

Friday, October 7, 2011

#1 Irish at #8 Bulldogs

Rematch of Frozen Four Semifinal With New and Old Faces

In a change from the recent norm, UMD takes on a non-conference opponent in a series to start the season. That opponent is the top ranked Notre Dame Irish that UMD defeated in the semifinals of the Frozen Four last season.

Since fall of 2007, UMD has taken part in the Superior Cup that pitted UMD and Michigan Tech of the WCHA against Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan of the CCHA. The Bulldogs won the cup each of the seasons except for last year when MTU went 2-0. But this year we say goodbye to the cup and watch as the Bulldogs jump right into the fire of a difficult non-conference match-up.

Last time was good, but this is a new season and the winner does not go to the national championship. The winner of the series does get a leg up on the competition as both the Irish and Bulldogs are highly ranked teams. Talking about the past, the Irish holds an 18-11-4 lead in the all time series. The first meeting between these teams was in 1971 when both were members of the WCHA…funny how conference courting and jumping is a hot topic again today.

What has been lost and what remains. Looking at the Irish lineup, names jump out that were forces to be contained in the last meeting in April and are back again this year. Keeping T.J. Tynan, Anders Lee, and Billy Maday, three of the Irish’s top four goal scorers last season, in check will be a sizable task. With the success of keeping Irish scores in check will be the success of the Bulldogs this weekend.

A high scoring game is not what the Bulldogs want. UMD lost two of their top three scorers from last year in Justin Fontaine and Mike Connolly. That leaves just Jack Connolly from the vaunted FCC line that wreaked havoc on goaltenders, especially on the power play last season. It is the first weekend that the Bulldogs try to find where their scoring will come from besides Jack Connolly and J.T. Brown. On the opposite side of the puck, freshman defensive force Justin Faulk left school early and has made an impact in making the 23 man roster of the Carolina Hurricanes, not the UMD Bulldogs.

Prediction. The certainly will not have the same polish as they did last meeting, these are the first couple games of the season. But the stakes are high as the reigning national champions take on the new #1 in the polls (USCHO; #2 USA Today/USA Hockey). Home ice should mean something to the Bulldogs along with raising the banner. That all taken into account and the fact that these are the first games, a UMD win and tie are what we see for the weekend.

Around the WCHA. Again, it is the first weekend and there are a few tournaments that WCHA teams are in, we will not fill out this capsule for this week. We look forward to getting one week under the WCHA belt and coming back with notes next week.

UMD Players to Watch. Pre-season picks for end of season awards.

MVP: Jack Connolly has to step up in this new Bulldog landscape and be the leader he is so good at being. Even if his numbers falter, that is OK as long as he is drawing attention from opponents and others are taking advantage by scoring.

DarkHorse (our breakout player of the year): It may be unconventional and break the rules, if there are any, but we look to Cody Danberg. Returning for a second senior season, he should use his experience and wisdom to help lead the forwards. His 16 points in 99 games should be easily doubles this season.

Rookie to Watch: Caleb Herbert is our pick for the rookie to be watch because of his numbers from his stint in the USHL. One season with Sioux City 23-27 for 50 points.

Key players to UMD’s success this year:

Travis Oleksuk is on this list for the second straight year. Travis is now a senior and has been the anchor of an ever changing second line at center. The second line needs to score to take pressure off the top line and make the opponent be wary of more than one or two players.

J.T. Brown needs to keep his high level of play. A sophomore slump is not an option.

Reiter/Crandall tandem have to work together to keep pressure off of the other. The platoon system last regular season worked well. When one struggled, the other stepped in big and vice a versa. Success rides big on the goaltender.

The games are finally here, get the jitters out and enjoy the banner raising before the puck drops tonight.