Friday, December 16, 2011

UMD Mid-Season Break

WCHA in a Very Limited Weekend Schedule

It is the mid-season break for most teams including UMD. It is hard to believe that we are right at the halfway point of the regular season and maybe as unbelievable that UMD is tied atop the WCHA with the Gophers after losing a pair against the Twin Cities team in October. The Bulldogs will take it and the 14 game unbeaten streak while resting up for the new calendar year.

In the meantime, we look at the weekend’s schedule to find only eight games in total, all with at least one WCHA team involved.

Colorado College at Minnesota State – Mankato: The Mavericks swept the Chargers of UAH at home last weekend. The Friday night contest was tight and Saturday was a blowout. The Tigers come into this weekend after coming from behind to earn a split at home against the Seawolves. CC is the better team, but there play has not been consistent and that will not change in a split.

Denver at Saint Cloud State: SCSU is rested after a week off and DU continues a road trip through The State of Hockey. Denver has recognized the importance of this series in recent Twitter posts by players, but will there be enough focus by their star players prior to leaving for the World Juniors? Included are all the injuries the Pioneers are dealing with, most recently Beau Bennett. Denver's road struggles will continue and they will split.

Alabama – Huntsville at Bemidji State: The Beavers earned a split against DU last weekend and even though the Chargers looked plucky on Friday night they don't have enough horses to beat another. The slow-it-down, grind-it-out down Beavers sweep this series.

Michigan Tech at Northern Michigan (Friday only): This is the first game of a home and home series between the two teams with the second game coming on January 21 in Houghton. NMU is coming off a split in Sault Sainte Marie with Lake Superior State and Tech split against Minnesota – Twin Cities. The Huskies last weekend left Minneapolis with 2 points. The big question is did Tech leave with a new fight after the emotional Saturday night loss, or did they lose all composure and now fade away? NMU is a pretty good team and plays very good at home, but my impression was a Tech team with fight and they will get a win on the road.

Russian Red Stars at North Dakota (Saturday exhibition).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wild Western

WCHA Tough To Figure Out

Just when you think teams are starting to find their groove and become somewhat predictable, we have yet another weekend full of splits. The only conference series that was not a split was UMD continuing their unbeaten streak in tying and beating Wisconsin in Madison.

If there were a weekend that looked from the outset sweeps would prevail and set teams apart, it was this last weekend. Instead, we are one partial conference weekend away from the mid-point in the WCHA schedule with a logjam still in the middle of the standings. All teams have played 14 games, half of the conference schedule, except four teams that play each other this weekend: Colorado College is at Minnesota State – Mankato and Denver is at Saint Cloud State.

The top and bottom are aerating from the pack, but the middle is up for grabs. Fourth through 10th places are separated by four points. One weekend series could change the fortune of bottom half team and out them in the upper ranks.

The WCHA is harder than ever to figure out this season. About all we can do is sit back and enjoy the games and continue to see surprising results.

UMD’s Unbeaten in 14, But… It has to end at some point. UMD will lose a game at some point and the challenge will turn to getting back on track and not allowing a loss to change player’s mindsets. Doesn’t sound difficult, but these are college age kids we are talking about. But if we have learned anything about this Bulldogs team, they can face adversity and bounce back. You don’t have to look further than the start of the season with their three game losing streak that they bounced back nicely with the current 14 game unbeaten streak.

The Saturday night game did get dicey at the end. It was like UMD was on cruise control with a 4-0 lead. Then the five minute major happened and just like that Wisconsin cut the lead to 4-2. UMD of course still won, but that finishing instinct was markedly missing last Saturday. We will just chalk it up to one of “those games” at this point.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Road Trip Part II: Madison, Wisconsin

UMD Carries 12 Game Unbeaten Streak and #1 Ranking to Wisconsin

Nothing has really changed with the Bulldogs except for a new number in front of the team’s name. Being #1 in both major college hockey polls is nothing new to UMD who owned the ranking for three weeks around this same time last season prior to winning the national championship. Don’t look for a change in the Bulldogs, but expect one from the opponents.
This week the Badgers play host to UMD in Madison and it is not new from them to host a top ranked team. So far this year UW has hosted North Dakota, then #5, and swept them. Later the Badgers hosted then #1 UMTC Gophers and the series was a split. In all, the Badgers are a respectable 7-3-1 at home and a miserable 0-5-1 on the road. Yeah, leg two of this road trip will be a tough one for the Bulldogs.

Their D is Really O. Badger defenseman Justin Schultz is on a scoring tear this year. He is currently first in the nation for defenseman in scoring at 7-18-25. He is also tied for second in the WCHA for power play points with 4-8-12. The ice sheet at Kohl Center is nearly Olympic sized, and all of it needs to be defended especially when Schultz is on the ice.

Streaks. The Bulldogs sport a nation leading 12 game unbeaten streak including a seven game winning streak. During the current unbeaten streak, UMD has played all of their road games amassing a 4-0-2 record. Last season UMD went 3-1-0 against Wisconsin that included a Bulldog sweep at Madison from two overtime games.

StatPack. Bulldogs and Badgers by the numbers. From the comparison, it looks really one sided for UMD. But we know that the Badgers can win at home and one player on UW can change the whole game. Here is this week’s StatPack:

Images via Wikipedia (Bulldog and WCHA).  Badger.

Prediction. This is arguably the toughest road trip of the four the Bulldogs are currently in. The Badgers are not a good team, but they play really well at home. The key will be goaltending and special teams. If Kenny Reiter adds more shutouts to his career stats, it will be a good weekend and Kenny with UMD D-corps can do that. These games will be close and competitive. UMD is the better team here, but the games are in Madison were UW plays well, good enough for a split this weekend.

Around the WCHA. Things are really starting to shake out in the conference. You will see that in this week’s picks with many more “seeps” than the alternatives.

Denver at Bemidji State: The Beavers had a successful weekend at SCSU and scored a bunch of goals. Denver seems to have found some stability in net with Olkinuora and their high power offense will be too much for the Beavers resulting in a Denver sweep.

Alaska – Anchorage at Colorado College: UAA played well at Mankato in their last road trip only to get swept the following weekend at home by North Dakota. CC had a big emotional win over Denver on a penalty shot in overtime and will likely be riding high. CC should sweep at home.

Michigan Tech at Minnesota – Twin Cities: The Huskies are much improved since last year, but are not at the level of the WCHA elite teams. The Gophers played good enough, and right enough, to get a sweep at home against Mankato. Their team effort wasn't the greatest in both games, but they have a few players that can carry the whole team. UMTC will sweep at home.

Nebraska – Omaha at North Dakota: UNO lost to UAH for the Chargers only win this season. It is hard to know what the team's mental character will be for a rematch of Dean Blais' squad in Grand Forks. UND appears to have righted the ship and has found some scoring. It would be easy to say that this is a split, but my picks haven't been as good recently. UND will continue with the scoring from more than one line and get goalie play that is good enough to take a chance and pick a North Dakota sweep.

Alabama – Huntsville at Minnesota State – Mankato: What will the reprieve of the Chargers program do to the heads of the UAH players? It must be a huge lift, or it may be a huge sigh of relief. The chargers come in red hot after getting a win the previous weekend against the other WCHA Mavericks team. MSUM looked a lot better last weekend than they did when they play UMD. MSUM may have figured a few things out in the losses in Minneapolis, enough to earn 3 points this weekend. I basically said the same thing when UAA took 3 points. It will probably be a split, but I will go with the 3 points for Mankato.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Road Trip Part 1: Houghton, Michigan

Bulldogs Look to Start Long Road Trip Continuing Unbeaten Streak

Looking at the Bulldog’s schedule when it came out, it looked a dream come true for an upper half WCHA finish. Four games against Mankato, Anchorage and, as every year, Michigan Tech. UAA was expected to be the best of those three teams, but the Huskies in Houghton under new head coach Mel Pearson have jumped out to the front.

The Huskies have proven that a change at the top could ease the pain of a miserable season last year and put them in contention for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

Tech has made a nice run this season built primarily on home wins. The Huskies are 6-1-1 at home and 2-4-0 on the road. The lone loss at Houghton for the Huskies was to Minnesota State – Mankato 6-3.

The trip for UMD will be a challenge as Tech seems to always save a great effort or two for when they meet the Bulldogs. It isn’t like a game against Northern Michigan, but the effort is always upped for the Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs themselves come in on a hot streak winning their last five games while on a ten game unbeaten streak, the longest in the nation. The main reason for the streak is improved defense starting with goalie Kenny Reiter. Reiter has started all but one game this season, gained three shutouts and has been named WCHA Defensive Player of the Week twice this season. Reiter’s overall stats are 0.922 saves percentage and goals against of 2.12 good for 23rd and 17th in the nation respectively.

It isn’t UMD that has used good goaltending. Tech has been backed by strong goaltending from Josh Robinson. Robinson and Reiter have the same conference saves percentage of 0.926 and similar conference GAA (Reiter is 2.08 and Johnson is 2.22).

Team statistics are compared in our UMD – MTU StatPack:

Images via Wikipedia (Bulldog, WCHA, Husky)

Most facets being equal, it will be the scoring offense that will be key in this series. If UMD can generate scoring, the defense should be able to limit the Huskies for UMD wins.

On the Plus Side. UMD sports four defensemen in positive territory for plus/minus ratings. Leading the team in the category is Wade Bergman at +12 followed by Scott Kishel tied for second with +10. Other defensemen on the list are Brady Lamb +7 and Chris Casto at +6. Positive numbers for defensemen is a good indicator that the defense is strong and that they are in on the scoring. Both are true for the Bulldogs.

On the Road, Part 1 of 4. The next four series will be on the road for UMD and will be a pivotal part of their schedule. While not sounding like fun, it may not be all that bad. UMD is 2-0-2 this season on the road and 16-5-6 in their last 27 road games.

Prediction. It is a good week for UMD to be playing at Tech. After their off-week, the Bulldogs should be rested and ready to play. The Huskies always give UMD fits and there should be no reason to think it will be any different this weekend. Tech will want to prove that they are a top half of the WCHA team and the Bulldogs are trying to keep their unbeaten streak together while continuing their push for the top spot in the WCHA. UMD will show why they are near the top of the WCHA and will take home three points unless they come out rusty Friday night, which will likely result in a split. Look for the three-point weekend.

Around the WCHA. This is the last weekend where most WCHA teams are playing and playing two game series. After this weekend bye weeks and holiday tournaments become common. Looking at our picks, we will continue with the parody the league is stuck on this year. Lots of splits and no sweeps…hmmm, could that really be true? We’ll have to see.

Denver at Colorado College (Friday): This should be a great game. Yeah, that is not a misprint; it is a one game finish to a series that started Saturday, November 12 at Denver. The Pioneers won the first game 5-4. Both teams have high end talent that can score, but how the goalies play in each game will decide the winner. The “series” should be a split, meaning that CC wins this game in Colorado Springs.

Bemidji State at Saint Cloud State: The Beavers have not been great on the road and the Huskies are trying to stay in the middle of the pack. BSU will look to keep these games low scoring and should be able to do so in at least one of the games resulting in a split.

North Dakota at Alaska – Anchorage: Is the UND Men's Hockey Team beginning their mid-season surge or was last weekend just one great effort at home? This is an important series for UND if they are going to try to work their way back up to the top half of the WCHA standings, let alone the top few teams. UAA finally found the net at the purple Mavericks and that should carry over enough to this weekend. Until UND can play well every week and find more success on the road, a split is the only choice.

Minnesota State – Mankato at Minnesota – Twin Cities: MSUM has often played up to the Gophers in years past and this year shouldn't be any different. The Gophers are the much better team, but there defense has shown their youth and inexperience the last few weekends. The purple Mavericks are beat up and that will it difficult for them to win another game for quite a while.  We go back on an earlier prediction and go with the Gophers in a sweep.

Nebraska – Omaha at Alabama – Huntsville: The Chargers are still looking to get there first win of the season, unfortunately for them it won't be this weekend against the red Mavericks. The Chargers could trip up a couple WCHA foes in the coming weeks, but not here in a UNO sweep.