Monday, January 30, 2012

Bulldogs Move On After Tech

No Time to Waste As Team Sets to Travel Wednesday

It was a tough weekend for UMD fans to stomach. Is this really the team that went on the 17 game unbeaten streak?

That is the thing about streaks, they have to end. And when they end, it is many times with a thud.

We thought the thud may have been the previous weekend when the Bulldogs seemed to outplay Alabama – Huntsville but win two one goal games (2-1 and 4-3). Obviously the UAH series was the precursor to the thud against Michigan Tech. But is it over or is the louder thud coming? No doubt that a slip-up in Anchorage would be the biggest thud. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Many are left asking what happened this past weekend. UMD controls, no, outplays or even dominates the first period on Friday to collapse into a five period coma where they are outscored 9-0.

To be fair, MTU goalie Josh Robinson played well and really tightened up his angles. Additionally the Huskies stopped giving away the puck and played better team hockey. But the Bulldogs have seen many attempts to slow them down and it hasn’t kept them off the board before.

Before…when the team was on the streak. Before this thud.

A new week, a new time to focus on goals on and off the ice. A road trip may just what UMD needs, time to get away and start the final stretch of the regular season.

Game highlights are available from @TechHockeyGuide for both games. Take a look and maybe all the writing I did above is explained without words.

MacNaughton Hunt Over? It has been written at College Hockey News that the WCHA race is pretty much over. They have crowned Minnesota – Twin Cites champs with their five point lead on UMD. Agreed that the Gophers have the upper hand, but what was not mentioned is UMD has two games in hand in the conference.

Let’s wait until after this weekend when the top WCHA teams are again on even footing as far as games played to talk about who is in and out.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Back to Conference Play as Huskies Travel to Duluth

First Trip to AMSOIL for Michigan Tech

This weekend marks the first repeat opponent for the Bulldogs. At the start of the marathon eight game road trip, UMD traveled up to Houghton and swept the Huskies 5-3 both Friday and Saturday.

The games were both hard fought and UMD had to be on their game as they trailed at least once in each contest.

This weekend the venue is different and the teams have fallen into more of a groove. UMD is at the top of the league and MTU is fighting for the middle and home ice. The Huskies are currently tied for seventh, one point behind North Dakota.

This week we will cut the chase and banter and go straight to the StatPack. The Bulldogs and Huskies stack up as follows:

Images via Wikipedia: Bulldogs, WCHA, Huskies
UMD is still trying to get the ship righted on the special teams as mentioned on our recent Report Card column. This just may be the weekend to stack up some PP goals.

Prediction. This is the section where Lead Photographer and Staff Writer Andrew Fiskness puts in his two cents on the weekend in the WCHA. I need to give him his proper due because I cannot pick these games with any reliability what so ever. AF has been doing well and has a knack for it, so here they are:

The rest of the WCHA is hoping for a MTU sweep or at least a split so maybe Tech can be a TUC again. UMD needs to keep winning to stay high in the PWR. Which will it be?

Duluth is coming off a sweep at home of the Chargers, meanwhile the Huskies are re-grouping after a loss to Northern Michigan in Houghton. MTU's size and style match up well against UMD. Duluth has played a lot of close games at AMSOIL (UMD has played in six one goal games and all have been at home) and this weekend probably won't be any different. MTU squeaks in a tie as UMD takes three points.

Around the WCHA. 10 teams are in conference action in the WCHA while Nebraska – Omaha and Colorado College take the weekend off.

As stated above, many WCHA teams would benefit from more of their conferencemates in the TUC category and the easiest way for that to happen is for MTU to get points this weekend. The NCAAs are a long way off and I think the CCHA will lose their strangle hold on the PWR as teams beat up on each other in conference play and teams fall out as TUCs. It will be a more even spread among leagues….CCHA will not have seven teams in the tournament, but I digress.

Minnesota State – Mankato at Bemidji State: The Beavers have played well enough at home to get splits in conference play but have had a hard time getting wins on the road. The Mavericks have only one road conference win all season which was against Michigan Tech in November. The road woes will probably continue as Mankato tries to figure out consistent effort in a Beaver sweep.

Denver at Alaska – Anchorage: The Seawolves had a rough road trip and should be happy to be back home even if it is without players who have done much of their scoring this season. Denver seems to be playing batter after the loss at home to the Chargers of UAH. Denver is the better team and should see the importance of the weekend series in Anchorage. The Pioneer's scoring will be too much for the Seawolves in a Denver sweep.

Saint Cloud State and University of Minnesota – Twin Cities (home and home): This series has split written all over it. The Huskies always get up for games against the Gophers and the Gophers inconsistent play will likely result in one loss. SCSU is right in the middle of the WCHA pack and is a team that is still fighting for a top 6 finish. As I said earlier this is a split.

Wisconsin at North Dakota: UND is fighting to stay in the top half of the WCHA and have a two point lead on the Badgers who come to Grand Forks this weekend. This series could be a huge factor in to the final standings if there is a sweep by either team. The Badgers have a good record at home but struggle on the road. UND had been hot, but have not scored many goals in their last 4 games which have resulted in splits. The Badgers offense will probably show up 1 of the 2 nights and will get a split.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Second Intermission: Bulldogs Two-Thirds Through Season

A Report Card on UMD's Second Trimester of the 2011-12 Season

Here we are again, grading time.

UMD is two-thirds of the way through the regular season and have compiled an impressive 17-4-3 record for the season. They are currently #1 in the polls for the seventh week and are currently #2 in the PWR.

With the current success, it really makes for an easy report card. It is like those parent-teacher conferences where the student is doing really well and the teacher may wonder why the parent even came in. And when the parent asks what the student can improve on, the teacher may struggle to find a facet to work on, but they usually can and we have too.

Offense: A. The offense is the least of any worries UMD fans may have. Over the period, the Bulldogs averaged 4.25 goals per game. Scoring is still spread out among players with three players in double digit goals and 10 with double digit point totals.

Of note:
  • Jack Connolly (15-25-40) is the team, and the nation, points leader and should be considered a favorite for at least the Hobey Hat Trick (final three).
  • Travis Oleksuk (16-14-30) is the goals leader.
  • Blue line offensive output is a key to the Bulldogs success led by Lamb, Kishel and Bergman, 6-8th on the team for points respectively.
  • For the season, the Bulldogs average 3.96 goals per game, the most in the nation.
Team Defense: A. Kenny Reiter and the defensemen are playing great. Over the period the team allowed 2.33 goals per game which any team in college hockey would take especially in a league like the WCHA. Bottom line is the team is never really out of a game because the defense keeps them close. Reiter started 11 games in this period before Aaron Crandall took over for one game giving Kenny some rest and building confidence with a win.

Of note:
  • Reiter’s GAA is 2.11 (13th in the nation) with a saves percentage of 0.921.
  • No skater on the team has a negative plus/minus rating.
Special Teams: C. Here is that spot that can be worked on. Overall the team doesn’t look that bad, but we are looking at the last 12 games. In that 10-1-1 stretch, the power play unit is scoring 15.9% of the time, not what fans are used to from Bulldog teams of late. The penalty kill unit is also struggling a little with a success rate of 79.7% for the period. Both numbers are what you would expect from an average team, not the #1 team in the nation. Good news out of it is that the Bulldogs play really well even strength if the specials teams are this average.

Of note:
  • Of the 28 goals allowed, 12 were during UMD penalties.
  • Of the 51 goals scored, 10 were on the power play.
  • Travis Oleksuk leads goal scorers with 6 PP goals. Brady Lamb leads defensemen with 3 goals on the PP.
Goaltending: A. Kenny Reiter has played as good as any team could ask for. Fatigue is always a back-of-the-mind worry for a goalie that starts so many games. Kenny will become an elite goalie for program history if he can keep his numbers up at this pace for the rest of the season.

Of note:
  • Reiter now has 3 shutouts for the season, none in the period.
  • Reiter’s GAA went up in the period from 2.05 to 2.11.
Coaching: A. Coaching is great and they deserve much credit in keeping this team’s focus on hockey.

Overall Team: A. #1 in the polls for 7 weeks and # 1 or 2 in PWR. Yes they can still improve in the stat departments but they can't go any higher in the standings and rankings.

Looking Ahead. The Bulldogs look to finish off the season and take the MacNaughton Cup for the first time since the 1992-93 season.  The remaining schedule is likely in UMD's favor for a surge tot he top.  A really beneficial goal is to finish in the top two to be in line for a bye in the Final Five, but that is a long way off at this point.

Of note:
  • Challenging series will mainly be at home with North Dakota and Colorado College visiting.
  • Road series of interest are Alaska – Anchorage and Saint Cloud State.
  • This season UMD is 4-1-1 against future co-members of the NCHC.
The final grading period starts this weekend at home against Michigan Tech and will finish after the regular season.  We will look at the post-season as a final exam.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Back at It: Alabama - Huntsville Dispatched

UMD Sweeps 2-1; 4-3 to End Non-Conference Schedule and Keep #1 Rankings

File:Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.svg
Image via Wikipedia
The Bulldogs made it through the weekend against Alabama – Huntsville. Weird to read, eh?

UAH has “feasted” on the WCHA this season gaining their only two wins against Nebraska – Omaha and Denver.

The wins by the Chargers both relied heavily on great goaltending by Clarke Saunders and this past weekend was no exception.

Friday’s 2-1 UMD win was nothing less than frustrating. It proved to be a shooting gallery for the Bulldogs who outshot UAH 54-26, but just couldn’t seem to find the net. Saunders played great, as stated, but did give up some huge rebounds the likes I haven’t seen in college hockey in years. Two rebounds in particular went off Saunders’ pads right up the slot to the RED line. Yeah, where were the Bulldog attackers or even defensemen? Wrong place, wrong time.

Saturday was similar with UMD again just doing enough scoring to best the visitors 4-3.

But that is the bottom line, UMD gained the sweep. They beat the team they were supposed to, but it would have been nice to see a 9-1 score like Minnesota State – Mankato hung on UAH.

On the plus side of the weekend:

  • Jack Connolly kept his point streak going with an assist Friday and two goals and an assist Saturday,
  • Both Bulldog goaltenders got a win (Reiter with 18 saves and Crandall with 14) and
  • The team started another winning streak!
Last Saturday’s game marked the end of the second “period” of the season (the regular season is two-thirds over). Look for the second intermission report card tomorrow here in the College Hockey HighHorse.

Recruits On The Rise.  UMD's recruiting class ahs been all over Twitter this past week with a couple of big names making oral committments.  For the most recent and reliable news on future Bulldogs, take a look at Bruce Ciskie's blog.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Road Trip Part IV, The Final Chapter: Omaha

UMD Takes On UNO as WCHA Second Half Starts

The last leg of UMD’s long eight game road trip is finally here. And who would have thought that we would be talking about it being an unbeaten road streak?

Every week can be seen as the biggest challenge and each for a different reason. This weekend the Bulldogs are in Omaha in time for “Sell Out” night. You may ask how big the UNO arena can be, I mean last weekend was also a WMU push to sellout their arena which looks to be a barn that holds 3,667 people on mostly benches. Is the Lawson really a challenge to sellout, and if so why are they in the NCHC? Anyway, this week’s sellout night is different. The Century Link Center holds over 16,000. It could be a similar crowd to the Xcel, but nothing new to UMD.

Don’t think for moment that it will all be read and black in the stands. After last year’s results and the successes of this year, the Bulldogs will have a good following to the flatlands.

Experience and Confidence. It is no mistake when you think that UMD only gets stronger as games go on. The Bulldogs have used a constant attack to not only keep leads in the third, but to build on them. For the season, the Bulldogs are even during the first period (goals for and against) and +18 for both the second and third periods each. The great difference in goals has to be a result of conditioning, but also experience from the upperclassmen.

As a contrast, Nebraska – Omaha has the tendency to start fast then fade only to come back at the end. The Red Mavs are a +4 in the first period, –7 in the second and +7 in the third. If you can only catch part of the games this weekend and you want to see/hear UMD goals, the second period may be your best bet.

Shooting and Shooting. UMD and UNO are both big shooters in the WCHA. The Bulldogs seem to have quite a margin in shots on goal amassing 695 so far this season, but the Red Mavs have a leg up here. UNO has logged 794 shots on goal for the season. Both teams lead their opponents thus far in the season, but the Bulldogs may have met their match in this department. Kenny, get your pads ready.

Stat Comparison. College Hockey HighHorse StatPack for UMD/UNO is below:

Images via Wikipedia: Bulldog, WCHA, Maverick
Notes from the StatPack:
  • Second weekend in a row that UMD faces an opponent who takes few penalties.  UMD showed last weekend their style of play forces opponents to take penalties.
  • On the same note, the Bulldogs take their fair share of penalties, and then some.  UNO has speed and opportunistic penalty killers demonstrated by their 4 shorthanded goals.
Prediction. UMD had a great defensive effort both nights last weekend at WMU which kept them in the games when the offense wasn't clicking early. Then the offense took over including a balanced scoring attack, especially Saturday night. The most impressive thing for UMD during this undefeated stretch is the ability to stay in games through great defense and goalie play and then score from so many different players and lines. This team really appears to have figured out winning, but can they keep focus?

This should be a couple very entertaining games in front of a lot of UNO fans and a Nationally Televised audience Friday night. UMD will lose a game at some point and this has been the weekend that has looked precarious for UMD since the schedule came out. It is hard to know how UNO will play after the break, but I expect a solid effort to get a split, giving UMD the first loss since October. Split picks as of late have been wrong, but we predict what we see.

Around the WCHA. A weekend that has all 12 WCHA teams in conference play. This weekend could really start to separate the teams and make a front runner for the MacNaughton Cup.

Saint Cloud State at Colorado College: The Huskies lose another forward, but might get back their starting goalie Mike Lee after recovering from hip surgery. Both teams have been inconsistent this season which makes one wonder which team will show up for the series that will end in a split.

Bemidji State at Denver: The Beavers are on a five game winning streak and their last loss was to the Pioneers in Bemidji. The Pioneers suffered a very disappointing loss last weekend to the Chargers of UAH and now are going to try to catch back up in the PWR. This should be a great couple games, but Denver still can’t turn the corner resulting in a split.

Wisconsin at Minnesota State – Mankato: The Badgers have not played well on the road this season so a trip to Mankato may be the thing they need to get some road wins. Unfortunately for the Badgers the Purple Mavericks are getting injured players back and will play well enough to get a split.

Alaska – Anchorage at Michigan Tech: The Seawolves travel to Houghton for their first games of the New Year without their leading scorer Mickey Spencer who has left the team. The Huskies started out great and have had some big road wins but have been inconsistent recently. The Huskies had a very disappointing couple games in the GLI and look to bounce back to break a four game losing streak.. Tech will come close to a sweep with a 3 point weekend against the Seawolves.

Minnesota – Twin Cities at North Dakota: The two teams have had a much different paths since the last time these two teams played early in the season. UND is now hot and the Gophers are an average team. This is a clich├ęd weekend where “You can throw out the records” and have great games. In the end, this series will end in a split.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bulldogs Keep #1 Ways; State of WCHA at Half Point

Bulldog's Unbeaten Streak Continues as Second Half of WCHA Starts

If you are expecting UMD to lose you’ll have to wait and maybe for a long time. The way the Bulldogs dispatched the Broncos of Western Michigan last weekend gives serious credence to an even longer school record unbeaten streak. The current streak stands at 16 (13-0-3).

The sweep in Kalamazoo coupled with Ohio State’s pair of ties against Bowling Green has placed UMD in the top spot of the Pairwise Rankings (PWR), the formula that mimics the NCAA selection criteria. The Bulldogs are unanimous #1 in both major polls in addition. With all those #1 rakings, it is interesting, and refreshing, that the scoring is coming from a group of many. It is the group effort in scoring coupled with tenacity of finishing games in the third period that has carried UMD to 16.

As much as Jack Connolly keeps plugging away with his Hobey-like numbers (12-21-33), it is Travis Oleksuk who is the recipient of the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week. Oleksuk is the UMD goal leader at 15 after adding two goals this past weekend in addition to two assists for a season total of 11.

And don’t forget the solid goaltending of Kenny Reiter during this current streak. Kenny’s play this weekend earned him yet another WCHA Defensive Player of the Week, his third of the season.

Why wouldn’t UMD sport two WCHA Players of the Week? They are on a tear and the rest of the conference who was in action were busy laying eggs for the most part. What has happened to the WCHA mystique? Questions were posed wondering if the WCHA might only have one NCAA entrant. That is definitely an exaggeration, but it could be as low as two.

Why? The conference did not do very well in non-conference play this past weekend most aptly punctuated by the Colorado College and Denver games.

Colorado College had a less than stellar weekend at home losing and tying against Cornell 3-1 and 1-1. Yes we did pick CC to win the WCHA and we will admit that, but more on the WCHA race below. If CC was less than stellar, Denver was painfully inept. First the disclaimer that Denver is reeling from injuries, but this last weekend was against Alabama – Huntsville (2-22-1) and should not have been a split. Word to the future opponents of Huntsville, Clarke Saunders, the Chargers goalie bound for North Dakota next year, is good and gives the team reason to believe they may be able to win. He made 41 saves Friday night in the UAH 3-2 win. The Chargers will visit Duluth January 20-21.

The State of the WCHA. Right now it really appears it is a two horse race to the MacNaughton Cup between Minnesota – Twin Cities and Minnesota – Duluth. Looking at the standings, this upcoming weekend is important if anyone else, especially North Dakota and Nebraska – Omaha, the weekend’s opponents of the frontrunners.

The interesting race to watch play out is for home ice. Right now there are three points separating 5th and 9th place. Expand that a little and eight points separate 3rd and 10th place. It is still a log jam in the middle and a weekend like this one coming where all 12 WCHA teams are in conference action might be what is needed to allow some teams to separate.

UMD at UNO preview with StatPack and full WCHA preview later this week.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Road Trip Part III: Western Michigan

Bulldogs Face Broncos in NCHC Preview Weekend

The University of Minnesota - Duluth will play their first games of likely many in Kalamazoo, Michigan this weekend as they face off against future fellow NCHC member, Western Michigan University. The teams have played only two games previously, UMD swept a home series in 2008.

UMD takes their show on the road again, their third of four straight road series, sporting a 14 game unbeaten streak, 11-0-3.

The Bulldog’s opponent isn’t familiar, but they will be when the NCHC starts in the fall of 2012 ensuring that UMD and WMU will play at least two games per year. With the lack of past games, it is a good place to have a rivalry start. Seniors on each team were likely on the teams when the only other games took place.

In fact, Jack Connolly’s first goal came in the last meeting of these two teams, a Bulldog come from behind 6-5 win in overtime. It is that type of history that the NCHC should build upon to create new rivalries. The games are few, but were close enough to be remembered going into this weekend. It also doesn’t detract that it is a top ranked Bulldog team going to an up and coming program fresh off their NCAA appearance last year.

Coaching Changes. Off that NCAA appearance, the Broncos had to find a replacement for the coach that brought them back to prominence, Jeff Blashill. In Blashill’s first, and only, season at WMU, the Broncos worked their way to the CCHA Championship game for the first time since 1986. They lost the game to Miami. The result gained them their first NCAA berth since 1996. Then it was over, Blashill bolted for the Detroit Red Wings after the season was complete.

As one young coach made his way to the NHL, a former NHL veteran coach Andy Murray landed in Kalamazoo to take the reins of the Broncos team.

Murray is no stranger to NCAA ice hockey and UMD. Murray’s two sons played in the WCHA at North Dakota and Wisconsin and his daughter, Sarah, played on two national championship teams with the Bulldogs.

Road Wows, Not Woes. Since the beginning of the 2010-11 season, UMD is 19-5-7 on the road including an impressive 5-0-3 this season. Numbers like that make travel not seem as bad. But UMD is currently in the middle of a grueling eight game road stretch that will test the mental and physical mettle of this Bulldog team.

StatPack. This weekend’s College Hockey HighHorse StatPack:

Images via Wikipedia: Bulldog, Bronco
The key statistic that jumps out is the low goals against and penalty minutes for WMU. UMD has a knack for scoring on the power play, but that won’t matter if they don’t get chances.

Prediction. UMD remained the number one team during their break as no other teams appear like they really want to take the spot from last season’s champs. It is unlikely that the Bulldogs will go the rest of the season without losing and there may be some rust that has developed after this long break. The Broncos are a good team, especially defensively, and will get a split this weekend.

Around the WCHA. The WCHA is still in non-conference mode coming out of the holiday break and world juniors US flop. This weekend has big implications for TUC and the NCAA tournament. It will be interesting to see if the WCHA teams will have non-conference success this weekend.

Two games are again the one game and done “series,” but that is quite understandable as one is North Dakota playing in Canada.

Cornell at Colorado College: One thing that the Golden Knights do well is keep the opponent off the score board. CC has been a little up and down recently and will probably continue through this weekend. Watch Andy IIes in net for Clarkson as they earn a split.

Alabama – Huntsville at Denver: The Chargers just do not have enough talent to get points on the road, Denver sweeps.

Minnesota State – Mankato at Saint Lawrence: The Saints are hosting the purple Mavericks for two games. The Mavericks have not played well and the road will not help their cause, but the Saints have been streaky through the first half of the season which brings us a split.

RIT at Wisconsin: The Tigers are coming off two impressive Holiday tournament victories in the Catamount Cup. Meanwhile the Badgers have been up and down all season, but definitely play better at home. All that said, RIT will play good enough to get a split.

Notre Dame at University of Minnesota – Twin Cities (Saturday): This is a very good match up. The Gophers are basically a .500 team after the sweep at home against UND, and have not played consistently. Both teams have a number of players returning after the World Junior Tournament and it will be interesting to see what kind of legs they will have. Notre Dame had been in a little bit of a slump but may have righted the ship with a big win against BU. I look for the Irish to get the win.

Clarkson vs. North Dakota (Saturday in Winnipeg): Both teams are about 0.500, but in very different conferences. Neutral site game is anybody’s to win, but we will go with North Dakota.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

NCHC News Round-Up

Western Michigan Becomes Acquainted with New Opponents; NCHC to Name Commissioner

It is only fitting on the reported eve of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s announcement of their first commissioner that we take a look at what happened last weekend and look towards the next.

In what seems to be a burgeoning trend of one games “series” here in the west, the two newest teams to enter the NCHC, Saint Cloud State and Western Michigan, squared off this past Friday. The host Huskies hung in the game only to succumb in overtime 2-1.

Were there any conspiracy theorists at the game? The same group who have villainized the late-comers the most for waiting out the summer before joining the NCHC? As far as my sources say, it was a game without incident or further accusations of being double-agents against their current leagues.

Fast forward to tomorrow, well actually today, where it has been reported that Jim Scherr will be officially named as the first head of the NCHC. That report comes from the Colorado Spring’s Brian Gomez.

Scherr has his work cut out for him. First order of business is to maybe get a website and start some image management. The “Super Conference” hating has died down, but it is still simmering there somewhere. That is especially true in the WCHA where three of five Minnesota teams will be bolting, two to the NCHC and one to the Bi6 Ten. He should have a good handle on image maintenance/repair as Scherr is a former US Olympic Committee Chair.

Or maybe Scherr can start working on where the league’s tournament will be…better yet where it won’t be. It was reported just before the Christmas break by Let’s Play Hockey that the Target Center wants to bid on the event. Alert the media, the Target Center is pining for a big event to host. We would love for the tourney to be in Minnesota, but the Target Center is not the place. Two main problems:
  1. Would the NCHC really leave the Xcel Center, the premier hockey facility in Minnesota, empty to play at the Target Center? Would anybody do that? And
  2. If the Xcel isn’t available that is because they would already have a college hockey tournament there. Two college conference tournaments in the Twin Cities at the same time? Again, who would do that?
So as much as we would love to see the NCHC Tournament in Minnesota, the right and prudent choices have to be made as to where it makes the most sense.

Lastly, we take our tour of the NCHC news to the upcoming weekend when UMD will play their first games against Western Michigan. The trip to Kalamazoo will be the first of likely many between these teams bound for the NCHC. It will be a real test for the Bulldogs to continue their road quest and it will provide some momentum for the NCHC on the heels of naming their first commissioner.

Watch for the forthcoming College Hockey HighHorse preview of the UMD and WMU series set for this Friday and Saturday.