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.

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