Thursday, November 19, 2009

Here Come the Dogs!

The UMD Bulldogs made an improbable run in the post-season last year, thanks largely to the play of one man.

Goaltender Alex Stalock provided one of the more memorable performances in Final Five history, starting three games and allowing a grand total of one goal. The Bulldogs beat the Gophers in the play-in game on Thursday night (and Stalock allowed his only goal on a deflection in that game), and the proceeded to shut out North Dakota on Friday and Denver on Saturday to give UMD the Broadmoor Trophy and become the only team to win that trophy from the play-in game spot. The Bulldogs drew a #2 seed in the NCAA West Regional at Mariucci Arena and faced-off against Princeton in the semi-finals. The Tigers held a 4-2 lead with less than a minute to go. Jack Connolly cut the deficit to 4-3 with 40 seconds remaining, and defenseman Evan Oberg's desperation shot at the net with less than a second remaining forced an improbable tie. Mike Connolly won it almost 14 minutes into overtime, and the Bulldogs escaped in classic Houdini fashion. The luck ran out the next night against Miami, but the Bulldogs had a run for the ages.

Stalock and Oberg left for the NHL shortly thereafter, and the Bulldogs found themselves with virtually no returning experience in goal. Sophomore Brady Hjelle (pictured left) had played in two games last season, and had the only collegiate experience of any goaltender on the roster. Junior Kenny Reiter had spent his first two seasons as the third goaltender on a squad which played only Stalock. UMD knew it would be fine up front, but had questions in the nets. Hjelle and Reiter have responded well thus far in 2009-10. Hjelle has played in eight games and has sported a 5-2-1 record with a 2.97 GAA and .903 Sv%. Not to be outdone, Reiter has gone 2-2-0 in his five games with a GAA of 2.33 and a Sv% of .907. 

Of course, when you have an offensive attack like the 'Dogs have shown this season, goaltending gets easier. UMD features #s 2-5 in terms of WCHA scoring with Justin Fontaine (pictured right), Jack Connolly, Rob Bordson, and Mike Connolly. Each has scored 10 points in league play this season, and each would lead the Gophers in points. Overall, Fontaine (11-7-18), Jack Connolly (7-11-18), Bordson (3-14-17), and Mike Connolly (5-8-13) all rank among the national leaders in points. In addition to these four, UMD has picked up solid production from defenseman Brady Lamb (5-3-8) and senior centerman Drew Akins (2-5-7). Highly-touted freshman defenseman Dylan Olsen (0-6-6) has also started his college career well from the blueline.

The Gophers need to block out Sunday's debacle against Bemidji State and return to basics. Jordan Schroeder, Nico Sacchetti, Mike Carman, and Aaron Ness each notched his first goal of the season last weekend and the offense is beginning to show signs of life. Goaltender Alex Kangas has shown he is not responsible for the team's inconsistent play this season, notching a 4-3-0 record but with a 2.24 GAA and .929 Sv%. The team's defense should be an area of concern. Giveaways, including David Fischer's silver-platter which led to the first BSU goal on Sunday night, have been frequent this season, and the corps has allowed far too many shots on net. The group is also thin with Nick Leddy's continued absence due to injury and Sam Lofquist's departure from the team. With the high-scoring Bulldogs coming to town, this could pose many problems for the struggling Gopher defense.

The Bulldogs' potent power play will also pose problems for the Gophers this weekend. The 'Dogs power play has clicked on 22 of 83 opportunities this season for an impressive 26.5% success rate. The Gophers' penalty kill had been great until the Sunday night Bemidji State game, but this should be a good matchup for the weekend.

UMD comes into Mariucci Arena fresh off a home split with Michigan Tech. After the Huskies surprised them on Friday night, the 'Dogs punished MTU 8-1 on Saturday. UMD is 7-4-1 on the season and 4-3-1 in the WCHA. Last season, the two teams played just one series, and the Bulldogs picked up a win and a tie against the Gophers in Minneapolis in late February. The teams also met in the WCHA Final Five play-in game described earlier. All-time, the Gophers hold a significant edge in the series, going 127-68-13 in a rivalry which dates back to 1952.

The Gophers know they'll need to be great this weekend in order to pick up at least a split and they'll definitely have to play much better than they did against Bemidji State last weekend. Although the play wasn't horrible against BSU, the Gophers were prone to stretches of mediocrity and careless play, which often led to goals against. The Bulldogs are far too powerful to let those mistakes slip. Kangas needs to be huge in the nets this weekend for the Gophers to have a chance.

UMD Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
UM Schedule, Team Stats, Roster
Donny Puck Prediction: Split

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