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Bulldogs hit halfway break last in WCHA, but 1 goal from 2nd place

Eighteen down, 18 to go. The UMD men's hockey team reached the midpoint of its season with Saturday's tough 2-1 loss to Denver, which followed a tough 1-1 tie against the Pioneers. Those two games portrayed quite accurately where the Bulldogs are...

Eighteen down, 18 to go. The UMD men's hockey team reached the midpoint of its season with Saturday's tough 2-1 loss to Denver, which followed a tough 1-1 tie against the Pioneers. Those two games portrayed quite accurately where the Bulldogs are -- artistically and figuratively, if not actually -- as they follow up an exhausting grind by doing nothing.
The Bulldogs are off, from now until Christmas. "A few players might have a final exam to finish early in the week, but when they're done with finals, they're home," said coach Scott Sandelin. "They don't have to be back until the 26th."
UMD plays Merrimack from Hockey East and Colgate from the ECAC on Dec. 28 and 29, with Western Michigan also participating, in the Silverado Shootout at the DECC. That will give the Bulldogs a chance to get their game back in order for 16 WCHA games on consecutive weekends. "Some guys are playing their best, some guys need a break, but we've talked about it, and I hope all the players realize and believe how much we've improved and how close we are," said Sandelin.
Exactly how close the Bulldogs are can best be described by the Denver series, after which the case could be made that the Bulldogs are one goal away from second place. The Pioneers came into the DECC as the league's hottest team, and the 'Dogs played the Pioneers virtually even all weekend. When it was over, Denver's 7-0-2 unbeaten streak puts the Pioneers at 8-5-1 in the WCHA (9-7-2 overall), as Saturday's victory vaulted them past Minnesota, Wisconsin and Colorado College to claim undisputed second place in the WCHA.
UMD, in last place at 1-10-1 (4-13-1 overall), is 0-9-1 against the top five teams -- 1-1 against Michigan Tech, the only team the 'Dogs have played that was not among the top five contenders. The tough schedule also means that in the second half of the season, UMD's toughest foes -- St. Cloud State, Colorado College, North Dakota and Minnesota -- all must come to the DECC to play.
Denver coach George Gwozdecky said before the series how dangerous UMD is, and he was proven correct. The Pioneers rose from a start to the season similar to UMD's by learning how to win. Saturday's victory gives Denver 17 points in the WCHA, four behind North Dakota, but ahead of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado College and St. Cloud State. But even the Denver players left the weekend impressed with the Bulldogs.
"There are about six teams in the race, and for us to come back home in second place is a big boost," said Denver goaltender Wade Dubielewicz. "But I look at Duluth right now, and they're not far from it. They're a great team, and they outworked us for a lot of the time."
Dubielewicz led his team's turnaround after a bleak 1-7 start. By allowing just one goal each game, Dubielewicz reinforced his WCHA-leading goals-against average, dropping it to 1.80, and he took over the top save percentage at .933. He, in turn, praised Rob Anderson's weekend in the UMD goal, which matched Dubielewicz for brilliance both nights.
Friday night's 1-1 tie was inspiring to UMD because Tommy Nelson's ninth goal of the season, with 5:26 to go in the third period, rewarded determined pursuit of the Pioneers from the 1:36 mark of the first period, when a Lukas Dora goal had staked Denver to the lead. The second game was far more entertaining and fast-paced, but contained a cruel ending and another in a long series of hard lessons for the Bulldogs.
After the first half of the game was scoreless, Derek Derow found the puck when Andy Reierson's point shot was blocked by a defenseman, and Derow's quick release found the upper right corner for a 1-0 UMD lead, even while Denver was outshooting UMD 15-8 in the middle session. The Pioneers struck for two sudden goals early in the third period. Kelly Popadynetz tied the game at 1:32, after J.J. Hartman had retrieved his own close-range rebound from behind the net and fed out front. At 4:26, David Neale barged to the net and got just free enough to find another blocked shot and score with a backhander at the right edge.
The Bulldogs threw everything they could muster at Dubielewicz, including a six-skater attack for the final 1:53, but they were left with the sting of a 2-1 loss. However, Sandelin stressed, he hoped the Bulldogs realized that this wasn't just another loss, but hopefully the last in a series of tough lessons.
"I'm not happy losing, and I don't want to accept it," said Sandelin, who was particularly frustrated by the way the Bulldogs opened the third period Saturday night. "It's a mystery to me how you can have a 1-0 lead in the third period, on a Saturday night, and instead of going out and going after it, we let them come at us. Our mistakes are getting fewer, but they're still costing us. The lesson we learned was that we beat ourselves. We had two 5-minute lapses for the weekend against Denver, and they might have prevented us from getting four points out of the series."
If that sounded a bit Grinch-like, the hard lesson the coaching staff has learned is that the kind of killer instinct that burns so intensely within the entire coaching staff, remains to be developed in a team that has not yet learned how to win. That remains for the second half.
Otherwise, the 'Dogs have learned everything Sandelin, Steve Rohlik and Mark Strobel have installed. Anderson's goaltending, the scoring of Nate Anderson (10 goals) and Nelson (9 goals), the emergence of the line of Nelson-Mark Carlson-Judd Medak, the leadership of defenseman Andy Reierson, and the overall team work-ethic, all are strong points that emerged during the first half.
The coaches themselves have learned to be patient, no matter how impatient they might be to coax, urge, push and demand getting over the last hurdle, and winning.
"I just hope the players spend the break realizing how far we've come, and how close we are," said Sandelin, who has driven the Bulldogs hard for three months, but for their sake, and not for his own ego.
Personally, Sandelin's holiday spirit is a lot closer to Santa Claus than the Grinch.

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