No event in athletics is as emotionally polarizing for a fan than the overtime goal in hockey. All of the shots and checks, dives and battles, the entire energy of the game is compressed into five minutes. One goal, fluke or fantastic, and it's over. When your team loses it's a deflating feeling. Battle all game and come away with nothing. Might as well been beat by five goals. When your team wins it's instant jubilation. Yell and high-five and whoop it up all night long, because it's all over, and you are the winner.
Bulldog fans have been experiencing a whole lot of instant jubilation lately. The Bulldogs got their 5th overtime-winner of the season in Madison Saturday night when Jack Connolly scored just over a minute into overtime to complete yet another sweep. Half of UMD's games this season have gone an extra session and they have yet to lose. In fact, they've only lost one of the last 23 overtime games. We've only experienced that dull, deflating feeling once in the last three years. We're blessed.
Although blessings/luck/mojo definitely play into the Bulldogs' overtime success this season, there's a much bigger reason for it than that. UMD has more legitimate scoring threats than any other team in the nation. Four different players have scored overtime winners. Eight different players have two-goal games. With the scoring burden spread so thin, no player has to be “the man” all weekend. Opposing teams can't key on one guy, or even one line. Every game a new guy, or a few guys, can be the hero.
So how did the Bulldogs make the leap from middle of the pack to top of the pile in one season? The reasons are threefold:
- The continued excellence of our top line
2. Oleksuk, Olsen, and Schmitt have made the leap this season.
Travis Oleksuk could make a case for team MVP this year. His phenomenal awareness has led to FIVE game-winning goals. Any other team in the WCHA would have Oleksuk on its first line. Dylan Olsen came into last season with a lot of hype, and at times looked lost, or at least unsure of himself. There is none of that this season. He now carries himself with a level of confidence that only the Connolly-Fontaine line can match. Olsen is the best NHL prospect on the team – great slapshot, great size, great speed. He won't be around for long. Schmitt has been somewhat overlooked on the stellar second line this year. He's quietly piled up six goals, and they always seem to come when one is sorely needed.
Although Crandall and Reiter have put up decent stats so far, goaltending is the clear weakness of the Bulldogs at this point. Even though he is leading the WCHA is GAA, keep in mind that Crandall is a former walk-on who did not even see the ice until this season, and left the USHL with a career 12-40-5 record. Reiter was average last season and has looked average this season. He still struggles with positioning and rebound control, which the Badgers exposed Friday night. Compounding that weakness is our defense corps. Although they have been awesome offensively, they still leave way too many bodies out in front of the net and uncontested in the slot on defense.
|Goaltending solid so far, but how far can Crandall and Reiter take us?|
I see the regular season as a three act play. The first act stretches from the opener at Lake Superior State through last weekend's Michigan Tech series. We got to know the characters, warm up against some patsies, (combined winning percentage of Act 1 opponents - .458) and passed our only real test, which was going to North Dakota and getting a split.
The second act started against Wisconsin last weekend. This is the real meat grinder - @Wisconsin, hosting 2nd place Denver in the last series at the DECC, @UMTC, then the final scene, a rematch with North Dakota in the Amsoil Arena opener. Combined winning percentage of those teams: .591.
It's clear five weeks into league play that it's going to be a battle between UMD and North Dakota for the McNaughton Cup. They're in a class of their own at the top, with UNO and Denver not far behind. It took the play of the year for UMD to salvage a split at the Ralph, so undoubtedly emotions will be running high on December 30th when the Sioux come looking for revenge.
After a short intermission over Winter Break against Clarkson and the US Under-18 squad, the third act begins. We get UNO, Wisconsin, UMTC, and St. Cloud at Amsoil, and go on the road to face Colorado College, Mankato, and Michigan Tech. The Bulldogs couldn't ask for a better schedule. We go on the road for the three worst teams, and host the four best teams at our shiny new arena.
The first three acts are all just a warm up for the final two acts: The Final Five and NCAA Tournament. Only time will tell the ending to this play.