An explosive, top-heavy offense will have to carry UMD for an extended playoff run
UMD started the season on fire, losing only once in their first 14 games, including a ridiculous 5-0-2 record in overtime. Everyone knew the Bulldogs' top line was arguably the most talented in the nation, but with the emergence of freshman JT Brown and improvement of Travis Oleksuk's play, suddenly the second line was legitimately dangerous. Dylan Olsen and Justin Faulk anchored a powerful top defensive pairing, and even Aaron Crandall, the former walk-on goalie with a 12-40-5 career USHL record, led the nation in save percentage for a few weeks in November. Things were all good as the Bulldogs went 7-1 in the last eight games at the DECC.
In retrospect, a second half drop-off should have been expected. Starting with the 5-0 shellacking at the hands of the Sioux at the Amsoil Arena opening December 30th, UMD's flaws have become increasingly apparent. Dylan Olsen flunked out and bolted for juniors in mid-December, helping expose the Bulldogs' inconsistent defense corps. The goaltending, the second line, and UMD's luck all came back to earth.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season on a 2-4-2 slide, settling for fourth place in the WCHA after being ranked top-5 nationally for the majority of the year. Now they face a red-hot St. Cloud squad in the first round of the WCHA playoffs this weekend.
The Huskies were picked to finish second in the preseason WCHA coaches poll, but had a terribly disappointing first half of the season, both on and off the ice. Garrett Roe, coming off of a 49-point campaign a year ago, was an early favorite for WCHA player of the year. In the first 18 games he was terrible, managing only 11 points as the Huskies fell to a 5-11-2 record. After a spring-break boozefest, two seniors, including assistant team captain Chris Hepp were booted off the team.
Many wrote off the year as a disappointment, but instead St. Cloud rallied, going 10-5-3 in the second half. Roe notched 24 points in the season's final 18 games and currently the Huskies sit 20th in the Pairwise Rankings, a solid Final Five run away from an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. Obviously this is not a team anyone wants to face in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
St. Cloud routed UMD 8-2 exactly one month from Friday's series opener. Hopefully revenge will be a powerful motivator this weekend, but even with a win over St. Cloud this weekend, persistent doubts still linger over the Bulldogs' long-term prospects of success in the postseason.
First, UMD is maddeningly inconsistent, with a terrible tendency to allow goals in bunches. Just look at UMD's last 4 losses:
- 8-2, St. Cloud – Gave up two goals in 2:26 to blow a lead, and two more in 2:10 to let it get out of hand.
- 3-1, Mankato – Gave up two goals in 2:50 to blow a lead.
- 5-4, Colorado College – Gave up two goals in 18 seconds at the beginning of the third period to go down 5-3.
- 5-2, UNO – Two goals in 22 seconds left UMD in a 2-0 deficit.
Also, as a unit, the defense ranges from porous to average at best. They're not very physical and allow too much traffic in front. Getting Brady Lamb back from injury helped, but the blue line is more likely to lose a game for the Dogs rather than win one.
It's not all negative with the Bulldogs right now. Anyone on the top line is liable to explode for a monster scoring effort on any given night. It's nearly impossible to contain both Connollys and Justin Fontaine for 60 minutes – the only time the trio has been held without a point all year was the season's sole shutout loss, against North Dakota on December 30th. The second line seems to be clicking again after a mid-season drop-off in production, and although Kenny Reiter probably isn't capable of carrying this team, but he will play good enough to keep the Bulldogs in games. He made a handful of great saves in Saturday's loss to UNO.
The Final Five and Frozen Four are sudden death. One bad game and it's over. Unfortunately, it will be easier for a good team to contain UMD's top line for a game than it will be for the Bulldogs to mask their inconsistency and poor defense long enough to go deep into the playoffs.