The UMD Bulldogs entered this past weekends series with SCSU as the top ranked team in college hockey. After a two-game sweep of the #8 ranked Huskies they’ll remain in that position this week in the USCHO poll. I’m not going to dispute that ranking regardless as to how subjective they can be this early in the season. The fans love polls and someone has to be there. Will they have the staying power to remain there? Probably not – the NCHC is too tough a conference to allow the Bulldogs to breeze through the season unblemished enough to remain in their current position. But, if the Bulldogs are indeed the top team in the country currently, then the youthful SCSU Huskies are not that far off.
As opposed to the first six games of the season, the Huskies generated enough early offense in both contests to take a 3-2 lead into the final period of each game. And, the Huskies played well enough excluding some critical mistakes late in each game to have hung in there for a win or two. The fundamental difference between the Bulldogs and Huskies right now is not skating, speed, talent or the ability to bury the puck. The Huskies proved they could dominate major segments of the games through sheer talent, effort, grit and roster depth. The major divide between the two squads is the experience level. The Bulldogs fielded a lineup this past weekend that included four senior defensemen and seven upperclassmen at forward. That gives them a clear early season advantage and should give them an advantage in post season as well. This past weekend these upperclassmen scored 6 of the Bulldogs 10 goals and combined for 16 points. The first line (that does include first-year forward Joey Anderson) led by seniors Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo produced 6 goals and a combined 13 points. Their experience gave them the “push” to rally each game in the third period to two “one-goal” wins.
The Huskies on the other hand fielded a roster that included two upperclassmen on defense (the lone senior played one game) and four upperclassmen at forward (two seniors and two juniors). The roster also included six first-year players and six sophomores, all logging significant ice-time and special teams play. And that – in my opinion, was the difference in the series. The youngsters made a load of mistakes – several critical that allowed the experienced Bulldogs to capitalize each night. The game winning goal on Friday was the result of a defensive zone turnover and a giveaway on Saturday led to the game-tying goal. I’m sure many Husky fans left the Brooks Center Saturday frustrated and wondering how the Huskies could “cough” up a third period lead both nights. It happens to young teams with two goaltenders trying to get their footing. I on the other hand (and I’m certain the coaches agree) see many of the mistakes correctable and less likely as the team “grows” throughout the season. I’m encouraged by the strong play of the Huskies this weekend vs a high-level opponent and only see them improving as the season progresses. I suspect we’ll see a tighter defensive squad more settled in at the goaltending position and a more successful power play when their rematch with the Bulldogs occurs in January.
The Huskies power play struggled this weekend with 1 conversion in 9 attempts (11%) and they are 2 for 20 (10%) in the last four games. However, with so many youngsters playing key roles on the man-advantage it’s also a work in progress and that’ll improve as well. The penalty kill has been perfect the last two weekends stopping all 14 opponent opportunities. However, I expect the penalty kill to be ahead of the power play this early in the season.
Bottom line is I’m not discouraged by the sweep at the hands of the #1 ranked team. The youthful Huskies are a talented and skilled squad with a high work ethic. There will be some bumps in the road the first half of the season but rest assured they’ll be a different squad the second half of the season. Stay tuned.