Aggressive hockey is back in townOne of the greatest sports movies ever made, Slapshot, contained a marketing slogan as one of its subplots that could be used to describe the 2008-09 UMD men’s hockey team.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
One of the greatest sports movies ever made, Slapshot, contained a marketing slogan as one of its subplots that could be used to describe the 2008-09 UMD men’s hockey team.
The line is “Aggressive Hockey Is Back In Town.”
Now, that’s not to say that the current crop of Bulldogs are in any danger of behaving like Killer Carlson and the Hanson Brothers. It is to say, though, that the play we’ve seen from Scott Sandelin’s charges over the last six weeks has been punctuated with one word.
Every coach hopes to see it; those teams that can provide it on a nightly basis are the teams that succeed.
The Bulldogs haven’t played every game in the way their coach would like to see this season - but recent history has shown that this team may be getting the hang of the way it needs to play in the upcoming league playoffs.
Saturday night’s 4-2 win over league-leading Denver was a case in point. After dropping a 4-3 decision on Friday in a contest where they spent far too much time in the penalty box, the Bulldogs came out Saturday bound and determined to get it right from the word ‘go.’
And they did. First period goals from MacGregor Sharp, Evan Oberg and Drew Akins staked the league’s best goaltender, Alex Stalock, to a 3-0 lead the Bulldogs did little to lose. Michael Gergen’s long shot provided the icing on the cake in a win UMD desperately needed to stay in the hunt for a home-ice berth in the playoffs.
The small things were done well, especially in the first period. By the time the Pioneers had found their collective legs, UMD had a 13-3 advantage on the shot board and a 3-0 advantage on the scoreboard. With the top-rated scoring defense in the WCHA, it was then a matter of holding on to the lead.
UMD does that very well – provided it’s playing five-on-five. Over the last twelve periods of play - all against the the top two teams in the standings – the Bulldogs have allowed a grand total of two even-strength goals. That’s not bad.
Penalty killing has been a significant problem of late – they’ve allowed six power play goals over that same span – but their 2-2 record against co-leaders Denver and Wisconsin certainly shows that this team is capable of playing with the league leaders.
Earlier this season, I said on the team’s radio broadcast that by the end of the year, the Bulldogs would be a team that no one wants to play. I believe events will bear out that optimism. I can’t think of a team that would relish the chance to face Stalock and the stingy Bulldog defense in a best-of-three playoff series, or in a one-game elimination such as the NCAA tournament.
Does this mean the Bulldogs are NCAA contenders? They still need to prove a few things before we can say that, most notably that they can beat teams at their own level on a consistent basis. The maddening double road loss in St. Cloud in mid-January showed that while there has been improvement, it hasn’t been consistent enough as of yet.
The Bulldogs are fun to watch. The freshmen Connollys – Jack and Mike – give the team an infusion of offensive verve that has spread through the lineup. Sharp, after leading the team in scoring last season with 17 points, has already left that total in the dust this season. Justin Fontaine has been at the top of the league scoring charts all season. Defenseman Josh Meyers has been an excellent puck-mover all season.
The best part of it all is that this is an easy team to like and an even easier team to root for. Having taken four road trips with these young men since January, it’s pretty obvious that this is a good group to be around.
The final two road trips of the regular season – at last-place Michigan Tech and sixth-placed Minnesota – will come against schools behind the Dogs in the standings, though Minnesota may change that this weekend while UMD is idle. So there’s every reason to hope for a strong finish and a home-ice spot in the playoffs.
That is, if aggressive hockey stays in town. We’ve got every reason to believe that it will.