I never got around to writing a preview about Minnesota-Duluth this year; mostly because I remembered my great disdain for writing season previews after doing about five of them. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this was that one of my main contentions in said unwritten preview was that sophomore Justin Fontaine was due for a breakout year. That prediction looks far less impressive being committed to the internets on October 29th, as Fontaine sits at 10 points in 6 games, than it would have say, a month ago.
Anyway, my awesome foresight/dumb luck isn't the real issue. I actually did a little bit of research on Duluth's 2007-2008 season, and a couple things stuck out to me.
First off, wow, they sucked. One fairly consistent theme you see among the very best teams is that they have (at least) one superstar scorer that is among the top in the country. Duluth's leading scorer last year, MacGregor Sharp, had 17 points. That's not quite the worst in WCHA history--Mark Smith and Eric Walsky led the 2005-2006 UAA Seawolves with 15 points each, in my limited research--but it's pretty bad. Even the 2002-2003 Lake Superior State Lakers, perhaps the most offensively inept team of the Anzalone II era, putting them in the running for worst all-time, had Jeremy Bachusz with 18 points. So yeah, 17 points is pretty bad. Sharp and Matt McKnight were the only two players to reach double digits in a statistical category--each had 10 assists.
Those are individual statistics, you may say, and the 'Dogs had a fairly balanced attack last year. Here's some team numbers. Their highest scoring game was a 5-3 win over Bemidji State. They scored 4 goals in a game six times last year. They were also shut out six times. They had a streak of 232 minutes(!) without scoring a goal. They scored eight goals total in their final eight games, and had only one win.
Second, their season last year greatly reminded me, in a Chuck Klosterman pop-culture mash-up kind of a way, of the series run of the animated TV show The Boondocks. (Note: I honestly can't imagine the UMD Bulldog fan/radical animated comedy fan demographic, but what the hell.)
UMD's season last year seems like it can split into two parts, much like the two seasons of The Boondocks. Part 1 stretches from the beginning of the season, up to Duluth sweep of UMass-Lowell on the last weekend of January--24 out of their 36 games. Part 2 is the rest of their season. For the Boondocks, the line of distinction comes between Seasons 1 and 2 of the show.
Part 1, for both, was pretty incredible. It was hard-hitting, edgy, and exciting. Somewhat offensive, but never without losing sight of it's responsibilities. It was unexpectedly good, and left critics stunned. The Bulldogs ended Part 1 of their season on the bubble of the NCAA tournament, and jockeying for position in the middle of the pack in the WCHA. Season 1 of the Boondocks won a Peabody Award. I own the DVDs and quote the show on a near weekly basis.
Part 2, for whatever reason, turned sour. The edginess was gone. It struggled to make points. It was boring. The strong, compelling heroes of Part 1 turned tired and impotent. When pushed, they did nothing more than sigh, rather than push back. Fans became agitated, and just wanted it to be over. The Bulldogs finished the year with a losing record, and ended up 8th in the conference.
What does any of that have to do with year's Bulldog team? Hopefully not much. I will say there is some history of the wheels falling off for UMD in the second half of the season. (It's what I like to call The Curse of Junior Lessard, a term I want full credit for, should it ever catch on.)
But there's a new influx of talent on this year's team, all named Connolly, by some odd coincidence. The big, plodding team that looked out of place anywhere besides their own quirky rink has been pared down to a smaller, faster model. No one has ever seriously questioned their goaltending with Alex Stalock, despite a certain propensity to be adventuresome in net. The defense is quietly pretty good. Evan Oberg seems destined for the title of 'Best Player You've Never Heard Of'. And the offense, at least on paper, seems improved. All the pieces look to be in place. The potential is there for this year's Bulldog team. Now they just have to do something with it.