The great split
Finally, with just four weekends remaining in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season, we are seeing some separation in the conference standings.
The contenders have not exactly broken away from the pretenders yet, but we’re getting there.
As it stands this week, there is a definite bottom three, a middle pack of four and a top three. But that group in the middle should start to shake out toward the top or bottom starting this weekend.
Wisconsin, North Dakota and St. Cloud State make up the top three in the league. Wisconsin is three points up on the Sioux and also owns the tiebreaker and two more games to be played. The Sioux are three points up on St. Cloud, which also will play two more games than UND down the stretch.
Minnesota-Duluth, Denver and Michigan Tech are the three that will finish 8-9-10 in the league, barring a miracle. To get more to the point, Michigan Tech will finish 10th and eighth and ninth are still up for grabs.
But in the middle, there’s still a gray area. Colorado College, Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota and Minnesota State appear to be fighting for two home-ice spots for the first round of the playoffs. Minnesota and Colorado College face off this weekend, Anchorage plays at North Dakota and Minnesota State hosts Michigan Tech.
One could expect the Mavericks to come out of this weekend as the big winner. They could potentially jump from seventh to fifth this weekend with wins over the Huskies, a split between Minnesota and Colorado College and a North Dakota sweep of Anchorage. Just a theory.
Another scenario has Colorado College leapfrogging St. Cloud into third place with a sweep of the Gophers at Mariucci Arena and a Wisconsin sweep of SCSU. Minnesota could even move into a tie for third if it sweeps CC and UW sweeps SCSU. That may set up quite a finish to the season, when the Gophers and the Huskies square off in a home-and-home series in the last weekend of play.
What’s that saying about there never being a dull moment?
Next test: No. 1
Like them or not, you have to tip your hat this week to Scott Meyer and the St. Cloud State defense. Meyer, the Huskies goaltender, shut out North Dakota, the No. 2 offense in Division I hockey, for the first 119 minutes and 47 seconds of last weekend’s series.
Only with 13 seconds remaining on Saturday could the Sioux find the back of the net, and it gave them a tie.
But here’s the sign that St. Cloud may have finally made it to prime time: The Huskies held UND to one goal in two games, got three points out of a weekend with the then-No. 2 team in the nation, and still showed some frustration and disappointment.
You know you’re a top team when you don’t celebrate three points from North Dakota.
"We have a bunch of guys that are really competitive," Huskies coach Craig Dahl said. "This year, it hasn’t been a matter of me trying to motivate them, it’s been a matter of me trying to keep them focused and calm. After the game, they were upset because (UND) scored with 13 seconds left.
"Like I told them, if I would have said on Thursday we’re going to hold them to one goal in two games, we would have probably taken it."
Yes, the St. Cloud offense has played a large role in the team’s 10-game unbeaten streak, but this week, the spotlight is on the defense — Mike Pudlick, Geno Parrish, Brian Gaffaney, Derek Eastman, Tom Lund and Duvie Westcott.
With no disrespect to Meyer, who was named the WCHA’s defensive player of the week for the second straight week, and then the USCHO national defensive player of the week, those six defensemen deserve a lot of the credit for holding North Dakota’s offense in check.
"(Meyer)’s making saves that he’s supposed to, but he’s not getting any second or third shots, either. That’s always a key," Dahl said. "Our goals against since Christmas is 1.25 and in the last 16 it’s 1.75. Unfortunately, probably a lot of people out East don’t understand that who vote in those polls."
The Huskies’ tour of the top two teams in the league continues this weekend when they travel to Madison for a unusual Thursday-Friday series with the top-ranked Badgers. There’s a few things that the folks on the Wisconsin side of the border remember about this matchup:
One, the Huskies came into this same Kohl Center last year and disposed of the Badgers in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. "We’ll talk about it, let’s put it that way," Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said.
Two, this string of Huskies success started against the Badgers in mid-November. Wisconsin won in overtime on Friday, but Meyer authored a shutout on Saturday to kick-start St. Cloud.
Sauer’s explanation for that shutout? "They played as a desperate team," he said. "At that time, they hadn’t had a (league) win yet. We kind of just went through the motions after the win on Friday night."
Wisconsin has a somewhat-comfortable lead at the top of the WCHA this week, but coasting through this series will cut into that. The Huskies are looking to validate their claim to being an elite team this season, and sweeping Wisconsin in Madison would do it.
The Badgers, in order to stay atop the league, can’t afford another special-teams game like they had last Friday at Michigan Tech. Poor penalties led to two Tech power-play goals.
"That’s one of the areas we need to do a better job on," Sauer said. "They scored two power-play goals on Friday night, we shut them out for seven straight penalty kills on Saturday night. Yeah, it’s an area we’re continuing to work on.
"Let’s put it this way: We got a lot of practice on our penalty kill up there, and we did a pretty fair job with it."
Wisconsin knows "pretty fair" may not be good enough when it comes to crunch time.
Keep the distractions to a minimum, please
Now that the coach-vs.-former-players stuff is over, let’s get to hockey, huh?
When Minnesota went to Colorado College earlier this season, the focus was on Don Lucia’s return to Colorado Springs, the Lucia look-alike contest, whether Lucia would be applauded when he walked on the ice, how his former players would respond, etc., etc.
When the Tigers travel to Mariucci this weekend, maybe it’ll just be for hockey this time.
It would be a shame if extraneous subjects cloud the true value of this series: Points.
Two points is all that comes between these teams in the standings, and this weekend’s action could go a long way in deciding if one of these teams will need to make travel plans for the first round.
The Gophers are 6-2 in their last eight games; CC is 5-2-1 in that same period. Minnesota is 12-7-1 since the series with CC, CC is 11-9-2.
But going back to last season (yes, I know both coaches are different, but play along), the Tigers thumped the Gophers in the two games at Mariucci, 7-1 and 6-1. Will that be in the Gophers’ players minds?
We’ll have to see.
Can you blame Dean Blais if he’s a bit concerned about his team’s offense?
North Dakota scored one goal in 125 minutes last weekend. In their last eight games, the Sioux are 3-4-1. They have been held to two or less goals in five of those games.
Sure, there’s something to be concerned about.
"The only thing that concerns me is that the games we’ve lost lately have been [because of] lack of scoring; when we were losing before it was lack of goaltending," Blais said. "I don’t know which is worse."
There used to be no question as to the Sioux’s ability to regroup after a poor offensive showing. Now, who knows?
"That’s a question that you can’t answer," Blais said when asked if he thought his offense was going to be able to turn it back on this weekend against Alaska-Anchorage. "I thought we had it going again at Michigan Tech. Maybe in big games, where it’s close, our guys play a little uptight, with being so young."
The problem may just be that the Sioux forwards aren’t responding to physical play by their opponents.
"We’ve got a lot of leadership, it’s not that," Blais said. They’re playing well. But the other team shuts down (Lee) Goren and (Jeff) Panzer and (Jason) Ulmer by clutching, grabbing, interference — something that should be called — and there’s not enough firepower for the other guys to pick up the load.
"Hopefully this week we’ll skate through the holds and the interference. You have to want to get to the net, you have to want to get rebounds too. When the other team’s hooking, holding, interfering, you have to play through that."
A bit of randomness
More random thoughts from last week:
I hate to put it this way, but is this where Anchorage is going to fall apart? They really needed more than one point last weekend at home against Colorado College. The Seawolves could fall to seventh place this weekend, and once they get there, it’s going to be tough to climb back up.
Steve Reinprecht was named MVP of Winter Carnival last weekend. For his troubles, he and the Badgers got to hold the John MacInnes Cup and give it back. The trophy stays in Houghton, Mich., until the Huskies bring it out for Winter Carnival next year.
Is it a shock that UW’s Graham Melanson got his first shutout of the season against Michigan Tech last week? One way, it is, and another, it isn’t.
Michigan Tech has been shut out eight times this season. Not a surprise there.
But it took Melanson and the Badgers 28 games this season to get a shutout. Take that for whatever it’s worth.
Underappreciated player of the week Colin Anderson, UMD
If Colin Anderson was injured, he wouldn’t let you know. That’s just the best way to describe the senior forward for the Bulldogs.
In fact, he has been injured most of this season, fighting a back injury. It’s a bit difficult to call a team’s leading scorer underappreciated, but when you have names like Brant Nicklin and Jeff Scissons on your team, it becomes easier to understand.
Maybe one of the reasons Anderson plays through back pain — he played last weekend despite practicing only briefly on Thursday — is because he knows the Bulldogs need him.
He has 16 goals and 13 assists this season, but that’s not even where his presence may be felt most.
"He’s a leader, on and off the ice and in the classroom," UMD coach Mike Sertich said. "He’s highly respected, but he’s not a rah-rah guy. He’ll go about things unceremoniously and not really talk about what he’s done but what we’re doing or not doing.
"He’s not out for himself, he’s more team-oriented and if it comes to (him), it’s a result of what happens around (him)."
Oh, and about that schoolwork. Anderson, the latest member of UMD’s century club with 100 points, has a 3.8 grade-point average, according to Sertich.
All in all, not too bad.
USCHO covers Men's D-I all week long on the Men's D-I Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.