With a wealth of veteran returning goaltenders and the loss of some high-end scoring talent (three of the country’s top seven point scorers, among others) to professional hockey in the offseason, it wasn’t hard to wonder whether scoring might be harder to come by for WCHA teams this year.
A look at the numbers approximately a quarter of the way through the 2011-12 season, however, indicates just the opposite is true.
Individually speaking, eight of the nation’s top 11 point producers (Minnesota-Duluth’s Jack Connolly, J.T. Brown, and Travis Oleksuk; Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula; Nebraska-Omaha’s Terry Broadhurst and Matt White; and Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz) play for WCHA schools. Stretching the numbers even further, 13 of the top 20 are from the WCHA as compared to only seven at the conclusion of last season.
“A lot of guys are stepping up this year,” said Minnesota forward Taylor Matson. “I feel like guys are just coming out of the blue and just having big years and it’s a great thing for the WCHA.”
Among Division I’s top 30 goal scorers, the WCHA’s representation has seen a 50 percent increase (12 players, up from eight last year) so far this season with Bjugstad, Oleksuk, Broadhurst and Minnesota’s Kyle Rau constituting half of the top eight lamp lighters nationwide.
“There’s a lot of good scorers in the WCHA,” said Bjugstad. “You can look at any team in the WCHA and each one has at least a couple.”
On the playmaking end of things, nine of the top 15 setup men, including six of the top eight, are WCHA players. Of those, Minnesota’s Nate Schmidt (second with 15 assists), Schultz (T-third, 14) and UMD’s Scott Kishel (T-ninth, 11) are the only defensemen.
From a team perspective, just four teams (Wisconsin, Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota State and North Dakota) have experienced a drop in overall scoring totals while only UAA (minus-1.33 goals per game) and UND (minus-1.88) have seen a scoring decrease in conference games.
Five teams have augmented their overall scoring by more than half a goal per game, including Minnesota (plus-1.22), Colorado College (plus-1.15) and Michigan Tech (plus-1.11) who boosted their numbers by over one full goal. CC (1.47) and MTU (1.25) are also the only WCHA schools able to boast one-plus goal per game increases in conference games alone.
Branches of Gwozdecky coaching tree briefly extend back to Denver
Denver coach George Gwozdecky and his Pioneers host a pair of Gwozdecky’s coaching protégés — Princeton’s Bob Prier and Miami’s Enrico Blasi — this weekend as DU hosts Princeton and Miami in the Denver Cup Classic at Magness Arena.
The tournament’s showcase format, in which Saturday’s matchups are pre-determined rather than based on Friday’s results, ensures Blasi and Prier will face one of their coaching mentors. Only Providence is assured of not playing Denver this weekend.
The weekend’s marquee matchup between the Pioneers and the RedHawks on Saturday night features Gwozdecky matching wits with Blasi, a former player and assistant coach under Gwozdecky. Blasi played for Gwozdecky at Miami from 1990 to 1994 and assisted him at DU from 1995 to 1999.
“We know they’re a very good program, ‘Rico’ and his staff have done a great job, and I think the same is true as far as the way they look at us,” said Gwozdecky. “I think they’re getting better as far as trying to be able to find how they need to play to be effective, so are we, so it should be a pretty good matchup Saturday night.”
Gwozdecky downplayed any possibility of a friendly war of words between the two friends.
“We talk on such a regular basis, at least once a week if not more,” Gwozdecky said of his relationship with Blasi. “So I think the smack talk is almost kind of irrelevant.”
But that’s not to say that Gwozdecky and the Pioneers don’t have an axe to grind with the RedHawks. Miami won the last meeting between the schools with a 4-2 win in the 2009 NCAA regional semifinal in Minneapolis.
“We’ve got a debt to pay, we owe them one,” said Gwozdecky. “The teams are different, the personnel is different, but both programs know where they want to be in April and this is going to be a good indicator as to where each is at right now.”
Prier, who leads Princeton against Denver on Friday night, in his first season as head coach of the Tigers. He was an assistant under Gwozdecky at DU in the 2000-01 season.
“I don’t necessarily have the same week-to-week conversations with Bob as I do with ‘Rico,’” said Gwozdecky. “But certainly we’re excited to have him come into town in his first year as a head coach.”
Gwozdecky said making the adjustment to from assistant to head coach is still a work in progress for Prier.
“Bobby’s a heck of a hockey guy, but I think everybody would agree with me that, when he was on our staff for the year, some of the organizational things off the ice were something he was challenged by,” said Gwozdecky. “There’s no question that Bobby knows how to coach — he knows how to teach, he knows how to coach — I know their team will be well prepared; now whether they miss their bus from the hotel to get to the rink, that’s a whole different issue.
“But I know that when they get here, they’ll be a heck of a team.”
The Pioneers will be without starting goaltender Adam Murray and defenseman John Ryder, who have each been ruled out of the tournament due to injury. Gwozdecky said the absence of each will hurt, particularly Ryder’s physicality, but added that dressing seven defensemen often this season may soften the blow a bit.
“He’s unique in our lineup just because of the physical nature of his game,” Gwozdecky said of Ryder. “When you look at the end of the game … the guy who’s going to have the most devastating hits, the biggest hits — the de-cleaters, as they’re called — is going to be John Ryder.
“We don’t have anybody right now in our lineup that can replace John, but certainly we do have six guys that we can fall back on who all have game experience, so that’s a good thing.”
Bjugstad critical to Gophers PP success
Bjugstad is a humble guy, like a lot of hockey players are. The fact is, Minnesota’s power play might be a lot less effective without him.
“There’s four very skilled guys and without them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve done,” Bjugstad said Tuesday. “Guys like Nate Schmidt and Erik Haula have been giving me the puck a lot and I’m just trying to get as many shots as possible.”
Bjugstad has scored five of the last seven power-play goals for the Gophers, whose PP is ranked third nationally at 27.1 percent.
Many would expect Bjugstad — because of his 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame — to be the Gophers’ big man down low on the power play, clearing space for teammates around the net. Quite the opposite.
Despite his size, Bjugstad can handle the puck and his second-to-none shooting accuracy improves Minnesota’s chances to score every time Bjugstad gets in the clear in the offensive zone.
Bjugstad has been very effective from the left side, camping out near the end boards, and he showed it last weekend against St. Cloud State.
Bjugstad and Jake Hansen came up with a nice give-and-go play in the first period to work the area to SCSU goalie Ryan Faragher’s right. Hansen’s “give” back to Bjugstad went off a skate, but Hansen got the puck back. This time, the Huskies became spectators, watching as Bjugstad netted his third power-play goal of the season.
“[Hansen and I] talked about it the night before, getting a give-and-go right away,” Bjugstad said. “We draw that up and we know where each other are, so it definitely benefits the power play.”
Both of Bjugstad’s power-play goals the following night were similar. Schmidt faked a slap shot from the high slot and passed over to Bjugstad for the one-timer. The Gophers worked the same sequence to score another power-play goal minutes later.
Bjugstad has been on the ice for all nine of Minnesota’s power-play goals dating to Oct. 23 against Vermont, assisting on one.
Gorham, Seawolves desperate to get season turned around
Alaska-Anchorage fans finally had something to cheer about last March when their team advanced to the WCHA Final Five.
“Coming off last year, we had a lot of good young guys coming in so we definitely had a lot of expectations coming into this year,” said senior defenseman Brad Gorham.
That gave the Seawolves and their fans high hopes coming into this season. So did the 3-0-1 start that saw a tie and then wins against St. Cloud State, Nebraska-Omaha and Mercyhurst.
Those games were nonconference games and parts of tournaments in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but the Seawolves (4-7-1 overall, 1-7-0 WCHA) have failed to win outside the state of Alaska.
“We got laid back in some periods of the game and made mistakes that cost us,” Gorham said. “We haven’t put together a full 60 minutes all the time and in this league you have to play a full game.”
Mickey Spencer was a surprise out of the gate with six points (four goals, two assists) in the first weekend. He has played in all 12 games for UAA, but he’s added only one more point to that total and leads the Seawolves with seven points.
“You can’t win games if you don’t score goals,” Gorham said. “We’ve hit a lot of posts and some bounces haven’t gone our way, so I think the goals are going to start coming.”
Despite a 5-0 loss at home to Michigan Tech, UAA’s 3-1 victory Friday gave the Seawolves something to build on.
Gophers have been dominant in the final period …
… which might be an understatement. Minnesota has outscored its opponents 24-4 in the third period, including a 17-3 differential in conference games alone.
“This team’s the best [conditioned] team I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here,” Matson said. “We come to work every single day, and that’s a huge part of our success so far in the third period.”
Minnesota coach Don Lucia attributes the success to goaltender Kent Patterson’s strong play, the team’s conditioning, and that he has been able to play a lot of players.
“We’ve played four lines, we’ve played six [defensemen], we really haven’t shortened the bench very much,” said Lucia. “Most nights our [third and fourth lines] have outplayed the opposition’s [third and fourth lines] and have scored some big as a result.”
WCHA players of the week
Offensive: Minnesota sophomore forward Bjugstad
Bjugstad’s five-point weekend (4-1–5) against St. Cloud State included a Saturday night hat trick that was accomplished on just three shots. The Florida Panthers prospect is tied for first in the nation with 21 points (13-8–21) and ranks second in the country in goals.
Defensive: Colorado College sophomore goaltender Josh Thorimbert
After stopping 55 of 58 shots in CC’s sweep (4-2, 4-1) of Wisconsin over the weekend, Thorimbert is 3-0 in his last three starts with a 1.67 goals against average and a .950 save percentage.
Rookie: Minnesota-Duluth freshman forward Caleb Herbert
Herbert scored three goals and added an assist in helping lead the Bulldogs to 5-2 and 7-3 wins over Minnesota State at Amsoil Arena. Herbert’s 14 points (6-8–14) this season ranks second among WCHA rookies.
USCHO covers the WCHA all week long on the WCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.