Ryan Massa is in the middle of the most competitive battle for a No. 1 goalie spot he’s ever been a part of. He said that himself.
Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais gave freshmen Massa and Dayn Belfour the opportunity to challenge opening-night starter and senior John Faulkner for the starting goalie spot.
“All of us get along off the ice but on the ice, we’re trying to outdo each other,” Massa said. “It’s helping us improve. Strong goaltending makes a good team a great team.”
Faulkner gave up seven goals on 30 shots in his last start, Nov. 18 at Denver, and he hasn’t played since. Belfour played the next night and stopped 26 of the 29 shots he faced.
Blais started each freshman last weekend against St. Cloud State. Massa allowed three goals on 29 shots in Saturday’s 4-3 win. Belfour had 22 saves in a 2-2 tie Sunday.
For Blais, it’s a simple philosophy that will help him find his new guy for the job.
“We’re hoping one of them gets hot and we can ride him,” Blais said. “Whether that’s Faulkner, Belfour or Massa, but right now they’re all playing pretty well. It’s healthy when they’re all in competition.”
Massa said he didn’t know who would be in net this weekend when the Mavericks take on Alabama-Huntsville in Nashville, Tenn. More will become of each goaltender when the Mavericks go to North Dakota for a series Dec. 9-10.
UNO will have plenty of time to figure out who that No. 1 guy is going to be, with two weeks off after the UND series. The Mavericks host Quinnipiac in late December, then have another week off, then home games against Minnesota-Duluth.
The time off will be beneficial for UNO, which doesn’t have a bye on the schedule from the start of the season until after the UND series. It became a grind for the team, much like last season was for Faulkner, when he played 93 percent of the minutes in goal for the Mavericks.
“Last year, poor John,” Blais said. “If he wasn’t the guy, we were in big trouble but he managed to stay healthy all year.
“It looks like we have a better situation now than we had with just one guy.”
UNO isn’t the only team in the WCHA with a quirky goaltending situation.
Colorado College is trying to find stability, whether that’s with Joe Howe (8 games, .894 save percentage, 2.99 goals against average) or Josh Thorimbert (6, .899, 2.97).
Junior Aaron Dell has played 13 of the Sioux’s 17 games despite an .877 save percentage and a 3.27 goals against average. His backup, and former starter, Brad Eidsness, has played better, statistically (.914, 2.61). Most recently, Eidsness came on in relief to replace Dell halfway through the first game against CC last weekend with the Sioux down 6-5.
Eidsness shut the Tigers out in the final 30 minutes and UND pulled out a 7-6 win.
And in St. Cloud, Ryan Faragher was thrown into the fire in late October after Mike Lee went down with a lower-body injury in practice. He has a .916 save percentage and a 2.80 goals against average.
World Juniors preliminary roster selection Monday
As if Blais didn’t have enough to focus on already in Omaha. He has one hand in control of UNO’s quest to finish near the top of the WCHA and the other on guiding the U.S. Under-20 Team to another gold medal at the World Junior Championship.
Blais and his staff will make cuts Monday via conference call to determine the preliminary roster that will attend a pre-tournament camp.
“That’s getting to be a lot, too,” Blais said. “We had a conference call yesterday and we will again today. There’s constant communication about the tournament. It takes a lot of concentration and work.”
The tournament runs Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta. The U.S. opens play Dec. 26 against Denmark.
Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin will be one of Blais’ assistants.
The WCHA-connected players still on the 29-man roster: former Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Justin Faulk; North Dakota defenseman Derek Forbort and forward Rocco Grimaldi; Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad; and Denver forwards Nick Shore and Jason Zucker.
Shutout loss ignites Sioux’s top line
With double-digit goal scorers such as Matt Frattin (36) Jason Gregoire (25), Evan Trupp (17) and Brad Malone (16) lost to a combination of graduation and professional hockey in the offseason, a lot was going to be asked of those selected to join returning leading scorer Corban Knight (14 goals, 30 assists) on North Dakota’s top line.
Sophomore Brock Nelson and junior Danny Kristo were Dave Hakstol’s choices to begin the season alongside Knight. Although Nelson and Kristo had combined for just 16 goals in 2010-11, the early results were promising as the trio produced 27 points in the Sioux’s first six games.
But the season’s next half-dozen contests proved troublesome offensively for North Dakota as a team and, in turn, the Nelson-Knight-Kristo line. The trio registered just nine points in the subsequent six games culminating with Bemidji State shutting out the Sioux on Nov. 20.
In North Dakota’s series at Minnesota in November, Sioux coach Dave Hakstol went so far as to experiment with shifting Nelson to center on another line while inserting Mark MacMillan into Nelson’s place at left wing beside Knight and Kristo.
The experiment was short lived, however, and Nelson could not have been happier reuniting with Knight and Kristo.
“Corban and Danny are both awesome players,” Nelson said of Knight and Kristo. “It’s definitely fun to play with them and be able to be on the ice with them when they make good plays.
“It’s pretty fun to watch.”
That being said, North Dakota’s sweep of Colorado College last weekend could not have been more entertaining for Nelson and his linemates as they exploded for 16 points in the series and potted both game-winning goals.
Nelson understatedly referred to the series opener in which the teams were tied 6-6 after two periods as “kind of a crazy game.” The product of Warroad, Minn., said that it felt during the game like his line’s scoring mojo had been restored and the grip on their sticks had eased a bit.
“We felt good about the offense but, at the same point, we needed to worry about some defense,” said Nelson. “It quieted down in the third and we were able to get a goal, but I think after the game we were able to just look and say that we can put up some numbers when we need to.”
When they needed to in the third, it was Nelson, assisted by Kristo, who scored the period’s lone goal at 11:54 to provide the winning margin. When it was all said and done, Nelson, Knight and Kristo finished with nine points and followed that up with seven more, including Kristo’s game winner, the next night in the Sioux’s 4-3 win to complete the sweep.
Getting blanked by the Beavers was clearly an eye-opener for Nelson, his linemates and the Sioux as a whole.
“We realized that we needed to take a step forward as a line and as a team and produce some more, and I think last weekend was a good step,” Nelson said. “We created a lot of chances and we were able to finish a lot of plays so, hopefully, that keeps going.”
Nelson finished the weekend with six points (3-3–6) to earn him a share of the WCHA offensive player of the week honors. Kristo (3-2–5) and Knight (1-4–5) each had five points in the series. All three have 17 points through 14 games to put them among the nation’s leaders.
Nelson recognizes that the challenge is to find a way to build off the momentum created against CC and maintain it through a tough road trip to Anchorage for this weekend’s series with the Seawolves.
“We just have to keep going and not sit back and think that we had a good weekend and now we can take a little bit off,” said Nelson. “We’ve just got to keep focusing on our games and keep developing, keep pushing the envelope, just play with intensity and do everything we need to do to be successful.”
Schwartz’s magic produces a pair of tricks
Colorado College traveled to Grand Forks last weekend as the No. 4 team in the nation and fired 64 shots in two games, scoring nine goals, including three each night by one player alone, against an unranked North Dakota team just days removed from a miserable 1-0 loss in Bemidji.
How did things turn out for the Tigers?
“It would have been nice to get a win out of it,” CC coach Scott Owens said in a manner that conjures up an image within the listener of him at his desk still shaking his head in disbelief over the North Dakota sweep.
The weekend’s saving grace, however, was the performance of Tigers forward Rylan Schwartz, whose six goals garnered him the other half of the WCHA offensive player of the week award.
“The bounces were going my way; it was nice to have that going for me,” said Schwartz. “Two wins or even one win would have been a lot nicer.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t happen but I was happy with my play.”
Nelson said what Schwartz was able to accomplish in two games was incredible to witness.
“It just seems that he was able to be in the right spots, he was able to finish off plays, and he was playing really well,” Nelson said. “It was kind of fun to see him do that.”
“Lots of pucks were coming to me right in the slot, both of my linemates were finding me there and pucks were going in for me,” said Schwartz. “I wasn’t really planning on aiming; I was just trying to get it off as hard as I could.”
“I don’t recall having seen that anywhere, especially on that stage,” Owens said of the high-profile games in a road setting in which North Dakota controlled the matchups. “It was pretty remarkable.”
What’s also remarkable is that the hat tricks were Schwartz’s second and third of the young season (his first was at home against Bemidji State on Oct. 15) which, when combined with a two-goal effort against Rensselaer, means he has 11 of his team-leading 13 goals in just four games.
“He’s shooting the puck so well and just getting himself in the right spots and getting the puck at the right time,” said Owens. “It was a lot of fun to watch, especially the second night when he scores the first goal in the first minute and then you go, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’”
“I don’t usually score fancy goals at all,” said Schwartz. “I usually just get the shot on net, not usually highlight-reel goals.”
His 13 goals to go along with just four assists this season have flipped around his career totals coming into the season — 16 goals and 50 assists. Owens says Schwartz is no less of a playmaker; it’s simply that he’s acquired a taste for shooting more often and is feeding off the results.
“This is kind of the first year I’ve been shooting a lot more and it’s been working out for me,” said Schwartz. “I’ve always had a pretty good shot but I think this year I’m just utilizing it a lot more.”
“He can’t wait to get the puck right now,” said Owens.
Getting the puck is never an issue though when your teammate, linemate and brother is Jaden Schwartz. After posting 47 points (17-30–47) in just 30 games as a freshman, Jaden’s 17 points this season matches his older brother’s output but the distribution is nearly reversed (5-12–17).
While Rylan is scoring goals in bunches, Jaden has been the model of consistency as he is riding a 17-game point scoring streak dating to last season’s WCHA first-round playoff series against Wisconsin. Jaden had four assists in the North Dakota series.
“They both have really good hockey sense and real good vision,” said Owens. “But they both have playmaking ability and they both can finish.
“Jaden can finish too. He just hasn’t been quite as prolific this year yet.”
Due to the Tigers’ light early season game schedule, the Schwartz brothers’ 1.55 points per game is second only to the nation’s leaders in that category. Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz and Mark Zengerle along with Minnesota’s Bjugstad lead the country at 1.56 per game.
While they may share a school, a team, and a line, the Schwartzes are actually quite different.
“Rylan’s a bit looser, he’s a little bit more of a jokester while Jaden is a little more solemn in his approach from a preparation standpoint,” said Owens. “They don’t hang together all the time but yet when they are on the ice, they look like they do.
“They look like they have that sixth sense in that they know where each other is going to be. But yet off the ice they kind of run in different circles.”
“I kind of almost know what he’s going to do before he does it,” Rylan Schwartz said of Jaden. “I think that helps me read off of him and probably the same for him off of me as well.”
A Wilcox, Saskatchewan, native, Jaden has once again been chosen to participate in Team Canada’s World Junior selection camp and will likely represent his country at the World Junior Championship.
Jaden, a St. Louis Blues prospect (2010 first-round pick, No. 14 overall), made last year’s team as well but fractured an ankle in a Dec. 28 game against the Czech Republic. Schwartz missed the remainder of the tournament and a total of 15 Colorado College games due to the tournament and the injury, a span in which the Tigers went 8-7.
Owens said he knew recruiting and signing Jaden was a double-edged sword in that he was courting an elite player who would have an excellent chance to play for Team Canada at mid-season while at Colorado College.
But Jaden’s performance has made the risk worth the reward for Owens and he’s proud of his player’s opportunity to shine on a world stage.
“We support him wholeheartedly,” Owens said of Schwartz’s international aspirations. “Though we’re situated in the town [Colorado Springs] where USA Hockey is located we want Jaden to have tremendous success with Team Canada.”
WCHA players of the week
Offensive: Colorado College junior forward Rylan Schwartz and North Dakota sophomore forward Brock Nelson
Defensive: Wisconsin junior defenseman Justin Schultz
The Anaheim Ducks prospect and Hobey Baker Award finalist last year as a sophomore tallied seven points (3-4–7) in Wisconsin’s sweep of Mercyhurst (7-2, 5-2). Schultz’s 25 points on the season (7-18–25) ties him with Zengerle and Bjugstad for the nation’s scoring lead.
Rookie: Denver freshman goaltender Juho Olkinuora
The third man on Denver’s goaltending depth chart behind Sam Brittain and Adam Murray has filled in admirably when called upon this season, which has been more often than expected. Filling in for the injured Murray in last weekend’s Denver Cup Classic, the Helsinki, Finland, native stopped 38 shots in earning his first career shutout in a win over Princeton (3-0) and turned away 24 more in a 4-2 loss to Miami. Olkinuora has a 1-2-2 record with a 1.91 goals against average and a .933 save percentage.
USCHO covers the WCHA all week long on the WCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.