There was a time not long ago that the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs were the hottest team in the nation, riding high on the wings of a 17-game unbeaten streak stretching from October into January. But since reaching the streak’s pinnacle, the Bulldogs are just 3-3-1 beginning with a 3-1 loss at Nebraska-Omaha on Jan. 14.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re never going to get beat through that streak,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin, whose team hosts his alma mater, North Dakota, this weekend. “I think maybe coming back [from Omaha] it stung us a little bit.
“We made some of the same mistakes when we were winning but I think sometimes they get magnified when you don’t.”
After losing to the Mavericks, the Bulldogs swept Alabama-Huntsville in a pair of one-goal games at Amsoil Arena, settled for a single point in two home games against Michigan Tech and just returned from Anchorage having split with the last-place Seawolves.
“In college hockey there’s no easy games and you’ve got to be prepared for a battle every night,” said Sandelin. “I think in a couple of those games we didn’t have that.
“The other teams outworked us and outbattled us and that doesn’t sit well with me.”
According to Sandelin, his team took some positive steps last weekend in Alaska after earning a couple of points in Friday’s 4-1 win and falling 3-2 the following night.
“It’s hard to stay at a high level all year; I think any team would say that,” said Sandelin. “I don’t think we’re that far off by any means.”
Sandelin hopes the presence of a traditional rival like North Dakota this weekend will bring out the best in his team.
“Hopefully this weekend against North Dakota will keep us going in the right direction because, obviously, we’re going to be forced to play a very good weekend of hockey against a team right now that’s playing well,” said Sandelin. “They know that they can’t be anything but ready to play if we want to win.”
Denver rookie running ahead of schedule
When Joey LaLeggia arrived on the Denver campus last fall toting a resume featuring an 82-point (20-62–82) final season of junior hockey with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League, expectations were high for the freshman defenseman, albeit with a look to the future.
But with an impatience to succeed which belies his puck-carrying demeanor, the Burnaby, British Columbia, native has hit the ground running with a sprinter’s pace in his rookie season with the Pioneers.
In his first 28 games of Division I hockey, LaLeggia leads all freshman defensemen in goals (10) and assists (19) while his 29 points is tops among rookies regardless of position. He ranks third overall on his team behind only — sarcasm alert — a pair of no-name players in Drew Shore and Jason Zucker.
“With his skating ability, the way he can shoot and pass the puck, and the way he can see the ice, all those things seem to factor into why he has had the kind of year so far that he has,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, who added that LaLeggia’s time playing with the likes of Shore and Zucker, especially on the power play, hasn’t hurt.
“He is a good skater, he’s durable, and he’s been able to log a lot of ice time which we’ve thrown at him.”
“I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities I didn’t know I was going to get before the season,” LaLeggia said of his extensive ice time and power-play responsibilities. “When you play with the great players I play with here then it makes it easy to execute on those opportunities.”
Gwozdecky admits to a pleasant surprise when asked if LaLeggia’s production is in line with the coaching staff’s expectations of him, considering his eye-popping BCHL numbers.
“No, I don’t think anybody projected that,” said Gwozdecky. “Certainly, we knew that he was a dynamic offensive player in juniors and that, given time, we would like to see him duplicate that at this level.”
LaLeggia’s play in January (two goals, 10 assists, 11 hits, 11 blocked shots, plus-4) helped lead the Pioneers to a 5-1-0 record and earned the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder the Hockey Commissioners’ Association national rookie of the month honors.
With LaLeggia’s already advanced offensive skills in place, Gwozdecky said his biggest areas of improvement yet to come are in his play away from the puck and especially his defensive game.
“He wants that to improve because, as that improves, we’ll have the puck more, he’ll have the puck more and that’s where the strength of his game really is,” said Gwozdecky, who added that he’s already seen dramatic improvement in those areas just this season.
LaLeggia speaks enthusiastically about his college experience, crediting his coaches and teammates, particularly roommates Scott Mayfield, Danny Doremus and Matt Tabrum for aiding in his acclimation to college life.
But he said the one thing for which no one could have properly prepared him was facing Colorado College star forward Jaden Schwartz, whom LaLeggia had played against as a youth but had not done so since the age of 12 or 13.
“Playing against him in these four games, he’s just unbelievable,” LaLeggia said of his new cross-state rival. “The things he does on the ice and the little plays he makes and sees, no one else does.”
St. Cloud State picking up the slack
St. Cloud State might be the most interesting eighth-place team we’ve seen in a long time.
Injuries to important players have left the Huskies banged up and limping. The two players who left the program for major juniors and other teams within the WCHA over the Christmas break sprinkled a little salt in the wounds as they left town.
But somehow, despite injury after injury, SCSU has managed to keep its head above water, going 5-5 since the break against a tough schedule to keep itself within sight of a home playoff berth.
“We don’t ever talk about, we find ways to get it done and look for other guys to step up,” Huskies coach Bob Motzko said. “Our guys have hung in there and adjusted to it all season. They’re used to it and they have a great attitude about it. We’re not going to use any excuses.”
The Huskies went into Madison and swept Wisconsin 5-1 and 2-1 last weekend at the Kohl Center, where the Badgers hadn’t been swept since November 2010.
SCSU’s injury bug started when goaltender Mike Lee had to undergo hip surgery in October and leading scorer Drew LeBlanc broke his leg a few weeks later. Both are captains. Forwards Cam Reid and Mitch MacMillan left the team in late December.
A week after SCSU lost Travis Novak to an ankle injury and days after Jordy Christian decided to undergo double knee surgery, few gave the Huskies any chance at Wisconsin, where the Badgers have been pretty successful this season. Ten minutes after Ben Hanowski put the Huskies on the board early in the first period last Friday, Nick Oliver took a heavy hit that put him out for the rest of the game and Saturday’s series finale.
“There’s nothing you can do when you’re playing on the road,” Motzko said. “[Oliver] was out and that was our travel squad. Someone had to pick up the slack somewhere else.”
But Hanowski sniped another goal, and the Huskies continued to increase the lead. Jared Festler was sick all day Saturday but with Oliver out, the Huskies had nine healthy forwards and Festler had to suck it up. It’s that attitude and the overall resiliency within the team that’s keeping the Huskies’ ship afloat.
The depleted roster has forced Motzko to bump defensemen up to the forward lines and temporary winger Jarrod Rabey scored the winner last Saturday.
“It’s easy to say you want to take a defenseman and move him up front but they have to want to do it,” Motzko said. “They have to be excited to do it to help the team in any way they could.”
And without Hanowski, the feel at the National Hockey Center would probably be a lot more gloomy. He leads the Huskies in goals (17) and points (33), and his first goal Friday gave him the Huskies’ last five in a row.
“Ben was put into a spot where he knew he had to carry the load,” Motzko said. “It forced his development along faster and it pushed him. When he’s in a groove, offense comes pretty easy for him.”
Winter Carnival offers Blais, Mavericks no room at the inn
Touted by locals as the biggest and most celebrated collegiate winter festival in the United States, Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival, held in early February each year, is highlighted by a two-game WCHA series hosted by the Huskies at the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
In addition to hockey, the Winter Carnival is also noted for its snow statues (which students have been constructing for the past month), broomball tournaments, a talent show and the crowning of the Winter Carnival Queen.
The festival’s furor has traditionally made this a tough weekend for WCHA opponents to visit Houghton and face a jacked-up Huskies squad which is 68-43-13 (.601 winning percentage) overall during the Winter Carnival since 1950. Although Michigan Tech is just 1-3-2 against Bemidji State, Minnesota-Duluth and Colorado College over the past three Winter Carnivals, the Huskies have been outscored by only a combined 13-10 in those six games.
As if things weren’t tough enough just playing in Houghton this weekend, Michigan Tech’s opponent, Nebraska-Omaha, has already seen its trip to Houghton fraught with adversity long before its arrival.
On his weekly radio program, Mavericks coach Dean Blais shared a travel preparation story which he can now laugh about. But had it not been for a splash of good fortune, the guess here is the coach’s mood would have been vastly different.
“We thought we had reservations at [an area hotel],” said Blais. “We sent a room list in and the guy called us back and said he had no reservations although we had the credit card down.
“We were lucky enough to have the casino right there have some open rooms otherwise we would have had to probably stay in over in Marquette or somewhere an hour and a half or two hours away.
“Those things happen once in a while. Luckily we got the room list in for [the hotel employee] to call back.”
With travel plans in place, Blais has been around long enough to know Houghton and the arena will be crazy places to be over the next few days, but he gave the impression that he’s looking forward to it.
“They have a band that could rival Wisconsin’s,” said Blais. “It’s not as big but they are aggravating. They used to be right on the end and now I think they moved them so I’m not sure where they’re playing at, but it’s a good atmosphere.
“It’s a nice arena, it’s a loud arena, and this year they’ve given them a lot to cheer about so it’ll be exciting.”
Between the dots …
With a pair of assists in last weekend’s series at Nebraska-Omaha, Bemidji State defenseman Brad Hunt snapped a career-high seven-game personal scoreless streak and surpassed current teammate Danny Mattson’s father Terry as BSU’s all-time assist leader among defensemen with 82. … With its 2-1-1 record vs. in-state rival Denver this season, Colorado College reclaimed possession of the Gold Pan Trophy for the first time since 2008-09 and for the 11th time in the trophy’s 19-year history. …
Friday night’s clash between Denver and Minnesota in Denver will be televised nationally on NBC Sports Network. … Gwozdecky said this week that it is possible that goaltender Sam Brittain, who recently returned from a nearly-seven-month absence due to offseason knee surgery, may see action in back-to-back games for the first time in the Minnesota series. … Minnesota State heads to Alaska this week having gone 5-4-0 in its last nine games with splits in its last five consecutive series. …
In backstopping North Dakota‘s 4-2 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 28, goaltender Brad Eidsness earned his 54th career victory to move him into a tie for fourth place with Mike “Lefty” Curran on UND’s all-time wins list. … After dropping 5-1 and 2-1 games at the Kohl Center last weekend to SCSU to establish a season high four-game losing streak, Wisconsin has the weekend off. The St. Cloud series marked the first time since the start of the 2010-11 season that Badgers’ teammates Justin Schultz and Mark Zengerle were held without a point on the same weekend. They had not played together prior to that.
USCHO covers the WCHA all week long on the WCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.