This Week
This Week in the WCHA

College Hockey:
Rivalry temperature turned up as Denver, North Dakota square off

As No. 6 North Dakota’s last glimmer of hope to win the MacNaughton Cup fades, the focus turns to the national tournament picture with three weeks to go.

Tied for fourth place in the WCHA standings, UND is sixth in the PairWise Rankings, where a team’s rating is more meaningful as March nears.

No. 10 Denver also knows the importance of positioning in the PWR, in which the Pioneers are 11th. A bad weekend against UND when the teams meet this weekend at Magness Arena could knock Denver down a few rungs and closer to the bubble.

If Denver comes away with three points or more, the Pioneers likely would steal the comparison away from UND and improve their record against teams under consideration to pass other teams ahead of them.

After bolting out of the gates to a sizeable lead in the standings early in the season, the Pioneers find themselves in a battle for one of the final home playoff seeds.

“We know we control our own destiny,” Denver captain Paul Phillips said. “That’s how it goes and all we can focus on is Friday night. That’s what coach [George Gwozdecky] and that’s what I’ve been stressing.”

That’s what’s on the line for two teams coming off their final bye week of the season, but these games have more meaning than postseason positioning. These teams don’t like each other.

UND senior Danny Kristo paints a crystal clear picture of a heated rivalry.

“I think Mac [UND captain Andrew MacWilliam] hates these guys the most,” Kristo said. “I don’t need to beat around the bush but I don’t think our coaching staffs like each other too much, either. Obviously, both teams have a lot of respect for each other because both teams are always there at the end of the year.”

Added Denver defenseman David Makowski: “Next to Colorado College, UND becomes our biggest rival. They come at you pretty hard and we have to make sure we’re ready to go from the start.”

Wherever UND plays, the arena usually has a fair amount of green-clad fans in the crowd. UND fans’ willingness to travel and good alumni numbers in Denver are reasons home-ice advantage is often watered down when the teams play at Magness Arena.

“As crazy as it sounds, even though it’s a home game for us, it’s kind of like a home game for them,” Phillips said. “They bring so many fans with them and their fans are so loud. It’s real important that we can’t let their fans get into the game. We have to throw the first punch.”

Border battle outdoors draws comparisons to Omaha

There’s an unending argument in college hockey circles these days about whether outdoor games are an idea that should be laid to rest, but Sunday’s outdoor spectacle in Chicago proved how successfully such an event can be run.

An announced 52,051 fans made the trek to Soldier Field for the Hockey City Classic, a doubleheader that featured Minnesota and Wisconsin of the WCHA and, in the day’s first game, Notre Dame and Miami from the CCHA. Many fans didn’t stay in the stadium for both games — the 61,500-capacity NFL stadium never looked full whenever TV cameras panned to the crowd — but that didn’t stop the event from being seen as a commercial success.

Fighting Irish and Badgers fans came away the happiest. No. 12 Notre Dame eked out a 2-1 win over the third-ranked RedHawks in the day’s first game, and No. 18 Wisconsin knocked off second-ranked Minnesota 3-2 in the nightcap.

The Hockey City Classic proved a bigger success than Omaha, Neb.’s Battles on Ice two weekends ago. Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota drew 13,650 for their game at what was at best a half-full TD Ameritrade Park on Feb. 9, but both events faced similar challenges.

No one liked seeing all the empty seats at the two venues, but Chicago did a better job than Omaha of dealing with that problem. The lowest price for Hockey City Classic tickets was $15, while the cheapest tickets at the Ameritrade started at $39, including the dreaded fees Ticketmaster tacks on.

Neither event was a part of any of the four WCHA teams’ season ticket packages.

Ice conditions were also an issue at both events. The Soldier Field’s ice held up better than Omaha’s ballpark’s did, but teams at Chicago’s event had to switch ends halfway into the third period, while Omaha’s outdoor affair included an 150-minute delay between games due to the havoc unseasonably warm weather was creating on the playing surface.

The jury’s still out, though, as to whether western college hockey teams will — or should — host future outdoor games. What are your feelings on the subject? Let us know in the comments section below this article.

It’s Gothberg’s job, for now, at UND

By mid-January, Zane Gothberg hadn’t played a game in net for North Dakota since late November, with just four starts to his credit.

It’s easy to see why. Clarke Saunders started the next nine games and went 7-1-1 after Gothberg’s Nov. 24 loss at Notre Dame.

Saunders allowed four goals in a loss to Colorado College on Jan. 11. Gothberg started the next game, got the win and has started seven of UND’s last nine games.

“I’ve been tracking the puck into my pads well, keeping my eye on the puck if there’s a tip or a deflection,” Gothberg said. “Also, my positioning and my communication have to be attributed to me playing well.”

Gothberg had a .901 save percentage and a 3.00 goals against average in his first four games, but those numbers have spiked in the past month. Gothberg’s save percentage is at .928 and his GAA is 2.14 since Jan. 12.

The freshman earned starts in all of UND’s games the past two series, allowing five goals in four games to lead the team to a 3-0-1 record.

It seems the job is Gothberg’s to lose.

“Nothing’s guaranteed at the goaltender position,” said Gothberg, who’s garnered the league’s weekly defensive and top rookie honors his past two weekends out. “The biggest thing is taking advantage of every single day and making sure I can help out my team. That’s the biggest thing.”

Though goaltending isn’t UND’s main strength, there wasn’t much of a drop-off when a change needed to be made in net. Saunders, a junior transfer from Alabama-Huntsville, had a solid start to the season and Gothberg stepped up when Saunders began to struggle after Christmas.

“[Clarke and I] have a tremendous competitive respect for one another, on the ice or in the weight room,” Gothberg said. “We’re going to try and push each other each day and that we take advantage of the time we get on the ice.”

WCHA title race still wide open

Although most WCHA teams have either four or six league games remaining in the regular season — Alaska-Anchorage is the only exception with two — many of those clubs still find themselves in the race for the MacNaughton Cup.

St. Cloud State leads the WCHA pack with 31 points, which puts the Huskies one point ahead of second-place Nebraska-Omaha and two ahead of Minnesota State in third. Of those three, SCSU has the best chance of winning the regular season title, partly due to the two games in hand it has on both UNO and MSU.

However, the league’s fourth- and fifth-place teams also still have realistic shots at finishing the regular season on top. Minnesota and North Dakota are tied at 28 points, and, like SCSU, they both have two games in hand on the WCHA’s two sets of Mavericks.

Sixth-place Wisconsin (27 points) and seventh-place Denver (25 points) had looked in the preseason as though they might be among the favorites to win the league. However, both have taken tumbles that now see them perhaps better off making sure they finish in the WCHA’s top half and clinch home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth, tied for eighth place at 20 points, have big hills to climb if either is to finish in the league’s top half. Bemidji State and Michigan Tech (both at 16 points) are likely to jockey for which finishes 10th and which 11th. UAA is rooted to the bottom at 10 points.

Quick hits

• Minnesota State has won 16 of its last 21 games after the host Mavericks swept Michigan Tech last weekend. The Mavericks toppled the Huskies 4-2 on Friday, and ninth-ranked MSU rolled to a 6-1 win the following night.

• Despite concerns of a blizzard that could drop a foot of snow on the Omaha area Thursday, the night’s exhibition game between Nebraska-Omaha and the USA Under-18 Team is still set to go ahead. The U-18s will be busing overnight into Omaha for Thursday’s exhibition from Chicago after their USHL game on Wednesday.

• Wisconsin is getting set to host a rare Sunday-Monday series against future Big Ten opponent Penn State. Madison’s Kohl Center will host the Wisconsin state high school wrestling championships this Thursday through Saturday, thus preempting the Badgers’ and Nittany Lions’ two-game set.

• Ryan Walters of Nebraska-Omaha owns the national lead in points (40), two ahead of St. Cloud State’s Drew LeBlanc, who leads the nation in assists (30). Walters, UND’s Kristo and Wisconsin’s Michael Mersch are tied with 16 goals, two off national leader Greg Carey of St. Lawrence.

• Minnesota State’s Matt Leitner is a special teams beast. The sophomore leads the country in power-play assists (14) and power-play points (17), and also has a short-handed goal.

USCHO covers the WCHA all week long on the WCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.

The following is a self-policing forum for discussing views on this story. Comments that are derogatory, make personal attacks, are abusive, or contain profanity or racism will be removed at our discretion. USCHO.com is not responsible for comments posted by users. Please report any inappropriate or offensive comments by clicking the “Flag” link next to that comment in order to alert the moderator.

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  • Handsomeman

    Walters has 45 points, LeBlanc has 40

    • goldy

      I’d like retract my statement about Haula.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XLNKYHAAHKTFAL4BNRJRJKXID4 Todd

    WCHA games should hold outdoor games, but only close to the College that is hosting. The MN/WI game should have been in Madison or Minneapolis, not Chicago. Think of it in Minneapolis. A MN/WI game and a UND/UMD game or St. Cloud State, MNSU, BSU. That would draw in a lot more crowds. Better yet, hold a M Gophers game and a MN Wild game to follow

    • reardensteel

      Also, it would probably be colder in MN or WI, so the ice would be better.

    • nailheadtom

      The Gopher “faithful” can’t ordinarily fill up their own building, how are they going to sell out an outdoor venue?

      • nogofer

        I can occasionally see the “M” in the bleachers during the game… They may sell some tickets, I know the “Faithful” are anything but…

  • Scott Reed

    Corban Knight has 40 points as well…

  • siouxtandty

    I like how you idiots start the article by saying North Dakota’s chances for the cup are all but gone, then you follow with a section saying the race is wide open. You guys suck.

    • Scott Reed

      Is it too late to bring Joe back?

    • stod_2

      Take it easy. The truth is without a lot of help UND is pretty much out of chances. if you look at the schedules I would think that UND has a much tougher road than St Cloud so while it is a mathematical possibility I won’t be holding my breath for the “Sioux” to get the regular season title this year.

    • RBTGT

      The writers that USCHO employs are laughably bad. There are many, many posters in the forum that provide far more insight and know far more about college hockey than these (insert your own favorite adjective here) do.

  • Gophersince74

    Might sound like sour grapes but even if MN had won I still would not risk a league championship to this kind of exhibition.

    Gophers took their high speed, high skill game to the worst ice conditions ever, allowing the Badgers a chance to slow the game down and bounce in two goals from the blue line. MN should have never agreed to play a conference game that counts in the standing for the McNaughton Cup especially in the final year of the WCHA. Play a high caliber team like Notre Dame or Michigan for some sponsor’s traveling trophy that would still put on a good show but not one that will contribute to deciding a league championship or significantly affect RPI rating.

    Like always it came down to money and how much the athletic departments would bank for participation, much like football bowl games. The U of M AD Mr. Teagues would rather get the money than win the league trophy.

    Anyone who has played hockey outside as a kid knows outside ice even manicured with a Zamboni is only good for about an hour and then it’s time to get a tennis ball because of the snow. There is no way a Zamboni can properly repair outside ice given the damage college players do to it in just one period given the way they skate, cut and stop. It takes two or three resurfacings at Mariucci to get the ice back to where it should be after a league game. Plus it was the second game of the day which made it even worse. The ice was almost unplayable, Chipped, cracked, bumpy and snowy is no way to play an important game. It was like trying to play baseball on a field the day after it hosted a tractor pull.

    Mn’s Nate Schmidt flew uncontrolled into the boards on a stoppage because he caught an edge in a rut. The injury potential from bad ice is not worth it.

    Hopefully, Don Lucia has learned his lesson and will not play conference games outside. It might be a fun novelty but I think ticket buying Gopher fans would prefer the McNaughton or Big Ten Trophy’s in the display case to taking their chances on another cold winter’s afternoon in Chicago or Target Field in the future.

    • Boogie Man

      You are aware that Wisconsin was on the same ice at the same time playing the same game, right? Not to mention that essentially it was Wisconsin, not Minnesota, who gave up a home game for the event. But I’m not surprised by your comments. After all, Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Excuses.

      • Gophersince74

        Wisconsin didn’t lose a payday and MN was more than compensated for travel, hotels and food, the Badgers only lost some home ice fan support close up to the rink. Talked to a former college hockey player who was there. He said after the first five minutes any skill went out the window which was obvious from the TV. Didn’t make for very entertaining hockey. Either way it’s not a way to determine an outcome of a critical game. If MN had won it would have most likely been on an equally lucky bounce. When all but two WCHA games are played on indoor ice these outdoor affairs should be exhibitions and not part of the regular schedule. Plus I would hate to see a talented Hobey Baker candidate or pro prospect suffer a knee or ankle career ending injury because of a big rut in the ice.
        Also as a fan why would you want to sit 50 yards from the ice surface. Most people could not even see the puck.
        Stop this silly nostalgia crazy, outside ice was always bad,and always will be. We just had no other choice back in the day growing up. Under the same logic NASCAR could go back to Hudson Hornets and Ford Fairlanes. Might be fun for an afternoon, but no one would want to risk injury or the championship riding on a win or loss in a back to the 50′s race. Wood sticks and no helmets next? There’s old school for you.

  • keebs11

    I want these outdoor games to go away, but I’m afraid with the Gophers move to the B$G Ten next year, that it will only get worse.

  • goldy

    Bjugstad also has 16 goals. Haula has 37 points, 3 away back from Walters. Just saying…

  • Arow

    Think before you talk, go look at attendance numbers. I’m not even a gopher fan and I know they have the 3rd best overall attendance numbers and I believe they have sold out all but 2 games this year. Also you need to look at some of the ticket prices. You go to a St. Cloud or Mankato game and your tickets are $20 then go to a gopher game and they can get up to $300 to $400 for some games. If the tickets were $20 at there arena they would have sold out the other 2 games.

    • nogofer

      Which arenas have better attendance than The John?

    • Cory Holkesvig

      Only time they make 300 to 400 dollars for a game in tickets is against UND and wont do that for the next four years cause they wont play them because of the nickname ordeal. The U can kiss all that money good by you aint going to get that against any Big ten teams. The high and mighty at the U just cost them big money and great games.

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