The jockeying for position in the WCHA standings raged forward this weekend with a dramatic leap, a couple of tweaks, and a pair of harmful sweeps. Only six conference games remain on the docket for all but Minnesota State and Alaska-Anchorage leaving minuscule room for error over the next three weekends.
Two points is all that separates the league’s top three teams (Minnesota, UMD, and Denver) and just four points sits between six teams situated from fourth to an eighth-place tie.
Minnesota had just enough of a cushion to maintain a one-point lead atop the WCHA despite suffering its first sweep of the season courtesy of the Denver Pioneers at Magness Arena where Don Lucia is just 4-12-2 as Minnesota’s bench boss.
The Gophers have their “friends” from Grand Forks to thank for their slim lead as the recently re-christened—for the time being—Fighting Sioux took two of four points from Minnesota-Duluth at Amsoil Arena and clings to a one-point lead over Michigan Tech for the sixth the final home-ice playoff spot.
With Minnesota holding firm at 30 points, the two points UMD salvaged on Saturday against North Dakota puts the Bulldogs within a single point at 29. The one-point deficit is the closest UMD has been to first place since the Gophers broke a 24-point tie between the two with a 2-1 win over Colorado College on Jan. 21.
As if the Bulldogs’ 2-4-1 record in their last seven conference games wasn’t enough of a bitter pill swallow in light of that information, UMD may be without the services of J.T. Brown for an undetermined period. Brown, whose first-period goal on Saturday gave him seven of his team’s past eight goals over a four-game stretch, sat out the game’s final two periods after suffering an undisclosed injury.
Bemidji State improved to 4-1-1 in its last five games with a sweep at home over Colorado College and jumped into an eighth place tie with idle St. Cloud State just four points behind CC. Although the Tigers didn’t lose any ground to Minnesota and fell only one spot to fourth in the standings, CC went from one point up on rival Denver to three back of the Pioneers and four points behind second-place UMD.
A three-point weekend for Nebraska-Omaha spoiled the hockey portion of Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival festivities and bumped the Mavericks into a tie for fourth with CC while snapping a three-way tie for fifth with UND and the Huskies who now fall to seventh.
Finally, Michael Dorr’s goal with just over six minutes to play in Anchorage gave Minnesota State a 2-1 win over the Seawolves and a sweep on the road. The Mavericks, who have won seven of 11 (7-4-0) and four of their last five (4-1-0), edged ahead of Wisconsin into 10th place, although the Badgers have two games in hand.
Zucker out, Rau serves suspension
There is no doubt that when Kyle Rau skated from the defensive zone and lined up Jason Zucker for a big hit in front of the Denver bench well after Zucker dumped the puck, Rau’s hands came up high and made contact to Zucker’s face. Zucker’s head whipped around and slammed the glass. The call on the ice was the right call, but the one-game suspension imposed by the WCHA afterward, may not have been the right call.
Zucker lay on the ice, motionless for a long and uneasy five minutes before the trainers rolled him to his back and helped him up. Rau, meanwhile, was sent to the locker room with a game misconduct but not a disqualification. DQs force offenders to sit the next game. The WCHA’s decision came after Friday’s game.
There have been a lot of other hits that had worse consequences but didn’t receive suspension in this league. Not sure this one was any worse. Obviously, when a player is motionless on the ice for as long as Zucker was and misses the rest of the game, there will be consequences.
Zucker didn’t play Saturday but George Gwozdecky said Zucker didn’t suffer any head or neck trauma and the Pioneers hope to have him back next week at Wisconsin.
UND turning it on
Friday’s 3-1 win at Minnesota-Duluth not only kept North Dakota a leg up on some of the other teams in the log jam in the middle of the WCHA standings. It was a huge road win, proving UND is hot enough to win in any building, making the Feb. 24-25 series at Denver a lot more interesting. UND hosts Michigan Tech this coming Friday and Saturday and hosts Minnesota State March 2-3 to end the season.
The Friday win was the fourth in a row for UND, which was 9-3-1 since Dec. 10 going into Saturday’s game. Brock Nelson has four goals and three assists in the past five games and linemate Danny Kristo has two goals and four assists in that stretch.
UND’s Achilles’ heel was the lack of discipline in the form of eight power plays Saturday which the Bulldogs took advantage of, scoring four times in the 5-4 UMD overtime win.