This Week in the WCHA: January 3, 1997

WCHA Preview: Jan. 3-7, 1997 by Jim Thies

After a full weekend of non-conference games, it’s time to get back to business in the WCHA.

Three teams — Denver, Minnesota and Northern Michigan — all earned holiday tourney titles. Now it’s time to focus on the rest of the league schedule. The standings are tight, with the top three teams separated by just two points and the top five teams just six points apart.

There are three WCHA series set: Minnesota goes to Alaska-Anchorage, St. Cloud State visits Denver and Michigan Tech travels to Wisconsin. In a non-conference series, North Dakota is at Western Michigan. Northern Michigan and Colorado College both have single non-conference games.

Here’s a look at this weekend’s action.

No. 4 Minnesota (12-6-0, 9-5-0 WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (5-9-2, 3-9-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, AK

Last weekend, Minnesota won its own tourney with two solid wins, while Alaska-Anchorage had some time off to prepare for this series.

Minnesota, fourth in the WCHA and five points from first place, plays seven of its next 10 WCHA games on the road. Casey Hankinson (seven goals, seven assists, 14 points) was named tourney MVP after netting two goals and adding three assists. Ryan Kraft (5-5–10) had a good series as did goalie Steve DeBus (6-4-0, 2.99 GAA, .896 SV%). The Gophers lead the WCHA in penalty-killing (89.7 percent) and will need to keep that up, since they are also the most-penalized team in the league (31.36 minutes per game). One area where UAA coach Dean Talafous has worked his team hard is special teams, and those could play a key role this weekend.

Alaska-Anchorage last played on Dec. 21. Will the layoff hurt? UM has a busy schedule, and the trip to Alaska is never easy; that combination could play a role in the outcome. David Valliers (5-9–14) has gone 4-7–11 in his last seven games and is one of the Seawolves’ leaders. Neil Scheel (5-5–10) is a rookie who has played well as of late, and will need to keep strong for UAA to succeed. Goalie Doug Tesky (3-5-2, 3.48 GAA, .887 SV%) has started the last nine games and looks to be Talafous’ choice.

ELMO Picks: A rested UAA and a tired UM combine for a split: UAA 3-2; UM 3-1.

No. 9 St. Cloud State (12-4-2, 10-4-2 WCHA) at Denver (10-6-2, 6-6-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 MT, Denver University Arena, Denver, CO

At the start of the season, most people thought these two teams would be the other way around by now. But Denver struggled early on; meanwhile, St. Cloud has surprised, and currently stands ninth in the nation in this week’s Around the Rinks/USCHO poll.

St. Cloud State has had their strongest start since joining the WCHA, and currently rests in second place. Part of that success goes to the goaltending tandem of Brian Leitza (7-2-0, 2.65 GAA, .914 SV%) and Tim Lideen (3-2-2, 2.79 GAA, .916 SV%) who are one and two among WCHA goalies. Leitza has the best goals-against average and second-best save percentage. Lideen is second in goals against and first in save percentage. But don’t over look players like Sacha Molin (9-11–20), Dave Paradise (8-10–18) and Mark Parrish (10-7–17). Those three, along with several others, have stepped up their games and had great efforts to date.

Denver must be pleased with its efforts last weekend, when it won a fifth straight Denver Cup title by beating Maine 4-3 and Yale 3-2. There’s nothing like a couple of close wins to raise a team’s spirits. Now the Pioneers must built on last weekend’s success and the games against St. Cloud are a good place to start. DU is 7-1-2 over its last 10 games, led by Antti Laaksonen (8-5–13) and Paul Comrie (5-6–11), who has scored points in five straight games. Goalie Stephen Wagner (4-2-0, 2.82 GAA, .906 SV%) is putting a push on to make the All-Rookie team. He is third in the league in goals-against average.

ELMO Picks: A split in a pair of close games: DU 5-4, SCSU 4-3.

Michigan Tech (5-13-1, 2-11-1 WCHA) at Wisconsin (7-10-1, 7-6-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI

Both Michigan Tech and Wisconsin want to get back to winning ways, as neither team has exactly set the league on fire so far.

Michigan Tech is last in the WCHA, but should be encouraged by their play against Michigan State, despite losing 4-3. The Huskies are winless in their last 11 games, the team’s longest such streak since another 11-game skid during the 1993-94 season. MTU needs to improve its power play, which has scored just two goals in its last 69 chances and is last in the WCHA overall (10.4 percent). Goalie Luciano Caravaggio (2-4-1, 3.24 GAA, .909 SV%) will have to have a big weekend for the Huskies.

Wisconsin has had a better half-season than Tech, but the Badgers also lost twice in their own tourney last weekend: 9-7 to New Hampshire, 5-2 to Vermont. A couple of WCHA wins would put them in a position to battle for a home playoff spot. Brad Engelhart (9-5–14), Rick Enrico (4-10–14) and Joe Bianchi (6-6–12) are the top Badger scorers in league play. Bianchi has points in five of his last six games (3-6–9). Kirk Daubenspeck (6-6-1, 3.40 GAA, .883 SV%) remains the top man in the Badger nets.

ELMO Picks: The Badgers get two wins: 5-2, 4-1.

No. 3 North Dakota (12-4-2, 11-4-1 WCHA) at Western Michigan (8-8-2, 4-6-2 CCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7 ET, Lawson Ice Arena, Kalamazoo, MI

This non-conference series will keep both teams sharp as they prepare to get back to their respective league schedules.

North Dakota sits atop the WCHA; last weekend the Fighting Sioux beat and tied Boston University, 6-4 and 2-2. UND is 5-0-2 over its last seven games, and has the league’s top two scorers in Dave Hoogsteen (11-12–23) and Jason Blake (10-13–23). Hoogsteen’s 11 goals is second in the league and Blake’s 13 assists ties him for the WCHA lead in that department. Ian Kallay (7-11–18) is also there for the Sioux. Goalie Toby Kvalevog (9-3-1, 3.09 GAA, .872 SV%) leads the league in wins and has been very dependable.

Western Michigan lost to St. Lawrence 5-3, but rebounded to beat Ferris State 3-1 last weekend; the Broncos are at .500 overall. They are 4-6-2 in the CCHA and in a three-way tie for fifth place. In league play, Justin Cardwell (11-7–18) leads the Broncos in scoring and is the hands-down leader in goals. Mike Melas (4-13–17) is second in scoring and the leader in assists. Matt Barnes (4-6-2, 3.32 GAA, .879 SV%) has played in all but about 25 minutes in goal.

ELMO Picks: UND wins twice: 5-2, 5-3.

Laurentian at Northern Michigan (6-14-2, 4-13-1 WCHA) Saturday, 7:05 ET, Lakeview Arena, Marquette, MI

Northern Michigan put together two solid games in winning the Saskatchewan Chillout tourney title. They beat the University of Saskatchewan 6-1 and the University of Regina 5-3 in the title game. The Wildcats were able to use some less-experienced players in the tourney, but coach Rick Comley will probably want to get his regulars back in the lineup as the Wildcats prepare for a WCHA series at Wisconsin on Jan. 10-11.

ELMO Pick: NMU 5-3.

No. 7 Colorado College (11-6-1, 10-5-1 WCHA) at Air Force (4-9-1, independent) Tuesday, 7 MT, Cadet Ice Arena, Air Force Academy, CO

Colorado College, which finished second at the Badger Hockey Showdown, doesn’t play this weekend, but faces Air Force on Tuesday. At the least, CC should be familiar with the rink, since they are using Cadet Arena as their home ice this year.

The Tigers played a non-conference game at Michigan State on Dec. 31 and were soundly beaten by the Spartans, 6-2. CC’s next WCHA games will be Jan. 10-11 at Michigan Tech. Goalie Judd Lambert (8-4-0, 3.40 GAA, .875 SV%), who was named to the Badger Hockey Showdown all-tourney team, has a 43-17-2 career record.

Air Force has struggled to a 4-9-1 record this year, but their win total already matches last year’s, when they finished 4-24-5. The Air Force will be outmatched in this game, and must play their very best to have any chance against what will doubtless be a CC squad looking to avenge its pasting on New Year’s Eve.

ELMO Pick: CC 7-2.

Next Week in the WCHA Friday-Saturday, Jan. 10-11 Alaska-Anchorage at Minnesota-Duluth Colorado College at Michigan Tech Denver at Minnesota North Dakota at St. Cloud State Northern Michigan at Wisconsin

Jim Thies is the WCHA Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.

Copyright 1996 Jim Thies. All Rights Reserved.

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