WCHA Preview: Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1997 by Scott Brown
The WCHA now officially enters the stretch run for the playoffs. With St. Cloud’s visit to Notre Dame out of the way, only WCHA league games remain for the ten teams in the conference. That means undiluted entertainment for fans, as no fewer than seven teams will try to scratch out home-ice advantage for the first round, and eventually berths at the WCHA Final Five.
Last weekend’s action may have seen a changing of the guard, as North Dakota’s split with Colorado College gave the Minnesota Golden Gophers a chance to capitalize. That they did, sweeping the Michigan Tech Huskies out of their home arena to claim first place in the conference.
But maybe not. The Gophers head straight into the lion’s den this weekend, as they take on North Dakota in Grand Forks in what might be the most important series in the WCHA this year. Also, St. Cloud hosts Colorado College in a series with great implications for the playoff picture.
With every WCHA team having played 22 league games, Minnesota has 30 points, good for a one-point lead on North Dakota. The Sioux are, in turn, one point up on CC, which has 28 points for sole possession of third. St. Cloud and a rocketing Wisconsin team are tied for fourth with 27 points apiece, and Denver and Minnesota-Duluth aren’t far behind.
For the remaining three teams — Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan and Alaska-Anchorage — the question is merely whose arena they’ll visit for the first round of the playoffs. Nonetheless, the jockeying for position continue here as well.
The upcoming weekend looks kind of like this…
No. 3 Minnesota (18-8-0, 15-7-0 WCHA) at No. 2 North Dakota (17-7-2, 14-7-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 p.m. CT, Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, ND
Here it is — the series on which the WCHA season may well hinge. North Dakota, which has topped the WCHA standings much of the season, hosts current leader Minnesota in the USCHO Series of the Week. A sweep by either team puts it in a commanding position for the stretch run.
Speaking of a sweep, the Sioux were broomed out of Mariucci Arena back in November, 3-2 and 10-6. Suffice to say, they hardly looked like contenders at the time; the second game, in particular, was not even as close as the score would suggest. North Dakota limped home, bruised and battered, and lost against St. Cloud the next Friday before turning tiger.
Over the next month and a half, North Dakota went 8-1-2 against the likes of Colorado College and Boston University, a run which catapulted the Sioux into the national spotlight and the upper reaches of the Around the Rinks/USCHO Poll, where they are currently second.
Nonetheless, an 8-3 Sunday loss at CC means the Sioux have now split each of their last three series. They won the opener, 3-0, before falling in the recap. The team’s top scorers, David Hoogsteen (17-18–35) and Jason Blake (12-25–37), were held a collective two points on the weekend — Blake’s assist on Hoogsteen’s goal Sunday.
North Dakota’s loss allowed the charging Gophers, who took four points at Michigan Tech, to slip past them in the conference standings. Minnesota now stands at 30 points on the season, versus North Dakota’s 29.
Each team has 10 games left this season, but perhaps none more important than these two. North Dakota has the easier row to hoe heading toward the playoff: after this weekend’s series, North Dakota faces the bottom three teams in the WCHA — Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan and Alaska-Anchorage — before a season-ending visit to Denver.
Meanwhile, Minnesota must meet a strong Minnesota-Duluth team, and travel to Colorado College before hosting archrival Wisconsin to finish the year. On observing the Sioux’ presumably-softer schedule, Gopher head coach Doug Woog was quoted Tuesday in the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "We’ve got to sweep."
And sweep the Gophers may, if last weekend’s play at Michigan Tech is any indication. Not only did third-ranked Minnesota sweep the Huskies, 5-2 and 8-4, to move into first place, but two Gopher players won weekly awards. Junior defenseman Mike Crowley was named the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week after assisting on eight Gopher goals, and fellow blueliner Ben Clymer won Rookie of the Week honors for a four-goal weekend, including a hat trick on Saturday.
Crowley, who leads his team in scoring at 4-27–31, had this to say in Sunday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune: "We needed two wins this weekend. They played tough, but we came in and got two." Crowley was himself a large part of that success, as he reached 100 assists in his two-and-a-half year career with the Gophers.
Added Woog, "We got what we needed, which was four points on the road."
The Gophers also did it with special-teams play against Tech. Minnesota leads the WCHA in league power-play conversions (25.9 percent) and penalty-killing (87.3 percent), and it showed. The Gophers converted six of 17 man-advantages, while limiting MTU to just 2-for-16.
Freshman sensation Dave Spehar continued his point-scoring streak with four assists on Saturday. The Gophers also reacquired the services of sophomore forward Erik Rasmussen, who netted his 12th goal of the season to cap the weekend’s scoring. Rasmussen was suspended for two games due to his failure to maintain a full course load, and hence his eligibility under NCAA rules.
Picks: Although Minnesota looks slightly stronger right now, the Sioux will be mentally prepared to play at home. Let’s call it a split. UM 5-3, UND 4-3.
Alaska-Anchorage (8-14-2, 6-14-2 WCHA) at Wisconsin (13-12-1, 13-8-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI
Lest we forget, there are other teams who might have a say about the MacNaughton Cup. One of them is Wisconsin, currently tied for fourth in the conference, a bare three points off the lead. The Badgers are 6-2-0 in their last eight games, and have moved into contention for the WCHA title and an NCAA tournament berth.
Last weekend, the Badgers swept Minnesota-Duluth — in Duluth — behind WCHA Defensive Player of the Week Kirk Daubenspeck, who made 94 saves in two games, including a school-record-tying 62 in Saturday’s 4-1 victory. Although his numbers (11-10-1, 3.76 GAA, .887 SV%) have been modest this season, Daubenspeck seems to be turning it on at the right time.
In Tuesday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune, Badger head coach Jeff Sauer said it was a team effort. "[Daubenspeck] played really well, but we also had three shorthanded goals, went 2-for-4 on the power play and killed eight power plays on Saturday.
"[Daubenspeck has] been up and down, but he’s always been there when we needed him. He’s a senior leader, and we’re counting on him to be there for us down the stretch."
Team scoring leader Brad Englehart (15-15–30) is also making his presence felt — his empty-netter with 43 seconds to go Friday night completed a hat trick. On Saturday, Mark Smith (6-10–16) and Joe Bianchi (10-14–24) both scored shorthanded goals, two of the three alluded to above.
Meanwhile, Alaska-Anchorage has been streaky of late. The Seawolves were 0-7-1 in their previous four series before sweeping at Northern Michigan, and then winning against Denver last Friday, 7-3. Goalie Doug Teskey won that game despite having his scoreless streak ended at 144:59, a UAA record. The Seawolves dropped the recap to the Pioneers the next night, 3-1.
On the weekend, the Seawolves got two points out of David Vallieres, including his seventh goal of the season, and two more from Eric Silverman, who scored the game-winner on Friday, Clayton Read and Stacy Prevost. Teskey made 53 saves for the series, and is 3-1-0 in his last four games.
Picks: Although Teskey is playing very well, the Seawolves are short on offense, and Wisconsin is coming on late in the season. This is a Badger sweep at Dane. UW 4-2, 4-1.
Northern Michigan (9-17-2, 5-16-1 WCHA) at Denver (14-8-4, 10-8-4 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. MT, DU Arena, Denver, CO
The WCHA Final Five is being held this season at the St. Paul Civic Center, and Denver was one of the preseason favorites not only to be there, but perhaps to contend for the title as well.
But the Pioneers got off to a very rocky start, opening 3-5-0 before making a move (does this story seem familiar?) toward the top. Now Denver is helping to create a serious logjam in the standings; although the Pioneers are in sixth place, they’re still only six points out of first and well within reach of home-ice advantage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Their split with Alaska-Anchorage didn’t help their cause all that much, though. Friday, netminder Stephen Wagner was pulled at 7:37 of the third period with Denver already down by three goals, 4-1. Although Denver did use the sixth skater to score two goals, the Seawolves hit on three empty-netters to seal the victory.
Denver did salvage the split the next night with a 3-1 win, behind goals by Erik Andersson, Joe Murphy and Charlie Host, and the continued excellence of DU’s other goaltender, Jim Mullin. Mullin, who leads WCHA goaltenders in league GAA (2.77), saved 23 of 24 shots Saturday.
Northern Michigan, however, is headed in a different direction. The Wildcats are 1-7-0 in their last eight WCHA contests, having been swept by Alaska-Anchorage two weeks ago. Perhaps the intervening week off will allow Rick Comley’s troops to right the ship.
But perhaps not. NMU was picked to finish last in the conference in the coaches’ preseason poll, and right now only Michigan Tech stands between the Wildcats and the fulfillment of that prophecy. the NMU special teams haven’t been much help this year: Northern is tied for last in league power-play goals (12), and second only to Tech in power-play goals allowed (26). Their -14 differential is last in the WCHA.
Picks: Denver has way too much going for it right now. DU 5-2, 4-3.
Minnesota-Duluth (14-11-1, 11-10-1 WCHA) at Michigan Tech (5-19-3, 2-17-3 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, MI
As mentioned above, Michigan Tech is the only thing holding Northern Michigan out of last place in the WCHA. Unfortunately for head coach Tim Watters, there’s no sign that his team can relinquish that honor.
Tech was pasted by the league-leading Gophers last weekend, 5-2 and 8-4. That means that the Huskies winless streak is alive and well, and now stands at 0-16-3. The last time Michigan Tech won was Nov. 1, at Alaska-Anchorage. Since then, the Huskies have scored 39 goals while giving up a whopping 83.
The team’s leading scorer, Andre Savage (10-14–24) has six points in his last four games, while Kyle Peterson scored his 12th goal Saturday. However, neither was able to overcome the Tech special-teams deficit. The Huskies are converting a league-low 12.9 percent of their power plays in WCHA play, and were 2-for-16 against Minnesota last weekend. At the same time, the Husky penalty-kill, ranked seventh in the conference, had to defend on 17 Gopher power plays (six converted).
To make things worse, team captain Jason Prokopetz was injured Friday night against Minnesota, and will be lost for two or three weeks. Certainly, he will not play against UMD this weekend.
The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs have been streaky this season. Specifically, their 26 games look like this: loss, four wins, two losses, tie, two wins, loss, win, two losses, two wins, two losses, four wins, loss, win, two losses. To paraphrase a certain nursery rhyme, when the ‘Dogs are good, they are very, very good — witness a 7-4 win over the Gophers at Mariucci Arena, and a 4-2 road win over Colorado College.
To continue a bit further, however, when the Bulldogs are bad, they are horrid. They were swept at home last weekend by Wisconsin, dropping them into seventh place in the WCHA. That’s big trouble for a team hoping for home ice in the first round. To make matters worse, the games weren’t even close. Goalie Brant Nicklin gave up nine goals on 61 shots on the weekend (plus one empty-netter) as the Badgers won, 6-3 and 4-1.
Despite losing both games, Nicklin (14-10-1, 3.01 GAA, .901 SV%) is still a strong contender for the WCHA Rookie of the Year. He has played almost all the minutes in net this season for the Bulldogs, and given them a solid presence between the pipes.
What Nicklin needs is a little more support from his scorers. Mike Peluso (15-14–29), Ken Dzikowski (10-17–27) and Rick Mrozik (9-17–26) were held to a combined three points on the weekend, with no goals among them.
Picks: These games are at Michigan Tech, and Duluth is coming off a very disappointing weekend. Will the Huskies take advantage, or can the Bulldogs recover? Maybe a little of both. MTU 3-2, UMD 5-1.
Colorado College (15-9-2, 13-7-2 WCHA) at St. Cloud (15-8-3, 12-7-3 WCHA) Saturday-Sunday, 2:05 p.m. CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, MN
In another week, this one might be the premier series in the conference; but with the conference leaders duking it out above, CC and SCSU have to settle for a sidelight.
But don’t be fooled. This series pits two of the top teams in the conference, indeed, in the country. Both squads have bounced around the polls for most of the season, though neither is currently ranked. But that may be a result of the fierce combat taking place in the WCHA this season, as teams beat on one another in an effort to climb up the mountain — Jeff Sagarin’s ratings have the WCHA as the top conference in the country right now.
St. Cloud moved into the conference spotlight with a 6-1-0 run in December, but has since been slowed a bit. The Huskies are only 3-4-1 in their last eight games, which included four matches against Minnesota and North Dakota.
SCSU’s most recent opponent, Notre Dame, was less imposing, yet the Irish managed to take one out of two on their home ice last weekend, beating St. Cloud 5-2 on Friday before the Huskies salvaged the split, 2-1 on Saturday. The St. Cloud power play was only 1-for-11 on the weekend, and now stands fifth in league play, at 21.7 percent.
The two-headed goalie combo of Tim Lideen and Brian Leitza performed capably against the Irish. Lideen lost the opener despite making 29 saves, and Leitza stopped 17 of 18 shots in the recap. Both netminders are among the better ones in the conference, as Lideen and Leitza rank third and fifth, respectively, in league GAA. In addition, Lideen leads the conference in save percentage, at .905, and Leitza’s 9-3-0 record is among the best in the WCHA.
Offense was a bit of a problem for St. Cloud, however. Jason Goulet (11-4–15) led the Husky scoring, with two goals and two assists for the series, while Mike Rucinski (2-8–10) had three points. However, the Huskies’ top scorers — Sacha Molin (14-16–30), Dave Paradise (13-14–27), Matt Cullen (9-17–26) and Mark Parrish (14-10–24) were held scoreless. That will have to change for SCSU to have a chance against Colorado College.
Meanwhile, CC is having some problems of its own. Hosting North Dakota over the weekend, the Tigers gained a split with an 8-3 Sunday victory. The day before, they were shut out, 3-0 — the first time CC has been blanked at home in over seven years.
The Tiger offense awoke for the recap, scoring five goals in a ten-minute span during the second period to erase a 2-1 North Dakota lead. Brian Swanson (11-24–35), who leads the WCHA in league scoring, had two goals, and Stewart Bodtker (10-16–26) scored the game-winner on a five-on-three power play.
In net, Judd Lambert saved 30 shots in the Sunday win. Carrying most of the load for the Tigers this year, Lambert has achieved decent numbers: a 12-7-1 record, 3.13 GAA and a .881 save percentage. No league-leading totals there, but a good effort to keep his teammates in the hunt, day in and day out.
That’s all CC really requires. With seven players at 20 points or more, and solid power-play (21.4 percent) and penalty-killing (83.2 percent) numbers, the Tigers have plenty of firepower. All head coach Don Lucia needs now is a little improvement on defense in front of Lambert, and CC will be ready to go.
Picks: Possibly the toughest calls this week. St. Cloud and CC both really need these games, but the fans at the National Hockey Center are among the wildest in the Midwest. Let’s go out on a limb. SCSU 4-3, 5-4.
Next Week in the WCHA
Friday, Feb. 7 St. Cloud at Alaska-Anchorage Colorado College at Wisconsin Denver at Minnesota-Duluth Michigan Tech at North Dakota Northern Michigan at Minnesota
Saturday, Feb. 8 St. Cloud at Alaska-Anchorage Colorado College at Wisconsin Denver at Minnesota-Duluth Michigan Tech at North Dakota Northern Michigan at Minnesota
Scott Brown is Features Editor for U.S. College Hockey Online.
Copyright 1996 Scott Brown. All Rights Reserved.
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