WCHA Preview: Feb. 7-8, 1997 by Scott Brown
The playoff picture in the WCHA is simultaneously a little clearer and a little muddier than it was last week. The North Dakota Fighting Sioux staked their claim to the top spot in the conference, sweeping the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Grand Forks, ND, 6-4 and 6-2. With arguably the easiest schedule remaining among the contenders, the Sioux are now the unquestioned favorites for the WCHA regular-season title and the corresponding NCAA tournament bid.
The Gophers, who had briefly led the conference, now find themselves in a dogfight for playoff position. Although all 10 WCHA teams make the playoffs, only the top five earn home-ice advantage in the first round; and with seven teams still in the hunt for home ice, the five-six and four-seven matchups in the first round could be rough for all involved. Finishing in the top three in the conference is therefore advisable, to gain a (presumably) softer first playoff series.
Its pair of wins last weekend gives UND 33 points, a three-point cushion on the teams tied for second: Minnesota, Colorado College and Wisconsin. Right behind those three are fifth-place St. Cloud (29 points) and number-six Denver (28). If the playoffs were to start today, Denver would have a road series against SCSU, despite a 12-8-4 conference record.
A fading Minnesota-Duluth squad is in seventh place with 24 points, but the Bulldogs are still well ahead of Alaska-Anchorage, Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech, the bottom three teams in the WCHA. But these teams, as well, are showing some life. Although Northern Michigan was swept at Denver over the weekend, Tech earned three points versus UMD and Alaska-Anchorage nearly pulled off two ties in Madison against the Badgers before settling for one point out of four.
Matchups for this week, coming right up. Drum roll, please…
No. 10 Colorado College (16-10-2, 14-8-2 WCHA) at Wisconsin (14-12-2, 14-8-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI
Playing a Saturday-Sunday series against St. Cloud last weekend, the Tigers won the opener, 4-2, but lost a chance to move into sole possession of second place when the Huskies claimed the recap, 5-4. In the first contest, the Tigers took advantage of two goals from Scott Swanson, including the game-winner, and fine netminding from Judd Lambert (13-8-1, 3.16 GAA, .884 SV%) to earn the victory. The next night, Swanson added two assists in the loss.
The offense from Swanson was especially welcome; he has been caught in a scoring drought this season, and his numbers (3-10–13) are down from his stellar freshman campaign, when Swanson had 39 points on eight goals and 31 assists.
"I’ve felt relaxed for about the last month," Swanson said. "I’ve been playing with confidence, and when I play with confidence I do a lot better. It was a big monkey off my back to get that first goal, and hopefully they’ll keep coming. [But] as long as the team does well and plays well defensively, I don’t care if I score or not."
Sunday’s defeat meant that the Tigers are now only 5-5-1 in their last 11 games, although two of those defeats were nonconference losses to New Hampshire and Michigan State. Nonetheless, with games against Denver and Minnesota following Wisconsin, the Tigers will need their second-rated offense (4.25 goals per game in league play) to keep it up. That means further contributions from Stewart Bodtker (12-17–29, five game-winning goals) and league scoring leader Brian Swanson (12-26–38, 12-22–34 WCHA).
Meanwhile, Wisconsin was fortunate to escape with three points last weekend against UAA. The Seawolves, with head coach and former Badger Dean Talafous, jumped out to a 2-0 lead before two goals by Joe Bianchi (13-15–28) tied it up.
Wisconsin played the same kind of game the next night, spotting Alaska-Anchorage a 3-1 lead before Yuri Gusak (4-4–8) and freshman Dustin Kuk (5-17–22) scored, making it a 3-3 tie at the end of regulation. Gusak’s goal was his second of the game. Bianchi then played the hero again, scoring the game-winner with a scant two seconds left in overtime.
Last week’s WCHA Defensive Player, Kirk Daubenspeck (12-10-2, 3.62 GAA, .888 SV%), made 48 saves on 53 shots during the two games. However, team scoring leader Brad Englehart (15-15–30) was held without a point, and the Wisconsin power play went 0-for-4 on the weekend.
The Badgers have been a surprise this season, last weekend’s performance notwithstanding. But head coach Jeff Sauer is harboring no illusions about his team’s likelihood of overtaking the Sioux.
"We’re in good shape, better than where people predicted us to be," Sauer said in Tuesday’s St. Paul Pioneer Press. "But I don’t think we or anyone else will catch North Dakota."
Pick: The Tigers looked good against St. Cloud, one of the league’s top teams, while the Badgers struggled against little-regarded UAA. But don’t forget the Dane crowd. UW 5-4, CC 5-2.
Michigan Tech (6-19-4, 3-17-4 WCHA) at No. 2 North Dakota (19-7-2, 16-7-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 8:35 p.m. CT, Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, ND
Michigan Tech hits the road on a high note. Not only did the Huskies end their school-record 19-game winless streak, they did it in style, with a win and a tie against Minnesota-Duluth at MTU’s Winter Carnival. It was the first time this season that Tech has earned as many as three points in a WCHA series.
Much of the credit for that success has to go to goaltender Luciano Caravaggio, the WCHA Defensive Player of the Week. Caravaggio made 65 saves on 69 shots against UMD, raising his save percentage to a league-leading .906 in WCHA play. Caravaggio was also named Winter Carnival MVP for his efforts.
Michigan Tech also got contributions from team scoring leader Andre Savage (10-12–22 WCHA), who scored the first goal Friday and assisted on John Kisil’s game-winner, and Jeff Mikesch, whose eighth goal of the season was the eventual game-tying score Saturday.
On the other side of the coin, however, defense continues to be a problem for the Huskies, who have allowed the second-most goals (94) in WCHA play this year. That might help explain why Caravaggio’s league-best save percentage translates into a 3.38 goals-against average — placing him tenth in the league in that category.
First-year head coach Tim Watters was reflective afterward. In Tuesday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune, Watters said, "We’re close in many games, but we have to start scoring on our chances," adding that a sharper offense could help generate further success for his team.
Things are looking up for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, also. Way up, in fact — up to the conference championship and the NCAA tourney in March. The Sioux’ home sweep of Minnesota put an indelible stamp on the rest of the regular season: this is now the team to beat.
And that’s going to be no easy feat, the way UND looks right now. Not only do the Sioux feature the top offense in the WCHA (4.63 goals per game in league play), they’ve gotten even better over the last few weeks, with 48 goals in their last 10 games. WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Jason Blake scored five goals against the Gophers, including a hat trick Saturday, to give him 17 for the season. Matching that total are Blake’s 24 assists, for a team-leading 41 points overall.
"I know Coach [Dean Blais] was counting on me to show up this weekend. That’s all I focused on all week. I just came out with all the focus and desire in the world," said Blake in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
"He was supercharged the whole weekend," added Blais.
The sophomore scorer has plenty of help. Dave Hoogsteen (16-22–38), Ian Kallay (15-19–34), Kevin Hoogsteen (12-18–30) and Jay Panzer (12-18–30) are all among the WCHA scoring leaders, and Adam Calder (5-14–19) scored two goals, including the game-winner, on Friday.
Making matters worse for their opponents, the Sioux seem to have found a capable backup for number-one goalie Toby Kvalevog. Freshman Aaron Schweitzer played both games against Minnesota, and has now won all five of his starts in net this season. On the weekend, Schweitzer held the Gophers to six goals on 51 shots to earn Rookie of the Week honors.
Picks: Though the Huskies have picked it up a notch, North Dakota is on a mission. UND 5-1, 6-2
Denver (16-8-4, 12-8-4 WCHA) at Minnesota-Duluth (14-12-2, 11-11-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, DECC, Duluth, MN
The Pioneers continued to roll last weekend, crushing Northern Michigan, 5-1 and 6-3 at the DU Arena. Since a 1-4-0 start in the WCHA, Denver has gone 11-4-4 to climb into the title chase, not to mention the race to the NCAA tournament.
Goaltender Jim Mullin has been a big part of Denver’s run. Although Mullin is only 6-4-4 in WCHA play this year, his 2.66 GAA is far and away the best in the conference, and an .899 save percentage isn’t too bad, either. Mullin has been splitting time with freshman Stephen Wagner (6-4-0, 3.31 GAA, .887 SV% in WCHA play), but got the call for both games against NMU and responded with 56 saves in 60 shots over the two-game series.
Denver’s snipers lit up the Wildcats for 11 goals on the weekend, as Paul Comrie (12-13–25 WCHA) totaled three goals and an assist. Anders Bjork added three assists and Antti Laaksonen two goals.
Unfortunately for head coach Mike Sertich, the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth are heading in the opposite direction from the Pioneers. UMD is winless in its last four contests, and 1-4-1 in its last six. Consequently, the Bulldogs have fallen well off the pace in the WCHA, and are now fighting to stay alive in the race for first-round home ice.
Simply put, the Bulldogs’ problem is scoring. Although the defense, led by their Rookie of the Year candidate, goalie Brant Nicklin (14-11-2, 2.96 GAA, .902 SV%), has given up only 22 goals during the six-game skid, the offense has scored only 16 goals in that span. Brad Federenko (7-10–17) scored a pair of goals last weekend, but those were the only even-strength scores the Bulldogs could muster against last-place Michigan Tech.
Similarly, though the Bulldog penalty-kill held Michigan Tech to a 1-for-15 weekend, and managed one shorthanded goal to boot, the power play was itself only 1-for-9. Team scoring leader Mike Peluso (15-15–30) was held to a single assist against Tech, on Ken Dzikowski’s (11-17–28) Saturday game-tying goal.
Picks: Minnesota-Duluth has got to turn it around this weekend, if the Bulldogs are to have any shot at home ice. But Denver’s not exactly going to lay down for them. UMD 3-2, DU 3-1
Northern Michigan (9-19-2, 5-18-1 WCHA) at No. 6 Minnesota (18-10-0, 15-9-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN
The Wildcats of Northern Michigan, with five WCHA wins, have already matched last year’s total, and there’s reason for (guarded) optimism in Marquette, MI. NMU is heavily loaded with freshmen talent, including centers Bud Smith (8-14–22) and Roger Trudeau (10-5–15), and wings J.P. Vigier (8-9–17) and Tyson Holly (8-3–11).
However, the real production from that group is one or two years away, and in the meantime the Wildcats have some problems. Northern has been outscored 102-52 in WCHA play — almost a two-to-one margin — and are last in the conference in power-play conversions (12.1 percent).
Number-one goalie Dieter Kochan (5-11-1, 4.25 GAA, .879 SV% WCHA) is the only netminder in the conference who has averaged over one save per two minutes in league play. In layman’s terms, Kochan is getting shelled by opposing shooters: 610 shots on goal in 18 games he has played.
Minnesota is another team looking forward to next year. Although the Gophers are still highly-ranked and theoretically still in the fight for the regular-season title, their hopes were diminished by North Dakota, which swept them last weekend, 6-4 and 6-2.
Like NMU, the Gophers are a comparatively young team, especially on defense. Captain Mike Crowley (4-28–32) leads a Gopher squad top-heavy with freshmen and sophomores, and that inexperience has shown at times this season, particularly against aggressive offenses. Minnesota gets back some veteran leadership this weekend with the return of injured defenseman Brian LaFleur (6-9–15 in 16 games), who was the leading scorer among the Gopher D when he got hurt.
Minnesota’s usually-potent O could use a little help. Although Rookie of the Year candidate Dave Spehar (10-16–26) scored in both games in Grand Forks to extend his streak to 13 games, sophomore winger Erik Rasmussen (12-8–20) has cooled off considerably from his early-season performance. Picking up the slack somewhat have been Reggie Berg (7-16–23), who was injured early in the year; Ryan Kraft (14-11–25), who leads the team with seven power-play goals; and Casey Hankinson (10-16–26).
In net, Steve DeBus (15-9-0, 3.31 GAA, .886 SV%) was peppered last weekend by the Sioux, making 75 saves for the series. Unfortunately, he also gave up 12 goals, including five in the third period Saturday, when the UND offense scored virtually at will on a dispirited Gopher team. DeBus, who was vocal in his unhappiness with his teammates’ performance last weekend, will presumably have less trouble with the low-scoring Wildcats this weekend.
Picks: The Gophers should be hitting on all cylinders back at Mariucci. The Wildcats, though improving, are no match for the home team. UM 5-1, 6-3
St. Cloud (16-9-3, 13-8-3 WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (8-15-3, 6-15-3 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, AK
When St. Cloud beat Colorado College last Sunday at the National Hockey Center, it was the first time that had happened during CC head coach Don Lucia’s tenure. The win also kept the Huskies close; they are currently only four point behind the first-place Sioux, and one point out of a second-place tie.
In fact, SCSU may just have the best chance to catch North Dakota. Although there’s a lot of teams to climb over, the Huskies have only one series remaining against a top team (Wisconsin), and that matchup is in St. Cloud.
Although the Huskies are only sixth in the WCHA in goal-scoring (league games only), they did a creditable job against Colorado College. After being thoroughly outplayed Saturday, and losing 4-2, the Huskies came back to gain the split the next afternoon. Dave Paradise (15-18–3), Mike Rucinski (4-8–12) and Mike Maristuen (4-8–12) all had two-goal weekends, while scoring leader Sacha Molin (14-20–34) had four assists and Matt Cullen (10-18–28) scored the game-winner on Sunday.
Junior Brian Leitza (12-4-0, 3.10 GAA), who has been splitting time with sophomore Tim Lideen in net, played both games against CC. Leitza was a bit shaky, giving up several big rebounds in Saturday’s loss, but managed to hold CC below its season scoring average nonetheless.
Meanwhile, the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves have been making their mark on the WCHA this season. Despite a modest record that includes losing streaks of six and four games, the Seawolves have pushed solid teams to the limit on occasion this season: among their record, one finds wins against North Dakota, Colorado College and Denver.
Last weekend, UAA gave a rising Wisconsin team all it could take — and in Madison, no less. The Seawolves used solid goaltending (Doug Teskey made 60 saves on 66 shots), discipline (six penalties for 12 minutes on the weekend), and a quality penalty-kill (4-for-4 in kills over two games) to take the Badgers to overtime both nights.
The Seawolves gained only one point for their troubles — a 2-2 tie on Friday — but have to be optimistic about their chances for next season. Although David Vallieres (6-17–23 WCHA) will be graduating after this year, Teskey (6-9-3, 3.17 GAA, .898 SV% WCHA) is only a sophomore, and head coach Dean Talafous appears to have his guys sold on the prospect of a successful program. The question, of course, is how long that will take.
Picks: Alaska-Anchorage is traditionally tough at home (although they’re only 4-9-1 at Sullivan Arena this year), but St. Cloud looks good, and they’re playing for more than pride. SCSU 4-2, 4-3
Next Week in the WCHA:
Friday, Feb. 14 Denver at Colorado College Alaska-Anchorage at Michigan Tech Minnesota-Duluth at Minnesota North Dakota at Northern Michigan
Saturday, Feb. 15 Colorado College at Denver Alaska-Anchorage at Michigan Tech Minnesota-Duluth at Minnesota North Dakota at Northern Michiga Wisconsin at St. Cloud
Sunday, Feb. 16 Wisconsin at St. Cloud
Scott Brown is Features Editor for U.S. College Hockey Online.
Copyright 1996 Scott Brown. All Rights Reserved.
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