This Week in the WCHA: February 14, 1997

WCHA Preview: Feb. 14-15, 1997 by Scott Brown

North Dakota refused to yield ground to its pursuers over the weekend. The first-place Fighting Sioux, edging ever closer to the MacNaughton Cup, swept last-place Michigan Tech to maintain a three-point lead in the standings over Minnesota. The Gophers, for their part, took four points against ninth-place Northern Michigan to take over sole possession of second place in the WCHA.

Colorado College and Wisconsin are on the Gophers’ tail, followed by St. Cloud, Denver and Minnesota-Duluth. At this moment, all of these teams still have a shot at a top-five finish in the conference, and hence home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan bring up the rear of the WCHA; their games will now decide who gets the honor of taking on the regular-season champions in the first round.

WCHA Standings

Games this weekend include a home-and-home between in-state rivals and an intraschool conflict in Minneapolis. The nominations, please:

Denver (16-10-4, 12-10-4 WCHA) vs. Colorado College (17-11-2, 15-9-2 WCHA) Friday, 7:35 p.m. MT, AFA Cadet Ice Arena, Colorado Springs, CO Saturday, 7:05 p.m. MT, DU Arena, Denver, CO

The Pioneers’ meteoric rise through the ranks of the WCHA came to a halt last weekend. Denver, which had been 10-2-2 in its last 14 games, was swept in Duluth, 7-4 and 3-2.

The losses were doubly surprising in that they came at the hands of the Bulldogs, who had not been performing well of late. But Denver goalie Jim Mullin (6-5-4, 2.89 GAA .891 SV% WCHA), who took the loss on Friday, allowed six goals on 29 shots before emptying the DU net with a minute to go in the game. The defeat was the first in 11 games for Mullin, who still leads the WCHA in goals-against average.

DU’s other goalie, Stephen Wagner (6-5-0, 3.29 GAA, .890 SV% WCHA) fared somewhat better on Saturday, but the Pioneers lost again. On the plus side for Denver, defenseman Joe Ritson had an assist on Friday and a goal on Saturday to extend his point-scoring streak to six games.

The sweep dropped Denver into a tie for sixth with UMD, making this weekend’s series with Colorado College critical to the Pioneers’ home-ice hopes. Friday’s game will be played at the Air Force Academy, CC’s home-away-from-home this season, where the Tigers are 9-4-0.

For their part, the three-time defending champions fared somewhat better last weekend against Wisconsin. Playing at the raucous Dane County Coliseum, the Tigers managed a split, winning the recap 6-2 after being soundly defeated, 5-2, in the opener.

The Saturday win meant that CC has now gone 59 straight series without being swept, going all the way back to 1994. Brian Swanson (14-28–42), who leads the WCHA in scoring, assisted on the game-winner, the fifth consecutive CC win in which he has done that. Jason Cugnet (4-2-1, 3.27 GAA, .867 SV%), installed in net after a shaky performance by number-one goaltender Judd Lambert (13-9-1, 3.29 GAA, .881 SV%) in Friday’s game, faced only 14 shots in earning the win.

The Tiger penalty-kill continued to click, as Wisconsin went 0-for-5 on the power play during the weekend. CC has now gone six games since allowing a power-play goal, and is third in the WCHA (81.7 percent) for the season.

Picks: Colorado College swept this series earlier in the year, but the Pioneers are playing better now, last weekend notwithstanding. Denver has a ten-game unbeaten streak at home (7-0-3). CC 4-2, DU 4-3

Minnesota-Duluth (16-12-2, 13-11-2 WCHA) at No. 5 Minnesota (20-10-0, 17-9-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN

The Bulldogs, as mentioned above, came into last weekend hoping to stay alive for home ice. They ended the weekend four points richer, with a vastly improved position for the stretch run.

UMD can thank WCHA Defensive Player of the Week Brant Nicklin (13-11-2, 3.20 GAA, .898 SV% WCHA) for its good fortune. Nicklin, a top candidate for the Rookie of the Year award, made 62 saves on 66 shots over the course of the series.

Playing in front of him, Ken Dzikowski (13-18–31) had two goals and an assist, while Jason Haakstad scored his second and third goals of the year, including the game-winner Saturday. UMD therefore split the season series with Denver, 2-2, a statistic which may become relevant in the WCHA’s tiebreaker system.

This Friday, for head coach Mike Sertich’s 600th game behind the Duluth bench, the Bulldogs will try to accomplish what they have not been able to do since 1994 — win at Mariucci Arena. And despite Minnesota’s sweep of Northern Michigan last weekend, the Bulldogs might be catching the Gophers at the right time to do just that.

Yes, Minnesota beat the ninth-place Wildcats, but they weren’t very happy about it. Both victories came by one goal against a team the Gophers felt they should have beaten handily.

"By no means are we satisfied with our effort tonight," said co-captain Mike Crowley (5-31–36) after Friday’s game, in which the Gophers stormed out to a three-goal lead before letting Northern Michigan back in with penalties and sloppy play.

Crowley had little reason to fault his own play, as he scored a goal and added three assists on the weekend. The Gophers were also bolstered by the return of defenseman Brian LaFleur and the scoring of WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Ryan Kraft. Kraft scored three goals against NMU, including both Gopher goals on Saturday, and added two assists to claim the honor.

Freshman winger Dave Spehar scored the game-winner Friday for Minnesota, but was shut out Saturday, ending his point-scoring streak at 14 games.

Pick: So, are the Gophers vulnerable, or just angry? UMD has to hope for the former, but the latter seems at least as likely. UM 4-2, 6-3

Wisconsin (15-13-2, 15-9-2 WCHA) at St. Cloud (17-10-3, 14-9-3 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 8:35-8:05 p.m. CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, MN

Much like the Bulldogs vs. Minnesota, Wisconsin has something to prove this weekend. The Badgers, who were picked to finish eighth in the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll, have instead climbed all the way into a tie for third, just five points off the lead.

Now they face a road series at the National Hockey Center, where the Badgers have not won since early 1993. Now seems an apropos time for Wisconsin to break that streak. Center Joe Bianchi (14-15–29), who has been on a tear lately, was slowed by CC’s defense, but the team made up for that with balance: seven goals, seven scorers during the two-game series.

Goalie Kirk Daubenspeck (13-11-2, 3.66 GAA, .869 SV%) became Wisconsin’s all-time leader in career saves in the Friday win, but was pulled after the second period Saturday, having allowed five goals on 30 shots. His replacement, Mike Valley, allowed one goal on seven shots to finish the game.

St. Cloud also split a series last weekend, against the eighth-place Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. Their loss Saturday left the Huskies in fifth place, two points behind Wiscosin and Colorado College and three ahead of Denver and Minnesota-Duluth.

Obviously, SCSU would prefer to improve its playoff position, but there’s probably more to fear from falling back than there is to gain by moving up. Unless the Huskies can get into third place or better, they face a contending team in the first round no matter what, while dropping below fifth costs them the comforts of home for that series.

Speaking of which, it was definitely an up-and-down weekend for the Huskies. Case in point: goaltender Brian Leitza (11-5-0, 3.38 GAA, .882 SV% WCHA), who has been seeing the lion’s share of playing time lately, made 16 saves both Friday and Saturday. Friday, he allowed two goals en route to a 4-2 victory, but Saturday, five pucks got by him in the loss.

The St. Cloud scorers were equally inconsistent. Matt Cullen (12-18–30) had two goals Friday and no points at all Saturday; likewise, team scoring leader Sacha Molin (15-21–36) had both his weekend points in the first game. The principal exception to this rule was Mark Parrish (14-12–26), who tallied two assists on each day.

Picks: These are two strong teams, both with an awful lot at stake. The games are in St. Cloud, but Wisconsin has yet to lose to a WCHA rival on Friday this season (11-0-1). UW 3-2, SCSU 5-3

No. 2 North Dakota (21-7-2, 18-7-1 WCHA) at Northern Michigan (9-21-2, 5-20-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. ET, Lakeview Arena, Marquette, MI

The conference-leading Fighting Sioux hold their fates in their collective hand. With six games remaining in the regular season, North Dakota is a strong favorite to hold on to its lead and claim the title.

North Dakota has everything going for it right now — a favorable schedule, an offense hitting on all cylinders and sharp coaching from Dean Blais and his staff. The Sioux have six players with 30 points or more already, led by young scorers Jason Blake (18-25–43) and David Hoogsteen (19-22–41).

On D, the Sioux feature Curtis Murphy (9-22–31) and Dane Litke (3-18–21), both capable two-way players. And in goal, Aaron Schweitzer (7-0-0, 2.77 GAA, .896 SV%) has won all of his starts this season, including the Sioux’ last four games: two against Minnesota, and two last weekend against Michigan Tech.

And, as if all that weren’t enough, the Sioux also have the reigning WCHA Rookie of the Week. Brad DeFauw won that award for his two-goal weekend vs. MTU.

However, they play the games for a reason. Its easy to win on paper, but as the Golden Gophers found out, even a ninth-place team like the Wildcats is capable of making things hot for a contender.

Curtis Sheptak (two goals and an assist), team-leading scorer Bud Smith (9-15–24) (one goal, one assist), defenseman Darcy Dallas (one goal, one assist) and freshman John Coyle (two assists) carried most of the offensive load for the Wildcats last weekend. When the games had ended, the Wildcats had lost two close ones.

Head coach Rick Comley, a two-time national coach of the year, found it hard to be too upset. "We were overmanned early on," he said, adding that he was pleased with his team’s ability to hang in after going down three goals on Friday.

Now the Wildcats face a team which swept the Gophers just two weeks ago. Despite a seven-game losing streak against the Sioux, Northern Michigan holds an all-time home record of 13-5-2 against UND.

Picks: Northern Michigan can be dangerous at Lakeview, but the Sioux are still on that mission mentioned last week. It’s going to be tough for the Wildcats to slow them up. UND 4-1, 4-2

Alaska-Anchorage (9-16-3, 7-16-3 WCHA) at Michigan Tech (6-21-4, 3-19-4 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 p.m. ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, MI

The Seawolves head for Houghton a week after turning in a credible performance against the St. Cloud State Huskies in Anchorage. This series is about pride more than anything else, since both UAA and MTU are among the bottom three teams in the WCHA, neither with a chance of climbing out of that group.

That does not mean that good hockey isn’t being played in Anchorage this year. The Seawolves have established themselves as an opponent to be wary of. Leading scorer David Vallieres (6-17–23 WCHA) and Eric Silverman (10-10–20 WCHA) head up the Seawolf offense, while Doug Teskey (7-10-3, 3.15 GAA, .898 SV% WCHA) provides a stable presence between the pipes.

UAA showed its resilience on Saturday, when the Seawolves came back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to defeat SCSU. Eric Tuott got the game-winner for Anchorage with just five minutes left in the contest, and Teskey made 14 saves after replacing a shaky Chris Davis in net.

Michigan Tech rests at the bottom of the WCHA, having been swept last weekend in Grand Forks by the Fighting Sioux of UND. Andre Savage (12-13–25 WCHA) leads the team in scoring, totaled two goals and an assist in the losing effort against North Dakota and has 18 points in his last 13 games.

In nets, Luciano Caravaggio (3-9-4, 3.41 GAA, .907 SV% WCHA) saved 42 shots on Friday, but lost 4-2. Saturday, Caravaggio replaced David Weninger after one period and made 21 more stops for a total of 63 on the weekend. Caravaggio allowed only six goals to the ferocious UND offense in that span, and showed why he leads the WCHA in save percentage, despite his very modes goals-against average.

On the down side for MTU, senior defenseman Travis VanTighem will be out several weeks — probably the rest of the regular season — with an injury to his right knee.

Picks: Michigan Tech, as the home team, gets the edge here, but don’t be surprised to see the Seawolves take some points. MTU 3-2, UAA 2-1

Next Week in the WCHA:

Friday, Feb. 21 Minnesota at Colorado College St. Cloud at Minnesota-Duluth Alaska-Anchorage at North Dakota Michigan Tech at Northern Michigan Denver at Wisconsin

Saturday, Feb. 22 Minnesota at Colorado College St. Cloud at Minnesota-Duluth Alaska-Anchorage at North Dakota Michigan Tech at Northern Michigan Denver at Wisconsin

Scott Brown is Features Editor for U.S. College Hockey Online.

Copyright 1996 Scott Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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