This Week in the WCHA: February 28, 1997

WCHA Preview: Feb. 28-Mar. 1, 1997 by Steve Page

North Dakota has come all the way back. A weekend sweep of visiting Alaska-Anchorage gave the Fighting Sioux a share of the WCHA regular-season title, their first since 1987. UND also gained the number-one seed for the WCHA playoffs by virtue of the tiebreaker it holds over second-place Minnesota.

The Gophers, though relegated to no better than a two seed, clinched home-ice advantage with their three-point weekend in Colorado Springs. Minnesota could still gain half of the MacNaughton Cup — with a sweep of Wisconsin and two UND losses this weekend.

CC, of course, remains in the hunt for home ice, as do Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud and Wisconsin. Only four points separate those teams in the standings, even at this late date in the season.

Meanwhile, Alaska-Anchorage, Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech continue to jockey for position; those teams are already consigned to road series in the first round.

WCHA Standings

Michigan Tech (8-23-4, 5-21-4 WCHA) at St. Cloud (19-11-4, 16-10-4 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05-8:05 p.m. CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, MN

St. Cloud State has the inside track to third place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The toughest part for the Huskies will be to avoid getting derailed by Michigan Tech.

St. Cloud, third in the WCHA with 36 points on a 16-10-4 record, hosts Tech Friday and Saturday. Tech is 10th with 14 points on a 5-21-4 mark.

”We don’t have to rely on anybody else to lose in order to finish third,” said St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl. ”We just have to win our games.

”This is a better position than hoping somebody ahead of you loses.”

There are several teams hoping St. Cloud is the team to fall. Colorado College trails the Huskies by one point. Denver is just two back. Sixth-place Minnesota-Duluth is three behind SCSU. Wisconsin is four back, but even if the Badgers catch the Huskies, they would lose the tiebreaker between the two teams.

Dahl said he has passed the importance of this series on to his players. ”It has implications for seeding purposes, for final-five seeding,” Dahl said of the WCHA playoffs. ”Our players are very aware of that. We made them very aware. Now, it’s kinda up to them.”

This is one of those series where one team has everything to lose and the other, well, can have a lot of fun without fear of much happening. Tech coach Tim Watters is hoping that’s just what happens.

”We’ve got nothing to save it for,” Watters quipped.

Watters also said his Huskies should be motivated after losing both ends of last week’s home-and-home series with Northern Michigan, falling 4-3 in Marquette and 5-3 at home.

”That was a real tough series to lose the way we did,” Watters said. ”Friday night, Northern scored the winning goal with 56 seconds left. Then we were up 2-0 going into third period Saturday. To lose a series like that is devastating.”

But Watters said the devastation would be temporary. ”We’ll regroup this week during practice,” he said. ”We’ll go in with good game plan against St. Cloud and prepare for the playoffs.”

According to the coach, it will be an uphill battle at best, even though St. Cloud managed just one point at Minnesota-Duluth last weekend. Tech will play without two injured regulars — defenseman Travis VanTighem and team captain Jason Prokopetz.

”St. Cloud is a very solid hockey club,” Watters said. ”We played them well earlier in the season (a 3-3 tie and a 5-1 loss). ”We have to play them well this weekend and find a way to win.”

The Huskies can do this, Watters insisted. ”We have good, quality people here,” he said. ”We’ll have to rebound. There’s no other alternative. They know we have to do that, and that’s what they’ll do.

”No one feels sorry for you. And we don’t expect them to.”

St. Cloud doesn’t figure to, after its tough series at Duluth, in which it lost 5-2 before leaving town with a 3-3 tie.

”We had the win on Saturday, but they tied it with 10 seconds left,” Dahl said. ”We struggled with their small sheet (of ice) on Friday. Duluth played really well. They were very, very physical. They did a good job.”

Tech also lost winger Matt Noga to cracked vertebrae during the Duluth series. Dahl said his team needs to beware the visiting Huskies. ”They’ve struggled, but in this league, seems like anybody can beat anybody,” Dahl said. ”It’s so tight, you can drop several spots in the standings in one weekend.”

History can provide a necessary lesson, according to Dahl. ”It wasn’t that long ago (four seasons) that Tech was seeded 10th and CC first (in the first round of the playoffs) and Tech upset CC,” Dahl said. ”I’m sure they (Tech’s Huskies) are going to come at us real hard. We have so much to play for. It’s so important. I’m glad we’re home.”

Wisconsin (15-17-2, 15-13-2 WCHA) at No. 5 Minnesota (22-11-1, 19-10-1 WCHA) Friday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Target Center, Minneapolis, MN Saturday, 7:35 p.m. CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN

This is Jeff Sauer’s 26th year as a coach in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which qualifies him as the league’s resident historian.

In all those seasons, Sauer has never seen one like this. With one weekend to play in the regular season, four points separate third place from seventh in the 10-team conference. The top five finishers get home ice for the first round of the league playoffs.

”It’s never been this tight, with seven teams that have all beat up on each other pretty much all the season,” said Sauer, currently in his 15th season at the Wisconsin helm. ”It’s kinda filtering out now. The people who are healthy, and are strong through the stretch, are going to survive.”

Sauer doesn’t know if his team will survive its series at Minnesota this weekend. The teams play at the Target Center on Friday, and at Mariucci Arena at 7:35 Saturday. Both games are sellouts.

Minnesota has a firm grip on second — and home ice — with 39 points on a 19-10-1 record; Wisconsin is seventh with 32 points on a 15-13-2 mark.

”We haven’t survived the injury part,” Sauer said. ”On Monday, we had 11 guys out of practice.” The latest on the list is junior center Joe Bianchi, who fell to an injury in last weekend’s 5-3, 4-3 home losses to Denver. Bianchi is the Badgers’ No. 2 scorer with 29 points on 14 goals and 15 assists.

”It’s been a real demanding schedule this year,” Sauer said. ”That’s great for the league, because it has been so competitive.”

Unfortunately for Wisconsin, Denver proved more competitive last weekend. ”We’re disappointed, to be honest,” Sauer said. ”We thought we could get at least one, and maybe two. Denver played very well.”

However, Sauer said the injuries have taken a toll. ”The will is there, but the bodies aren’t,” he said. ”I haven’t had as many injuries in any year since I was at Colorado College (1971-82), with the lack of depth and stuff.”

And now, the Badgers have Minnesota looming on the western horizon.

”I don’t know if it’s realistic that we can get home ice after last weekend,” he said. ”The Minnesota series is always good. Hopefully, can get the job done. We’ll be ready.”

Gopher coach Doug Woog says his team still harbors hopes of tying North Dakota for the regular-season title.

”We have our opportunities,” he said. ”This is the last time. You had other opportunities during the year. This is the last opportunity to do anything. ”We’ve got to win two games and hope we get a lot of help (from Denver, which hosts first-place North Dakota).”

The Gophers positioned themselves by taking three of four points at Colorado College with a 3-3 tie and a 3-0 win. ”We secured a lot of things last week — home ice, a top-three finish,” Woog said. ”Our power rankings didn’t get hurt. We put ourselves in position to get a tie for the championship if we get some help.”

But first things first.

”They (the Badgers) have a lot at stake, too,” Woog said. ”They’ll be here with their working shoes on. That we know. They have nothing to lose. They’re going to come out with a lot of energy. I’m sure they will. That’s the way it is when we play them.”

The Gophers figure to be as healthy as they have been recently. Junior defenseman Mike Crowley is back after missing part of last Saturday’s game with a puncture wound.

”These are big games. That’s all I can tell you,” Woog said. ”We still have a chance to win the title; we’ll look at the scoreboard later. If we don’t win, it doesn’t matter anyway. If we win, we still have a chance.”

No. 2 North Dakota (24-8-2, 21-8-1 WCHA) at Denver (19-11-4, 15-11-4 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. MT, DU Arena, Denver, CO

Back on Oct. 18, Jason Blake helped North Dakota get off to a great start in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association season by scoring the tying goal with one second remaining in regulation. North Dakota went on to beat Denver 3-2 in overtime, then posted a sweep with a 6-2 win the next night.

Now, four months later, the second-ranked Fighting Sioux will be looking to win the title outright in their series this weekend at Denver. Any combination of a win or tie by the Sioux, or a tie or loss by Minnesota in its home series with Wisconsin, will give North Dakota its first outright regular-season championship in a decade.

The Sioux, with 43 points on a 21-8-1 WCHA record, meet the Pioneers at Friday and Saturday. Denver is fifth with 34 points on a 15-11-4 record. If Denver doesn’t finish in the top five, this will be the last series played in DU Arena, which is to be razed at the conclusion of the season to make way for a new multi-sport venue.

Both UND coach Dean Blais and Denver coach George Gwozdecky say that initial series between the two clubs has pretty much dictated the paths of their respective seasons.

”We thought if we were competitive, we [might] be in somewhere in the middle of the pack,” Blais said of his team’s preseason hopes. ”That first series was important, because Denver has a good, veteran team. We thought if we could do well against them, we could adjust and aim our goals a little higher.

”That series gave us a lot of confidence going into the rest of the year…. That opening weekend, for a lot of teams — it seems like it can make or break your season.”

Gwozdecky says the Pioneers have been in a chasing mode ever since. ”That first game against North Dakota was important,” Gwozdecky said. ”There’s six seconds to go. We win the draw, but we throw the puck away. Their defenseman wrists it toward the net. It hits Jim Mullin right in between the pads. It falls at the goal line. He can’t see it. At the last second, Jason Blake spies it lying there, and taps it in.

”That’s one point we lost and two that North Dakota gained. You look back and say the whole complection of the league race may have changed with that one game. It’s speculation, obviously, but it’s fun nonetheless.”

Both teams have had their share of fun lately. North Dakota swept Alaska-Anchorage 2-0, 4-0 last weekend to clinch at least a tie for the title and gain the No. 1 seed for the WCHA playoffs. Minnesota could catch the Sioux in points, but North Dakota still has the tie-breaking edge.

Denver, meanwhile, jumped into the home-ice race with a 5-3, 4-3 sweep at Wisconsin.

”It’s pretty exciting, even to get a share of the championship,” said Blais. ”We were picked fifth by the league coaches after we lost some real talent off last year’s team.”

Blais said his players appear ready to take the title outright. ”The guys celebrated last Saturday,” he said. ”I thought there’d be a little bit of a letdown in practice this week. But there hasn’t been.

”We’ve worked hard all year. This is a good bunch of kids who work hard and who bought into my system. They’re good students. I’m real proud of what they have accomplished.

”To get this far, you need a little luck We’ve gotten a few breaks, and we’ve been healthy all year.”

Blais expects a pitched battle from the Pioneers. ”We’re looking forward to a team that’s playing well lately and is a skating team like we are,” he said. ”I’m sure they want home ice in the playoffs.

”They’re 8-0-3 in their last 11 games. With some breaks early on, they could’ve made a run at the championship.”

Gwozdecky says that’s all in the past.

”The most important part of the season is fast approaching,” he said. ”There are five or six weekends left in the college hockey year. Some teams’ seasons could go up in smoke. Teams like ourselves could make a lot of people forget how we started, and make them remember how we finished.”

The Wisconsin people won’t soon forget Denver. That sweep of the Badgers has positioned the Pioneers for a home-ice run and energized their effort.

”We finally put ourselves back in position to gain home ice,” Gwozdecky said. ”Having the number-one team in the league here for our final series is probably what you want them to have. It’s a great challenge; a great opportunity."

"We’re still battling for home ice. Who knows? The way this goofy league has gone, we could finish anywhere from third to seventh. It’ll be a strange, but exciting, finish to the league.”

Minnesota-Duluth (18-13-3, 15-12-3 WCHA) at Northern Michigan (12-22-2, 8-21-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. ET, Lakeview Arena, Marquette, MI

Mike Sertich says the real scramble in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association race will come Sunday, the day after the regular season concludes.

”The phones will be pretty busy Sunday morning with people making travel and hotel arrangements,” Sertich said. ”This is the first time I can remember it’s been this close all the way down to seventh. This year, you just don’t know.”

Sertich would like to wake up Sunday morning with the knowledge that he won’t have to be making travel plans. The Bulldogs carry sixth place into this weekend’s series at Northern Michigan; UMD has 33 points on a 15-12-3 WCHA record. That’s just one behind fifth-place Denver, two behind fourth-place Colorado College and four back of third-place St. Cloud State. The Bulldogs are also just one point ahead of seventh-place Wisconsin.

Northern Michigan, eighth with 17 points on an 8-21-4 conference mark, hosts UMD Friday and Saturday. Sertich said his club will be as ready as possible.

”Actually, we’ve played pretty well since Christmas,” he said. ”Now, it all depends on what you do this weekend. There’ll be some interesting series around the league this weekend.”

The Bulldogs go into this series without junior defenseman Laird Lidster, who suffered a second-degree shoulder separation and two broken ribs in what Sertich believes was a check from behind.

”We’ve got some bad injuries. That’s all part of it, too,” he said. ”The biggest is the one to Laird Lidster. We’ve got six defensemen. That’s it. We’re down to bare bones.”

And now, the Bulldogs have to travel to play the Wildcats.

”They’re playing pretty well, from what I gather,” Sertich said. ”They were pretty young when we played them before.

”They must have played well to beat Tech like that,” he said of the Wildcats’ 4-3, 5-3 sweep in their home-and-home series with Michigan Tech. Sertich said his players need to take care of their own business if they hope to climb up at least one spot and gain home ice for the playoffs.

”You don’t worry about what’s going on around you,” he said. ”You worry about what’s going on right at you.”

Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley said his team will also be strapped this weekend. The Wildcats will play without senior goaltender Dieter Kochan, who injured a knee two weeks ago in a 2-1 win over North Dakota.

"[Kochan] is still hurt. We doubt very much whether he’ll play this week,” Comley said. ”If we’re going to do anything in the playoffs, we’re going to have to have him back.”

Comley said the Wildcats are hosting a hot Duluth club. ”I think they’re as talented as anybody in the league,” he said of the Bulldogs. ”Duluth is still competing for home ice, so this is very big for them. With us, it’s a question of where we’re going in the playoffs. It’s a bigger opportunity for them.”

Still, Comley isn’t discounting his youthful team. ”We’ve been trying to get better all year,” he said. ”We’ve played a better second half as our freshmen have gotten more experience and more maturity with the whole thing.

”I think we’re a much better team than we were early…. For us to do anything at this point of the season, a lot of things have to go right. I feel we’re very close to becoming a good team again.

”We’d just like to keep it going on a positive note. We’ve worked hard. That’s the one thing about this sport — the workload never changes. The kids are feeling better; they’re happier. We have a chance, if we play well, to keep it going in a positive way.”

Colorado College (18-13-3, 16-11-3 WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (9-20-3, 7-20-3 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, AK

Who scheduled this weekend’s series?

Colorado College plays at Alaska Anchorage on Friday and Saturday, and the games begin at 7:05 Alaska Time. That’s 9:05 in Colorado Springs, 10:05 in the Central Time Zone and 11:05 for the teams from Michigan.

”I don’t think anybody making the schedule out anticipated the race being so close at the top,” said Anchorage coach Dean Talafous.

His club isn’t terribly concerned with that. The Seawolves, with 17 points on a 7-20-3 WCHA mark, share eighth with Northern Michigan. But CC is in the thick of the race for one of the league’s top three spots, as well as home ice. The Tigers are fourth with 35 points on a 16-11-3 mark. They’re one point behind third-place Minnesota, one ahead of fifth-place Denver, two up on sixth-place Minnesota-Duluth and three better than seventh-place Wisconsin.

CC could finish anywhere from third to seventh. So just about everybody else in the league will be watching and waiting — and waiting and waiting.

”At least we’ll know what everybody else has done before we play,” said CC coach Don Lucia. ”If we win two, we know we keep fourth place.” ”We can finish anywhere from third to seventh, with two games to go. That’s the WCHA this year. There’s just a lot of parity.”

Lucia said there’s already an awful lot of parity between the Tigers and Seawolves.

”It’s not an easy trip,” he said. ”We’re 3-2-1 up there the three years they’ve been in WCHA. Even with the great teams we’ve had, we’ve been unable to win two up there.” That’s because the Seawolves have a history of playing quality defense. This year, they’ve also cut down on penalties, averaging an amazing 6.03 penalty minutes per game.

Though the Seawolves were swept 2-0, 4-0 at first-place North Dakota last weekend, they played the second game without a penalty. That’s a school first. In fact, both teams went the entire game without putting anyone in the box; the last WCHA game in which that happened, according to USCHO’s Mike Machnik, was back in 1982.

”We don’t take many (penalties) to begin with,” Talafous said. ”Over the last month, we’re averaging only one or two. That’s our style. It will be every year and every game. It’s not that difficult to play within the rules — it’s an attitude, a mindset.”

One with which CC will have to deal.

”You almost have to go with a mindset that you have to win with two or three goals against Anchorage,” Lucia said.

He said the Tigers are still kicking themselves for blowing a late lead last Friday against Minnesota. That game ended in a 3-3 overtime tie, and the Gophers cruised to a 3-0 win last Saturday.

”If we would have held on and won that first Minnesota game, we would have come away with two points and felt pretty good,” Lucia said. ”Obviously, that was a big point. If we had that, we’d be tied for third, and have a couple-point cushion on Minnesota-Duluth and Denver.

”Since the start of the season, our goal has been home ice for the playoffs. That’s still our goal this weekend. This isn’t the same (CC) team as the last three years. This is a different team, a young team. We’ve fought the battles of a young team that’s been up and down. The only way you gain that maturity is by playing these games.”

So the Tigers will show up Friday.

”We want to hold on to the fourth spot,” Lucia said. ”It would be nice to move up. All we can do is go up and do our best. That’s what I’m most concerned with — putting two good games back to back.”

That’s also the philosophy of Talafous, the Seawolves’ first-year coach. Of his team’s record, Talafous said, ”It’s just one of those things — a new coach, a new team. We’ve played 10 overtime games, but we haven’t won a one (the Seawolves are actually 0-4-3 in overtime).

”We’re not overly talented. We appear to be getting better each week, but it’s a tough league. We’ve played so many close games. We’re ready to make something happen. I just hope we don’t run out of time before something happens."

As far as playing the Tigers is concerned, Talafous said, ”CC, Minnesota — we don’t get too caught up in who we’re playing. We just concentrate on how we’re playing. If we execute our game plan as well as possible, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’re going to have some success.

”We have a lot of pride. We’ve battled everybody real tough. We’re going to get there. It just takes a lot of hard work. It doesn’t matter what your record is, as long as you’re there at the end. So we feel we’re in the same position as everybody else.”

It’s just the Seawolves’ position on the map — and the clock — that will keep everybody waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

Next Week in the WCHA: Conference playoffs, first round. Games and times to be annouced.

Steve Page is the WCHA Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.

Copyright 1997 Steve Page. All Rights Reserved.

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