This Week in the WCHA: March 7, 1997

WCHA Playoffs: First Round by Steve Page

Every coach in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is in agreement on this: gaining home-ice advantage for the first round of the conference playoffs was their primary goal all season. So this weekend, it’s the have-nots traveling to the haves.

Final WCHA Standings

The victors in the best-of-three series advance to the March 13-15 WCHA Final Five at the St. Paul Civic Center. With all the parity in the league this year, home ice could be the deciding factor in every series.

(Note: in what follows, the numerical designator — e.g., "No. 3 St. Cloud State" — indicate the team’s WCHA playoff seed.)

No. 10 Michigan Tech (8-25-4, 5-23-4 WCHA) at No. 1 North Dakota (24-10-2, 21-10-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 p.m. CT, Sunday 7:05 p.m. CT (if necessary), Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, ND

North Dakota, despite falling twice at Denver last weekend and settling for a tie for the regular-season title with Minnesota, returns home as a heavy favorite over the Huskies. The Fighting Sioux swept all four games — 7-3 and 4-3 in Houghton in October, and 4-2 and 7-2 at home on Feb. 7-8.

North Dakota coach Dean Blais says his team should be ready for the challenge from a team that has nothing to lose.

”They’ve not had a lot of success this year,” Blais said of the Huskies. ”One of the reasons they’ve not had a great year is a recruiting thing — they had a couple kids who didn’t come back. They’ve run through some tough times.

”But they’ve responded real well to (first-year head coach) Tim Watters. And now they’ve got nothing to lose.”

That, says Watters, is just the attitude the Huskies are showing. ”We’ve been waiting for this all year long,” he said. ”We’re excited about the playoffs. We’ve had success in the past in the playoffs. We can correct a lot of things over a lousy season if we do well this weekend.”

Three seasons ago, Michigan Tech gave hopes to underdogs all around the league. After finishing last, the Huskies traveled to league champion Colorado College, and stunned the Tigers in three games, part of the reason why CC didn’t get an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

That upset caused the NCAA to change the way it selects teams, as it now protects the regular-season champion as well as the tournament champion from each league.

”We’ve been talking about it a little bit,” Watters said. ”The team has been playing very, very disciplined hockey lately. We’re not taking needless penalties, which I’m very pleased about.”

Watters wasn’t overly thrilled with last Friday’ 5-3 loss at St. Cloud, in which the hosts rallied for four goals in the final frame. Watters was ejected at game’s end for villifying the officials.

”We played one of our best hockey games for about 50 minutes,” he said. ”We have to play that way for 60 minutes each night against North Dakota.”

The Huskies will play without senior defenseman Travis VanTighem, out with an injury.

They’re a very good hockey club,” Watters said of the Sioux. ”We’re definitely going to have to be at our best to be competitive with them. There’s no question it’s going to be real difficult series.

”In bits and pieces, we’ve played some good hockey of late. If we put it together for 60 minutes, well have some success.”

That, said Blais, is the tack the Sioux are taking.

”We can’t worry about what they’ve done,” he said of the Huskies. ”We’ve just got to go out and play. We played well in the second game at Denver (a 5-0 loss). We outshot them (32-24). We didn’t roll over and die. If we have as good an effort as we did then, we’ll be OK.”

Pick: North Dakota in two games.

No. 9 Alaska Anchorage (9-21-4, 7-21-4 WCHA) at No. 2 Minnesota (24-11-1, 21-10-1 WCHA) Friday, Saturday and Sunday (if necessary), 7:05 p.m. CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN

Minnesota, averaging nearly four goals per game, hosts Alaska Anchorage, which has scored one goal in its last four games. Minnesota is hot, having taken three of four points at Colorado College two weeks ago, then sweeping Wisconsin last weekend to gain a share of the regular-season title.

The Golden Gophers lost the regular-season tiebreaker to North Dakota, so are the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. They recorded a 4-1, 6-2 sweep of the Seawolves in their only series this year, Jan. 3-4 in Anchorage.

Minnesota coach Doug Woog says the test is to break through the Seawolves’ tough defense.

”They don’t give you any space to do anything,” Woog said. ”They play you so tight. It’s a difficult circumstance to do anything. They play great team defense. They don’t take penalties. They don’t give anything away.”

First-year Seawolves coach Dean Talafous said that’s the plan.

”We have played good defense,” he said. ”All we can do is do our best. Until they change the rules of the game, you still play with five guys, one shift at time. You’ve still got a chance, if you just play your game.”

Woog says the playoff-tested Gophers will be ready to do just that, even after celebrating tying for the WCHA regular-season championship on the final night of the season.

”The harder you play, the more positive results you get,” he said. ”We don’t have any reason to let down. We had three goals. We’ve gotten one accomplished. Now, we’ll focus on the next one. We’re playing at home, with a chance to go to the Civic Center.

”We have been consistent. We feel confident that we will move on.”

Woog said the Gophers are wary of the consequences of not playing well.

”You saw what can happen at CC three years ago,” he said. ”Michigan Tech came out there and stuffed them. You just never know. We’re all zero and zero. I know it’s an old cliche, but it’s the way it is. You earn home-ice advantage, and that’s all you have.”

Yeah, but for the Gophers, that’s a sizeable advantage. Take last Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, for example. UM had trailed the Badgers 2-1, and led only 3-2 when it was announced North Dakota was losing in Denver.

”Our crowd hadn’t been that loud since we moved into the new building,” he said of Mariucci Arena. ”We scored, and the place erupted.”

Talafous said his players will learn from the Mariucci experience, win or lose.

”I think it’s a real advantage for our program to play in the WCHA and the ranked teams that play in it,” he said. ”It brings out best in you. It forces you to bring your game up a level, to figure out how to win. We need to get to that championship level, but first, we’ve got to experience it. If you play hard, you learn a lot, and you move closer to that goal.”

Pick: Minnesota in two.

No. 8 Northern Michigan (13-22-3, 9-21-2 WCHA) at No. 3 St. Cloud State 21-11-4, 18-10-4 WCHA) Friday, Saturday and Sunday (if necessary), 7:00 p.m. CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, MN

The teams met just two times this season, and St. Cloud made the most of its home-ice advantage, posting 8-4, 3-1 victories on Dec. 6-7.

St. Cloud is coming off a 5-3, 8-2 home sweep of Michigan Tech; Northern Michigan gained three points in its home series with Minnesota-Duluth. But Northern may have to play without veteran goaltender Dieter Kochan, who continues to recover from an injury suffered two weeks ago.

St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl says his team is ready to make the most of its No. 3 seed.

”Finishing in the top three is real important,” he said. ”It helps you for seeding for the Final Five. That’s probably the most important thing. Holy buckets! You do anything you can do to avoid that game,” he said of the pigtail game between the two lowest-seeded teams among the Final Five. ”That’s why we wanted to finish third. It’s just a matter of us taking care of business now.”

Dahl expects a tough go with the Wildcats.

”I’m sure they’re excited, after beating and tying Duluth up there,” he said. ”We just came off a loss and tie to Duluth (Feb. 21-22). I guarantee you, we’d better be ready to play, because I know Northern will be ready.”

Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley won’t argue that point.

”We don’t have a lot of experience going in,” Comley said. ”We’ll dress 10 freshmen. But that’s what we’ve been going with. We’ve played pretty well the last month, with two one-goal losses at Minnesota, and the split with North Dakota.”

Comley is hoping he has Kochan back in the nets.

”He’s improving,” Comley said Wednesday. ”He skated today and yesterday. He was able to do more today, but he’s still very limited. We’re going to take him with us, but he’s very questionable. But we still have three days yet.”

Comley expects a rugged test. ”I think St. Cloud has the best top five in the league,” he said. ”I think the players they put out on the power play are the best in the league. The key will be keeping them off the power play. If you give them six or seven chances, they’re going to beat you.

”I think we have a chance. But I think we would have a chance against anybody.”

Pick: St. Cloud in three.

No. 7 Wisconsin (15-19-2, 15-15-2 WCHA) at No. 4 Colorado College (19-13-4, 17-11-4 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 p.m. MT, Sunday 7:05 p.m. MT (if necessary), Cadet Ice Arena, Colorado Springs, CO

Colorado College gained three of four points against Alaska Anchorage on the final weekend of play to hang onto the fourth seed and home ice, which could be critical.

The Tigers swept the Badgers 7-3, 5-4 at home on Nov. 16-17, then split by 2-5, 6-2 scores in Madison on Feb. 7-8. This is the first playoff trip to Colorado Springs for Wisconsin, which hasn’t won a game since its last victory over the Tigers.

This series could hinge on goaltending. Wisconsin senior Kirk Daubenspeck can be spectacular, as he was in stopping 58 shots in a 4-3 loss at Minnesota last Friday. CC freshman Jason Cugnet is the reigning WCHA Defensive Player of the Week after giving up just one goal in last week’s 2-0 win and 1-1 tie at Anchorage.

But Cugnet sprained his left knee in practice Monday, and may be finished for the season. Since New Year’s Eve, he is 4-0-2 with a 1.91 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.

In his stead, CC will go with senior Judd Lambert, who has been inconsistent this season. Lambert, 11-10-1 in the WCHA and 13-11-1 overall, has played reasonably well, but has lost six of his last seven games.

”Judd is a proven playoff guy,” CC coach Don Lucia said. ”He has the experience. I had planned to split them anyway. I would say Jason is maybe more doubtful than questionable for this weekend. We’ll start Judd on Friday and see how Jason is on Saturday.”

Lambert began the season as the starter, but Cugnet sparkled in his opportunities, and the two began splitting time. Cugnet started both games last weekend.

Lucia is aware of Daubenspeck’s ability to keep Wisconsin in any game. ”He’s capable of doing that,” Lucia said. ”We’re just going to go out and play. Whatever happens, happens. You just have to play to the best of your abilities from here on out.”

Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer was also impressed with Daubenspeck, but said there were some extenuating circumstances.

”We played in the Target Center, which is a small rink,” Sauer said. ”I knew he was going to get a lot of shots, because Minnesota shoots a lot." The Gophers held a 25-1 advantage in shots on goal in the first period, and outshot Wisconsin 62-23 for the game. Wisconsin was leading Saturday’s game 2-1 after two perids, when the Gophers were informed that North Dakota was losing to Denver. ”They just took it from there,” he said of Minnesota’s 7-3 comeback victory.

Sauer knows the odds are stacked against his team.

”We’re not healthy, but hopefully, we can do some damage,” he said. ”I’m pleased with our attitude. The guys are real positive. We’ll see what we can do. We had to go to North Dakota last year, and we did a pretty good job there.” The Badgers eliminated the Sioux with 6-5, 5-4 overtime victories.

Sauer said the Badgers will give what they have left. ”We have really not ben healthy down the stretch,” he said. ”We could be fairly healthy, but we have four (injured) guys who don’t know if they’re going to make the trip or not.”

Of the Tigers, Sauer said, ”I would think CC has got to be disappointed where they finished. If they do beat us, they’ve got to play an extra game next week.

”Both of us are just trying to get to St. Paul and see what happens. I feel both teams have got to win this weekend to have a chance to get to the NCAAs.”

Lucia said the Tigers should be in good spirits after gaining three points at Anchorage. ”I thought it was a good weekend for us,” he said. ”We only gave up one goal. Most importantly, we went up in fourth and came out in fourth.”

While CC has not been swept all season, the Tigers have not swept an opponent in the season’s second half. ”Now is the time for everybody to be on their game,” Lucia said. ”We can’t have passengers this weekend. In the playoffs, you have to play great defense. the power-play opportunities go down, so playing five-on-five becomes a bigger factor. You have to eliminate mistakes and make teams work for goals.”

Lucia said the faster-starting team would have an advantage.

”You play all year to play at home,” he said. ”The first game is real critical in these best-of-threes. We have to play our best hockey of the season right now.”

Pick: CC in three.

No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth (18-14-4, 15-13-4 WCHA) at No. 5 Denver (21-11-4, 17-11-4 WCHA) Friday, Saturday and Sunday (if necessary), 7:05 p.m. MT, DU Arena, Denver, CO

This is another series where home ice has been critical. DU registered a home sweep by 6-3, 5-1 scores on Dec. 13-14; UMD returned the favor in Duluth, winning by 7-4, 3-2 on Feb. 7-8.

This is also the Pioneers’ last series in the arena, which will be razed after this series to make room for a new multi-sport facility. While that is being constructed, the Pioneers will play their games next season at McNichols Arena and the Denver Coliseum.

Denver coach George Gwozdecky is mighty glad the Pioneers are at home.

”This has been a very competitive series,” he said. ”I think that we’re pretty happy to get the home-ice advantage, not just because of this series, but because of the way we’ve played at home all year. We’re unbeaten in our last 13 home games (10-0-3). That tells you what our team is like at home.

And the Bulldogs are not at home.

”They played us extremely physical when we were up in Duluth a month ago,” Gwozdecky said. ”They’ve got people who can really put the puck in the net. Guys like Mike Peluso, Brad Federenko, Adam Roy and Ken Dzikowski are four guys who have been a thorn in our side.

"Rick Mrozik is one of the best defensive players in league. Brant Nicklin is a good goaltender, and they have good special teams. They are a team that when they are really on their game, they’re really, really good.”

Duluth coach Mike Sertich has the same respect for the Pioneers.

”They’re a good hockey team,” he said of the Pioneers. ”They’re disciplined, they’re very well-coached, they’re veteran. They’re an obstacle, no question about that. In our first trip out to Denver, we did not play well. We got bumped off the puck a lot. The last time, we played pretty well, and we snuck out with two wins.”

Both teams may be somewhat short-handed. The Bulldogs have lost defenseman Laird Lidster and forward Colin Anderson to injury. Denver goaltender Jim Mullin is questionable after dislocating a shoulder last Friday, and Pioneer winger Antti Laaksonen won’t play Friday, the result of being ejected for spearing in last Saturday’s game.

”We got beat up pretty good,” Sertich said of last week’s physical series. ”There are some things you can’t avoid, and injuries are one of them. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Sertich expects this series to be a good one.

”I think we match up pretty well with them,” he said. ”I don’t think there’s much disparity between the top seven. Who’s playing the best hockey now is what matters.”

Gwozdecky said he wants Mullin back, but not until he’s ready.

”He feels, as our medical staff does, that he’ll be ready to play Friday,” Gwozdecky said. ”But I do it a little differently. I’m preparing in my own mind people who are ready to play. He’s got experience in important games.

"But I feel very confident in our other two goaltenders (freshmen Steve Wagner, who blanked North Dakota last Saturday, and junior Ben Henrich). If we advance to the Final Five, we’re going to need two healthy goaltenders. Wagner’s playing really well. So I’m really encouraging our medical staff, and Jim, to make sure he’s physically and mentally ready to play — not just ‘I really want to play.’ ”

Of Laaksonen’s absence, Gwozdecky said, ”If you take a quality player such as Antti out of the lineup, it’s going to have an effect. But I don’t think it will be as big as last year. If this was last year, I would be a lot more concerned, because the line of Laaksonen, (Erik) Andersson and (Brent) Cary really carried us.

"That hasn’t been the case this year. We’ve had other guys who have played well. Guys like Paul Comrie and Anders Bjork.”

Pick: Denver in two.

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

Copyright 1997 Steve Page. All Rights Reserved.

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