This Week in the WCHA: October 31, 1997

St. Cloud State, which dropped a pair at home to CCHA opponent Notre Dame two weekends ago, came back to earn three points against Mankato State, which had just split a pair in Duluth against the Bulldogs. Those selfsame ‘Dogs then turned around and put a whipping on big brother Minnesota Friday, before losing the recap the next day.

Meanwhile, the Gophers continue to show a split personality, having lost all three of their Friday games this season, but winning both Saturday contests. To top it all off, a Michigan Tech team consigned to the league’s second division is now leading the standings at 3-1-1 overall, including a storm-delayed split in Denver.

Confused yet? You’re not alone. Thankfully, two WCHA teams had the decency to perform to expectations last week.

On one hand, the Colorado College Tigers served notice to the whole country, obliterating St. Lawrence in the first round of the J.C. Penney Classic, then tying host Maine in the title game. CC walked away with the hardware, though, thanks to a 3-2 shootout victory.

On the other, the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves are showing the offensive malaise that characterized their 1996-97 season, and are winless in four games after a sweep by Hockey East power New Hampshire in Anchorage.

Lastly, two WCHA squads haven’t even hit the ice for an official contest yet. Those omissions are rectified this weekend, as Ice Breaker Invitational runner-up Wisconsin and defending NCAA champion North Dakota lace ’em up for their season openers.

And, speaking of which…

U.S. College Hockey Online Game of the Week No. 1 North Dakota (0-0-0, 0-0-0 WCHA) at No. 9 Minnesota (2-2-0, 1-1-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 p.m. CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN

Look out, Minneapolis, here come the Sioux. The 1997 national champs make their debut in Gopher-land this weekend, and you can bet that both teams welcome the opportunity to renew acquaintances. Minnesota forward Wyatt Smith, asked Saturday if the Gophers would have any trouble with their focus this weekend, had a simple reply.

"I don’t think so."

If Smith is right, it’s good news for Gopher backers, who have watched their team battle inconsistency this young season. The young Minnesota squad, perhaps missing the leadership of a departed Mike Crowley, has often seemed disoriented on the ice. That was especially true Friday in Duluth, when several defensive lapses led to UMD goals, and eventually contributed to a 5-3 loss.

The Gophers picked themselves up the next night and won 5-1, as WCHA Defensive Player of the Week Steve DeBus made 25 saves to secure the victory. The win also came thanks to Smith, whose two goals Saturday made for a total of four on the weekend, and scoring totals of 15-11–26 in his last 23 games.

Afterward, Smith was clear about the object of his attention.

"I think we’ll enjoy this game tonight and tomorrow, but come Monday, we’re going to ready for the Green and White," he said. "They won the series last year; they won the big games [from] us last year. They’re the national champions, and everybody’s going to be gunning for them."

The Sioux did win the season series, by a margin of 3-2. But of those five matchups, it was the last game — the rubber match in the WCHA championship — which showed that North Dakota was no flash in the pan. The Sioux beat the Gophers in their own backyard (the St. Paul Civic Center), 4-3 in overtime to claim the WCHA tourney title.

You all know where the rest of the story goes — to Milwaukee, where UND hoisted the trophy after a convincing run through the best teams in college hockey.

"The big thing is to avoid complacency," head coach Dean Blais said in September. "And I think we’ve done that."

Complacent or not, there’s good reason to expect some more of the same this year from North Dakota. In fact, there are several good reasons, named Blake, Hoogsteen, Murphy, Schweitzer…

That is to say, the Sioux have most of their firepower back from last season, including MVP candidates Jason Blake and David Hoogsteen, who totaled 105 points in 1996-97. Meanwhile, Curtis Murphy, the top-scoring returning blueliner in the conference, added 42 points. Those three were all first-team WCHA selections at the end of last year.

Making matters worse for the rest of the conference, sophomore goaltender Aaron Schweitzer came virtually out of nowhere last season to establish himself among the league’s elite. Schweitzer replaced senior Toby Kvalevog as the number-one netminder halfway through the year, and came through with a 2.31 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage, both WCHA highs.

Picks: The Sioux have two things working against them. The first is rust — UND has played only one game this season, an exhibition victory over Manitoba nearly two weeks ago. The second is the new Mariucci Arena, where the Sioux have yet to win in eight games (0-6-2). Those two factors keep them down in game one, but the North Dakota of last season shows through on Saturday. Minnesota 4-2, North Dakota 3-1

Minnesota-Duluth (2-2-0, 1-1-0 WCHA) at St. Cloud (1-2-1, 0-0-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, MN

This series is the story of two teams struggling to gain (or retain) respect in the WCHA. The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs come off a solid performance last weekend against Minnesota, winning the Friday game 5-3 before dropping Saturday’s decision, 5-1.

Freshman right wing Ryan Homstol was the offensive star for the ‘Dogs, totaling three goals on the weekend. But the key to the UMD offense may be junior winger Curtis Bois, who scored the game-winning goal Friday night. Bois now has seven game-winners out of a total of 14 goals in his Duluth career, and the Bulldogs are 12-0-1 when he scores a goal. Propitious numbers, indeed.

At the same time, UMD fans may only have to watch the first 40 minutes of the game to know the outcome. That’s because the Bulldogs are 16-0-2 in the last 18 games they have led after two periods, while they are 0-26-1 when trailing after two.

For its part, St. Cloud is coming off a successful series against the Mavericks of Mankato State, winning 4-1 Friday and carrying a 2-1 lead late into the third period Saturday before settling for a 2-2 tie.

St. Cloud lost a passel of talent during the offseason, led by the underclass defections of Matt Cullen and Mark Parrish and the graduation of Dave Paradise. Consequently, the Huskies come into the 1997-98 season as a middle-of-the-pack team — at least in the eyes of WCHA coaches and one U.S. College Hockey Online staffer.

SCSU dropped a pair against Notre Dame two weeks ago before the three-point weekend vs. Mankato. In fact, the Huskies have outshot their opponents in each of their four games this season, but sport just a 1-2-1 record for their efforts.

That calls into question the Huskies’ defense and goaltending, which is anchored by Brian Leitza, St. Cloud’s new all-time leader (40) in career wins. Leitza hasn’t played badly so far, but he may have to step it up a notch if SCSU is going to make a dent in the WCHA standings.

Picks: The all-time series between these teams is tied, 19-19-5, and there’s not much to separate them now, either. St. Cloud has the home ice, but also a sputtering power play (0-for-11 this season) and a dearth of scoring (10 goals in four games). St. Cloud 4-3, UMD 4-2

Wisconsin (0-0-0, 0-0-0 WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (0-3-1, 0-0-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, AK

The Badgers make the lengthy trek to Anchorage for their season opener, where they will face the only team in the WCHA to have played but not won this season.

The Seawolves are 0-3-1 thus far, having lost and tied in-state rival Alaska-Fairbanks, and having lost two to a visiting New Hampshire club. UAA’s difficulties with scoring (a league-low 75 goals in WCHA play last season) have followed it into 1997-98, in which they have just eight goals in four games.

The problem isn’t with shooting, per se. Anchorage has 105 shots on goal in those four contests, versus 111 for its opponents. Obviously, though, the ‘Wolves are still having some trouble reaching the back of the net, and that’s adding up to trouble again this season.

A bright spot for Alaska-Anchorage has been the play of its freshman class. Led by forward Curt Malin’s four points, the rookies at UAA have accounted for precisely half of the Seawolves’ production this year, including four of the eight UAA goals.

Wisconsin, in the meantime, has been off for nearly three weeks since taking the runner-up position at the season-opening Ice Breaker Invitational in Madison. That tournament was only an exhibition, but the Badgers performed very well, shutting down Clarkson before dropping a one-goal decision to Michigan State in the final.

The Badgers are also welcoming back captain Erik Raygor, who missed virtually all of the 1996-97 season with injuries, and Brad Englehart, who is coming back from offseason shoulder surgery. Mike Valley is now the main man in nets for UW, replacing second-team All-WCHA goaltender Kirk Daubenspeck.

Picks: The Badgers looked very good indeed at the Ice Breaker, but a 2,000-mile trip can take the starch out of anyone, or any team. A side note: three of the four games last year between these teams went to overtime. UAA 3-2, Wisconsin 4-1

No. 4 Colorado College (1-0-1, 0-0-0 WCHA) at Michigan Tech (3-1-1, 1-1-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 p.m. ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, MI

Someone tell the Michigan Tech Huskies that they’re not supposed to be doing this. MTU split an unusual series in Denver last weekend, meaning that the Huskies, selected eighth in the WCHA coaches’ preseason poll, currently stand atop the conference standings.

And when we call the series "unusual," we mean it. First off, the games were played on Sunday and Monday, the result of a fearsome blizzard that raked the Rocky Mountains over the weekend.

Secondly, there was Sunday’s game. Having waited an extra day to get on the ice, both Michigan Tech and Denver did their best to make the contest a memorable one. A peek at the boxscore shows that they succeeded.

Here’s a quick review: at 18:26 of the third period, MTU’s Bret Meyers scored on the power play to break a 2-2 tie. Denver pulled goaltender Stephen Wagner, and A.J. Aitken appeared to seal the win for the Huskies with an empty-netter at 19:01. Then the near-unthinkable occurred — consecutive six-on-five goals by the Pioneers’ Gavin Morgan and James Patterson to retie the score at four with 18 seconds left.

That’s two goals in a span of 27 seconds to force an astonishing overtime. There, WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Andre Savage showed no sense of aesthetics, ending the Denver rally with the game-winner just 27 seconds into the extra frame.

"I was happy to get the win in the first game. I felt we played very well for most of the game," said head coach Tim Watters. MTU would lose the Monday rematch, however.

Savage ended 2-3–5 on the weekend, and now has 4-8–12 on the brief season. But he has plenty of teammates to keep him company atop the WCHA scoreboard, as the top four point-getters in the conference are all currently Tech players: Savage, Meyers (6-4–10), Riley Nelson (2-5–7) and Mat Snesrud (0-7–7).

Next up for MTU is Colorado College, and Watters understands what he’s getting into.

"I don’t think it’s any secret that Colorado College is an excellent hockey team," he said. "[CC] went out and won the tournament at Maine, and that’s quite an accomplishment."

Indeed, if there were any doubt about Colorado College’s lofty national ranking, the Tigers have likely put it to rest. CC stormed past St. Lawrence 12-3 before "beating" Maine in a shootout to win the J.C. Penney Classic tournament title last weekend. The CC-Maine game officially ended in a 6-6 overtime tie, necessitating the tiebreaker to decide a tourney champion.

"I wasn’t concerned with winning the shootout," Tiger head coach Don Lucia said afterward. "It was a really great experience for us to come out here and play. Hopefully, it will make our team better."

Every single one of CC’s 18 skaters tallied a point in Friday’s drubbing, the Tigers’ greatest offensive output in some four seasons. Among the scoring was junior center Brian Swanson’s first collegiate hat trick — which is surprising only in that the Tiger star hadn’t done it before now.

Three Colorado College players — Swanson, senior winger Jason Gudmundson and senior defenseman Calvin Elfring — were named to the Penney all-tournament team. Gudmundson (3-3–6) leads the Tigers in scoring, with sophomore winger K.J. Voorhees (3-2–5) right behind.

In nets, Jason Cugnet played the first two periods Saturday, but was replaced by freshman Colin Zulianello after giving up five goals on 17 shots. Zulianello held Maine to one goal in the third period, allowing the Tigers to battle back for the tie.

Picks: The Tigers look primed and ready, and even though Tech has enjoyed an impressive start, CC’s got too much talent. CC 5-3, 3-2

Denver (1-1-0, 1-1-0 WCHA) at Mankato State (2-2-1) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Mankato Civic Center, Mankato, MN

The Denver Pioneers are coming off a slightly-disappointing weekend, losing their season opener to Michigan Tech, 5-4 (in wild fashion — see the MTU-CC preview above), before coming back to claim the second game of the series, 5-2.

The defeat in the first game means that Denver has now lost five straight season openers. However, as the Pioneers’ fourth-place finish and NCAA tournament berth last season show, that’s hardly a fatal flaw in a team. (It was, though. sophomore netminder Stephen Wagner’s first-ever defeat in Denver.)

What could have proved fatal was a lengthy absence by leading scorer Paul Comrie, who was recently diagnosed with mononucleosis and originally expected to miss three to six weeks of play. However, defying the predictions of modern medicine, Comrie is now expected to be in uniform against Mankato this weekend.

A pair of freshman forwards lead Denver in scoring. Derek Robertson (2-2–4) netted two goals Monday, while Bjorn Engstrom tallied 1-2–3 in the opener.

The Pioneers’ opponents — for the first time every — are the Mankato State Mavericks. The Mavericks are sort-of WCHA members this season, playing a primarily-WCHA schedule, and will participate in the conference playoffs at the end of the year.

Mankato is led offensively by Tyler Deis, who scored 30 goals last season for Mankato in a partially-Division I schedule. Deis and his linemates, Aaron Fox and Ryan Schrick, have scored 12 points in Mankato’s last four games, all against WCHA competition (Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud). Jason Krug, with 73 career points, anchors the blue line.

In nets for the Mavericks are senior Des Christopher, who stopped 25 shots in a 4-1 loss to SCSU Friday, and sophomore Brian Nelson, who made 35 saves in a 2-2 tie the next day.

Picks: Mankato is at home for the first time against a WCHA opponent. Denver is hurting, though the return of Comrie should help. Mankato 4-3, Denver 5-2

Next Week in the WCHA:

Friday, Nov. 7 North Dakota at Colorado College St. Cloud at Michigan Tech Minnesota at Wisconsin Providence at Minnesota-Duluth

Saturday, Nov. 8 North Dakota at Colorado College St. Cloud at Michigan Tech Minnesota at Wisconsin Providence at Minnesota-Duluth Alaska-Anchorage at Denver

Sunday, Nov. 9 Alaska-Anchorage at Denver