Colorado College is proving itself to be a hard charger in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, having climbed all the way up to No. 2 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll this week after a pair of victories at surprising Michigan Tech.
CC is now 3-0-1 on the season, one of only two undefeated teams left in the WCHA (along with Wisconsin, fresh off a season-opening sweep at Alaska-Anchorage). Even the Tigers’ one tie is a win of sorts, coming as it did at Maine in the J.C. Penney Classic final, which the Tigers claimed in a shootout after a scoreless overtime period.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota cling to the nation’s number-one ranking after a split at Minnesota last weekend. The Sioux lost a 6-5 decision Friday in their season opener, but came back to claim Saturday’s game by a score of 3-2. That win, North Dakota’s first at the new Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, was a come-from behind affair in which UND scored three times in the third period.
Those two teams match up this weekend in Colorado Springs to try to stake early-season control of the WCHA. A sweep by either team would propel them into a commanding position early on, while a split would just muddy the already-cloudy WCHA and national picture further.
Also this weekend, Wisconsin hosts traditional rival Minnesota. This is a rivalry which has been diluted somewhat in the last couple of years, thanks to the Badgers’ slide and the rise of St. Cloud as in-state competition for the Gophers. But Wisconsin is 2-0-0 on the young season, and looks like it may deserve its fourth-place preseason WCHA ranking, granted by league coaches.
Two struggliing programs meet in Denver Saturday and Sunday, as the Pioneers host the Seawolves of UAA. The ‘Wolves have yet to win a game (0-6-1), while DU is 2-2-0, but included in that record are a loss against upstart Mankato State, and a home defeat at the hands of Michigan Tech.
Speaking of the Huskies-s-s, they play one another this weekend — that is, the Huskies of St. Cloud head northeast to visit the Huskies of MTU for a pair. Tech got off to a fast start before cooling off somewhat against Colorado College, while SCSU — which is 2-3-1 overall and looking to overcome heavy losses from last season’s squad — split last weekend at home vs. UMD.
Finally, with the league reduced to nine teams for the 1997-98 season, the odd team out in the WCHA this week is Minnesota-Duluth, which hosts Hockey East school Providence for a couple. UMD has been up-and-down thus far, and comes into the weekend at .500 overall, and .500 in league play.
Next up — the games:
No. 1 North Dakota (1-1-0, 1-1-0 WCHA) at No. 2 Colorado College (3-0-1, 2-0-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:30-7:00 MT, AFA Cadet Ice Arena, Colorado Springs, CO
Here it is — the WCHA’s premier series of the new season, and arguably the premier series of the year, regardless of league. Number one against number two. The Rose Bowl of college hockey.
Except that the Rose Bowl comes at the end of the year, and lately it’s been more like number three against number 14. So let’s not push the analogy too far, eh?
Chatter aside, this should be an outstanding matchup. Colorado College, coming off last season’s surprising NCAA run, has had a spectacular start to the new season as well. The Tigers opened their WCHA season with a sweep of Michigan Tech, which came into the series at 3-1-1.
On Friday, the Tigers won 6-3 behind winger Darren Clark, who scored two goals to lift Colorado College to a come-from-behind 6-3 victory. Brian Swanson, Scott Swanson and Dan Peters — who was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts — each had two assists in the game, which made sure the Tigers would not be swept for an amazing 64th straight series. Freshman Colin Zulianello recorded the win, stopping 17 of 20 shots.
The next day, CC traded goals with Tech for two-plus periods until defenseman Calvin Elfring finally decided it early in the third. Clark recorded his third goal of the weekend in the first period.
But the victories came with controversy. Saturday’s game included a lot of chippy play and 27 penalties against the two teams, and afterward, Michigan Tech head coach Tim Watters accused the Tigers of "dirty" play.
CC head coach Don Lucia would have none of that. "We had to defend ourselves, because it was such a dirty game. That’s not the type of game we play — that’s not the type of game we’ve ever played," he said, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
North Dakota, for its part, should come into Colorado Springs on a high after taking last Saturday’s contest in Minnesota by a margin of 3-2. The Sioux showed last year’s form in the third period especially, as Jeff Panzer, Brad Williamson and Curtis Murphy scored goals in a span of 6:16 to swamp the Gophers.
All that aside, however, the real star of the game may have been sophomore netminder Aaron Schweitzer, who saved 28 of 30 shots in the contest.
That victory sets up the WCHA’s second clash of titans in two weeks.
"Just huge," is how Sioux head coach Dean Blais described the win, "as far as taking off pressure to go into maybe the second-toughest place for us to play, in Colorado Springs."
"They’ve got outstanding forwards in Toby Petersen and Brian Swanson," said Blais of CC’s lineup. "Those are the guys that they need to go, to carry them — and they do."
Carrying North Dakota should eventually be forwards Jason Blake and David Hoogsteen; the All-WCHA pair have yet to score a point between them. Additionally, the Sioux get WCHA preseason Rookie of the Year pick Lee Goren for the first time this weekend, as he comes off a one-year-plus layoff imposed by the NCAA for playing major junior hockey in Canada.
Picks: A sweep for either team would, as mentioned above, strike a decisive blow, even this early on in the year. To call a sweep would therefore be a pretty gutty pick. This writer isn’t that gutty. CC 4-3, UND 4-3
No. 9 Minnesota (3-3-0, 2-2-0 WCHA) at Wisconsin (2-0-0, 2-0-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:30-7:00 CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI
The Wisconsin Badgers are the WCHA’s only perfect team, even at this early date. Of course, the Badgers’ only two games thus far have been at Alaska-Anchorage, where UW swept last weekend, 4-2 and 3-1.
A two-week break after the season-opening Ice Breaker exhibition tourney didn’t hamper the Badgers’ performance at all, though UAA held its own. On Friday, a late 2-2 tie was converted into a Wisconsin victory by Niki Siren and Brad Englehart, both of whom scored late in the third to secure the win.
The next night, Dustin Kuk scored the first and third Badger goals, and sophomore center Steve Reinprecht notched the middle tally — the game-winner in a 3-1 victory — while assisting on Kuk’s pair. Reinprecht managed four points on the weekend, taking home WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors. Also on Saturday, rookie goalie Graham Melanson made his first collegiate start, totaling 23 saves to earn his first Badger win.
Minnesota has been struggling for consistency so far this season, but the Gophers didn’t find very much against the defending champs last weekend. Minnesota followed up a 6-5 win — made to look much closer than it was by two Sioux goals in the final minute — with a 3-2 loss that was decided by UND’s offense late in the game.
The Gophers led much of the contest Saturday before the Sioux turned it on; nonetheless, Minnesota head coach Doug Woog can take solace in the performance of his freshman class, which scored five of the six Gopher goals on Friday. Winger Aaron Miskovich had two of those, and earned WCHA Rookie of the Week distinction.
In nets, Steve DeBus has mirrored his team, playing alternately well and badly. His steadying influence, as an alternate captain and as the last line of defense, is desperately needed by a young Gopher team.
Picks: Wisconsin is playing very well so far, better than this writer might have given them credit for earlier on. Also, the Gophers can’t seem to get the engine running early on. Smells like another split. UW 4-1, UM 5-3
St. Cloud (2-3-1, 1-1-0 WCHA) at Michigan Tech (3-3-1, 1-3-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:30-7:00 ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, MI
Michigan Tech started out the season with an impressive 3-1-1 record before running into the Colorado College buzzsaw last weekend. The Huskies dropped a pair, 6-3 and 3-2, to the nation’s second-ranked team.
Brad Mueller scored two goals in the losses, while Andre Savage notched a pair of assists to continue to lead the WCHA in overall scoring (4-10–14). In fact, five of the six top scorers in the league are Tech partisans: Savage, Bret Meyers (7-4–11), Mueller (4-4–8), Riley Nelson (3-5–8) and Mat Snesrud (0-8–8).
Despite scoring only five goals on the weekend, Tech kept alive its streak of power-play goals, having scored at least one in each of its seven games thus far this season. In fact, the Huskies are 17-for-47 (36.2 percent) with the man-advantage, and have scored 33 goals overall in those seven games.
Brother goaltending combination David and Todd Weninger produced mixed results against CC, with David giving up five goals Friday (and an empty-netter in the final minute) and Todd holding the Tigers to three the next day.
Head coach Tim Watters was unhappy with Colorado College’s style of play last weekend, but this time around he gets to worry about St. Cloud, which comes off a split at home against Minnesota-Duluth.
Scoring has been a problem for SCSU thus far, as the Huskies have only 16 goals in six games. That places added pressure on the goaltending of Brian Leitza (2-1-1, 2.33 GAA, .903 SV%), who stopped 31 of 33 shots Friday to preserve the win, 3-2. The second game of the series saw Scott Meyer in goal for St. Cloud as Duluth claimed the split, 4-3.
Josh DeWolf scored a goal and added an assist in the series, and Jason Goulet totaled two assists, but no Husky has more than five points so far, and that spells big trouble for Craig Dahl’s group. Making matters worse is St. Cloud’s difficulty on special teams, where the Huskies have scored just one goal on their own power plays (1-for-21) while giving up six to their opponents.
Perhaps, at least, history works to St. Cloud’s advantage. SCSU was 3-0-1 against Tech last season.
Picks: One team has plenty of offense, but a dearth of D. The other can stop ’em, but can’t score ’em. In the battle of the movable object against the resistable force, it looks like the WCHA’s third split of the week. MTU 5-3, SCSU 3-2
Alaska-Anchorage (0-6-1, 0-2-0 WCHA) at Denver (2-2-0, 1-1-0 WCHA) Saturday-Sunday, 7:30-7:00 MT, McNichols Arena, Denver, CO
Last Friday, the Denver Pioneers became the latest WCHA team to be victimized by the Mavericks of Mankato State, dropping a 5-3 decision in Mankato. DU held a 2-0 lead in that game — including a goal by sharpshooting Paul Comrie, just back from a bout with mononucleosis — but could not hold on.
Denver avoided the sweep the next day with a solid 4-1 victory. Anders Bjork tallied an assist and scored an empty-net goal in the final minute to seal the victory, but it was the play of Ben Henrich in nets that really stood out for the Pioneers. Henrich saved 22 shots while allowing a single Mankato goal to pilot the Pioneers to the win.
Interestingly, the Friday loss was head coach George Gwozdecky’s first nonconference defeat with the Pioneers, who are now 12-1-0 in nonconference matchups under his tutelage.
Across the ice, the Seawolves of Alaska-Anchorage have some serious problems of their own. The ‘Wolves have scored just 13 goals in seven games this season — including five in a single game, against Alaska-Fairbanks — and their 0-6-1 record is a school record for worst start.
The Seawolves are again minimizing penalties, with just 48 minutes in six Division I games, but they arent’ taking advantage of their opponents’ miscues. UAA has converted just two of 23 power plays.
Freshman Curt Malin is tied for the team lead in scoring, but with only four points.
On the upside, center Rob Douglas joins the fray this weekend, having completed his eligibility wait as laid out by the NCAA.
Picks: Semi-homeless Denver hasn’t looked great so far, but UAA is having terrible problems getting the puck in the net. That’s a good bet to continue this weekend. Denver 4-2, 2-0
Providence (1-2-0, 0-2-0 Hockey East) at Minnesota-Duluth (3-3-0, 2-2-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:00 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, MN
When Northern Michigan bolted the WCHA after last season, leaving the conference with an odd number of teams, it forced the powers that be to redraw the schedule with a lot more nonconference games. The cards this week have the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth hosting Hockey East member Providence.
The ‘Dogs should be somewhat satisfied with their results up to now, though a loss to Mankato State mars their nonconference slate. Of course, UMD isn’t exactly the only WCHA team having trouble with the Mavericks, as we’ve already seen.
Last weekend, the Bulldogs split a pair in St. Cloud, winning Saturday’s contest on winger Shawn Pogreba’s goal in the third period after nearly blowing a 3-0 second-period lead. For the series, Pogreba was 2-1–3, while Curtis Bois scored a goal and added two assists as well.
In goal, last year’s Rookie of the Year, Brant Nicklin, hasn’t had a great start (3-3-0, 3.68 GAA, .883 SV%). The ‘Dogs will require him to pick up the pace if they’re going to make some noise in the WCHA this season.
The line of Colin Anderson, Jeff Scissions and Ryan Homstol has totaled 18 points thus far (six apiece) to lead the UMD scoring.
The Bulldogs’ opposition, Providence College, lost its only game last weekend, 6-2 to national power Maine. The Friars are led up front by Mike Omicioli, Fernando Pisani and Jon Cameron. Captain Mike Mader anchors a young defensive corps, and Mark Kane is the main man in nets.
(For a better look at Providence, consult this week’s Hockey East preview.)
Picks: Providence has trouble with depth and experience, and the Bulldogs look solid right now. UMD 3-2, 4-3