This Week in the WCHA: December 5, 1997

If you take a casual glance at the WCHA standings, you might feel the urge to turn the page upside down.

No, it’s not that old eyeglass prescription, and it’s not too much coffee. The Huskies of St. Cloud State are really in first place, and the Golden Gophers of Minnesota indeed seventh.

St. Cloud’s performance should come as a surprise to most. It certainly caught WCHA coaches off guard, seeing as they picked SCSU to finish no better than seventh in their preseason poll. (A certain U.S. College Hockey Online writer took the Huskies fifth.)

SCSU bolstered its reputation and its league standing — and earned a spot in the national top ten — by sweeping the luckless Denver Pioneers last weekend, 6-4 and 6-2. Senior center Jason Stewart (8-2–10) was named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week after scoring four goals, including both game-winners (both shorthanded) and a Saturday hat trick to bring the Huskies back from a 4-1 deficit.

This weekend, the Huskies put the sticks and gloves away, taking time off before traveling to Grand Forks to take on North Dakota.

Okay, maybe you’re not impressed. You saw that one coming a mile away, and St. Cloud atop the conference doesn’t move you. Fine.

Try explaining Minnesota’s record: 4-10-0, and 3-7-0 in the WCHA.

Yes, the long-mighty Gophers are languishing in the WCHA’s second division, having lost two games at the College Hockey Showcase last Friday and Sunday. Two decent performances, two close contests, two defeats. That’s been the tune for Minnesota this season, meaning that the Gophers are already perilously close to ending their streak of NCAA tournament appearances at 13. Like the Huskies, the Gophers now take time off to muse their fortunes.

Among teams actually playing this weekend, the premier matchup sees defending national champion North Dakota take its high-powered offense into Madison to try to put down a WCHA uprising by the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers.

The Badgers are also flying higher than many anticipated — just three points behind St. Cloud with two conference games in hand. Marring the Badgers’ recent record are two tough losses to Michigan and Michigan State, meaning that the WCHA went 0-for-4 against the CCHA last weekend in the annual battle for bragging rights that is the College Hockey Showcase.

Nevertheless, Wisconsin still poses formidable opposition for the Sioux, who will be hard-pressed to maintain their number-three national ranking.

Also on the slate are Colorado College and Denver, which renew acquaintances in a home-and-home Sunday and Monday. This traditional series is in danger of becoming a rivalry in name only, given the directions the two teams are heading — CC into third place in the WCHA, and Denver down into a tie for last after being swept at home by St. Cloud.

Joining the Pioneers at the bottom of the pile are the Michigan Tech Huskies, whose fast start has disintegrated almost completely over the last few weeks. They did pick up two points last weekend with a split against Minnesota-Duluth, but still bring up the rear in the WCHA with a 2-8-0 record in-conference. This week, Tech visits Alaska-Anchorage, which returns home after two gritty performances — though both were losses — in Colorado Springs against the aforementioned Tigers.

Speaking of the Bulldogs of UMD, they get a break from the rigors of league play this weekend, hosting independent Nebraska-Omaha. Head coach Mike Sertich shouldn’t have to worry about his team overlooking the Mavericks, who have proven dangerous to supposedly better teams, including a sweep of Denver earlier in the season.

And now — the games…

No. 3 North Dakota (5-2-1, 5-2-1 WCHA) at No. 10 Wisconsin (7-3-0, 7-1-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:00 p.m. CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI

It’s doubtful that too many Sioux fans circled this series on their calendars back in August, but here it is, and the significance is great.

A sweep by the Badgers would help restore their confidence after a pair of hard-fought losses in the state of Michigan, while simultaneously derailing a North Dakota team which seems to be building momentum. Similarly, two wins by the Sioux would thrust them into the limelight once again, and possibly vault them into second place in the WCHA standings.

Last Friday, the Badgers fell behind early to the top-ranked team in the land. Michigan State got two goals in the first period and never looked back, riding a strong performance from goaltender Chad Alban to a 2-0 shutout of then sixth-ranked Wisconsin. Two nights later, the Michigan Wolverines did just enough to win, with the capper coming from Josh Langfeld in a 2-1 decision.

For the weekend, Badger goaltender Mike Valley made 55 stops on 59 shots, and now flaunts a gaudy .941 save percentage to go with his 1.86 goals-against average, but only a 4-3-0 record after those two most recent losses. Clearly, the problem last weekend lay on offense, where UW was held to a single tally in the two contests. In their previous five games — all wins — the Badgers had scored 21 times.

The scoring had been coming from the troika of Steve Reinprecht, Dustin Kuk and Craig Anderson, who had a combined 11-21–32 coming into the CHS. But those three were held to a single point against the two Michigan schools, that being Anderson’s goal against the Wolverines. The junior defenseman was named to the all-Showcase team, the only Badger to earn that distinction. He now leads the team in scoring at 3-10–13.

Wisconsin’s defense has been considerably more successful, permitting opponents just 20 goals in 10 games overall.

Across the ice are the Fighting Sioux, who have won only two of their last 10 games against Wisconsin, and none of their last six at the Dane. Up front for UND, David Hoogsteen (6-4–10) has overcome a slow start to co-lead the team in scoring. The all-WCHA forward has nine points in his last five games, including 2-2–4 in the Sioux’ last games, a sweep of Denver two weeks ago.

Hoogsteen’s partner, Jason Blake, has been moderately quiet thus far, scoring only 3-3–6 on the season. However, all of those points have actually come in the Sioux’ last four contests, so an explosion could be in the making.

Between the pipes, freshman Karl Goehring (3-1-1, 1.91 GAA, .945 SV%) has done a remarkable job subbing for the injured Aaron Schweitzer. Of course, he has in front of him a quality defense led by all-WCHA Curtis Murphy (3-7–10), Brad Williamson (2-4–6) and Mitch Vig (0-5–5).

That aside, the spark for the Fighting Sioux continues to be offense. They have scored 36 goals in a paltry eight games this season, a 4.5 per-game clip, and have not failed to score three goals in any game.

Picks: Wisconsin head coach Jeff Sauer needs only three victories to tie the great John MacInnes for the WCHA’s all-time coaching victory mark of 555. Two wins here would be sweet indeed, but the defending champions are unlikely to let that happen. Wisconsin 4-3, UND 5-3

Michigan Tech (4-8-1, 2-8-0 WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (3-9-2, 3-6-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:00 p.m. AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, AK

Michigan Tech started the season 2-0-1, raising some eyebrows by scoring 17 goals in three games against Northern Michigan and Denver. Tack onto that a 9-3 exhibition drubbing of Canadian university Laurentian, and the Huskies had the makings of a solid beginning.

Unfortunately for the Techsters, had is really the operative word here. Since then, MTU is 1-8-0, including a seven-game losing streak. Trouble is that the suspect Tech defense has continued to allow goals, while the offense has stopped putting them up — the Huskies have scored only 21 goals in that nine-game span, but have allowed 37.

It’s impossible to blame Andre Savage (6-12–18) for the slacking pace of goal-scoring. The senior center only slowed a bit after a lightning-like start against NMU and Denver, and tallied two goals (including a shorthander) and an assist in Tech’s lone recent win, a 5-4 victory last Friday over Minnesota-Duluth.

However, even here there’s a dark cloud for MTU. Savage missed Saturday’s recap (a 1-0 loss) with an injury, and may not see action this weekend. That leaves the scoring responsibility in the hands of senior Bret Meyers (8-6–14) and sophomore Brad Mueller (6-3–9), both tied for the WCHA lead in goals with six.

Back across the blue lines, netminder David Weninger (2-5-1, 3.95 GAA, .872 SV%) appears to have wrested the starting job away from little brother Todd. The elder Weninger started both games against the Bulldogs last weekend, and five straight overall. He is the reigning WCHA Defensive Player of the Week, so named for his 71-save combined effort vs. UMD.

These games will be played in chilly Anchorage, home of the UAA Seawolves. The ‘Wolves have been only slightly more successful than the Huskies thus far, as their 3-9-2 overall record attests. The reasons, however, are quite different.

Alaska-Anchorage is solid on defense, the result of head coach Dean Talafous’ team concept and emphasis on discipline. Number-one goaltender Doug Teskey has a 2.87 GAA and a gaudy .921 save percentage on the season, statistics which belie his 3-6-2 record. He has been especially sharp in conference play, where the figures are 2.11 and .948, respectively.

UAA also continues to lead the WCHA in penalty-avoidance, as they have drawn only 125 minutes in the box, an average of 8.93 per game. The Seawolf penalty-kill is still strong as well, performing at a .941 clip in conference games.

The problem, therefore, is just where it has typically been for UAA: on offense. Although the scoring situation has been improved by the debut of sophomore center Rob Douglas (2-4–6 in eight games), who sat out a season-plus for playing Canadian major junior hockey, the Seawolves still have no player with more than eight points this season — that being junior winger Clayton Read (4-4–8), who missed last weekend’s series with Colorado College due to a groin injury.

Seniors Jeff Edwards (3-2–5) and Stacy Prevost (0-3–3) must pick up the pace if the Seawolves are to get untracked. In particular, Prevost — the team captain — has now gone 27 games without a goal, a streak that goes well back into last season. Picking up the slack last weekend was freshman forward Chris Sikich, whose first two collegiate points came in the form of two goals Saturday.

Picks: Anchorage is a tough place to play just by virtue of distance. If the Seawolves can add anything to that difficulty on the ice, they’ll come away with four points. UAA 3-2, 3-2

Nebraska-Omaha (5-8-0) at Minnesota-Duluth (5-9-0, 4-6-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:00 p.m. CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, MN

Minnesota-Duluth ended a six-game home losing streak with a 1-0 victory over MTU last Saturday. The Bulldogs’ last win at home had been a 5-3 victory over Minnesota back on Oct. 24.

The victory came courtesy of Jeff Scissions (3-6–9), who scored at 11:31 of the second to give the ‘Dogs the lead. 1996-97 Rookie of the Year Brant Nicklin then made the lead stand up with a 25-save shutout.

That win took some of the sting out of a 5-4 loss the night before, in which Nicklin was victimized for five goals on just 24 shots. The sophomore netminder (5-9-0, 3.73 GAA, .884 SV%) has not been up to the promise of his freshman year so far.

Feisty Curtis Doell (4-6–10) leads the Bulldogs in scoring from his blueline position, while Ryan Homstol (4-5–9) and Shawn Pogreba (4-5–9), along with Scissions, are right behind. The seniors, including Mike Peluso (3-5–8) and Ken Dzikowski (1-1–2) have yet to turn it on.

Getting the lead early has been essential to the Bulldogs the past couple of years. The MTU series continued two of the more interesting streaks in the WCHA: Minnesota-Duluth has now gone 21 games (19-0-2) since losing a contest it led after two periods, and 31 games (0-30-1) since winning a matchup it trailed after two.

The Bulldogs’ opponents this weekend, the Mavericks of Nebraska-Omaha, have earned quite a bit of respect over the past two months in their inaugural season as a full-fledged Division I team. The Mavericks split with Union last weekend, winning the Friday matchup behind a hat trick from freshman forward Jason Cupp before losing the recap.

For the weekend, Cupp (7-5–12) had four goals to move up among the team leaders in scoring: sophomore Derek Reynolds (2-12–14) and sophomore Billy Pugiliese (8-5–13). the Maverick roster is composed almost entirely of freshman and sophomores, led by captain Jeff Edwards (1-5–6).

In nets, Jason Mitchell is the main man, while Rodney McLeod and Kendall Sidoruk back him up. Mitchell, in particular, had a sub-3.00 goals-against average and a save percentage of .892 coming into the Union series.

Picks: The Mavericks have shown a capacity for upsets, especially at home, where they shocked Denver a couple of weeks ago. But these games are in Duluth, and its about time the Bulldogs start showing what they’re made of. UMD 5-3, 5-2

No. 6 Colorado College (7-3-2, 6-3-1 WCHA) vs. Denver (3-9-0, 2-6-0 WCHA) Sunday, 2:00 p.m. MT, AFA Cadet Ice Arena, Colorado Springs, CO Monday, 7:30 p.m. MT, Denver Coliseum, Denver, CO

This week’s WCHA rivalry matchup comes to you from the Rocky Mountains, where Colorado College takes on Denver in a traditional home-and-home. The rivalry might be a bit muted by the disparity in success between these two teams, but don’t count on it. Denver will be up for the Tigers, bad start or not.

They’d better be. The Pioneers’ season up to now has to be a disappointment to head coach George Gwozdecky, even when one accounts for the sizable chunk of talent he lost after last season. Denver is currently amidst a six-game losing streak, the first two of which came against independent Nebraska-Omaha and the most recent against St. Cloud.

Denver’s start (3-9-0) is its worst in six seasons, dating back to 1991-92. Making matters worse, senior center Anders Bjork (1-4–5) and sophomore netminder Stephen Wagner (2-6-0, 3.74 GAA, .874 SV%) may miss this weekend with a concussion and a groin pull, respectively.

Wagner, of course, has not had as much success as in his rookie season, during which he trailed only UMD’s Brant Nicklin and UND’s Aaron Schweitzer among freshman goaltenders. But some of that can be attributed to the increased pressure he has faced. While DU’s offense has generated a respectable 43 goals in 12 games this season, the defense has allowed a whopping 56, the worst per-game ratio in the WCHA.

DU’s penalty-kill has also been a problem, allowing nine goals in 38 conference chances, the lowest kill rate (.763) in the league.

Freshman Mark Rycroft has been a very pleasant surprise, as he currently leads the Pioneers in scoring with 5-7–12. Rycroft was named WCHA Rookie of the Week for 1-2–3 against St. Cloud last weekend. Junior sniper Paul Comrie (4-6–10) and defenseman Todd Kidd (1-8–9) have also lent a hand, but the Pioneers have been unable to overcome their defensive troubles.

Meanwhile, Colorado College has experienced nothing but streaks this season — a 3-0-1 start (4-0-0 if you count the shootout "win" over Maine at the Penney Classic), followed by an 0-3-1 run against North Dakota and St. Cloud, followed by the Tigers’ current four-game win streak.

That streak was narrowly preserved last weekend against Alaska-Anchorage, which hung tough with the Tigers before going down to defeat in both games. Stewart Bodtker (4-8–12) scored the game-winner on Friday and was 1-2–3 on the weekend, while Jason Gudmundson (7-5–12) did the honors with a late third-period goal on Saturday. Gudmundson also tallied in Friday’s contest, marking his first points in four games.

Another Tiger who got off the schneid last weekend was all-WCHA forward Brian Swanson, who tallied in Saturday’s game to break a seven-game scoreless streak. Swanson (5-9–14) nevertheless leads CC in points and assists.

But the real story of the young season has been the performance of freshman netminder Colin Zulianello, who stepped in when the sophomore Jason Cugnet, was injured and has played brilliantly since, with a 5-0-1 record (5-0-0 in WCHA games), a 1.96 GAA and a .921 save percentage.

Zulianello’s emergence has undoubtedly taken pressure off the CC defense, which has responded by contributing offensively. Cal Elfring (2-8–10) and Scott Swanson (2-8–10) are both making plays in the opponent’ zone, as is Dan Peters (2-7–9). All three have had a significant impact on the Tigers’ fortunes thus far.

Surprisingly, the two wins against UAA were CC’s first at home this season. Previously, the Tigers had been 0-3-1 at Cadet Ice Arena, their temporary home for the past few seasons.

That residence is about to end, though. In fact, Sunday’s game will be Colorado College’s final appearance as the home team in Air Force’s building, as construction is nearing an end on the new Colorado Springs World Arena. When CC returns home after a 10-game road trip in December and January, the World Arena will be waiting to host them.

Picks: No doubt CC is happy to get a brand-new arena, but Cadet Ice Arena has been kind to the Tigers (53-10-4 since 1992). Denver is unlikely to be able to halt the Colorado College rush, rivalry or not. CC 4-2, 5-2

Next week in the WCHA:

Wednesday, Dec. 10 Notre Dame at Wisconsin

Friday, Dec. 12 Colorado College at Mankato State Denver at Michigan Tech St. Cloud at North Dakota Wisconsin at Notre Dame

Saturday, Dec. 13 Colorado College at Mankato State Denver at Michigan Tech St. Cloud at North Dakota