This Week in the WCHA: January 16, 1998

The return to a complete schedule comes after a pivotal group of games a week ago, during which the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota showed why they are the defending national champions. UND took two clear-cut decisions from then-No. 8 Colorado College, 4-1 and 6-1, narrowing St. Cloud’s lead to just two points in the conference standings and restoring the Sioux to the top spot in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll.

Lest we forget, let’s repeat ourselves. The Huskies lead the WCHA by two points, coming off a nonconference sweep of Nebraska-Omaha. The second of those, a 6-2 Saturday win, moved head man Craig Dahl into the school’s all-time lead in coaching victories with 182, one more than Charlie Basch (1968-84).

The Wisconsin Badgers are nipping at the Huskies’ heels as well. Two home games against Minnesota-Duluth last weekend produced three points for the Badgers, drawing them into a second-place tie with the defending champs.

Meanwhile, CC’s zero-point series with the Sioux dropped the Tigers perilously far out of the lead; at 7-6-1 in league play, Don Lucia’s squad is now eight points behind St. Cloud and treading water in fourth place. The losses also booted the Tigers out of the USCHO poll, where they had resided since the start of the season.

Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage and Minnesota-Duluth come into the weekend holding down fifth, sixth and seventh place, respectively. Only two points in WCHA play separate the three teams. Tech and UAA split a pair in the U.P. last weekend, while the Bulldogs claimed a single point from Wisconsin.

Bringing up the rear are Denver and Minnesota. Each has a bare six points in-conference, though Minnesota’s season has been the much more disappointing of the two. The Gophers took a pair from independent Mankato State last weekend, fanning Mariucci fans’ hopes of a second-half rally. Denver, after a week off, visits Minnesota Friday and Saturday to see who can get out of the league cellar.

Now, without further ado…

Michigan Tech (11-10-2, 6-9-1 WCHA) at No. 1 North Dakota (14-3-1, 10-3-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. CT, Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, ND

"We’re ba-ack!"

Not that they were ever really gone, mind you, but the Fighting Sioux’ decisive sweep of Colorado College last weekend was worth much more than just four WCHA points and the nation’s number-one ranking. Rather, those two wins have put the rest of the conference on notice: UND is gunning for a second straight title.

Although the Sioux tallied 10 goals in the two-game series, the top story was again the play of Defensive Player of the Week Karl Goehring. The freshman netminder allowed just two goals to lower his conference-leading goals-against average to 1.51. Overall, Goehring now sports a 9-1-1 record, a 1.41 GAA and a .951 save percentage.

Coming to Goehring’s aid has been junior sniper Jason Blake (11-14–25), who had a 12-game scoring streak ended by the Tigers Friday, but came back to notch 2-2–4 Saturday — all of those points coming in the second period. After a slow start, the speedy Blake is once again among the WCHA’s scoring leaders.

"He was supercharged [Saturday night]," Sioux head coach Dean Blais told the Dakota Student. "I thought he played really well from the drop of the puck."

UND also claimed the WCHA Rookie of the Week in Trevor Hammer. The defenseman earned a plus-3 rating on the weekend, and scored the first goal on Friday, an unassisted tally which was also his first of the season.

The Sioux, who have now won six straight in ascending the WCHA and national rankings, next face an opponent — Michigan Tech — which they beat six straight times last season, including twice in the conference playoffs.

The Huskies, though, have some solid play of their own to boast about. Although Tech split a pair with Alaska-Anchorage in its last two outings, that series could easily have been swept by MTU. The Techsters won Friday’s game, 3-0, behind two goals from Riley Nelson (12-14–25) and a shutout by David Weninger; then, on Saturday, the Huskies came from behind to tie it up at three before the Seawolves pulled away late.

Weninger (8-7-2, 3.04 GAA, .891 SV%) has firmly reestablished himself as MTU’s number-one goalie, thwarting an early-season challenge from none other than his brother, Todd. The junior has been instrumental in the Huskies’ current 8-3-1 run, during which the Tech defense has given up 30 goals for a 2.50 per-game clip.

That defense is especially critical to Michigan Tech’s success, because the Huskies are capable of scoring in bunches. Three MTU skaters — seniors Andre Savage (7-14–21) and Bret Meyers (12-14–26) and sophomore Nelson — stand among the top ten in WCHA scoring, and that despite the fact that Savage has missed several games with a bum shoulder. Meyers, in fact, had an eight-game scoring streak snapped by the ‘Wolves.

Picks: Savage is questionable for this series, and North Dakota smells blood. The Sioux have already weathered some difficult matchups, and have what may be the softest schedule of any contender down the stretch. Despite Tech’s quality play of late, UND’s run for the MacNaughton Cup may very well go into overdrive here. UND 5-3, 4-1

No. 6 St. Cloud (14-4-2, 11-2-1 WCHA) at Minnesota-Duluth (10-11-1, 5-8-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, MN

Speaking of streaky, it wouldn’t surprise this writer to find the UMD Bulldogs’ team picture next to that entry in Webster’s. Duluth started the season a modest 3-3-0 before falling into a 1-6-0 rut, then reversing course into a 6-1-0 string which culminated in the Syracuse Invitational title.

The ‘Dogs then hung tough in an exhibition matchup against the Scandinavian team HV-71, leading midway through the contest before falling 4-2 — which made UMD the only WCHA squad to stay within five goals of the touring Finns.

But Minnesota-Duluth lost a prime opportunity to gain ground in Madison last weekend, pulling out a 2-2 tie late on Friday before dropping the recap, 5-3. Friday’s game was notable for senior winger Ken Dzikowski’s game-tying goal late in the third period. Dzikowski, who marked up 35 points during the 1996-97 season, has precisely six this year, though four of those have come in his last four games.

But if Dzikowski gets back on track offensively, it might work wonders for the scoring-starved Bulldogs, who have only 31 goals in 14 WCHA games. Last season’s Rookie of the Year, goaltender Brant Nicklin (10-11-1, 3.04 GAA, .902 SV%), has been an ironman once again, playing all but one period this season; but only one skater, sophomore Jeff Scissions (6-10–16), who totaled three points against the Badgers, stands among the top 20 in league scoring.

Last weekend’s series also marked the end of a long and odd Bulldog streak of a different kind. UMD led Saturday’s contest 3-2 after two periods before losing, which meant that for the first time in nearly two years Minnesota-Duluth dropped a contest it led after 40 minutes. Incidentally, the ‘Dogs are now 23-1-2 in such games since Feb. 3, 1996.

Their opponents, the conference-leading St. Cloud Huskies, are finally starting to convince fans and pollsters that they’re not just doing it with mirrors. After a 2-3-1 start, SCSU has run off a 12-1-1 stretch which includes two wins against Colorado College and a split at North Dakota.

Goatender Brian Leitza is a huge part of the story thus far. The senior holds a 14-2-2 record and a 2.06 GAA, as well as a sharp .930 save percentage. He recorded two wins in net last weekend, holding Nebraska-Omaha to three goals total as the Huskies squeaked out a 2-1 win before pasting the Mavericks 6-2 to finish the sweep.

A considerable amount of the offense came from defenseman Tom Lund, who tallied a pair of goals and added an assist in Saturday’s win. The three-point game was the second of the year for the sophomore blueliner, accounting for six of his eight points on the season.

Picks: The all-time series between these teams is knotted at 20-20-5, and the two split earlier this year in St. Cloud, but that was before the Huskies went on their current tear. It took Craig Dahl almost 11 seasons to accumulate 182 wins — he won’t take long to get numbers 183 and 184. St. Cloud 4-3, 3-1

Colorado College (12-7-2, 7-6-1 WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (5-12-3, 5-9-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, AK

For the first time this season, the Colorado College Tigers are unranked, and although that fact shouldn’t worry Don Lucia much, CC’s victimization in Grand Forks might.

It’s no shame to lose at North Dakota — hell, most every team in the WCHA has done it this season or last, and repeatedly. But the Tigers went down hard, by a combined margin of 10-2 in the two games; both times they fell behind early and were stymied by the glove- and stickwork of Sioux goalie sensation Karl Goehring.

"He’s been one of the biggest stories in the league this season," Lucia told the Dakota Student. "In the three games we’ve seen him, he’s just been great….He’s got my vote for Rookie of the Year."

Continued Lucia, "We played well for two of the three periods both nights last weekend, but North Dakota is just too good of a team for us not to play our best for the entire 60 minutes."

Best play or not, though, the UND series fits into a pattern for the Tigers this year. Against weaker teams, CC has been very successful, as one might expect. However, against premium opposition — Maine, North Dakota, St. Cloud and New Hampshire — the Tigers are a combined 0-6-2. That’s not the kind of performance that’ll take you very far in the playoffs.

Now, not to say Colorado College can’t turn up the heat, as the Tigers did last month in a 9-1 thrashing of neighboring Denver. The problem is, they can also shut down completely without warning, like on the very next night — an inexplicable 6-0 beating at the hands of those same Pioneers. CC can score (47 goals in 14 WCHA games), but they can also be scored upon (46 goals against).

Meanwhile, across the ice, the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves have the opposite problem. That is, it’s pretty tough to score on goaltender Doug Teskey (5-8-2, 2.52 GAA, .922 SV%) and the ‘Wolf D. But it’s even tougher for the UAA offense to get started.

Sure, the Seawolves scored five goals to beat Michigan Tech Saturday. But that was only the second time all season that Anchorage has managed more than three goals in a game, and only the fifth time the Seawolves have scored more than two. Before that 5-3 win, UAA had been shut out in consecutive games.

Interestingly, Saturday’s win came one day after the genteel Seawolves’ most penalized game under head coach Dean Talafous: 18 minutes were assessed against UAA Friday night, including the first misconduct penalty for a ‘Wolf under Talafous’ direction (against Duvie Westcott, who came back to score his first career goal, the game-winner, Saturday).

Good news for the Seawolves has been the offensive reawakening of captain Stacy Prevost (2-8–10), who now leads UAA in scoring after a three-assist game Saturday. Prevost, who had suffered through a horrible scoring drought dating back to last season, now has seven points in his last five games.

Picks: The Tigers do have scoring, in the form of junior Brian Swanson (9-16–25) and senior Jason Gudmundson (8-13–21) and resurgent blueliner Scott Swanson (2-13–15). But goaltending after freshman Colin Zulianello (8-4-1, 2.55 GAA, .895 SV%) has been shaky. And the trip to Anchorage is enough to undo the strongest club, which the Tigers are not right now. UAA 3-2, CC 4-1

Denver (4-16-0, 3-11-0 WCHA) at Minnesota (7-13-0, 3-9-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN

If they ever invent time travel, the USCHO editorial staff is going back to April, 1997, walk into the Stardust in Las Vegas, and place a bet that two NCAA tournament teams will be fighting it out for last place with three wins apiece in January.

After they get done staring and asking what he’s talking about, he’ll head back to the present, collect his winnings and retire to a small tax-free island somewhere. Because that’s just where Denver and Minnesota are right now.

The Pioneers are 4-16-0 overall, which matches the second-worst start in school history (the only worse one coming in 1990-91, at 2-16-2). They have exactly one win in two months, a 6-0 drubbing of Colorado College in December.

Much of the problem lies with the defense, specifically in goal. The sophomore tandem of Stephen Wagner (2-8-0, 4.44 GAA, .850 SV%) and Ben Henrich (2-8-0, 4.57 GAA, .846 SV%) has been extremely shaky, especially for a season in which scoring is down league-wide and many goaltenders have save percentages over .900 and goals-against averages below three.

At the other end, the Pioneers have to be doubly relieved that winger Paul Comrie (10-12–22) decided to stay in school. Comrie leads Denver in scoring by a significant margin, and has picked up the pace in recent games.

Unfortunately, few others have joined Comrie in putting the puck in the net, as the Pioneers have just 31 goals in their last 12 games — and 12 of those goals came in two games, only one of which Denver won.

Minnesota, meanwhile, may be righting the ship somewhat. A sweep two weekends ago against Mankato State was the Gophers’ first of the season, bringing them to 3-1-0 after a school-record nine-game losing streak. Unfortunately for Minnesota, the three recent wins all came out of the WCHA, leaving the Gophers still languishing at the bottom of the league standings.

Junior center Wyatt Smith (11-12–23) leads the injury-depleted Gophers in both goals and assists, but he has had assistance lately from co-captain Casey Hankinson (7-5–12), who has eight points in his last four games, including a goal in each one of those contests.

Minnesota will be missing players again this weekend, most notably defenseman Ben Clymer, who is out for the season, and co-captain Ryan Kraft. At one point against Mankato, the Gophers were forced to skate eight forwards after sophomore winger Dave Spehar went to the locker room. That lack should be eased somewhat this week with the return of freshman Aaron Miskovich from the world junior tournament, and Bill Kohn likely to be back in the lineup after a concussion.

And make no mistake — the fans at Mariucci still harbor secret hopes. 7-13-0 or not, the Gophers believe that they can effect a turnaround, and with four of their last five series against Wisconsin, North Dakota, Colorado College and St. Cloud, this next stretch is critical.

Picks: Minnesota has looked better the last couple of weeks, albeit not against top competition; the return of Miskovich, Kohn and maybe even Kraft will help. Denver, however, looks like its heading nowhere but to the bottom of the WCHA this year, unless Wagner and Henrich can step it up. Minnesota 4-3, 5-2

No. 8 Wisconsin (13-6-1, 10-3-1 WCHA) vs. Nebraska-Omaha (5-14-0 vs. D-I) Friday, 7 p.m. CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI Sunday, 2 p.m. CT, Omaha Civic Auditorium, Omaha, NB

The only WCHA team not in a conference battle this weekend is Wisconsin, which insinuated itself into the thick of the WCHA pennant race with a three-point effort against Minnesota-Duluth last Friday and Saturday.

It could easily have been four, as the Bulldogs overcame a late two-goal deficit to tie Friday’s contest. Despite outshooting UMD 44-31, the Badgers were largely stymied by Bulldog goalie Brant Nicklin, and by an injury to T.R. Moreau midway through the contest.

Steve Reinprecht (11-11–22), the team’s second-leading scorer, also went down momentarily during that game, forcing head coach Jeff Sauer — now the WCHA’s all-time winningest — to reshuffle his lines and slowing the Badger charge.

Nevertheless, the UW-UMD regular-season series ended 3-0-1 in favor of Wisconsin, partly thanks to Reinprecht, the reigning Offensive Player of the Week. The second-line center had a pair of goals and an assist to propel Wisconsin to the 5-3 victory Saturday.

"When you take seven of eight points from a team during the season, you’re doing your job," Sauer said.

Doing their jobs with abandon have been defenseman Craig Anderson (7-17–24) and Reinprecht, who are one-two in both Badger scoring and WCHA scoring. Senior center Joe Bianchi (4-11–15) hasn’t been far behind, either.

But the most pleasant surprise for Sauer’s crew may just be goaltender Mike Valley, who has answered doubters by posting a 2.54 GAA and a .917 SV% which bely his 8-7-1 record. No doubt, Valley has been a capable replacement for the departed Kirk Daubenspeck.

This weekend, Sauer gets to match wits with a former assistant, Nebraska-Omaha head coach Mike Kemp. Kemp leads the Mavericks into Madison on Friday, while the Badgers come a-callin’ two days later in Omaha.

The Mavs are a young squad playing its first season in Division I, and after a solid start, that youth and inexperience have started to show. UNO took decisions from Air Force, Union, Mass-Amherst and Denver en route to a 5-6-0 start in D-I play, but are now mired in an eight-game losing streak during which they have been outscored 35-13.

Leading the Maverick scorers is Derek Reynolds (5-14–19), followed by Billy Pugiliese (9-7–16) and Jason Cupp (10-5–15), who had a two-goal game versus St. Cloud Saturday. Manning the nets most nights is Jason Mitchell (3-10-0, 3.40 GAA, .894 SV%).

Picks: Wisconsin is way too hot for Nebraska-Omaha, which is getting a rough introduction to big-time hockey. The Mavs hang tough for a while, but the Badgers take two. Wisconsin 4-3, 5-1