Well, this weekend Dean Blais’ North Dakota squad is Train A, and Grand Forks, N.D., is location X, while St. Cloud State assumes the role of Train B, and conductor Craig Dahl is happy to keep his team in the station.
Western Conference Hockey Association power hangs in the balance this weekend as top-ranked North Dakota treks to St. Cloud State in a matchup of the conference’s top two teams. The teams come into the series on decidedly different streaks; North Dakota has won eight straight games and 13 of its last 14, while St. Cloud stumbled at Minnesota-Duluth, losing 8-4, 4-1.
Directly beneath these two teams lie Wisconsin and Colorado College, whose series this weekend carries more importance than movement in the standings. After years of occupying the Broadmoor World Arena and, more recently, the Air Force’s Cadet Ice Arena, CC moves into the Colorado Springs World Arena. The new building features an Olympic-size sheet of ice (100 by 200 feet) and seats 7,400 spectators for college hockey.
Elsewhere, a streaking Duluth squad invades Mariucci Arena to face a streaky Minnesota squad, Denver pays a visit to slumping ECAC members Vermont and Dartmouth, and Anchorage hosts future WCHA compadre Mankato State.
But the real action is at the top this weekend, headlined by…
No. 1 North Dakota (16-3-1, 12-3-1 WCHA) at No. 10 St. Cloud State (14-6-2, 11-4-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, MN
The WCHA’s top two teams squared off in early December, with the Huskies emerging with a split, and a tentative conference lead. After the Sioux defended Engelstad Arena Friday with a 2-1 victory, St. Cloud rode Brian Leitza’s 23 saves to a 5-2 victory the next day.
The game was not without bad blood, as St. Cloud’s Andy Vicari and North Dakota’s Mike Commodore were each disqualified after a high-sticking penalty from the Husky defenseman.
The loss stands as the lone blemish on the Sioux’ record since Nov. 21, and a potent offense figures to be the Clearasil that wipes out that pimple this weekend. UND has outscored its opponents 50-17 in its winning streak, an average margin of 6.25 to 2.12 per game.
The Sioux attack has been balanced: in last weekend’s sweep of Michigan Tech, David Hoogsteen (10-9–19 WCHA), Jay Panzer (7-8–15), Matt Henderson (8-7–15) and Jason Blake (7-10–17) all had two or more goals. Coincidentally, Panzer, Henderson and Hoogsteen are all riding eight-game point-scoring streaks.
In addition to the prolific scorers, Aaron Schweitzer emerged last weekend to give North Dakota a second red-hot goaltender, saving 27 shots in place of Karl Goehring in Saturday’s win.
"I thought he played pretty darn well," UND assistant Jeff Bowen told the Grand Forks Herald. "I thought Aaron came into the game in a difficult position and played very well."
But alas, what’s this — a weakness? North Dakota converts on just 10.7 percent of its power play opportunities on the road, 17 percent lower than its home success rate. Conversely, St. Cloud is third in the WCHA in penalty killing at home.
OK, so we’re reaching here. But if coach Craig Dahl is going to pull a Lex Luthor on the recent SuperSioux efforts, goalie Brian Leitza will have to be his Kryptonite. Leading the conference in wins, Leitza struggled against Duluth, but still maintains a 2.57 goals against average in WCHA play.
Leitza also provides a subtle offensive threat, recording a pair of assists last weekend. He holds the single game (2), season (4) and career (4) assists record for goalies at SCSU.
The real Husky attack is average, led by winger Mike Maristuen (8-7–15), center Matt Noga (6-8–14) and defenseman Josh DeWolf (6-6–12). The team’s power play has struggled, ranking ninth in the conference.
But alas, what’s this — an advantage? St. Cloud shares the WCHA lead with Michigan Tech with five shorthanded goals, and hasn’t allowed one itself. OK, another reach, but strange things happen at home.
Picks: Sioux attack looks unstoppable, and Goehring/Schweitzer tandem remains tough in net. But home ice cures many ills, and Leitza puts on a performance good enough to hold the Husky dam, at least momentarily. UND 5-2, 4-4 tie.
No. 8 Wisconsin (15-6-1, 10-3-1 WCHA) at Colorado College (14-7-2, 9-6-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, CO
Surprisingly, Colorado’s sweep at lowly Anchorage was its first ever, and it gave the Tigers needed momentum going into its initial World Arena series against a streaking Badger outfit.
"It was great to get our first sweep ever at Anchorage," CC coach Don Lucia said. "We’ll need to play our best, because Wisconsin is a much improved team than what we’ve seen the last couple years, and they’re healthy."
Yet a near-clean bill of health is not the biggest factor working in Wisconsin’s favor. The Badgers play on an Olympic-size rink at the Dane County Coliseum, while the Tigers will be adjusting to a new playing surface and size.
"They’ve been talking about this for 60 years, since I was there," said UW coach Jeff Sauer, who graduated from and coached at CC. "I think it’s a neutral site — they have not played a game in it, it’s a sheet which we’re used to and they’re not, so I hope we can use that to our benefit."
Working in CC’s emotional benefit will be the induction of the 1949-50 national championship team into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. The team, coached by the late Cheddy Thompson and captained by Milo "Mike" Valich, finished with an 18-5-1 record en route to the school’s first of two national crowns.
Sauer’s team looked good last week in a non-conference sweep of Nebraska-Omaha, winning with relative ease at home Friday, yet struggling to overcome a tough Maverick effort and crowd Sunday in Omaha. Center Steve Reinprecht recorded his third two-goal game in January Friday, and WCHA scoring leader Craig Anderson and Erik Raygor had multi-assist games.
Joe Bianchi reached the 100-point plateau for his career Sunday, and has gone 4-10–14 over a nine-game scoring streak.
Brian Swanson leads CC in scoring with 10-18–28, followed by Jason Gudmundson at 10-13–23, but the Tiger attack has been somewhat less potent than in the not-so-distant past.
"Their key people, Brian Swanson, (Darren) Clark, (Scott) Swanson on defense, haven’t scored like they’d expected," Sauer said. "They’ve made a lot of hay with their power play in the last couple of years, and this year they’re in the middle of the pack. Also, they’ve had some injuries to some people they didn’t expect."
With standout goalie Judd Lambert departed, Lucia turned to Jason Cugnet between the pipes this year. But freshman Colin Zulianello has outplayed Cugnet statistically, and the two have shared ice time (though Cugnet has started the Tigers’ last three games).
"Their goaltending hasn’t been very strong," Sauer said.
In front of the goalies, defenseman Paul Manning, last week’s WCHA Rookie of the Week, leads a penalty-killing unit which blanked Anchorage on all eight man-advantage opportunities.
Picks: CC’s lack of familiarity with its home ice will cost dearly at first, especially against a streaking Wisconsin team. But an emotional weekend is salvaged, as the law of averages ends the Badger streak. Look for Zulianello to pick up Cugnet’s slack in the second game. UW 4-3, CC 6-2.
Minnesota-Duluth (12-11-1, 7-8-1 WCHA) at Minnesota (8-14-0, 4-10-0 WCHA) 7:35 CT Friday, 7:05 CT Saturday, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN
Minnesota leads this all-time series 101-54-9, with a 23-9-2 advantage in the 1990s. But remember, this season has done anything but resemble the present decade at Mariucci.
The Gophers stumble into the series after a home split with fellow cellar-dweller Denver, needing a sweep to remain in contention for one of the conference’s top five spots, and the first-round home-ice playoff advantage which comes with it. Duluth, on the other hand, is riding high after knocking St. Cloud off its pedestal, having gone 8-2-1 over its last 11 games.
Duluth boasts the reigning WCHA Offensive and Defensive Players of the Week. Sophomore center Jeff Scissons (7-10–17) had six points and had a hand in both game-winning goals of the series. Defenseman Curtis Doell and his mates helped limit St. Cloud to one goal in 12 power-play opportunities, and assisted Scissons on his game-winner Saturday.
Scissons combined with linemates Colin Anderson and Ryan Homstol for 16 points in the St. Cloud series, looming large for the seventh-ranked Gopher defense.
Minnesota is led by center Wyatt Smith, who has figured in 12 of his team’s last 25 goals, and winger Mike Anderson, who is 6-7–13 in his last 11 games.
Picks: Duluth is one of the hottest teams in the country, in stark contrast to Minnesota. But the Bulldogs are due for a letdown, and forward depth developed during injury/national team absences begins to pay off for the Gophers. Look for a standout performance from one of the heretofore mediocre Gopher goaltenders, most likely Steve DeBus. UM 4-1, 5-2.
Denver (5-17-0, 4-12-0 WCHA) at Vermont (6-12-2, 3-6-2 ECAC) 7:00 ET Friday, Gutterson Fieldhouse, Burlington, VT Denver at Dartmouth (6-7-3, 3-7-1 ECAC) 7:00 ET Saturday, Thompson Arena, Hanover, NH
What in March may have appeared to be a marquee mid-season matchup turned into one made in college hockey hell.
Denver continues to flounder in last place, even after a road split with Minnesota. The Pioneers’ atrocious penalty-kill unit, ranked last in the WCHA, finally held a team without a man-advantage goal, shutting down Minnesota Saturday.
Anders Bjork leads the offense, having scored three goals in the weekend split, and recording points in six of his last seven games. Paul Comrie (10-13–23) is the team’s only double-digit goal scorer, although Bjork, Mark Rycroft (8-10–18) and Jon Newman (8-4–12) could all realistically reach 10 this weekend.
In goal, Stephen Wagner ended a two-month winless streak against the Gophers, but has a sub-.900 save percentage. Wagner shares time with Ben Henrich, but the sophomores differ little statistically: Wagner is 3-9-0, Henrich 2-8-0.
Vermont has struggled offensively this season, scoring just over two goals per game. Freshman defenseman Andreas Moborg leads the Catamounts with 4-10–14, and forward Stephane Piche has chipped in with 5-8–13.
Another freshman starts in net for the team, and Andrew Allen has compiled a 4-8-2 record this season.
Forward David Whitworth leads Dartmouth in scoring with 4-11–15, and is also the team’s leading enforcer, racking up 15 penalties and 38 minutes in the box. Curtis Wilgosh has added 5-7–12 this year, while Scott Peach (6-7–13) adds offense from the blue line.
Eric Almon is solid in net, sporting a .900 save percentage and 2.92 goals-against average. Statistically, Dartmouth plays best in the third period, outscoring opponents 21-15 in the final frame.
Picks (Icks?): The Catamounts use home-ice advantage to keep Pioneers reeling, but the ECAC/Ivy League doormat can’t stick with the WCHA’s worst. UVM 4, DU 3 (OT); DU 2, DC 1.
Mankato State (11-9-3) at Alaska-Anchorage (5-14-3, 5-11-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday 7:05 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, AK
Alaska-Anchorage suffered the cruelest type of loss Saturday against Colorado, falling with four seconds remaining in overtime at home.
Still, the Seawolves mustered three goals on a season-high 38 shots on goal against CC, no small feat considering the team’s 1.82 goals-per-game average. Consider: Rob Douglas "leads" UAA with 11 points in conference play, while six North Dakota players have scored 15 or more points.
A side note — Stacy Prevost, second to Douglas in scoring at 2-7–9, has played in 123 consecutive games.
Junior Doug Teskey starts the majority of games in goal for UAA, and has a respectable .930 save percentage in conference games. Yet while only allowing 2.68 goals per game, the junior has lost twice as many games as he’s won, thanks to the aforementioned anemic offense.
Mankato comes into the series with a three-game winning streak, beating Army 3-2, 7-2, and before that Niagara 4-2. Notable Maverick victims from the WCHA include Denver and Minnesota-Duluth, and MSU also tied St. Cloud.
Picks: Stingy defense continues to keep the Seawolves in games, but the Mavericks steal one up north. MSU 3-2, UAA 2-1.
Scott Tappa is WCHA correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.
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