This Week in the WCHA: January 30, 1998

Wait, did I say five weeks? Whoops, I meant six.

A quick glance at the top of the conference shows the casual observer that league-leading North Dakota has played 18 games, leaving a mere 10 games on the Sioux schedule. Do a little simple division, and you find Dean Blais’ squad active for five more weeks of conference play.

But peek a little further down the standing, to second-place Wisconsin and cellar-dwellers Minnesota and Denver, and you’ll see that three conference teams have six weeks: 12 games to play.

That pair of "extra" games is insignificant to the underachieving Pioneers, but the Gophers, should they maintain momentum generated by last weekend’s sweep of Minnesota-Duluth, could use the games to continue their quest for first round playoff home ice. More importantly, though, Wisconsin needs three points against Alaska-Anchorage to leapfrog over North Dakota, stuck in a late-season non-conference series against Mankato State.

St. Cloud could also bypass the Sioux with three points against Colorado College, but any ground gained would likely be forfeited during next week’s Husky bye week.

In terms of postseason posturing, North Dakota, St. Cloud and Wisconsin hold big leads on the all-important top three slots. At the Final Five, held this year at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds square off in a sudden-death quarterfinal Thursday, Mar. 19, followed the next day by two semifinal matches.

So, if CC were to sweep its remaining series with UMD, Denver, St. Cloud, Minnesota and Michigan Tech — a possible if not probable scenario — then:

North Dakota, against opponents with a combined 34-46-4 record,would need to go just 6-4 to secure an afternoon off in Milwaukee. Wisconsin, matched up against teams with a combined 46-53-5 record, would have to finish 7-5 to achieve the same. St. Cloud, playing teams with a combined 37-44-3 conference record, would need a 7-3 closeout to earn a bye.

Remember, that’s IF Colorado wins out, and IF these cheap USCHO calculators don’t bust first.

And surprise, hockey will be played on ice as well as paper this weekend, starting with…

Alaska-Anchorage (6-16-3, 5-11-2 WCHA) at No. 6 Wisconsin (17-6-1, 12-3-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI WHA-TV

Wisconsin is the hottest team in America right now, riding an 11-game unbeaten streak. The sixth-ranked Badgers spoiled the opening of Colorado College’s new World Arena last weekend, with a sweep ending a six-game losing skid in Colorado Springs. The Badgers’ 12-3-1 record is the team’s best record after 16 WCHA games under coach Jeff Sauer.

Yet in facing Alaska-Anchorage, a team it defeated on the road twice, the Badgers may be facing a danger greater than talent, coaching, strategy or emotion: complacency.

"The natural assumption by everybody is that this is going to be two easy wins," Sauer said. "That’s the problem we want to overcome there.

"We want to establish ourselves at home; the higher we finish the lower seed we face in the tournament, but really the main goal is to continue playing well."

Center Steve Reinprecht, the reigning WCHA Offensive Player of the Week and conference leading scorer (11-11–22), tallied his first career hat trick in Friday’s 6-5 overtime win, his fourth multi-goal effort in seven contests.

Saturday, freshman goaltender Graham Melanson notched his first career shutout, earning him conference Rookie of the Week honors. Two goals from winger Erik Raygor (9-5–14), whose grandfather had passed away the previous night, led Wisconsin to victory.

On the blue line, junior Craig Anderson (4-18–22) continues to top the conference scoring charts, and is threatening to become the first Wisconsin defenseman to win a conference scoring title. Minnesota’s Lou Nanne is the only blueliner to win the league scoring title outright, with a 9-23–32 in 1962-63 (Gopher Mike Crowley’s 5-37–42 shared honors with CC’s Brian Swanson last season).

Center Joe Bianchi is Wisconsin’s leading career scorer against UAA, with a 7-6–13 in 10 career games. The senior is working on an 11-game scoring streak, the longest on the team this season, longest of his career and longest at UW since Max Williams’ 12-game streak in 1994-95.

Struggling for Sauer is Reinprecht and Raygor’s linemate, winger Dustin Kuk. Since returning from the U.S. Junior team over Christmas, Kuk hasn’t scored, yet remains fifth on the team in scoring (6-8–14).

The victories gave Wisconsin a perfect 4-0 record at Colorado schools CC and Denver, exacting a small measure of revenge for hockey-minded fans of the Green Bay Packers. Yet more importantly, the Badgers improved to 8-0 in conference road games this season, with challenging series at Minnesota and North Dakota looming.

Anchorage, on the other hand, sputters into the series on the tail end of a split with Mankato State, mustering just three goals in the brief homestand. The Seawolves enter averaging 1.78 goals per WCHA contest, only slightly more per game than New Hampshire’s Jason Krog.

Coach Dean Talafous, the Most Valuable Player of the 1973 NCAA Tournament for Wisconsin, kept the previous two meetings between the two teams close, falling 4-2 and 3-1 in Wisconsin’s regular season opener. Talafous, who is 0-4-2 lifetime versus Wisconsin and coach Jeff Sauer, will lean on junior goaltender Doug Teskey for support. Teskey, the WCHA’s second-ranked goalie with a 2.23 goals-against average, recorded an 18-save shutout Saturday for his sixth win of the season.

"Anchorage plays a very defensive system, so we have to counteract that offensively," Sauer said.

Anchorage, which fails to place a single skater among the conference’s top 30 scorers, is led in scoring by sophomore center Rob Douglas (6-6–12) and left wing Stacy Prevost (3-9–12), who tallied Saturday’s game-winner.

Picks: Too much momentum for Wisconsin and too little punch for Anchorage have Sauer’s troops smelling a four-point weekend. It should be noted, however, that UAA played tough in Madison last season, tying on a last-second Badger goal and losing in a similar fashion the next night. Still, UW 4-1, 6-2.

Mankato State (11-10-3 vs. D-I) at No. 2 North Dakota (17-4-1, 13-4-1 WCHA) Saturday-Sunday, 2:05 CT, Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, ND

Just as Sauer agonized over a non-conference matchup with Nebraska-Omaha two weekends ago, Blais must be regretting this late-season encounter with these Mavericks. The Sioux may have problems getting motivated for these games, when they consider the lost opportunities of last weekend’s series at St. Cloud.

In falling to the Huskies 6-2 Friday night, UND missed a golden opportunity to distance itself from the host. After falling behind by three goals early in the third period, the Sioux began what might have been a successful late-game comeback. But Jay Panzer’s goal was disallowed due to coincidental minor penalties.

"That was a huge emotional swing when that goal is disallowed," said Blais. "Their fourth goal was big because at the time we’re trying to make it 3-2, and at that point it’s a game. At 4-1 it’s about over unless [St. Cloud goaltender Brian] Leitza has a complete breakdown, which he obviously didn’t do."

Leitza’s counterpart, Aaron Schweitzer, took the loss for North Dakota despite 27 saves.

In the second game, North Dakota took advantage of Adam Calder’s shorthanded goal and Jesse Bull’s goal immediately following a penalty to claim a 6-2 decision. Yet, while the victory vaulted UND back into sole possession of first place, the four-goal margin of victory left the Huskies with a 14-12 season edge in goals.

Thus, if the two teams were to tie for the WCHA regular-season championship, St. Cloud would win the tiebreaker and assume the tournament’s top seed. With this in mind, and perhaps a touch of sportsmanship, Blais opted not to pull goaltender Karl Goehring and push for the season edge.

Yet should North Dakota continue its hot streak and claim the title outright, this weekend’s series with Mankato would be a preview of the two teams’ playoff series. The Mavericks, who will likely join the league within two seasons, have been invited to participate in the WCHA playoffs this season, and will automatically assume the 10th and final seed, regardless of how poorly Denver continues to play.

Mankato sharpened its teeth on WCHA doormat Alaska-Anchorage last weekend, winning Friday 5-2 before running into hot goaltender Doug Teskey in a 1-0 loss Saturday. Center Rob White scored twice and freshman defenseman Ben Christopherson’s first career goal provided insurance in third period to break a 2-2 tie.

Goaltender Des Christopher collected his eighth win of the year by stopping 30 UAA shots. Christopher’s current career goals against average of 3.27 ranks first on MSU’s all-time list amongst goaltenders who have played at least 1,200 minutes.

Mankato coach Don Brose in his 28th season at the Mankato State helm, owns a 493-298-61 career record and is aiming to become the 13th coach to reach the 500-win plateau. Among active coaches, Brose’s 493 career wins ranks seventh.

Two Maverick wins are out of the question: Mankato’s last road sweep came Dec. 30-31 against, ahem, St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn.

Brose and his road warriors will have their hands full with the deepest team in the WCHA. Defenseman Curtis Murphy leads the Sioux in scoring at 4-17–21, and is followed closely by David Hoogsteen (10-9–19), Jason Blake (7-11–18), Calder (5-13–18), Matt Henderson (10-7–17) and Panzer (7-9–16).

Picks: Perhaps Blais will commit to Goehring this weekend, foreshadowing a single-goalie system down the stretch. Perhaps not. Either way, too much talent on the home team’s bench this weekend, although the WCHA-tough Mavs provide a scare. UND 7-0, 4-3.

Colorado College (14-9-2, 9-8-1 WCHA) at Minnesota-Duluth (12-13-1, 7-10-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, MN KDLH-TV

So what was so wrong with the Air Force’s Cadet Ice Arena? After all, Colorado College went 47-12-4 in its three-plus years there.

After waiting 60 years or so for its spectacular new Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado College lost twice to one of its own, Sauer. The Tigers take to the road after losing to Wisconsin 6-5, 4-0, looking to find an identity: is it possible to overcome St. Cloud and Wisconsin and move into the league’s No. 3 slot, or should CC concentrate on fending off a healthy Minnesota squad?

Coach Don Lucia, predictably, just wants to concentrate on the games at hand.

"It was great to play in the new arena," said Lucia, whose team has won just twice in its last six games. "Everything went great except for the scores of the games."

The score of the opener seemed encouraging at first, yet Reinprecht’s late goals sent the Tigers to defeat in overtime. Scott Swanson and Calvin Elfring each tallied three points as CC outshot Wisconsin 40-30. Three of Colorado’s five goals came during four-in-four situations, stretching the team’s season total to 12. Saturday’s shutout came despite another shots advantage.

"Duluth and our team are coming off disappointing weekends," said Lucia of his opponent, which lost to Minnesota 7-1, 6-5 last weekend. "We have to get back on the winning track if we want to be a home-ice team for the first round of the playoffs."

In order to do so, CC must overcome goaltender Brant Nicklin, who kept the Bulldogs in the second game last weekend with 37 saves in his 63rd consecutive start. If Nicklin starts in net Friday as expected, he will tie the school record for consecutive starts set by Chad Erickson during 1988-91. Nicklin, who has played all but approximately half an hour in WCHA play the last two years, is 5-0-0 with two shutouts, a 1.60 goals-against average, and a .937 save percentage in his last five appearances at the DECC.

The weekend was an aberration from UMD’s play as of late: the team has lost just four of its last 13 games (8-4-1). Center Jeff Scissons has provided much of the team’s offense during the streak, going 3-8–11 over his last five games. Curtis Doell leads Bulldog blueliners in scoring at 5-15–20 overall, and brings a four-game scoring streak into the series.

CC and Minnesota-Duluth have met 122 times previously, with the Bulldogs clinging to a 60-59-3 advantage. This is the fifth year in a row that the teams will have played just one series during the regular season.

Picks: Colorado College last visited Duluth during the 1995-96 campaign, winning 6-0 and 7-3. Don’t look for a Tiger sweep this time. Though Brian Swanson (7-10–17) has been heating up, Duluth takes at least one of these games, most likely Nicklin’s record-tying effort Friday. UMD 5-2, CC 4-1.

Denver (7-17-0, 4-12-0 WCHA) at No. 9 St. Cloud State (15-7-2, 12-5-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, MN Friday-Saturday SC Cable 6, Saturday KMSP-UPN 9

St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl realizes the importance of a fast start, especially against a downtrodden Denver outfit.

"It’s always important to get off to a fast start, especially at home," Dahl said. "It fires your players up, and more importantly it gets the crowd into it and that makes it tough for the opposition."

Especially when the opponent, an underachieving Pioneer squad, is coming off a successful eastern road swing, in which the team downed Vermont 5-3 and Dartmouth 3-2.

Goaltender Stephen Wagner (3-6-0, 3.39 GAA) came up big twice, collecting 27 and 30 saves, respectively. Eight different players scored for DU, including Mike Dairon, Derek Robertson, Jon Newman, Anders Bjork, Kelly Popadynetz, Bryce Wallnutt, Mark Rycroft and Joe Ritson.

St. Cloud comes into the series after a weekend of mixed emotions against North Dakota. Kicking off a rare eight-game homestand, the Huskies won Friday night, reclaiming the league lead lost the weekend before. The Huskies "gold line" of left wing Jason Goulet, center Matt Noga and right wing Mike Rucinski combined for three goals and four assists in Friday’s win.

Saturday, SCSU lost the next night, yet in holding the margin of defeat under six goals, retained the series goal lead with the Sioux, 14-12.

Of more immediate importance than a March goal-counting exhibition is this weekend’s series at the National Hockey Center, where these two teams haven’t played since January 1996. While St. Cloud has owned the stretch in Denver, gaining a 4-2-1 advantage, the Pioneers are 7-4-1 all-time at the NHC.

Picks: Denver played well out East, even if Vermont and Dartmouth are in the midst of down seasons. While balanced scoring is nice, Bjork (5-5–10) and leading scorer Paul Comrie (4-10–14) must contribute more. SCSU goaltender Brian Leitza needs to find his Friday night form from last week, when he held UND to just two goals. SCSU 5-1, Denver 2-1.

Minnesota (10-14-0, 6-10-0 WCHA) at Michigan Tech (11-12-1, 6-11-1 WCHA) Friday 5:05 ET, Saturday 7:05 ET, MacInnes Arena, Houghton, MI

Don’t look now, but what’s that?

Could that be? Ack! Gopher-haters beware: though inconsistent and injury-riddled all season, Doug Woog’s team may be priming for a run at a top-five WCHA finish.

"We’ve suffered mentally and on the scoreboard," said Woog, whose team swept Minnesota-Duluth 7-1, 6-5 last weekend. "Guys have been working hard, and it’s nice to get some results."

The Gophers, who still must play top-three powers North Dakota, Wisconsin and St. Cloud State, took a positive step against UMD. In Friday’s blowout, senior co-captains Casey Hankinson and Ryan Kraft returned from injuries, and Reggie Berg and Dave Spehar provided the offense, scoring two goals apiece.

"Tonight was a big character night for us," said Berg. "Hopefully, we’ve showed…that we can turn the corner." "I think a lot of times this year, we’ve had trouble getting a lead, for one thing, and then holding on to it."

Obviously, the return of Hankinson, who tallied his 100th career point, from hip and thumb injuries, and Kraft played a large role in the skittish Gophers’ success.

"You can’t replace those type of guys [Hankinson and Kraft]," Berg. "Tonight, having them back was a big boost for us. Not just that they’re out there, but having the leadership back."

Berg, Brett Abrahamson — the league’s Defensive Player of the Week — and Spehar stayed hot in the second game, with Abrahamson and Spehar each hitting the back of the net twice.

The four-goal weekend was sweet for Duluth native Spehar, even with his stolen Honda Accord being returned sans wheels.

"It was a playoff game in terms of its importance, in terms of the standings," Woog said. "The way it’s going to line up in the end, somebody’s going to get in that fifth-place spot."

Minnesota’s next test, Michigan Tech, rests just above it in the standings, but is traveling in a distinctly different direction. Having lost three consecutive games, the Huskies go into their Winter Carnival series winless since Jan. 9.

Most recently, Tech lost a pair of lifeless road games to North Dakota.

"I was very disappointed in our lack of discipline throughout the weekend," said coach Tim Watters. "We did see some progress in some of our younger players, which was nice."

More important than young players’ progress for Watters is the return of top man Andre Savage (6-9–15), who missed the previous six games due to injury. In net, junior David Weninger saved a career-high 49 shots two weeks ago against UND, but ranks third-last among WCHA regulars with a 3.66 goals-against average.

Savage’s return couldn’t come at a better time for Watters, whose team plays eight of its next 10 games at home.

"We are in the stretch run and at an extremely important time in our schedule," Watters said. "If we hope to get home ice in the playoffs we need to really take care of our home ice in the next several weeks."

Key statistic: Tech has fallen behind 1-0 in nine of its last 10 games.

Picks: Minnesota seems to be playing well, and, more importantly, is as healthy as its been in quite some time. But since 1960, Tech is 53-18-5 in Winter Carnival games, a 76-percent win rate. And don’t forget, Savage is back. UM 4-3, MTU 7-4.

Scott Tappa is WCHA Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.

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