So much for lunges out of the cellar.
So much for challenging the supremacy of this season’s Big Three.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association is now essentially three mini-conferences, comprised of teams fighting for the McNaughton Cup, teams fighting for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and teams fighting to stay out of last place.
Here are the conferences:
WCHA Penthouse: Wisconsin, North Dakota, St. Cloud State. No, the conference hasn’t made inroads into the porn industry, but has instead reserved a lofty place for its top three teams.
Five weeks left, two points separating three teams — what a perfect ending to a slightly unbelievable season. The Sioux and overachieving Huskies faced each other last week, splitting a pair in Minnesota. The surprising Badgers, riding a 13-game unbeaten streak, host St. Cloud at the end of February and travel to North Dakota.
"We’ve got 10 games left, North Dakota’s got 10 games left, we play them the last weekend of the season, you can’t ask for anything more," said Wisconsin’s Dustin Kuk.
These are the teams which will have an off day at the Final Five in Milwaukee. Or will they? This season, home ice has provided just a .512 winning percentage for WCHA hosts (42-40-4), so a first-round upset could be in the making.
WCHA Purgatory: Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan Tech. With all apologies to agnostics, this group rests in the conference middle ground, assured of not slipping but unlikely to advance.
Colorado has a slight edge on UMD and MTU, leading in the hunt for fourth place by four points. Duluth travels to Tech this weekend, and both teams have eight games left. But the Huskies play the tougher late-season schedule, tangling with St. Cloud, Wisconsin and CC.
WCHA Outhouse: Minnesota, Alaska-Anchorage, Denver. With all apologies to fans of indoor plumbing, these teams are on the outside looking in, set to play the role of spoiler.
Minnesota will have the greatest spoiling potential, playing all three top teams, beginning with a home series against the streaking Badgers this weekend. Anchorage will have the best chance to vault itself out of the cellar, playing Denver and Minnesota.
But enough about spoiling, surging and outhouses. Let’s get to the games.
No. 2 North Dakota (19-4-1, 13-4-1 WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (6-18-3, 5-13-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, AK
North Dakota goes from one no-win series — a non-conference encounter with Mankato State from which the Sioux emerged with two narrow victories — to another in Alaska. Anchorage is coming off arguably its best series of the season, in which it dominated Wisconsin defensively in two closer-than-expected losses.
Coach Dean Talafous has his team playing what could be referred to as either a left-wing lock or neutral-zone trap, and the Seawolves held Wisconsin to an all-time school low 11 shots in Friday’s loss. Call it ugly or boring, but by any name it’s effective.
"It’s a tough team to play, a difficult defensive system — the word is patience," said Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer. "I don’t know if they can play any better than they played."
Part of the reason for UAA’s better-than-usual play has been the steady goaltending of Doug Teskey. The WCHA’s second-ranked netminder with a .925 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average, Teskey kept his team afloat Saturday, when the left-wing lock wasn’t as effective as the night before.
The lone goaltender ahead of Teskey statistically will be his counterpart this weekend, North Dakota’s Karl Goehring. Goehring continues to dazzle in his rookie season, winning both games last weekend. Sunday, the rookie bailed out Aaron Schweitzer, entering the game after the sophomore allowed three goals on eight shots in the first period.
Goehring has won his last eight starts, and has earned the victory in each of his last 11 appearances.
The overriding force in North Dakota’s 11-of-12 winning streak is a powerful offense, keyed by Matt Henderson (10-6–16), owner of a 12-game scoring streak, and defenseman Curtis Murphy (4-17–21), who is tied with Wisconsin’s Craig Anderson (4-17–21) for the WCHA’s defenseman scoring lead.
But unexpected sources have contributed to the Sioux cause lately, such as Wes Dorey (four points Sunday), Jesse Bull (three assists Sunday) Brad DeFauw (goal Friday).
What Talafous wouldn’t do for one of these talented third- and fourth-liners. His leading scorers remain — after going scoreless last weekend — Rob Douglas (6-6–12) and Stacy Prevost (3-9–12).
Key statistic: North Dakota has won just twice in Anchorage in the teams’ 25-game series, early last season and in Jan. 1984.Picks: Anchorage is playing well, but North Dakota has too many weapons. As was suggested here last week, perhaps Sioux coach Dean Blais should stick with Goehring from here on in. Perhaps Talafous should pull two forwards back on defense; his team already stands to break WCHA records for fewest goals, so why not take the other guys down with him?
Perhaps this writer should stick his…well, we’ll see. UND 4-0, 2-1
No. 6 Wisconsin (19-6-1, 14-3-1 WCHA) at Minnesota (10-16-0, 6-12-0 WCHA) Friday, 7:35 CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN Saturday, 7:05 CT, Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
Wisconsin enters this grudge-match series with a 13-game winning streak. The number, which qualifies the streak as the second-longest in school history, also qualifies Wisconsin for the conference’s current Least Lucky WCHA Team. No. 1 goaltender Mike Valley remains shelved with a knee injury, and first line center Joe Bianchi, a Bloomington, Minn., native, will miss at least two weeks with a shoulder separation.
The loss of Bianchi, who saw a 12-game scoring streak snapped Saturday, will necessitate increased production from WCHA leading scorer Steve Reinprecht (11-14–25) and linemates Dustin Kuk (6-7–13) and Erik Raygor (9-6–15). Freshman Kevin Granato (4-4–8 WCHA, 9-5–14 overall), Bianchi’s winger, will also need to step up his offense.
Valley has a more logical replacement, freshman Graham Melanson. The reigning WCHA Defensive Player of the Week, Melanson (.959 SV%, 1.27 GAA) is the first freshman goaltender in UW history to win his first eight decisions.
"He’s playing awfully well, I don’t think anybody’s had that kind of a start," said Sauer. "We’ve got two goaltenders available to us."
Yet the only viable goaltender available to Sauer this weekend (seldom-used Jake Soper will back up Melanson) is unaccustomed to the hostile environments of Mariucci Arena and the Target Center.
"Graham’s never been in the Minnesota rink, so he’ll get his first look at it Friday night," Sauer said, noting that the freshman has, indeed, played in front of big crowds before. "The real key is when we took him into Omaha in front of that big crowd, that and the Friday night game at Notre Dame, we needed a boost, and he gave it to us."
Of course, Minnesota coach Doug Woog can be forgiven if he’s not shedding any tears for his counterpart’s injury problems. Woog, who has a 42-17-3 record against Wisconsin, has seen key players like Ryan Kraft, Casey Hankinson, Aaron Miskovich and Mike Lyons shelved this season, and has only recently gotten his team relatively healthy.
However, Minnesota stumbles home this weekend after suffering a humiliating sweep at the hands of Michigan Tech, the Huskies’ first sweep of the Gophers in 20 years. Amidst the Winter Carnival atmosphere in Houghton, MTU handed its visitors a pair of 5-3 defeats, damning Minnesota to the WCHA’s lower third.
Still, Wisconsin players and coaches know better than to underestimate their staggering, yet talented foe.
"I don’t care what their record is, or who’s on top of the league, there’s no bigger game for us than Minnesota," said Kuk. "No one’s looking past Minnesota."
And they shouldn’t: no player on Wisconsin’s roster has beaten Minnesota in the Twin Cities, and conversely, no Gopher has lost to its eastern rivals at home. If Minnesota is to continue its mastery, Reggie Berg and Mike Anderson will be key. Berg is 6-6–12 in a current eight-game scoring streak, and has moved into second place in the conference scoring race. Anderson has a point in 12 of his last 14 games, going 9-8–17 during that span.
Woog’s goaltenders continue to struggle, though, as neither Steve DeBus — last season’s first-team all-conference goaltender — nor Erik Day have been consistent in net.
Picks: Wisconsin went through January undefeated for the first time since the 1963-64 season, but February is different. The Badgers went 2-6 around Valentine’s Day last season, while Minnesota used a 5-2-1 month to surge to the top of the conference. Look for this weekend to provide a little of both, as Melanson finally shows a tiny bit of his youth. UM 5-2, UW 4-3
Minnesota-Duluth (13-14-1, 8-11-1 WCHA) at Michigan Tech (13-12-1, 8-11-0 WCHA) Friday 7:35 ET, Saturday 7:05 ET, MacInnes Ice Arena, Houghton, MI
Last weekend, the Huskies Winter Carnivaled their way to their first sweep of Minnesota in over 20 years.
"Certainly I was very pleased with our effort last weekend," Tech coach Tim Watters said. "We got some timely goals and excellent goaltending throughout the weekend. It was an important step for our hockey club."
WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Andre Savage helped set up the timely goals, assisting the game-winning goal both nights while scoring six points on the weekend to bring home MVP honors.
Defenseman Clint Way, who scored his first collegiate goal in Saturday’s victory, earned WCHA Rookie of the Week honors with a plus-four rating on the weekend.
The teams played two tight games at the end of November, with each game decided by one goal. The series was indicative of the similarity between the two teams — the Huskies and Bulldogs each have 17 points with eight games left to play.
"Obviously it’s an extremely important series for both teams, as we head down the stretch run in the battle for home ice in the playoffs," Watters said. "They have some very talented players that will cause us a number of problems."
Most talented of the UMD players are centers Jeff Scissons (7-13–20) and Mike Peluso (10-6–16). Scissons has 12 points in his last seven games, with three goals and nine assists. With his second career hat trick Saturday, Peluso moved into 19th place on the all-time Duluth scoring list, supplanting Brett Hull.
On defense, Curtis Doell carries a six-game scoring streak into the series. But Brant Nicklin will be key in net as the Bulldogs attempt to sweep Tech in Houghton for the first time since 1978-79. The sophomore pitched a shutout in the team’s last game against Tech, and has been steady, saving 90 percent of shots faced with a 3.33 GAA.
Picks: Bulldog coach Mike Sertich would like nothing more than to see Peluso continue to break out of his season-long slumber. On the other bench, Watters is thrilled to have Savage at full strength, and the senior has jumped all the way back to third in the conference scoring race. MTU 6-1, UMD 3-2
Denver (8-18-0, 5-13-0 WCHA) vs. Colorado College (15-10-2, 10-9-1 WCHA) Friday, 7:05 MT, World Ice Arena, Colorado Springs, CO Saturday, 7:35 MT, McNichols Arena, Denver, CO
The Gold Pan — awarded annually to the winner of the WCHA regular-season series between these schools — is at stake here, and the series is tied 1-1 coming in (a 6-1 CC win in the Denver Cup notwithstanding). Tiger coach Don Lucia will try to keep his team from looking ahead to a well-earned late-season bye week.
"The series with DU will be our last two games before we get a week off," Lucia said. "We want to try and keep the Gold Pan, but Denver seems to be playing much better hockey as of late."
Indeed. After underachieving most of the season, the Pioneers have adapted well to their spoilers’ role. In its last three series, Denver split with Minnesota, swept Vermont and Dartmouth on the road, and split with league-leading St. Cloud.
The Tigers enter this series with a secure hold on fourth place in the WCHA after splitting at Duluth last weekend.
"I thought we played well last weekend," Lucia said. "It’s always good to go on the road and get a split. Duluth is a good team, fun to play against because they do things no other team in our league does from a coaching standpoint."
This series looks to be the third conference matchup this weekend conducive to a sweep. Denver has yet to record a sweep this season, and each team will host one game. This could work in the Pioneers’ favor, though, as just three of CC’s 15 wins have come at home.
Anders Bjork and Paul Comrie both have points streaks of five or more games, with Bjork scoring in 10 of his last 11 contests. But four-on-four situations clearly favor the Tigers, who have outscored opponents 13-3 in such situations this year.
Picks: The Gold Pan will remain in Colorado Springs, but CC’s hold on it will be a struggle. Brian Swanson (7-13–20) must continue to score consistently if CC harbors any hopes of moving into the WCHA top three. CC 6-1, DU 2-1