This Week in the WCHA: February 13, 1998

Yet perhaps the biggest news in the conference this week occurred off the ice, as Michigan Tech decided not to follow archrival Northern Michigan into the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

After four long months of self-evaluation, Husky coach Tim Watters, in conjunction with athletic director Rick Yeo, the school’s senior administration, local community, fans and alumni, decided not only to stay put, but also to recommend the construction of the proposed Hockey Education Center, which would include expanded facilities for players, coaches and alumni, and the establishment of a hockey endowment fund to bolster the school’s hockey program.

"I will say I’m very pleased with what has transpired over the last four months," Watters said. "I feel good about the commitment to our program, both from our university administrations and from our former players and fans.

"It’s healthy to continually evaluate your program and this was pretty in-depth. I will say that personally I’m very happy we’ll be staying in the WCHA."

The school’s decisions put to rest one of the hotter topics not just around the school, but around the league. In addition to maintaining the league’s nine-team membership, WCHA officials will be spared the troubles of searching for a piece of hardware to replace the McNaughton Cup, which the Huskies would have taken with them.

"Certainly the issue of which league Michigan Tech belongs in has been the hottest topic externally," Yeo said. "But that is one of many significant issues we have looked at over the last several months."

Of great local importance will be the Hockey Educational Center, which will include an expanded varsity locker room and sauna, a strength and conditioning room, a training room, an equipment room, a classroom/study room, a lecture hall/film room, and a video editing/conference room. But can Yeo, Watters and Co. raise the necessary funds to complete construction of this college-hockey Disneyland? Yeo thinks so.

"We’re confident that with the help of the Hockey Advisory Council we can raise the money necessary to get the project done immediately," Yeo said. "The establishment of an endowment fund for hockey is something the Hockey Advisory Council was vehement about getting in place."

Endowment funds? Video editing rooms? CLASSrooms? Let’s get back to what’s shaping up to be an exciting spring to the finish.

Michigan Tech (13-14-2, 8-13-1 WCHA) at No. 9 St. Cloud State (16-8-2, 13-6-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.

Tech went out and celebrated its announcement by getting swept at home by Minnesota-Duluth. Not only did the sweep sour the good feelings surrounding the trio of announcements and end the momentum created with the Winter Carnival sweep of Minnesota, but in suffering its first home sweep against the Bulldogs in 20 years, Tech dropped four points out of the all-important number-five slot in the WCHA standings.

"It was a very disappointing weekend," Watters said. "We didn’t play particularly well Friday and then on Saturday, I thought we played pretty well; however, you can’t allow seven goals and expect to win."

David Weninger saved just 75 percent of the shots he faced against Duluth, but was handicapped by two UMD power-play goals each night. Defenseman Andy Sutton was a Tech bright spot, going 2-1–3 in Saturday’s loss.

As simple as it seems, high scoring is the key to the Tech attack: the team is 8-1-1 this season when scoring four or more goals, but just 5-13-1 when scoring three goals or fewer.

Tech will have its work cut out for it this weekend against the WCHA’s other Huskies: St. Cloud allows just 2.85 goals per game, third-best in the league.

"We have a difficult challenge this weekend in St. Cloud State," Watters said. "Certainly we’ll have to contend with Brian Leitza, who is no doubt as good a goaltender as there is in the league."

Leitza, fifth in the WCHA with a 2.77 GAA, is protected by a largely-anonymous group of defensemen, including Josh DeWolf, Geno Parrish and Andy Vicari. The blueliners will be weakened by the loss of DeWolf, who injured his ankle two weeks ago against Denver.

St. Cloud, which owns a 7-1-2 record in its last 10 games against Tech, has been getting its offensive punch from center Matt Noga, who is 5-1–6 during a five-game scoring streak, and right wing Mike Rucinski, who is 3-3–6 over his last six.

Picks: Tech appears to be struggling at a time when it can least afford it. But though Watters’ team is on the road, its hosts are rusty, coming off a bye week. Also, St. Cloud may be complacent, content to hold the conference’s number-three slot, which would ensure a first-round bye at the Final Five. On the flip side, the week off may have given SCSU ample time to heal its minor wounds, excepting DeWolf. SCSU 5-4, MTU 6-4

Denver (9-18-1, 6-13-1 WCHA) at No. 8 Wisconsin (19-8-1, 14-5-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wis.

Yet another of the compelling coaching-alumni matchups in the WCHA. There’s ex-Wisconsin star Dean Talafous coaching at Alaska-Anchorage. There’s Colorado College alum Jeff Sauer coaching at Wisconsin. There’s Dean Blais, who attended Minnesota before coaching at North Dakota (more on that later).

And here’s Denver, coached by UW alum George Gwozdecky, and coached rather well. In three years at the helm, Gwozdecky has guided Denver to three Final Fives and two NCAA tournament bids while compiling an 80-60-10 record. But he is just 5-8-0 against his alma mater, while Sauer is 38-17-4 against Denver. In fact, the Badgers have been Denver’s greatest nemesis, as the Pioneers’ .357 all-time winning percentage versus UW is their worst against any opponent.

Yet while Gwozdecky’s team has struggled mightily this season, dangling just a single point outside the conference cellar, Denver is 5-2-1 in its last eight games, and scored an emotional series win over CC last weekend, reassuming control of the Gold Pan.

Anders Bjork has been on fire of late, going 7-4–11 in his current eight-game scoring streak. The senior center notched his 100th career point in Friday’s 6-6 tie. Aiding Bjork (8-8–16 in league play) has been rookie winger Mark Rycroft (8-10–18), who recorded his first three-point collegiate game Friday, and leading scorer Paul Comrie (7-12–19).

Denver will be without forward Mike Dairon (4-7–11), who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament two weeks ago against St. Cloud. On the plus side of the ledger, defenseman Ryan Hacker and forwards Bryce Wallnutt and Joe Casey return from nagging injuries.

Stephen Wagner has backstopped the current DU hot streak, but his numbers continue to lag, allowing almost three and a half goals per game.

"They’re playing better than they were when we beat them the first time, they’ve got a couple players back in there lineup," said Sauer, whose team swept Denver on the road in early January. "But it’s a team on the big ice surface here in Madison, and I’m going to put the pressure on my team to win two games."

Sauer hasn’t had much to be pleased with in the past 10 days. Number-one goaltender Mike Valley had minor surgery to fix a knee injury, center Joe Bianchi separated his shoulder and forward E.J. Bradley hurt his, um, groin. Oh yeah, and the Badgers were spanked by Minnesota, losing 4-1, 7-0, stretching their Twin Cities losing streak to six years.

Still, Sauer sees the losses as a positive.

"Maybe it’s good for us," Sauer said. "We were starting to read our press clippings and all that sort of thing; people start telling us we’re pretty good, and maybe we believed all of that."

And even though the team saw its grip on first place loosened after just one week, Sauer likes his team’s end-of-the year schedule, which also includes a home series against St. Cloud and a visit to North Dakota.

"We didn’t lose that much ground, we’re two games out of first, but we’ve got that team ahead of us, on our schedule," Sauer said. "We’ve got eight games left to play. Let’s just make sure we’re making a run when we go to Grand Forks, have a chance to finish first."

Valley will not return yet this weekend, so the net will be protected by freshman Graham Melanson, whose impressive eight-game run was brought to a screeching halt by Minnesota. Many of Melanson’s allowances were the result of a mistake-prone UW defense, which granted the Gophers numerous quality scoring chances.

"Graham will bounce back, he’s a strong kid," Sauer said.

There is a good chance that Bianchi will play this weekend, while Bradley seems like a probable scratch.

Of note: UW defenseman Craig Anderson, who led the WCHA in scoring for a while, has not scored in four games.

Picks: Sauer made note this week of his team’s up-and-down nature, starting the season hot, suffering a November-December swoon, then going unbeaten for 13 games before last weekend. Strangely, these streaks have not seemed to intersect individual series, but this weekend may change that as Wisconsin goes through another "growing-process" game before starting its late-season run. DU 3-1, UW 7-2

Minnesota (12-16-0, 8-12-0 WCHA) at No. 1 North Dakota (21-4-1, 15-4-1 WCHA) Saturday-Sunday, 2:05 CT, Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks N.D.

North Dakota quietly slipped back into the top spot in both the WCHA and the nation last weekend, thanks to Wisconsin’s losses at Minnesota and Michigan State’s struggles against Ohio State and Miami. As the Sioux methodically took care of business several time zones away, thoughts of a Gopher team which may finally be getting its act together must have been prevalent.

"They’re not a good hockey team right now, but they played well against us," Sauer said. "As we walked out of the rink Saturday night and Doug was surrounded by a bunch of press guys, I just said, ‘Now go up to North Dakota and do the same thing.’"

Easier said than done. Just about everything clicked for Minnesota last weekend, starting with goaltender Steve DeBus. The much-maligned reigning first-team all-WCHA goalie, DeBus came up huge at home, saving 54 of 55 shots on the weekend.

"Stevie gives up one goal in 120 minutes, and that’s pretty much the weekend," said Minnesota coach Doug Woog. "Everything went our way — we got the bounces and we got the saves."

The Gophers were opportunistic on the other end of the ice, capitalizing on numerous bonehead Wisconsin mistakes to grab early leads. Forwards Ryan Kraft, Wyatt Smith, Dave Spehar and Reggie Berg combined to score 18 points in the series, highlighted by Smith’s first career hat trick and Kraft’s third career four-point game Saturday. With his four-point series, Berg wrestled the WCHA scoring lead away from Wisconsin’s Steve Reinprecht and UND’s Dave Hoogsteen.

"We played with the lead the whole series, and that was different," said Smith.

Minnesota will be hard-pressed to lead the whole series on the road against the nation’s top team. No player on Minnesota’s roster has beaten North Dakota in Grand Forks, going 0-5-1 over the last three seasons.

The Sioux currently lead the conference by two games, but after looking at the sheer volume of impressive statistics the team has accrued, one might come to the conclusion that the lead is too small. Consider:

The Sioux lead the WCHA in scoring, netting almost a full goal per game more than St. Cloud’s second-best average. Conversely, North Dakota yields a league-low 2.45 goals per game.

North Dakota converts 20.8 percent of the time in man-advantage situations, while killing 89.3 percent of opponents’ power plays, both league bests. The Sioux have also scored a WCHA-high six shorthanded goals.

Individually, rookie sensation Karl Goehring leads the conference, allowing a mere 1.51 goals per game, and has earned the win in each of his last 13 appearances. Offensively, six of the league’s top 19 scorers call Engelstad Arena home.

So is North Dakota’s modest lead a sign of underachievement or scrappy challengers? Let’s just call it a little bit of both.

Picks: Two weeks ago, I surmised that a healthy Minnesota squad was ready to embark on a late-season run. They then proceeded to lose two games at Michigan Tech. Now, the Gophers are coming off two emotional home victories over a hated rival, and it remains to be seen if they can keep improving. On the other side, is it time the law of averages caught up with the Sioux? Here’s predicting a little bit of both.UM 6-5, UND 8-0 (The Sioux lost to Minnesota 6-5 on Halloween, so UND evens the season’s holiday score here).

Alaska-Anchorage (6-20-3, 5-15-2 WCHA) at Minnesota-Duluth (15-14-1, 10-11-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn.

Stand back, Seawolves, because Mike Peluso is starting to heat up. After a slow start, Peluso has amassed 15 of his team-high 32 points in the last six games, including a 3-3–6 effort in last weekend’s sweep of Michigan Tech.

But Peluso isn’t the only hot Bulldog of late. Center Jeff Scissons has gone 5-10–15 over his last nine games, and is tied with Peluso, North Dakota’s Curtis Murphy and CC’s Brian Swanson for fourth place in the WCHA scoring race.

But if you think that’s all UMD has going for it right now, think again. Sophomore blueliner Curtis Doell enters Friday’s game with a career-best eight-game scoring streak, and the man with the mask, goalie Brant Nicklin, is 6-1-0 with a .915 save percentage in his last seven appearances at the DECC.

Want more? Duluth is 24-4-1 all-time against UAA, 14-1-1 at the DECC.

As for the Seawolves, how many different ways can you say "no offense"? In addition to scoring just two goals at home against North Dakota, UAA allowed 10 scores itself after allowing just five goals in its previous three games.

Certainly injuries can be blamed for many of Anchorage’s recent problems, as only 18 skaters dressed for Saturday’s series finale. Even captain Stacy Prevost — he of the 127 consecutive games played — missed the UND series with a shoulder injury.

Still, even the Seawolves’ healthy gunners aren’t scoring: leading scorer Rob Douglas has gone five games without, his longest drought of the season. Droughts have been in abundance this season in Alaska, and this series seems to be no different.

Picks: Why is it that every week, after hours of careful analysis, the Anchorage series seems like the only easy pick? Looks like another sweep here, as Duluth continues to separate itself from Tech and Minnesota in the race for the number-five slot.UMD 5-1, 2-0