The fat lady’s singing. Eight teams are hearing "Taps." It’s over because it’s over, Yogi.
North Dakota is going to win the 1997-98 Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season championship, as most preseason observers may have suspected. With their powerful offense, steady defense and unbelievable young goaltenders, the Sioux and coach Dean Blais are finally looking like the MacNaughton Cup defenders they are.
Despite struggles with the state of Minnesota (two losses to St. Cloud, one each to Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth), North Dakota has been nearly unbeatable since Dec. 27, going 15-1-0 over that eight-week span. After a come-from-behind 5-3 win over Minnesota — in which all five goals were scored in the final 13-plus minutes — it’s time we anoint a champion.
Now watch this thing end up like "Dewey Defeats Truman."
So if UND has all but wrapped up a first-round date with Mankato State, what do these other challengers have to play for?
St. Cloud and Wisconsin are battling for the right to play Alaska-Anchorage — or maybe for the pain in the butt that is playing Alaska-Anchorage. After all, the Seawolves bored spectators to death last week with the league’s third all-time scoreless tie. Still, UAA is a more attractive option than an improving Denver outfit or a potentially dangerous Minnesota team.
Duluth and Colorado are battling for the No. 4 and 5 slots, and possibly for the right to be upset on home ice in the first round. But CC plays at a hungry SCSU this weekend, and Mike Peluso is heating up for the Bulldogs, so look for Duluth to wear the white jerseys in Milwaukee.
What about Michigan Tech? The Huskies seem to be the only team capable of either earning home-ice advantage or falling to seventh or eighth place. Much depends on how Tim Watters’ team defends its home ice against a struggling Wisconsin team this weekend.
Now, for more U.S. political references…
Colorado College (15-11-3, 10-10-2 WCHA) at No. 7 St. Cloud State (18-8-2, 15-6-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday 7:05 p.m. CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.
Let’s compare this race to that of, say, a potential Dan Quayle-Al Gore matchup in the year 2000. Think about it: CC is like Quayle, the enigmatic challenger, having been in high places, but taken a week (or in Danny’s case, an election) off to recuperate. St. Cloud, like Gore, is a nondescript candidate which has hung around the top levels, despite challenges and adversity.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
"I don’t think we’re playing up to our potential right now," said CC Lucia, who to our knowledge has never misspelled "potato" in front of grade schoolers. "The week off probably is coming at a good time. Hopefully, when we come back from the break, we can regain the level of play that we’re capable of."
The Tigers’ level of play was inferior to St. Cloud’s in mid-November, when the Huskies took a pair of games at the Cadet Ice Arena. But perhaps going on the road is just what Colorado needs: after moving into the new World Arena, CC hasn’t won a single home game, going 0-2-1.
Much of the CC offensive load has fallen on the capable shoulders of junior Brian Swanson, who leads the league in overall scoring (11-24–35, 7-16–23 WCHA) and junior Darren Clark, who has scored in 21 of the team’s 29 games.
Goaltending remains a sore spot for CC, as neither Colin Zulianello nor Jason Cugnet has saved more than 90 percent of the shots they’ve faced in split playing time.
St. Cloud remains the league’s surprise team deep into the month of February. Yet perhaps after 11 weeks, George Awada’s shorthanded hat trick Saturday should not have come as a surprise.
Awada’s efforts, which included the game winner one and a half minutes into overtime, tied the league record for shorthanded goals in a game held by Wisconsin’s Norm Cherrey.
Yet since Matt Noga is the lone Husky to surface among the league’s leading goal-scorers, much of the load has been thrust upon senior goaltender Brian Leitza, who has been up to the task in going 15-5-1.
Picks: How exactly does St. Cloud do it? There isn’t one answer, but the Huskies will leave the Tigers searching for some this weekend. SCSU 4-1, 6-5
No. 1 North Dakota (23-4-1, 17-4-1 WCHA) at Denver (10-19-1, 7-14-1 WCHA) Saturday-Sunday, 2:05 p.m. MT, Air Force Cadet Ice Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.
This series is kind of like Richard Nixon’s 1972 victory over George McGovern. Like Nixon, UND is the defending champion, and a lot of WCHA challengers would undoubtedly like to see the Sioux impeached, at least for this year. Denver, like McGovern, is the likable candidate who started slowly, and has little chance of winning.
As stated previously, North Dakota is coming off a phenomenal late-game comeback against Minnesota, and has every possible advantage in talent, depth, and intangibles.
You need offense? Curtis Murphy is the WCHA’s top-scoring defenseman at 5-21–26. Jay (10-13–23) and Jeff (9-12–21), the brothers Panzer, provide punch, and both maintain five-game scoring streaks. Adam Calder (5-15–20) has been a dependable scorer, and Matt Henderson (13-7–20) has 10 goals in his last 11 games. But the Sioux’s most successful sniper, David Hoogsteen, is questionable for this weekend after injuring his shoulder last Saturday.
Yet in Hoogsteen’s absence, another formidable weapon emerged for North Dakota: the crowd at Engelstad Arena.
"Once we got the first goal and the crowd got into the game, the momentum changed," said Jay Panzer. "We really worked together in the third. This is a really big win."
Denver pulled off a big win Saturday at Wisconsin. After dominating play for two periods Friday and losing, the Pioneers spotted their hosts a 1-0 lead in the second game, before roaring back in the third period.
"Earlier in the year, that might have been two- or three-nothing," Gwozdecky said. "It just shows that through the experiences we’ve had we’ve become a better team."
Despite becoming a better team, Denver has struggled scoring. Of its seven goals against Wisconsin, two came on penalty shots by Paul Comrie.
"It remains painfully obvious that we have trouble scoring goals," Gwozdecky said. "Jesus, it’s like pulling teeth sometimes."
And as far as potential dentists go, North Dakota’s Karl Goehring remains the WCHA’s least likely to use laughing gas. Goehring made just 31 saves last week, and doesn’t figure to face a great deal more this weekend.
Picks: How can you pick against Nixon, er, North Dakota? Unless Blais somehow gets caught breaking into Gwozdecky’s offices in search of shot charts, this series will be similar to many of the Sioux’s performances in 1998 — a landslide. UND 6-3, 3-0
Alaska-Anchorage (6-20-4, 5-16-3 WCHA) at Minnesota (12-18-0, 8-14-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minn.
Perhaps Anchorage’s bore-you-to-death style is more akin to Gore, but for comparative purposes, this series is like the 1984 Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale election. Mondale told us he’d raise taxes, and his ship sank. UAA coach Dean Talafous is honest when he says his Seawolves will play low-risk, low-scoring hockey, and his team is in last place.
"They clutch and grab all over the place," said Minnesota-Duluth’s Bert Gilling after his team skated to the league’s third-ever 0-0 tie against UAA. "Talk to any of our forwards and they’ll tell you they were mugged all night."
Bulldog coach Mike Sertich emerged from his experience with Anchorage a frustrated man.
"They play the neutral-zone trap, which is sometimes hard because they allow you to get the puck into their zone," Sertich said. "Then they frustrate you by not allowing you any clean scoring opportunities."
Yet any clean scoring chances tend to be slapped away by Anchorage goaltender Doug Teskey, second to Goehring in both save percentage and goals against average.
"Their goalie (Teskey) was outstanding. We’ve gone against him for three years, and this was the best we have seen him play."
Yet while Goehring has 13 wins to his names, Teskey has 13 losses, the fault of an offense which has failed to produce a double-digit goal scorer this year.
Minnesota coach Doug Woog has no shortage of scorers, but like Reagan, probably can’t understand what’s happening around him this season. As such, his constituents are debating his capability.
The most recent deflating loss in a season of deflating losses came in the Gophers’ aforementioned collapse at North Dakota.
"They turned it up a notch in the third," said Woog. "They scored on the power play and it opened up the floodgates. Once they got on a roll we couldn’t get the puck out of our zone."
Minnesota has had a problem getting out of the WCHA’s lower zone all season, and the team’s problems arguably began in November at Anchorage, the last time the team was at .500 (4-4-0). The Gophers were handed a pair of 3-2 losses in games which saw the hosts score first, Minnesota come back, and the Seawolves provide the final answer. Woog and his team would rather duplicate their last home series against Anchorage, when UM scored 13 goals in two games to knock UAA out of the WCHA playoffs.
Yet despite the strong recent play of Reggie Berg (12-15–27), Ryan Kraft (5-15–20), Wyatt Smith (10-10–20) and Dave Spehar (8-12–20), don’t expect 13 goals this weekend.
Picks: Fans at Mariucci should bring ample quantities of No-Doz this weekend, as Anchorage crawls further and further into its defensive shell. A low-scoring series means that Minnesota goaltender Steve DeBus, last season’s first-team all-WCHA goalie, must recover from Sunday’s shellshock in Grand Forks. Here’s guessing he will. UM 3-1, 2-0
No. 10 Wisconsin (20-9-1, 15-6-1 WCHA) at Michigan Tech (13-16-2, 8-15-1 WCHA) Friday 7:35 p.m. ET, Saturday 7:05 p.m. ET, MacInnes Ice Arena, Houghton, Mich.
In our last contest, we see a reasonable facsimile of the 1988 George Bush-Michael Dukakis race. Wisconsin, like Bush, is coming off a successful streak, but about to enter a most trying stretch. Tech, like Dukakis, always seems to be on the verge of success, but can’t get over the hump.
Most recently, St. Cloud’s George Awada was Tech’s Willie Horton, as coach Tim Watters’ team dropped a pair to SCSU, including a heartbreaker 4-3 overtime decision Saturday.
"Obviously it was disappointing," said Watters, whose team must overcome a five points on Colorado with six games to play. "We didn’t play well Friday, however, I thought we came out and gave a great effort Saturday. It was unfortunate to lose the game like we did, but give St. Cloud credit. They did what they had to to beat us."
To beat Wisconsin, Tech will need Andre Savage (9-15–24) to continue his scoring ways. The Husky blue line is anchored by six-foot-six Andy Sutton, whose 7-13–20 output this season is easily his career best.
Tech forward Craig Perrett is questionable for the series, having suffered a bruised knee blocking a shot. His presence will hinder the Huskies against a Wisconsin outfit that has been schizophrenic lately.
"Wisconsin has had a solid season and we certainly respect what they’ve accomplished," Watters said. "We had a hard-fought series with them in November, and while that was some time ago, I expect a similar series this weekend."
Much has happened since then for Wisconsin, one of several WCHA roller coasters. After a 13-game unbeaten streak, the Badgers have dropped three of four games, and were lucky to beat Denver Friday with one period of solid play.
"For two and a half periods we were a pretty good hockey team this weekend," Sauer said. "We can’t win a lot of games that way."
Like Tech, Wisconsin is handicapped this weekend with the absence of several key players, the most prominent being goaltender Mike Valley. Valley, who has missed the last several weeks with a knee injury, may be available for backup duty, which Sauer believes would be greatly beneficial to rookie starter Graham Melanson.
On the plus side, winger T.R. Moreau returns to the Badger lineup after missing the last 11 games with a severe concussion. On the minus side, Dustin Kuk will not make the trip due to injury.
Another costly absence will be that of center Joe Bianchi, suspended for Friday’s game for arguing with referees after Saturday’s loss. Bianchi’s loss places a greater offensive load on WCHA leading scorer Steve Reinprecht (12-16–28) and defenseman Craig Anderson (5-18–23).
Of note: Radio broadcaster Bob Olson, in his 27th year as Tech’s radio voice for WZRK, celebrated his 67th birthday last Sunday (Feb. 8). Olson, the dean of college hockey broadcasters, is busy preparing to run his sixth Boston Marathon in April.
Picks: Olson’s physical prowess won’t help the Huskies one bit, but the UW absences will. In addition to being a top scoring and penalty-killing forward, Bianchi mans a point of the UW power play. Against Minnesota, an injured Bianchi watched his team’s power play struggle in a pair of losses. MTU 4-2, UW 7-5
Thanks to the WCHA game reporters who contributed to this preview.