In most collegiate sports, teams get a couple non-conference games to get themselves acquainted with each other and get ready for the conference season.
Just another reason why college hockey does not fall within the realm of "most collegiate sports."
Eight of the nine WCHA teams see action this weekend, and for four of them it’s time to start business in the conference, which means a slip-up in the first week that costs you a point or two in the standings may mean the difference between hosting a first-round series in March and going on the road. Weird, huh?
Things get especially strange when you consider that for one of those four, it’s their first game of the season altogether. For another, its the second and the other two have a whopping two games under their belts.
So much for prep time.
This weekend marks the renewal of two rivalries — one which has been old hat for the longest time and one trying to regain some of the form it once had.
Just remember: for four teams this weekend, the excuse, "it’s early in the season," doesn’t fly. Their games go in the standings.
And you never know when one point’s going to mean something.
Minnesota-Duluth (0-0, 0-0 WCHA) at Minnesota (1-1, 0-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minn.
The last time we saw this pair, Duluth overcame a 4-0 deficit with 14 minutes to go in regulation and defeated Minnesota, 5-4 in overtime of Game 3 of their WCHA first-round series last season. The Bulldogs went on to Milwaukee for the Final Five, while the Gophers went home to figure out what went wrong in a season that saw them win only 17 games.
The Gophers have already gotten their feet wet, but for the Bulldogs, this series is the start of the season. UMD coach Mike Sertich said you just have to take the schedule as it comes.
"I guess I would have liked to play a couple exhibition games to get the kinks out of everything," he said.
Their paths cross once again this weekend, as the intrastate rivalry heats up at the earliest point in a season ever.
All games in the league are important, but matchups like this early in the season are especially so for teams to get off on the right foot.
Also, for Duluth, this is the start of a very difficult stretch. After going to the Twin Cities, the Bulldogs head for North Dakota and host Wisconsin in their first three series.
It’s safe to say Sertich has his hands full in the first six games. But…
"So do our opponents," the Bulldog coach said.
The importance of this weekend for the Gophers is not just the rivalry. A split on home ice in the Ice Breaker Invitational last weekend — a 6-4 loss to St. Lawrence on Friday and a 4-3 win over Ohio State on Saturday — failed to cast aside the memories of last season.
Freshman goaltender Adam Hauser got the call in the season opener and was shelled for six goals while making only 18 saves. Junior Willy Marvin earned his first collegiate win Saturday with a 20-save performance.
"I’d say it was disappointing," Minnesota coach Doug Woog said of Hauser’s performance last Friday night. "He needs to play better — or whoever’s in goal needs to play better."
The Bulldogs’ goaltender situation appears slightly clearer. Junior Brant Nicklin is expected to make a school-record 61st consecutive WCHA start Friday. The league’s saves leader in each of the last two seasons will be making his first appearance since that deciding first-round game, as he missed the Final Five loss to St. Cloud State after an ankle injury in practice.
Minnesota’s Reggie Berg leads the Gophers in scoring against the Bulldogs, having scored 17 points in 15 games, including a hat trick in 1996.
If there’s a period to take note of in this series, it probably will be the first. The Gophers have outscored Duluth 21-5 in the first stanza of the last nine games of the series. That includes a combined 14-3 goals advantage and a 90-66 shots advantage in the opening period of their seven games last season.
Translated: if Minnesota can put together good first periods, Duluth may be in for a long weekend.
Meanwhile, how about this for home-ice advantage? Through all the adversity of last season, Minnesota has won nine of its last 10 games at home.
Picks: Woog’s Gophers have a lot going for them in this series — home ice, talented forwards and a lead in the rivalry. But the question mark, as it will be until someone claims the position with solid efforts, is at goaltender. Duluth doesn’t have that question, and it should net the ‘Dogs a split on the road. UMD 5-3, UM 3-1
Michigan Tech (0-2, 0-0 WCHA) at No. 10 Wisconsin (0-1, 0-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
While it’s still early in the season — probably too early to make any value judgments on this year’s teams — both Wisconsin and Michigan Tech have results to build on from their first games.
For Jeff Sauer’s Badgers, who lost their opener Oct. 3, 2-1 to Notre Dame in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game, finding some scoring in the lineup may or may not be one of the priorities.
"I’d like not to think so," Sauer said. "I think we’ve got some pretty good scorers back from last year. We’ve got our leading scorer back, the leading defensive scorer in the WCHA is back. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.
"I think 31 shots (against Notre Dame) was indicative of what we’re able to do; it’s just a matter of getting the back of the net a few more times than we did."
Tim Watters’ Huskies lost both ends of a home-and-home series with Northern Michigan last weekend, 8-2 in Houghton and 3-0 in Marquette. Brad Mueller and Adrian Fure were the only Tech players to score in the two games, so it may be safe to assume Watters wants to look at the front line.
"Certainly, we’d like our power play to come around a little bit," Watters said. "We worked hard on our specialty teams this week during practice and it’s a big part of the game. We have to compete a little bit more on our specialty teams and that’s the No. 1 thing we’re looking for this weekend."
Tech got a bit of bad news from the series with the Wildcats last weekend. Sophomore right winger Jim Kotajarvi, a Madison native, suffered a broken left leg in the series opener. The 5-9, 180-pounder is expected to be on the sidelines for six weeks.
"We’re going to miss him, but we have to go on and go from there," Watters said. "He certainly adds some depth to our roster and it’s a very unfortunate injury at this time of year."
One of the most surprising stats for the Huskies is that, although they haven’t been in the WCHA’s upper echelon recently, this season’s 0-2 start is their first since 1989, when they dropped the first two games of the season to St. Cloud State.
The Badgers are still looking for their first win in the 14,385-seat Kohl Center, which opened for hockey business against Notre Dame. The building passed the first tests, but now it will have to stand up to the rigors of an entire season of changing from basketball to hockey to concerts.
"Basically, after this weekend, we’re going to be back in here to play games," Sauer said of the new building. "The bottom line is it now becomes our game venue and we go to a practice venue. That’s the test that still has to be seen."
Senior defenseman Craig Anderson leads the Badgers in scoring against the Huskies with eight points in five games. Junior captain Steve Reinprecht has three goals and four assists in six career games against Tech.
This series marks the 104th and 105th times the teams have faced off. Wisconsin has a comfortable 61-36-6 lead, including a 39-12-1 mark in Madison. But the Huskies would have you know that the last 10 games of the series have been much closer than that, with Wisconsin winning five and MTU winning four, as well as one tie.
Last season’s games went along straight home-ice lines — the Badgers won 7-2 and 4-3 (ot) at home while the Huskies won at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena, 4-2 and 4-3. That marked the first time MTU swept Wisconsin in Houghton since 1988.
Sauer hopes this series will help him tell a few things about his squad.
"I think it’s a good team for us to start against in the WCHA, because it’ll tell us a little bit about our team, see how we can come back from a loss," he said. "I’ve got some veterans that need to step it up and be leaders for us on the ice, and hopefully they’ll do that."
Watters said his team needs to be ready from the opening drop of the puck.
"We have to be ready to compete right from the get-go," he said. "If we’re not ready, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble."
Picks: Sure, the recent series has been close, and sure, neither team has really shown too much in the offensive category. But Wisconsin really wants to hear the new foghorn blare after a goal. UW, 5-2 and 4-2, and thousands of people angrily call the Wisconsin Athletic Department Monday morning to complain about the ringing in their ears.
Alaska-Anchorage (0-2, 0-0 WCHA) at Alaska-Fairbanks (0-0, 0-0 CCHA) Friday, 7:05 AT, Fairbanks, Alaska Saturday, 7:35 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, Alaska
The race for the Alaska Airlines Governor’s Cup takes center stage in the land of the midnight sun as Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks square off in a home-and-home series.
To call the current rivalry heated would be a little bit of a stretch, considering the teams now play only two games against each other, compared to the old days when the Seawolves and the Nanooks would go at it eight times a season.
But Anchorage coach Dean Talafous sees potential in the near future.
"We’re going to play twice this year but we’re going to play four next year," he said. "The people get into it pretty good. I think it’s only going to get better playing four times in years to come. We’d like to get it back to where it was, say 10 years ago, when it was a real fierce intrastate rivalry."
Talafous said he didn’t know a whole lot about his team’s competition, but pointed out the respect he has for Fairbanks coach Dave Laurion.
"I expect they’ll have a very good team, and we’ll prepare that way," Talafous said.
The Seawolves come off a weekend where they were swept at home by Minnesota State, Mankato, 4-3 and 5-2. Talafous said some good came out of the games, though.
"The freshmen played very well — three of them got their first goal," he said. "We feel probably six or seven freshmen are going to be in the lineup and are going to help out considerably, so that was a bright spot."
UAA will have the services of freshman Gregg Zaporzan, who missed last weekend’s series with a groin injury. Talafous said the forward was possibly the best newcomer in camp.
"That’ll just be one more freshman that’s going to be able to come in and help us," he said. "For them it’s a big jump, but they appear to have the skills to be able to help. They’re just going to get better as time goes on."
While the early part of the season is all about trying to see what kind of a team as a whole you have, it’s still essential to put the best team on the ice.
"Like everyody, we played a lot of different people and tried to take a look at all the young guys," Talafous said. "It was good last weekend to try everybody and move everybody around but now we’re going to settle into a lineup and put the best guys out there."
Picks: Alaska native Jewel sings the national anthem before Friday night’s game, which therefore starts an hour late. What happens to the Cup if each wins a game by the same margin? Maybe we’ll find out. UAF 3-1, UAA 2-0
For more information on the Nanook side of the ice, see Paula C. Weston’s CCHA preview.
Calgary at Denver (0-0, 0-0 WCHA) Thursday, McNichols Arena, Denver, Colo.
To Denver coach George Gwozdecky, this game means quite a bit. Maybe not in the way games generally mean things to coaches, but the coach and the team have been looking forward to it for a while.
There’s really two reasons for that. First, the game provides an opportunity to go for a test spin with the team, see what works and what doesn’t, kick the tires, etc.
But second, and possibly more importantly for the Pioneers, it’s a chance to get on the ice and prove that six months of offseason training really means something.
"I would like to think the one thing we’re looking for is to have some success to give positive [feedback] to our players, so they can realize the work they put in over the last six months has been a good thing, and their game has been elevated because of it," Gwozdecky said.
"At this point in time I think we’re ready but our psyche was, in a certain sense, affected by last season. There’s always that question mark, especially going into a year like we are now, how we’re going to be affected by the kind of year we had last year and the kind of schedule we have. It’d be nice to see the fruits of our players’ labors pay off by being able to be successful."
So what if the opponent is Calgary, a team which comes in with a little more age but a little less experience than the Pioneers, especially considering that Denver may play as many as five freshmen.
"We’re going to roll four lines and we’re going to roll three sets on defense and get a lot of people a lot of playing time," Gwozdecky said. "I feel very comfortable that pretty much everybody will be able to contribute in one way or another to our team."
Picks: Even though the Colorado Avalanche are having a hard time winning at McNichols Arena, Denver probably shouldn’t. Experience helps the Pioneers a ton in this exhibition matchup. Denver, 5-2
Calgary at No. 6 Colorado College (0-0, 0-0 WCHA) Friday, 7:35 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Colorado College enters the 1998-99 season with three keys, as defined by coach Don Lucia.
The first is for the team’s stars to play like stars. Hobey Baker candidate Brian Swanson, Scott Swanson, Darren Clark, Toby Petersen and Dan Peters were singled out by the coach as having to perform when the Tigers need them.
No. 2, three sophomore defensemen have to come into their own. Brent Voorhees, Mike Colgan and Paul Manning need to step it up.
And finally, Colin Zulianello needs to step in for the departed Jason Cugnet and shore up the Tiger net.
If all these things happen, CC should be where it’s supposed to be — near the top of the WCHA standings.
They get a chance to ease their way into the regular season with this exhibition against Calgary. But you have to be careful with the Dinosaurs — the teams have split the last two games.
Picks: Dinosaurs go the way of the dinosaur as the Colorado Springs crowd starts the cheer of "USA! USA!" CC 6-1
Brandon at St. Cloud State (0-0, 0-0 WCHA) Saturday, 7:05 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.
Before you get confused, coach Craig Dahl’s team is not taking on 90210’s Brandon Walsh, a native-born Minnesotan and quite the hockey player, apparently.
Brandon is a team from Manitoba. Anyone with further information, please feel free to offer it.
Dahl’s Huskies get a chance to look at the goaltending position in this tilt, as three players look to replace Brian Leitza. Gert Prohaska, Dean Weasler and Scott Meyer all look to earn the top spot.
Other than that, it’s an exhibition game — made for trying out line combinations and new players.
Picks: Brandon Walsh may have a better shot. Of course, since I know nothing about Brandon University, it would be unfair of me to pick a winner here. But who said life was fair? St. Cloud, 4-2
Next Week in the WCHA:
Friday, October 23 Colorado College at Michigan Tech St. Cloud State at Minnesota Nebraska-Omaha at Denver
Saturday, October 24 Colorado College at Michigan Tech Minnesota at St. Cloud State
Sunday, October 25 Nebraska-Omaha at Denver