The true opening of the WCHA schedule is finally upon us, as all nine teams see action on the same nights, with a full complement of four conference series.
It’s awful early to even look at the standings, considering three of the league’s teams have yet to take the ice in conference play. Denver, North Dakota and Alaska-Anchorage all get their first cracks at the WCHA this weekend.
Nevertheless, Minnesota has the early lead, but that lead is on shaky ground, considering the Gophers have five points through four games and Colorado College has four points after only a road sweep of Michigan Tech.
But this weekend’s action could go a long way in predicting who’s going to be up top in March, and who will be merely fighting for home ice in the first round. Teams like Wisconsin, Minnesota-Duluth and Denver are all looking for productive weekends to give them the early edge on the competition.
This all comes along with the WCHA’s first look of the season at defending champion North Dakota. Will the Sioux’s fresh faces on defense be able to hold off charges at their throne?
As always, only time will tell.
Minnesota (3-2-1, 2-1-1 WCHA) vs. Wisconsin (1-2, 1-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
The Border Battle always has great significance for both teams, but this early-season matchup may be especially important for the Badgers, who are looking to break out of a scoring funk and make an early turnaround.
After opening the new Kohl Center with a 1-2 record, including a split with Michigan Tech two weeks ago, coach Jeff Sauer’s team needs to make a statement this weekend. After all, if they get swept by Doug Woog’s Golden Gophers, the Badgers will be 1-3 in the conference, with all of those games coming on home ice.
However, if UW sweeps — something the Badgers haven’t done against the Gophers since 1996 — Wisconsin will be in a comfortable 3-1 position, having won 75 percent of its games at the Kohl Center.
"It’s a long season, there’s a long way to go, but all of a sudden, this is the start of the first half of our season. It becomes a very important series," Sauer said. "We won’t see this team again until the last series of the year. We want to make sure that when we see them the next time, we’re in striking distance."
Minnesota certainly doesn’t have to defend its recent record against the Badgers. The Gophers lead the series in the 1990s, 23-8-3. Woog is 44-17-3 against Wisconsin. Minnesota has won 16 of the last 21 meetings, including three of the four meetings with the Badgers last season. Et cetera, et cetera.
Woog, however, is at a loss to explain his team’s continued success over the Badgers, which usually determines the difference in the season standings.
"We’ve had good success in the league and partly our success in the league, in relation to Wisconsin…has been our ability to beat them," he said. "If you go back through the history of the games, if they had won the majority of the games in the series, they would have finished in first or second. We just kind of traded places because of our recent ability to beat them in the last six, eight ten years.
"I can’t tell you why. One night it’ll be one thing, another night it might be frustration, another night it was fate. There certainly hasn’t been a great disparity between the teams."
Not to mention that the Gopher roster features a couple of noted Badger-killers. In 11 games against UW, Wyatt Smith has six goals and seven assists, including his first career hat trick in a 7-0 victory at the Target Center last season. Reggie Berg has 12 points on six goals and six assists.
"First of all, they’re two pretty good players," Woog said. "They’re going to score against some other teams as well."
But that is all in the past. Of course, that doesn’t mean the Badgers get away from Smith and company this season. The senior center is one of four players tied for the early WCHA scoring lead with four points (4-0–4). In fact, three of the foursome at the top are Gophers. Dave Spehar (2-2–4) and Jordan Leopold (0-4–4) join Smith and Michigan Tech center Tab Lardner with four points.
But something Woog would like to see improve is the team’s consistency.
"We have a lot of question marks," he said. "One night you think you’re playing pretty well, then you second guess your stuff and wonder if you’re going to be able to do it. It’s between playing well one night and being suspect on another."
Adam Hauser has seemingly shaken off a rough non-conference start to his collegiate career, having come back with two conference wins in a row. The freshman has a 0.50 goals-against average and a .977 save percentage through two WCHA games, including a 3-0 win last Friday.
"He’s real good with the puck, he handled it well," Woog said. "It’s a nice advantage on the big rink if somebody can handle the puck. He’s a big target, he’s a big-sized kid. He’s gotten a little better each week."
Willy Marvin, who shares time with Hauser, hasn’t been so fortunate in his two starts. The junior is 0-1-1 with a 3.85 goals-against and a .871 save percentage. Woog said it is "more than likely" that Marvin will play Saturday.
Wisconsin’s counter in net is sophomore Graham Melanson, who has allowed just two goals in each of his three starts this season. Unfortunately, the Badgers scored only one goal in two of those games.
Melanson is saving 90.9 percent of the shots he faces, which will be essential to keep up, considering the Gophers are averaging 37.8 shots per game.
Up front, Sauer’s team is still looking for someone to put the puck in the net. The Badger coach isn’t really worried, however, with captain Steve Reinprecht getting hungry for his first goal of the season. But the Gophers may not be the ideal team for him to face at this point. In eight games against Minnesota, Reinprecht has only two assists.
Sauer isn’t concerned that Reinprecht and Dustin Kuk haven’t hit the back of the net yet.
"If they weren’t getting chances, if Kevin Granato wasn’t getting chances, if Niki Siren wasn’t getting chances, I’d be concerned," he said. "We’re getting chances. It’s going to come. I’m disappointed we haven’t scored more, but in the same sense I think it’s going to come for us."
Wisconsin’s offensive woes against UM don’t stop there. No member of the Badger team has more than three points against Minnesota. Defenseman Craig Anderson and forwards Kuk and Niki Siren are the only current Badgers ever to have scored a goal against Woog’s team.
The key to this weekend’s matchup may be the Minnesota power play. The Gophers are 7 of 43 (.163) with the man advantage this year while the Badgers have killed off all 12 power plays they have faced. Whoever wins that battle may emerge the victor.
Picks: Much like last season’s series in Madison, expect the Gophers to come out strong the first night, but the Badgers to realize what it would mean to be swept on home ice by the Gophers in time for Saturday’s rematch. UM 4-1, UW 3-1
Alaska-Anchorage (1-3, 0-0 WCHA) vs. Colorado College (2-0, 2-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Even though the Seawolves are 1-3, this is definitely not the same team Dean Talafous had on the ice last season.
UAA is averaging 41 shots on goal through those four games. To put that in perspective, the Seawolves’ top shot output all of last season was 41 against Wisconsin on Jan. 30.
"Sure, what’s going on? We’re ruining our whole image," Talafous joked. "We have to put an end to that. I wouldn’t let them shoot all week."
Of course, unlike last season, Anchorage is giving up an average of 3.75 goals per game. The downfall through the first four games has been the first period, in which the Seawolves have been outscored 5-2. But the whole new image is the result of being more aggressive.
"The more aggressive and the more plays you can make and the more pressure on the puck, obviously you’re going to score more goals and win more hockey games," Talafous said. "But in the end, you still have to be responsible defensively to win championships."
The other side of the puck is Colorado College, which was impressive in a road sweep of Michigan Tech last weekend. Colin Zulianello made 17 saves in a 3-1 Friday win and Jeff Sanger got his first collegiate victory Saturday, 5-2.
CC coach Don Lucia said although both are playing well, he wants one netminder to emerge as the No. 1.
"I’m still looking to settle on one goaltender before the year is said and done, but I don’t have a time frame for that," he said. "Whether it’s by Thanksgiving, by Christmas, by playoffs, whatever. As long as they’re both worthy to play, they’ll both play."
Don’t forget about CC’s offense, however. All-everything Brian Swanson had a three-point game Saturday, collecting the game-winning goal. Darren Clark also chipped in three points Saturday (1-2–3). Jon Austin added two points as well.
"I’m sure they were a little frustrated not to get on the board Friday," Lucia said of Swanson and Clark, "but they came through and scored the big goals on Saturday."
Friday’s game was owned by the freshmen. Chris Hartsburg scored the first two goals and Mark Cullen added the third.
"I think the big thing is we can’t rely on Brian Swanson and Darren Clark and Toby Petersen to score for us, we need some other people to come through and score some goals for us," Lucia said.
Talafous agreed that the Tiger depth is one of their strong points.
"The problem with Colorado is who’s next?" he said. "Toby Petersen and then you’ve got Cullen, who is maybe the top junior player. It doesn’t end.
"In an Olympic[-size] rink, their building, Brian Swanson’s going to get some points. We’d like for him not to set an all-time record."
A down note for the Tigers is that K.J. Voorhees’ hamstring injury has not progressed. Lucia said he won’t expect him back until Thanksgiving.
Talk about your bad omens: When Anchorage opponents score first, the Seawolves are 0-34-4. That is to say, coming from behind is not one UAA’s strong suits.
One of the bright points in the first part of the Seawolf season has been the play of the freshmen. 14 of the team’s 34 points and seven of the 12 goals have come from freshmen. Interestingly, the freshman class tallied only nine goals all last season.
Not that Colorado College is already an intimidating team to play, Talafous’ squad goes into Colorado Springs with CC on a seven-game winning streak in the World Arena.
"It’s an adjustment when you go into a new rink and I think we’re very comfortable here now," Lucia said. "We’ve only played one game here this year, but we’ve practiced in our main rink quite a bit."
But Talafous emphasized his team’s sticking to their game plan.
"We’re just going to go down there and play our game," he said. "If they’re so doggone good that they expose all of our weaknesses, we’re just going to pat them on the back, tell them they’re a great team, go back to work and get better."
Picks: This series could end up being closer than some would imagine. Anchorage appears to be a team that can challenge anyone. With the new-look shot total and aggressiveness, the Seawolves could soon make a run for the top half of the league. But this weekend should belong to the Tigers. CC 5-3, 3-2
Denver (2-0, 0-0 WCHA) vs. Michigan Tech (1-5, 1-3 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, Mich.
Before dismissing Denver’s sweep of Nebraska-Omaha last weekend, take into consideration a little of the historical impact of the victories.
The sweep was the Pioneers’ first since March 7-8, 1997, when DU eliminated Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Add this season’s two wins to their exhibition victory and you’ll see why there’s some excitement brewing in the Rockies.
"I’m pleased right now with the way the team has played over the last three games," DU coach George Gwozdecky said. "One of the things this team did over the last seven months was really make a huge committment to training and coming back to the school in the best shape ever. The training really has showed we’re a better team this season."
Michigan Tech may epitomize the opposite. The Huskies were swept at home by a powerful Colorado College team last weekend, dropping their record to 1-5 overall and 1-3 in the WCHA. In their own defense, however, the teams MTU has faced so far this season have a 9-2 record.
"When you look at our three opponents, all three of them at one time this year were nationally-ranked," MTU coach Tim Watters said. "I think you have to take that into consideration and get the positives."
And the Huskies finally capitalized on a power-play chance last weekend. Brad Mueller’s tally in the second period last Friday broke an 0-for-28 string.
While MTU has a couple scorers emerging, one of the players they counted on has yet to break out. Sophomore Tab Lardner leads the team with five points (0-5–5) in six games. Freshman defenseman Paul Cabana got a goal against CC to add to his two assists so far on the season.
But junior Riley Nelson, the team’s leading returning scorer has yet to gain a point this season.
"I think Riley’s probably putting a little bit too much pressure on himself to score," Watters said. "Certainly we don’t want to put any more pressure on him than he’s already putting on himself. It’ll be a matter of time before he gets things going."
Getting people to contribute offensively has not been a problem for Gwozdecky’s Pioneers. 11 Denver players have figured in the scoring after just two games.
"Any time you can get a lot of people scoring, you get what you call that balanced offensive output, which is always very healthy," Gwozdecky said. "Your opponent has a more difficult time keying in on your marquee players and shutting you down offensively."
Speaking of marquee players, Mark Rycroft netted a hat trick last Friday, the first of his career. Captain Paul Comrie added two assists Friday with two goals and an assist Saturday.
And who’s that guy on top of the league in goaltending? Stephen Wagner leads the conference in all games with a 2-0 record, a 1.00 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage.
"He was a factor in both games last weekend," Gwozdecky said. "It was funny how, especially in the first game, after two periods I believe the shots were something like 27-5 in our favor. Yet, of those five opportunities we gave up, four of them were great scoring opportunities."
But Gwozdecky knows this series is always a close one, mentioning six of the 18 games his teams have played against Tech have gone into overtime.
"I don’t think any of our players are looking at this weekend and saying we’re glad we’re playing a lower ranked team in the league because we’re not in a position to say that," he said. "We’re coming off a year where we were one of the lower-ranked teams."
Picks: This may be a tale of teams going in opposite directions. If Tech can’t pull out of this funk soon, it may be a long season. For Denver, a sweep here may be the start of something big. DU 3-1, 3-2
Minnesota-Duluth (0-1-1, 0-1-1 WCHA) vs. North Dakota (0-0, 0-0 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.
When Dean Blais’ team raised its championship banners at the start of the 1997 season, it just happened to come before a series against Minnesota-Duluth.
Duluth came out of Grand Forks with a split in the series.
So this season, Blais isn’t going to give the Bulldogs that chance. The Fighting Sioux raised their banners at the exhibition game against Manitoba on Tuesday.
"We’re not going to give them any motivation for revenge or anything," Blais said with a chuckle, "rubbing it into their faces or however Sertie used it as motivation to get his team fired up. We’re not going to give him any reason to complain."
UMD coach Mike Sertich was relatively quiet on the topic.
"That’s up to them. It’s their deal," he said. "I don’t pay too much attention. I just know it was pretty emotional in there last year."
Many expect the Sioux to raise a third consecutive WCHA banner to the roof of the Ralph, and with names like Jason Blake, David Hoogsteen and Karl Goehring returning, that’s not out of the question.
The question is on the blue line, where Blais lost Mitch Vig and Matt Henderson. Freshmen Aaron Schneekloth and Chad Mazurak as well as walk-on Paul Murphy figure to get thrown into the fire early.
North Dakota got off on the right foot Tuesday with a 7-3 win over Manitoba. The defense held its ground, allowing goals on only quality shots, while the offense provided the scoring punch expected by the Sioux.
"We put close to 50 shots on net and scored four power-play goals," Blais said. "We had enough other opportunities that we missed on, but you’re going to get that early in the season. You’re going to get the forwards not as sharp, burying their chances when they get them."
The Sioux have to sharpen up quickly, as they turn around to host Duluth just three days after the exhibition.
Duluth got one point in Minneapolis two weeks ago, tying the Gophers in the season opener. But that certainly was a costly point. Junior center Shawn Pogreba tore ligaments in his right knee and Sertich said he is questionable for the series.
Goaltender Brant Nicklin is scheduled to make his 63rd and 64th straight WCHA starts against North Dakota. The junior stopped 64 of 69 Gopher attempts in the Bulldogs’ last series. He should see a similar level of attention from the Sioux.
"Their speed is obviously their strength," Sertich said. "They’ve been through it, they know what to do. They’re obviously very quick.
"I wouldn’t like to see a lot of shots; we’re going to have to try to take some things away from them.
"We’re going to have to try to slow them down somehow, whether we do it by hitting them or taking away ice."
Duluth has had a week off after a loss and a tie at Minnesota, and Sertich said that gave them some time to think about what went wrong.
"Sitting here thinking about a loss and a tie is a lot different than sitting here and thinking about a split or a couple wins," he said. "I think we took stock and a little inventory in what happened."
Has it come down to this? North Dakota is 4-3 in games played on Halloween, which, this year, falls on Saturday. The Sioux lost to Minnesota last season on Oct. 31.
And don’t forget that in each of the past two seasons, Duluth has taken two wins from the Sioux.
Picks: The Bulldogs may need that kind of spookiness to get out of Grand Forks with points. For the 1,215th time, we get a reminder that speed kills. UND 4-2, 3-1.
Vermont (1-1, 0-0 ECAC) vs. St. Cloud State (1-1, 1-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.
St. Cloud State split last weekend’s WCHA-opening series with Minnesota. What else is new? Over the last 12 games, six have gone to the Huskies and six to the Gophers.
Huskies’ coach Craig Dahl said for the first two games of the season, he was satisfied.
"With us playing our first game of the year and Minnesota playing their fifth on Friday night, I was pleased with the development of our team, as the game went on we got stronger," Dahl said. "I was certainly very impressed with the way we played. We had five five-on-five goals on the weekend and they only had one."
But out of the expected came the unforgettable. Trailing 1-0 and on a delayed penalty call, the Huskies put the puck in their own net. Coach Craig Dahl’s team lost 3-0 to the Gophers.
"The first one was deflected in off a Minnesota player’s skate," Dahl said. "The second one, I just had to laugh. I haven’t seen anything like that in a long, long time. It was a delayed penalty situaton with our goalie out. Our guy kind of swatted the puck back toward the point and it went all the way down and in the net. They showed it on TV and I was just kind of chuckling. I thought, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ I thought, obviously this was not going to be our night when it comes to the luck department."
But Jason Goulet was there to bail the Huskies out of a jam Saturday. A half minute after Minnesota tied the game, Goulet gave SCSU the game-winner with 16 seconds left in the game. For Dahl, anything less than two points would have been tough to take.
"That’s what I told them before the game. We’ve got to have this two points," he said. "When you’re going to contend, you can’t get swept. I said we’ve got to win. The guys stepped up and just did a great job."
Ritchie Larson, Mike Pudlick and Brian Gaffaney all tallied their first collegiate goals and goaltender Dean Weasler got his first win in the 6-5 victory Saturday. But Weasler also got a concussion for his troubles.
"He’s had to miss practice all week," Dahl said. "He got a concussion late in the game and we didn’t really know it. Turns out he was in the emergency room on Sunday. At least he got his first win in his first game."
Scott Meyer will get the start in goal against Vermont Friday, with Saturday’s starter yet to be determined.
Dahl said he doesn’t know too much about the Catamounts, but was particularly interested in the fact they were five of seven on the power play against Boston University.
"That’s always a scary stat to read," he said. "I haven’t seen them play in a couple years, so I don’t know a lot more about them than that."
Picks: Vermont has good team speed, but keep in mind this series in on the big ice surface of the National Hockey Center. SCSU 4-2, Vermont 4-3
For more on the Catamounts, see the ECAC preview by the troublesome twosome of Becky Blaeser and Jayson Moy.
Next Week’s Games
Friday, November 6 Michigan Tech at Alaska-Anchorage Colorado College at Minnesota Wisconsin at Minnesota-Duluth St. Cloud State at Denver Clarkson at North Dakota
Saturday, November 7 Michigan Tech at Alaska-Anchorage Colorado College at Minnesota Wisconsin at Minnesota-Duluth St. Cloud State at Denver Clarkson at North Dakota