As the Western Collegiate Hockey Association schedule enters December, teams start to look at their positioning in the conference — and what they can do about it before the end of the year.
With only a couple weeks of play before teams break the conference schedule for the holidays, the WCHA standings are shaking out exactly as some would have forecasted at the start of the year: Colorado College and North Dakota are battling for the top spot. The Tigers have a three-point lead on the Sioux, but North Dakota has two league games in hand.
Maybe it’s still a little early to say this, but this looks like a race that’s going to come down to the finish. Can’t get enough of these teams? Mark Jan. 15 and 16 on your calendar. That’s when North Dakota invades Colorado Springs for round two of the season series.
But let’s not forget about the rest of the league. Minnesota and Wisconsin occupy the third and fourth spots, but look out for fifth-place Denver. The Pioneers are only two games out of third, having played four fewer games than the Gophers and two fewer than UW. The Pioneers pick up two games on those teams this weekend as the Big Ten rivals take the week off and DU hosts the Sioux.
Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage and St. Cloud State are in a logjam for sixth, each with eight points through 10 league games. These teams have to get it in gear soon if they hope to move into the top half by the time the playoffs begin.
And then there’s Minnesota-Duluth, who is still looking for its first conference victory of the season. They have to find some scoring before they can look to move up at all.
Before teams look ahead, however, seven of them have to look at this week, which includes a matchup between No. 1 North Dakota and No. 10 Denver.
No. 1 North Dakota (8-1-1, 6-1-1 WCHA) at No. 10 Denver (7-3, 5-3 WCHA) Saturday-Sunday, 7:05-7:35 MT, McNichols Arena, Denver
North Dakota grabbed its first road sweep of the season against St. Cloud State last weekend; the Sioux’s road swing continues this weekend with a trip to Denver to face the Pioneers.
But the Sioux once again enter a weekend series with a big target squarely on their collective chest. After all, when you’re the No. 1 team in the country, there are going to be people shooting for you.
"We bring out the best, it seems, in everyone, so we have to counter that with being ready for it," UND coach Dean Blais said. "We’ve scored a lot of goals in the third period just because the other teams eventually wear down from clutching, grabbing and interfering. Finally, we break loose and score some goals."
The goaltending situation in Grand Forks has become a little more interesting in the last few weeks, as Andy Kollar has received his share of the time in nets, even replacing No. 1 goalie Karl Goehring in last Saturday’s victory. Blais said it’s long been the plan to get Kollar some time.
"We wanted to split Karl and Andy all year," Blais said. "(Andy) got hurt when Clarkson was in here and so we had to play Karl both games and Andy didn’t get a chance to play that game. He’s been pretty patient, he sat out all of last year and the year before he was in Fargo with Karl and they split the duties."
Blais also noted that Goehring seems to understand the process and what he needs to do.
"We’ve had seniors sit out because of inconsistent play and goaltending is really no different," Blais said. "He understands that. He’s still our No. 1 goalie and we’re going to keep going to him."
One of the brightest spots this season for North Dakota has been the play of Lee Goren. After sitting out most of last season with illness and injuries, Goren recorded his first career hat trick last Saturday. Playing alongside Jason Blake has been an asset.
"Jason will find a way to get him the puck and Lee’s been burying it," Blais said. "He had two goals where he had great shots to score goals. He’s found a way to score, whether it’s shooting, rebounds, tip-ins, whatever."
Denver comes off an idle week spent taking exams. Fun. Whether the week off is beneficial or takes its toll remains to be seen, but the Pioneers are trying to get the bad taste of three straight splits out of their mouth.
"I don’t think any of us were very happy with what happened," DU coach George Gwozdecky said. "I think that’s characteristic of teams that are learning how to win and developing that winning attitude. In a very short while, we’ve gone from an underdog to one of the teams to be beaten. There are times we have not shown up to play the way we need to play in order to be successful and teams have taken advantage of that."
Back at the start of the season, Gwozdecky said he felt his team was going to be much more competitive than last year’s squad. The attitudes of some of the players had changed to focus on doing what it takes to win.
The senior leadership hasn’t hurt, either.
"I think sometimes people overlook the effect that an experienced senior class has on a team," Gwozdecky said. "Three seasons ago, we had a big senior class and we were an overtime post away from advancing to the Final Four. Last year, we basically have one player in our senior class and it’s a struggle for us. You look at this team this year and we have nine seniors in our senior class, and quite a number of them play on a regular basis."
This year’s group of seniors has seen its share of the peaks and valleys — 1996-97 being a peak and 1997-98 being a valley.
"That’s what experience is all about. You’ve seen the good times and the bad times and you want to make sure that especially during your last year, you try to make sure everybody’s going to go through the good times," Gwozdecky said. "I think through the early part of the season, we’re experiencing more good than we did in the past."
Blais said one game in particular made him stand up and take notice of Denver this season.
"The thing that made us aware of how good they are and how much improved they are is they beat CC 6-0 after losing 6-4, which is even not too bad of a loss in Colorado Springs," he said.
But Gwozdecky is quick to point out that there’s more to his team than a win over Colorado College.
"We’ve done more than beat CC 6-0," Gwozdecky said. "I think this team has seen what they’re capable of doing, whether it’s against CC or Wisconsin or whoever. Right now, the only team we’re most concerned about is ourselves. I don’t mean to say that we don’t respect North Dakota or whoever. We do, but the biggest thing any successful team needs to do is look at themselves and make sure they are showing up playing the way they play."
Picks: North Dakota has firepower, but so does Denver. The matchup between Jason Blake and Lee Goren on one side and Paul Comrie and James Patterson on the other should be interesting to watch. As capable as the Sioux are of sweeping, Denver will not be swept at home. UND 4-2, DU 6-3
St. Cloud State (5-7, 4-8 WCHA) at No. 2 Colorado College (10-2, 8-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Coach Craig Dahl’s team’s whirlwind tour of the top teams in the nation takes another round this weekend as SCSU follows a series against No. 1 North Dakota with a trip to face No. 2 Colorado College.
Dahl hopes the Huskies can stand to gain from these series.
"You have to treat it like a learning situation," Dahl said. "You need your team to understand what it takes to compete at that level. If you treat it as such and then take the tapes and try to learn from it, it can be beneficial."
The Huskies dropped two to the Sioux last weekend, 4-3 and 7-4. Despite the scores, Dahl said he thought his team played better on Saturday.
"Circumstances sometimes in a hockey game dictate the final score, sometimes it’s not really indicative of the game itself," Dahl said. "We got outshot Friday night, we didn’t play very well in our defensive zone. Saturday, we outshot them 35-31 and it was 4-3 in the third. They get a five-minute power play on a questionable call, make it 5-3 and then they got two cheapies. I felt really good about the game, both of them were good learning experiences for us."
One positive note for SCSU is the improvement in the goaltending situation. Dean Weasler has stepped to the forefront recently, playing well against Minnesota-Duluth two weeks ago and standing his ground against UND.
"I feel better now than I did three weeks ago," Dahl said. "Hopefully, he’s rounding into shape. Obviously, consistency is always the key. I think if we had this goaltending earlier, we probably wouldn’t have eight losses."
Colorado College coach Don Lucia has said all along that his team couldn’t count only on the play of Brian Swanson to carry his team. But Swanson certainly has done his part to prove his preseason Hobey Baker hype favorite correct, scoring eight points last weekend on four goals and four assists. He moved into seventh place on CC’s all-time scoring list with 192 career points.
"He has played by far the best hockey he’s played since he’s been here, at both ends of the rink," Lucia said. "That’s what’s impressive, that Brian’s a very good defensive player. He takes pride in that. A lot of times, we get a lead like at North Dakota, he had three assists in the first period, he’s in a defensive mode at that point. He’s not as concerned about trying to generate offense as making sure we win the game. That’s the type of player he is."
And here’s something that should scare most goaltenders in the WCHA: the CC coaches have encouraged Swanson to shoot more.
"I think if you’d ask Brian, he’d say he was a better playmaker than goal-scorer," Lucia said. "One of the things we talked to Brian about was shooting the puck more because he has a tremendous shot. There’s no reason he shouldn’t score 25, 30 goals."
But as sure as the Tigers offense and defense are right now, Lucia is still trying to determine who his No. 1 goaltender is going to be.
"We have not even made our mind up what we’re going to do this weekend," Lucia said. "There’s a chance one of them might play both games. I think we’re getting closer to figuring out who we think our No. 1 goaltender is. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t change as we go along."
Lucia also expressed a concern a number of college hockey coaches have this time of year. The list of invitees to the junior national teams was released this week, and for Lucia, sophomore right wing Justin Morrison is on that list.
"I don’t know what we’re going to do yet to be honest," Lucia said. "All of a sudden, two-thirds of our second line is gone at Christmas time. What’s disappointing for us is that we have some pretty big games at that time. We have Boston College in the first round of the Denver Cup and then we have Maine and New Hampshire after that. It certainly has an impact; those are power-ranking games that come into play at the end of the year."
This weekend’s series may appear to be lopsided, but St. Cloud State has experience playing the top teams now, which can be invaluable. Dahl said a couple power play goals wouldn’t hurt, either.
"I think we’ve got to crank our power play. That certainly would help us if we could count on one goal a game from our power play," Dahl said. "If you can average four (goals per game), you’re probably going to win. If you only average three, you’re probably going to lose."
Picks: Don’t count SCSU out right off the bat. But CC’s power will come through, with Swanson again leading the way. CC 6-3, 5-4
Minnesota-Duluth (1-9-2, 0-8-2 WCHA) at Michigan Tech (4-8, 4-6 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, Mich.
What effect will having two weeks off play on the Michigan Tech players? Who knows. Whether the team will have lost an edge in that time or will be fired up to get back remains to be seen, but coach Tim Watters said it was the right time to get some time off.
"We had two weekends in a row off and the guys are very anxious to get back at it," he said. "I think the break came at a good time. We had finals week after the weekend with St. Cloud."
Watters’ team, which has a 4-8 record overall, has been getting better since a series in Alaska.
"Since we played in Alaska, we’ve gotten back to the basics and we’ve taken small steps and we’ve slowly improved our game a little bit," Watters said. "It’s also improved our confidence. I think it’s been a real growing experience for our young guys through the first third of the season. I said from Day One that our team is going to benefit from the experience of the season."
Minnesota-Duluth, despite having not won a WCHA game yet this season, still puts some fear into Watters. He said they could bust loose at any time.
"They’re struggling maybe a little bit, but they certainly scare me," Watters said. "I think they’re a team very similar to ours, they’re a young team. I’m just scared they’re all of a sudden going to come out of it for this weekend. I think they have the potential to do that."
The Bulldogs, though, have scored just 12 goals in eight conference games this season. Jeff Scissons is the team’s leading scorer with eight points (four goals, four assists).
Although the Bulldogs are dead last in the WCHA in scoring, they are in the middle of the pack in defense, with Brant Nicklin still doing what he can to hold the fort. If the Bulldogs pull out of their scoring funk, wins shouldn’t be as much of a problem as they have been.
Watters gave an outlook for his team that could be easily transferred to either team.
"I think the important thing is we want to play well," Watters said. "If we play well and execute in the things we’ve been stressing, you have to be pleased with that as a coach."
Picks: Tech is on the rise, while Duluth is still in a funk. Getting a sweep here may propel the Huskies to better things in the new year. MTU 2-1, 3-2
Air Force (6-5) at Alaska-Anchorage (4-8-2, 3-5-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, Alaska
Coming off gaining three road points against Duluth last weekend, coach Dean Talafous’ Seawolf squad takes a break from the conference schedule to face Air Force.
In their last five games, UAA has lost only once. They are 2-1-2 in that time. Part of the reason for that is the play of the freshman class, including goaltender Gregg Naumenko. He made 58 saves against Duluth last weekend. Naumenko has a 3-3-2 record with a 2.41 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. He was selected the WCHA Rookie of the Week last week.
The Seawolf freshman class has accounted for 31 of Anchorage’s 81 points and 13 of 32 goals. Three of the team’s top five scorers are freshmen: Mike Scott, Steve Cygan and Jeff Carlson.
The power play remains a struggle for the Seawolves. They are 0 for 31 in the WCHA this season and 1 for 56 overall, not having scored in their last 46 chances.
Here’s a bit of history: The last time these teams met, Anchorage not only swept the Falcons, they didn’t allow them a goal. UAA won 3-0 on Feb. 26, 1993 and completed the sweep with a 4-0 win a day later.
Air Force lost to Colorado College and UMass-Amherst last weekend. Senior Justin Kieffer, a third-team All-American last season, leads the Falcons with 13 assists this year. Freshman forward Tony Lawrence leads the team with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists).
Picks: Will this be a repeat of that ’93 series? Probably not, even with the stellar play of Naumenko in goal. UAA 4-2, 3-2
Next Week’s Schedule
Friday, Dec. 11 Denver at Alaska-Anchorage Wisconsin at North Dakota Mankato State at Colorado College Michigan Tech at Lake Superior State Colgate at Minnesota-Duluth St. Cloud State at Miami
Saturday, Dec. 12 Denver at Alaska-Anchorage Wisconsin at North Dakota Mankato State at Colorado College Michigan Tech at Lake Superior State Colgate at Minnesota-Duluth St. Cloud State at Miami