This Week in the WCHA: December 11, 1998

With only two conference matchups remaining in the 1998 calendar year, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association still features the two top teams in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online Division I Poll. The Fighting Sioux of North Dakota claimed all 30 first-place votes after sweeping Denver on the road last weekend. Despite only splitting at home with St. Cloud State, Colorado College held on to the No. 2 spot.

But just because all but four teams are done with their WCHA schedules for quite a while doesn’t mean there’s no action to be had. After this weekend’s play, each team in the conference will have played 12 league games, and it will be easier to determine where they rank.

For instance, a glance at the standings shows North Dakota in second place, one point behind Colorado College. However, the Sioux have two games in hand, which will be recovered this weekend against Wisconsin in a rematch of the 1998 WCHA Final Five championship game. The Badgers are one point behind Minnesota in the race for third place, and have a chance to leapfrog the idle Gophers this weekend.

Obviously, there’s a lot of maneuvering to be done.

Alaska-Anchorage still has an opportunity to move into a tie for third in the conference, with two wins over Denver and a North Dakota sweep of Wisconsin this weekend. On the other hand, the Pioneers could be in sole possession of third at the close of December with a road sweep.

This weekend’s action also features four non-conference series: No. 2 Colorado College hosts Minnesota State-Mankato at the World Arena; Michigan Tech travels to Sault Ste. Marie for a pair with Central Collegiate Hockey Association foe Lake Superior State; St. Cloud State makes its first visit ever to Oxford, Oh., to take on the CCHA’s Miami; and Minnesota-Duluth hosts Eastern College Athletic Conference member Colgate.

By the way, in the next WCHA preview, look for the end-of-year conference awards to be dealt out for the most improved team, mid-season MVP, mid-season outstanding goaltender and team to watch in 1999. Send your nominations for these awards soon to [email protected], and they will be considered.

Wisconsin (5-6-2, 5-4-1 WCHA) at No. 1 North Dakota (10-1-1, 8-1-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.

Look out for North Dakota when it’s on a roll. And right now, the Fighting Sioux are on a roll.

Coach Dean Blais’ team has swept each of its last two series, and both of those came on the road. The Sioux took care of St. Cloud State two weekends ago and downed Denver last Saturday and Sunday.

"Good teams in the league try to split on the road and we were fortunate enough to win all four," Blais said.

But when the Badgers and the Sioux square off, who knows what’s going to happen. The last time the teams met was Mar. 21, when Wisconsin skated off the Bradley Center ice with a 3-2 win over North Dakota and the Broadmoor Trophy emblematic of the WCHA playoff champion.

Take one step back from that, and look at the last weekend of last season. In Grand Forks, coach Jeff Sauer’s team took the second game of the series to clinch second place in the conference. So, you can never really tell what’s going to happen.

"We’ve played very well in Grand Forks," Sauer said. "I don’t think anybody’s intimidated about going to Grand Forks. They have a good hockey team and it’s going to be a tough series, but I think we look forward to games like this."

A key to those two Wisconsin victories was goaltender Graham Melanson. He was the goaltender of record in both UW wins over the Sioux last season, compiling a 3.00 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage in those two games.

Melanson has been the backbone of the Badger team so far this season, leading the conference in goals-against (1.91) and save percentage (.925). Yet he only has a 5-6-2 overall record this season, a record attributable to his team’s lack of scoring punch.

"It would make it a lot easier if we could score five or six goals in a game, take some pressure off," Sauer said. "Against a team like North Dakota, you know statistically they’re going to get chances to score."

The Badgers are averaging 2.4 goals per game in the conference. And here’s the line that’s starting to sound like a broken record for UW: They still haven’t scored more than three goals in any game this season. You have to go all the way down to No. 19 in the WCHA scoring leaders list to find a Badger — Dustin Kuk, with two goals and eight assists.

"We’ve been working on trying to score goals from all angles — behind the net, in front of the net and under it if we can," Sauer said.

On the flip side, North Dakota averages 4.7 goals per game in the conference while allowing 3.1. The Sioux are 9-0-1 this season when holding opponents to four or fewer goals.

The reasons for that are twofold. One, the Sioux have received scoring from all the usual suspects — Jason Blake, Lee Goren, Adam Calder and others. Secondly, however, Blais admitted his defense has held up better than he imagined they would at the start of the season.

"When you have freshmen defensemen out there, they are going to make mistakes, but they’ve been pretty solid in their performance," Blais said. "In fact, for a while there, the returning forwards were not playing up to their capabilities, not the freshmen."

Injuries continue to plague the Badgers. Kevin Granato remains out, and is expected to stay out until after Christmas, with a leg injury. The games he will miss this weekend will be his ninth and 10th in a row. Senior defenseman Craig Anderson, a WCHA first-team member last season, is expected to be out for the remainder of the season after fracturing a vertebra.

UND goaltenders Karl Goehring and Andy Kollar are expected to share the netminding duties for a while. Blais said that situation can only help down the stretch.

"It helps you in not putting all the pressure on one guy," Blais said. "You get more tired in practice so sometimes you can’t concentrate in games as the season goes on."

Picks: Going into Grand Forks with the Sioux on such a tear is quite a challenge for Sauer’s Badgers. This series might make or break his team. If they can come out with a split, they will remain in an acceptable position at the end of the year. If not, they could fall out of the top five. My gut instinct tells me to pick a split, but North Dakota is too good just to split at home. Long live the tie! UND 5-3, tie 3-3

Denver (7-5, 5-5 WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (6-8-2, 3-5-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, Alaska

Looking at records in this series may be misleading. After storming out to a great start, Denver’s fire has been cooled recently, especially after a home sweep last weekend at the hands of North Dakota. Anchorage, on the other hand, is 4-1-2 in its last seven games, the best seven-game stretch in the Dean Talafous era.

The Seawolves are also fresh off a sweep of the Air Force Academy last weekend. All of this might lead one to believe UAA would have some momentum rolling into this series, but Seawolf coach Dean Talafous doesn’t see it that way. He said his teams take it one day at a time.

"I don’t think we’ll ever ride a wave," Talafous said. "To be real honest with you, we’re just one day at a time, desperately trying to improve so we can, at some point, compete on a consistent basis with teams in our league."

An encouraging note about the Seawolves is their progress. They finished the 1997-98 season with six wins: already this season, they have equaled that mark.

Last Saturday’s victory included senior Clayton Read’s first goal of the season, the game-winner. UAA’s leading goal scorer last season, Read had gone without a goal since Feb. 27.

But Talafous wasn’t even aware it was Read’s first goal of the season. His team stresses just that — the team. Not goals and assists, just how the Seawolves are doing.

"If everybody’s working hard at both ends of the rink, we’ll get team goals," Talafous said. "Who gets them doesn’t really matter to me. We don’t keep any stats of any kind; we just believe if everybody’s working hard and preparing, the team itself will win.

"I think (the players) love it. They grow up in program where it’s score, score, score, me, me, me. All of a sudden it’s all team and everybody gets along and works together. It’s refreshing."

Coach George Gwozdecky’s Denver team finally gets to pack its bags for a road trip of some distance again. The last time the Pioneers left the state of Colorado was Oct. 30-31, when they faced Michigan Tech in Houghton.

And maybe the trip will do the Pioneers some good to break out of the mini-slump they are in. They are 2-5 in their last seven games, but against some pretty respectable opponents. Six of those seven games have been against North Dakota, Wisconsin and Colorado College.

"I think you can learn from every series you play in," Gwozdecky said. "Obviously North Dakota is No. 1 in the country because they’re a very good team. Unfortunately, they played better than us for the most part of both games."

The Pioneers have had some difficulty making comebacks this season. Denver is 1-4 when its opponent scores first, and 0-4 when trailing after the second period. When the opponent scores more than four goals, DU is 0-4.

The catalyst for the Pioneers has been Paul Comrie, who has scored in three straight games. He has nine goals and 12 assists overall this season, including six points in the last three games.

But Gwozdecky said it appears that when Comrie is on, so is the team. When he’s not, the Pioneers have problems.

"He’s the guy that makes our team go," Gwozdecky said. "When he’s playing well, our team plays well. When he’s not playing well, our team is an average team. I think Paul is realizing that."

Something to watch in this series is Denver’s power play. They lead the conference with a 28.8 percent success rate in league games, including a 31.3 percent rate on the road. That’s great if they can get the chances. Anchorage has only been shorthanded 23 times in the conference this season, and has killed 21 of those to lead the WCHA.

"Our power play was rather ineffective on Sunday night and I know Anchorage doesn’t take a lot of penalties," Gwozdecky said. I don’t know how much special teams will be a factor in this series."

Talafous said, "We just believe the game should be played within the rules, with good sportsmanship. It doesn’t really matter who we play or when we play, that’s just part of our identity. It’s what we are."

Picks: As has been stated previously, this series has definite placement implications in the standings. "This is going to be a very key series for us, and I’m sure a lot of programs in our league will be watching the outcomes of this series with a lot of interest," Gwozdecky said. A sweep either way would make waves in the conference. But I don’t think that’s the way it’ll happen. DU 3-2, UAA 2-0

Minnesota State-Mankato (8-2-2) at No. 2 Colorado College (11-3, 9-3 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.

St. Cloud State managed to get out of Colorado Springs with a split last weekend, but Colorado College coach Don Lucia was happy with the way his team responded after losing Friday’s game.

"We certainly wanted to win two last weekend, but our kids responded well, it was the first time we’ve lost a game on Friday night," Lucia said. "We were able to come back and get the win on Saturday. One of the things I’ve stressed all weekend is let’s try to get points every weekend."

The home loss was CC’s first since Jan. 23-24, the first two games in the building. The Tigers’ 13-game unbeaten streak was snapped as SCSU has now won four of its last six games in Colorado Springs.

The Tigers next turn their attention to Minnesota State-Mankato, a team that Lucia said he knows little about.

Besides the established play of forwards Brian Swanson and Darren Clark, the CC lineup has been aided by the presence of a number of freshmen. The class has scored 44 points this season. Left winger Jesse Heerema has three goals and six assists on the season.

"I think we expected it coming in," Lucia said of the freshman output. "We really felt Heerema and (Mark) Cullen would really have a chance to play in our top couple lines, and they’ve done that. Right now, four of our top nine forwards are freshmen."

The power play has also been CC’s ally this season. They were three of six against SCSU last Saturday and have scored at least one power-play goal in each of their last six games.

Although MSU-Mankato has an 8-2-2 record, including wins over Alaska-Anchorage and Nebraska-Omaha, the Mavericks also have wins over Canisius, Alabama-Huntsville and Connecticut. Lucia knows where the Mavericks come from, however, and how tough it can be to put together an independent schedule.

"They haven’t played a real demanding schedule, and that’s not their fault," Lucia said. "I’ve been on that side. It’s difficult to get a 34-game schedule."

Rob White (10-4–14) leads head coach Don Brose’s team in goals. Aaron Fox has seven goals and 10 assists.

Picks: While it should be a good learning experience for the Mavericks, it should be all CC. CC 6-2, 5-2

Michigan Tech (4-10, 4-8 WCHA) at Lake Superior State (2-9-2, 2-7-2 CCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:00 ET, Taffy Abel Arena, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Put it this way: Michigan Tech simply has not had a lot of success at home this season. In seven games at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena, they are 0-7, a school record for consecutive home losses.

So getting on the road for a while might help. After this weekend’s series with Lake Superior State, the Huskies host Michigan, Michigan State and Northern Michigan in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Dec. 26-27.

"We had two road weekends before Duluth and we won three of four games," Tech coach Tim Watters said. "We’re just pressing a little bit hard at home. We’re trying so hard to do well, when you do that, things just don’t work out the way you want them to."

The latest home losses came at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth, which collected its first two WCHA wins of the season last weekend.

This upper Michigan rivalry hasn’t been as active recently, but Watters wants to change that.

"We haven’t played them a whole lot in the past and it’s something we want to try to keep going," Watters said.

With only eight points at the end of the calendar year, Watters said the thing he hopes for most would be to see improvement in his team.

"If we continue to work and stress the fundamentals and stick to the game plan, use those small stepping stones, we’ll be all right in the long run," Watters said.

Sophomore forward Matt Ulwelling leads MTU with 12 points on six goals and six assists. Compared with six points in all of last year’s action, that’s improvement.

Ulwelling, junior Brad Mueller and sophomore Adrian Fure are all tied with six goals to lead the Huskies.

Jeff Cheeseman leads the struggling Lakers with nine points on five goals and four assists. Jayme Platt has played the most in goal for coach Scott Borek’s team, and has a 2.11 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.

For more on the Lakers, turn to Paula C. Weston’s CCHA Preview.

Picks: We all know how difficult it is for a team to go into another’s rink and sweep. However, I will remind you, Michigan Tech has a winning record on the road. Going out on a limb here… MTU 4-3, 3-1

St. Cloud State (6-8, 5-7 WCHA) at Miami (3-11-3, 2-10-3 CCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:00 ET, Goggin Ice Arena, Oxford, Ohio

Much to the delight of coach Craig Dahl and anyone else associated with the St. Cloud State team, the Huskies now have a defined No. 1 goaltender.

Dean Weasler has staked his claim to the top spot after backstopping the Huskies in recent games, including the 5-3 victory over Colorado College last Friday. Weasler stopped 63 Tiger shots in the series.

Although he has a 4-3 record, he also has a 3.88 goals-against average with a .887 save percentage. Still, he’s earned the confidence of the team, and that’s really what matters.

"I think they feel a lot of confidence in him," Dahl said. "When you’re getting a chance, you have to be able to do it because you get confidence from being successful."

It’s been an interesting first half for SCSU. If the Huskies don’t have so many players get injured and have a couple bounces go their way, they could be sitting in the top three right now. But alas, you can’t change the past; you can only look to the future. After playing No. 1 North Dakota and No. 2 Colorado College, Dahl said his team knows what it takes to get to their level.

"We’ve played pretty good the last two weekends against the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country," Dahl said. "They learned what it takes to compete at that level. I really felt we’ve learned a lot in the last two weeks and have come a long way."

Sophomore Brandon Sampair collected three goals against CC, extending his goal-scoring streak to four games. He also tallied two goals in a game for the first time in his career last Friday.

Freshman Nate DiCasmirro got on the scoring sheet with his first collegiate goal — the game-winner in last Friday’s win.

But the power play continues to be a sore spot for the Huskies — so sore that when asked about it, Dahl groaned. After going 1-for-9 last weekend, SCSU is now 4-for-66 with the man advantage this season. Looking at the Huskies’ scoring, however, they are fourth in the conference, meaning that if they could just get the power play working, they’d be nearer the top.

"It’s anemic," Dahl said after groaning about the power play. "The funny thing is it’s pretty good in practice. Now it’s a confidence thing. We scored five out of seven (in practice) on Thursday and then you get into the game and it’s anemic."

Friday’s game against Miami will be the first ever between the teams. Two Miami players are tied for the team lead in scoring — Alex Kim and Mark Shalawylo, each with 14 points. Mark Mazzoleni’s RedHawks are in 10th place in the CCHA.

For more on the RedHawks, dial up Paula C. Weston’s CCHA Preview. And tell her Todd sent you.

Colgate (7-3, 5-1 ECAC) at Minnesota-Duluth (3-9-2, 2-8-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn.

Minnesota-Duluth not only claimed its first conference win of the season at Michigan Tech last weekend, they added to the Huskies’ woes by sweeping them. That means the Bulldogs, after all the adversity faced in the first part of the season, are the proud owners of a three-game unbeaten streak.

After scoring just 12 goals in their first 10 conference games, the Bulldogs exploded for 11 goals in the two games with MTU.

Maybe things are starting to come together for the Bulldogs. After all, it’s still not too late for them to better their position for the WCHA playoffs.

Junior center Jeff Scissons scored a career-high five points in last Saturday’s 6-1 victory to continue to lead the Bulldogs in scoring (8-6–14). Ryan Homstol picked up six points on the weekend with three goals and three assists.

UMD has some history with the Red Raiders. The Bulldogs downed Colgate in the championship game of the Syracuse Invitational last December. Coach Don Vaughan’s team features junior center Andy McDonald, who leads the team with 16 points on seven goals and nine assists.

For more on the Red Raiders, see Becky Blaeser and Jayson Moy’s ECAC Preview.

Picks: Colgate has a strong 7-3 overall record compared to the 3-9-2 mark of the Bulldogs. So, if records decided the games, this series would be easy to call. But, we know records mean squat. UMD 3-2, CU 2-1

Upcoming Games

This weekend’s games conclude the WCHA schedule for the 1998 calendar year. Several conference teams, however, will return to action after Christmas for holiday tournaments. Michigan Tech hosts the Great Lakes Invitational at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena Dec. 26 and 27. The New Dodge Mariucci Classic, hosted by Minnesota, takes place Dec. 27 and 28, as does Wisconsin’s Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center. In addition, the Norwest Denver Cup at McNichols Arena, featuring Denver and Colorado College, faces off on the 27th and 28th.