This Week in the WCHA: January 1, 1999

A story printed in the Denver Post this week tabbed Colorado College senior forward Brian Swanson as the leading candidate for the Hobey Baker Award.

So what else is new?

But Hobey doesn’t get awarded until April. It’s December. The temperature is -1 outside and it’s time for the unveiling of the first (and probably last) annual Milewski awards for WCHA first-half play.

And if that doesn’t get you excited… well, join the club. Thanks, though, to those of you who took the time to write with your suggestions on the awards. In some cases, as you will see, I took them to heart.

Without further ado, bring on the nominations.

First-Half Most Valuable Player &nbsp Jason Blake, North Dakota &nbsp Paul Comrie, Denver &nbsp Brian Swanson, Colorado College

My vote here goes to Swanson. That’s not a rip on either Blake or Comrie, just a tip of the hat to the player that, in my mind, has done everything that has been expected of him so far this season.

Shadow him all night, double-team him, do anything you want, and Swanson will still find a way to get some points on the board.

First-Half Outstanding Goaltender &nbsp Karl Goehring, North Dakota &nbsp Graham Melanson, Wisconsin &nbsp Gregg Naumenko, Alaska-Anchorage

This is the one that took me a week to figure out. However, basing my decision on finding the player most essential to his team, I pick Naumenko.

Goehring hasn’t been the same goaltender this season he was last year, being replaced by Andy Kollar and having to split time. Melanson started strong, allowing only two goals a game early in the season, but has fallen off as of late as Wisconsin has taken a nose dive.

Naumenko, however, stepped in as the full-time starter when Anchorage was sitting low in the standings and now has them in third place at the break. He has a 5-3-2 record in the conference with a 2.11 goals-against and a .927 save percentage.

Add those together, and you have a successful netminder on a rapidly-becoming-successful club.

First-Half Most Improved Team &nbsp Alaska-Anchorage &nbsp Denver

There are only two teams here because there are only two teams that I believe have truly improved. Sure, Minnesota has moved up two spots from their final position of last season, but their team is just getting back to where they should have been last season without injuries and defections.

Denver has made significant strides since last season’s 11-25-2 finish, getting out to a great start this season. But you just can’t overlook what Alaska-Anchorage has done.

They finished last season 6-25-5 overall and dead last in the WCHA. This season, they have an 8-8-2 overall record and a 5-5-2 mark in the conference, good for a third-place tie at the break. They get the trophy.

Team to watch in the second half &nbsp Alaska-Anchorage &nbsp Denver &nbsp St. Cloud State

It’s hard to pick Anchorage for this award simply because they are probably not going to go any higher than third. Several WCHA coaches have said their teams are in a race for third in the conference. Anchorage may still be there near the end, but look out in the last two weekends. They play at North Dakota and against Colorado College.

You have to keep an eye on Denver, but I would say the team to watch in the second half is St. Cloud State. Yes, they have to play the top two, but seven of their eight games in February are at home — an overnight trip to Minneapolis being the only road game. The Huskies showed signs of improvement once they found a goaltender. If they make it to February in good shape, they should be able to make a run.

That concludes the award ceremony. Send your messages complaining about how your player or team didn’t get picked to [email protected]

Oh yeah, there’s some games this weekend, too.

No. 2 Colorado College (14-4, 9-3 WCHA) vs. No. 5 New Hampshire (12-3-1, 7-2-1 Hockey East) Saturday, 7:05 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo. Colorado College vs. No. 4 Maine (11-1-3, 5-1-2 Hockey East) Sunday, 7:05 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Colorado College didn’t exactly get the result it would have liked in the Denver Cup, but the experience the team had there and that which is upcoming should help the Tigers, said coach Don Lucia.

"I always say when you play the good teams, you find out areas that you need to improve upon; that’s why it’s good to play those type of teams," he said. "I thought the area we were deficient (against Boston College) was the five feet in front of the blue paint from an offensive and defensive standpoint. We didn’t get to their net and we allowed them to get to ours."

That kind of play sent CC to the consolation game, where they whomped Lake Superior State.

This weekend’s action isn’t going to be interesting to watch just for the games. In Saturday’s game, you have a matchup of Hobey favorites — CC’s Brian Swanson and New Hampshire’s Jason Krog. While Swanson has been tabbed as the favorite out west, those in the east say Krog’s the guy.

Lucia’s case for Swanson is simple.

"I certainly think he’s got to be in the top two or three around the country," he said. "What he’s done this year is amazing. He’s got 40 points in the first half of the year. He’s doing it every night now, not once a weekend or once every two weeks. He’s a special player, and I’m just enjoying having him for this last year. You don’t replace Brian — that’s a reality. He’s got over 200 points in his college career."

Besides the obvious advantage of facing a team you might see in the NCAA tournament, this weekend may be a way of measuring these teams’ chances in the tourney.

"They’re two outstanding teams and it’s going to be fun to play them," Lucia said. "They’re as good as anybody in the country and are probably two teams that have a legitimate chance to win a national title. It’s good to play these teams and see how we stack up."

Picks: Swanson vs. Krog? I go with Swanson. CC 4-2 Swanson vs. Maine? I still go with Swanson. CC 3-2

Denver (9-7, 5-7 WCHA) vs. No. 4 Maine (11-1-3, 5-1-2 Hockey East) Friday, 2:05 MT, McNichols Arena, Denver Denver vs. No. 5 New Hampshire (12-3-1, 7-2-1 Hockey East) Sunday, 7:05 MT, McNichols Arena, Denver

Colorado College may not have received all they wanted from the Denver Cup, but Denver sure did.

The championship was DU’s sixth in the seven years of the tournament and may give a struggling Denver team a serious boost going into the second half.

"I think it, first of all, re-establishes that we are the kind of team we showed early in the year," Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said. "We’re the kind of team that should be in the race, at least in a battle for one of those top spots. Probably most importantly, it renews some confidence that we are a competitive team. I think our confidence was shaken quite a bit by the North Dakota series and by the Anchorage series. Both teams are good teams, but for us to come up 0-for, that bothered us quite a bit and stuck with us through that 12 or 13 days of Christmas break."

Was the 3-2 overtime win over Boston College in the championship meant to be? A vision Gwozdecky had seems to say so.

"I was just sitting in the back office during that intermission, trying to think of who was going to be the guys to make the plays," he said. "I was envisioning (Mark) Rycroft putting in a pass from (Paul) Comrie, not so much on an identical play like that. When you’re going to overtime, you’re never quite sure what the players are thinking about. I wanted to give them a little bit of a distraction from thinking their own thoughts. I just walked in and said, ‘I know who’s going to score the goal, I know who’s going to get the helper and I’ll tell you after we score that goal who it was and what my preminition was."

Fifty-six seconds into overtime, Rycroft buried a pass from Comrie for the winner. Wierd, huh?

That’s the kind of output Gwozdecky knows Comrie can provide.

"He has been a real serious candidate for Hobey Baker right through our last two weekends prior to Christmas," Gwozdecky said. "All of a sudden, we lose two against North Dakota, and he played pretty well there, and we go up to Anchorage and not only do we lose two, but he gets snuffed. At that point, people started to question the seriousness of Paul Comrie. If he can’t help us in two losses at Anchorage, is he really an bonafide candidate? I think he proved it against Lake Superior and especially in a very thrilling game against Boston College. When we needed a play to be made, he stepped forward and made the play."

The Pioneers will play their second and third-straight ranked opponents this weekend. Gwozdecky said he can’t think of anything wrong with that.

"I don’t think there is any negative aspect about being able to play a competitive non-conference schedule like we have," he said. "It’s only going to help us in many ways. Obviously, if we win, it’s going to help us more.

"To be able to have these teams on our schedule is not only going to make our players better, but it’s also going to help us in a lot of other ways that people don’t see up front," he said, listing strength of schedule rankings as one way.

Picks: Maine will be a tough task for the Pioneers, but I think they may be able to defeat a New Hampshire team which will surely be tired after a game in Colorado Springs the day before. Maine over DU, 4-2; DU over UNH, 5-3

Minnesota (7-9-2, 5-5-2 WCHA) vs. No. 7 Boston College (10-5-1, 6-3 Hockey East) Saturday-Sunday, 2:05 ET, Silvio O. Conte Forum, Boston

Finishing fourth in your own tournament is always tough, but it’s a little easier to take when you know you’ve been beaten by two good teams.

Such is the case for Minnesota after losing to Princeton and Ohio State in the Mariucci Classic.

"Princeton’s got a good team," Gophers coach Doug Woog said. "It’s very difficult to come in off not playing for four weeks and play a team of that caliber. We don’t like to lose, but (Boston University coach) Jack Parker thinks they’re the best team in the East. You’re playing somebody that’s pretty good."

Minnesota rallied from a 4-1 deficit to eventually see the game tied at 5 with less than a minute left. A Minnesota defenseman took a shot to win the game, but had it blocked and saw a two-on-one break go the other way. The Buckeyes scored with seven seconds left to win the game.

"We had pretty well dominated the last two-and-a-half periods and we still lost the game," Woog said. "It’s basically been defensive problems that have caused us the biggest anguish."

Now the Gophers have to take to the road to face Boston College, not an easy task in the slightest.

"We’ve got what I would probably argue is the toughest schedule in college hockey," Woog said. "We have some real tough games on the road. We’re fighting for third place in our league. That would be our hope. We have to score more, and whatever would generate our offense is what we’ve got to look at."

The defense is one area Woog would like to see improve. With Jordan Leopold — the team’s most effective defenseman, says Woog — with the U.S. Junior National team, the Gophers are a little shorthanded on the blue line.

"We’re pretty thin on defense and we’ve had someone either gone or hurt all the way through here," Woog said.

Still, there’s optimism that things will come together for the Gophers.

"We’re not that far away," Woog said. "When we play hard and play well, we’re pretty competitive. We have to work on being a little grittier and a little more intensified for 60 minutes. If we can do that, I have hopes we can climb or we’ll maintain ourselves."

Picks: It’s a good thing these games don’t count in the league because I don’t see Minnesota’s weakened defense holding down BC for two games. BC 4-3, 6-3

For more on Boston College, see Dave Hendrickson’s Hockey East Preview.

No. 1 North Dakota (12-1-1, 10-1-1 WCHA) vs. No. 9 Notre Dame (9-5-2, 7-5-1 CCHA) Saturday-Sunday, 7:35 CT, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.

Here’s the battle we’ve all been waiting for. It’s not the Huskies vs. the Huskies. It’s not the Mavericks vs. the Mavericks. It’s UND vs. UND, making life more difficult for reporters everywhere.

The Sioux worked their way into first place in the WCHA in their last action, sweeping Wisconsin on Dec. 11-12. Four first-period goals in the Friday game put the game, and pretty much the series out of reach. Peter Armbrust and Jay Panzer each had two goals in the series.

The sweep was the third consecutive for North Dakota, and gave them their sixth and seventh straight wins. They are off to their best start in 46 years with their 12-1-1 record, causing those in some circles to muse this team is even better than the one that claimed the NCAA title two years ago.

But there’s a long way to go before the Sioux get to that point. They have a series with Notre Dame, their first since 1981-82, before getting back to WCHA play.

Plus, it’ll be interesting to see what the long layoff will do to this team, which was rolling into the break. After a two-week break in mid-December last year, the Sioux reeled off eight straight wins and won 19 of the 22 regular season games after Christmas. A repeat performance this season wouldn’t be out of the question.

Jay Panzer (8-12–20) has a team-leading nine game scoring streak while Jeff Panzer (6-14–20) has an eight game streak. Jason Blake (8-15–23) still leads the Sioux in scoring.

Picks: It’s going to be tough to pick against North Dakota from now on. Sioux 5-2, 3-0

For more on the Irish, see Paula C. Weston’s CCHA Preview.

Wisconsin (5-10-2, 5-6-1 WCHA) vs. Nebraska-Omaha (2-16) Thursday, 6:35 CT, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.

What happens when you can’t seem to get a win? You start trying things.

Case in point: Wisconsin’s Badger Hockey Showdown consolation game against Cornell. New jersies, a defenseman playing forward, five defensemen instead of six, an extra forward. But it still didn’t work.

Well, keep trying.

"I think the changes worked pretty well," UW coach Jeff Sauer said. "Timmy Rothering got a goal. The weakness we had when we moved Timmy to forward is we’re playing with some inexperience on defense. I wanted to try it now and see if we could do it later on."

"It’s very evident we can’t score. Bottom line."

The bottom line for the Badgers is that they need a win over Nebraska-Omaha to get back on track.

"Right now, we have to come up with a roster that can win a hockey game," Sauer said. "I don’t care who we’re playing, we have to come up with it. The game New Year’s Eve now becomes important. We need to get a win. We haven’t had a win in a month."

And with this team, who knows what to expect on a game-to-game basis.

"With my team right now, I don’t expect. That’s a bad word," Sauer said. "I certainly expected to do better than we did," in the Showdown, a fourth-place finish.

Nebraska-Omaha, at 2-16, might be right up Wisconsin’s alley. After all, a win is a win in the records. But don’t count out the Mavericks. Coach Mike Kemp spent years at Wisconsin and knows Sauer’s systems.

Picks: Knowing that didn’t help Kemp last year and it probably won’t this year. UW 2-1, but it’s a tough one. Again.

St. Cloud State (7-8-1, 5-7 WCHA) vs. Minnesota State, Mankato (9-5-2) Saturday-Sunday, 7:35-7:05 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.

It’s been quite a while since St. Cloud State’s last game action — they tied Miami on Dec. 12 and haven’t been heard from since. And the break probably couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Huskies. After all, they were just starting to get something going.

A win and a tie at Miami followed a split with Colorado College on the road. Both games against Miami featured late Husky heroics. Jason Goulet scored two goals in the final 52 seconds to give St. Cloud a come-from-behind victory in the first game and Tyler Arnason tied the game with 18 seconds left to force the tie.

Goulet continues to lead the Huskies in scoring, tallying eight goals and 10 assists. Arnason is close behind with eight goals and eight assists.

Brandon Sampair, however, leads SCSU in goals with nine. He also has a 36 percent shooting percentage. The sophomore has a six game goal-scoring streak entering the series with Mankato.

Mankato actually leads the series between these teams, but that may be a bit misleading. The Mavericks have a 45-31-6 edge all-time, but since the teams have been in Division I, SCSU has won and tied the two games.

Picks: Mankato has played more recently, having competed in the Dartmouth Tournament, and that may help them. However, I think the Huskies will get back where they left off. SCSU 3-1, MSU-M 4-2

Silverado Shootout, hosted by Minnesota-Duluth Minnesota-Duluth (4-11-2, 2-8-2 WCHA) vs. Air Force (7-10-1) Saturday, 3:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn. Minnesota-Duluth vs. Army (7-7) or UMass-Lowell (6-9, 4-7 Hockey East) Consolation Game/Championship Game, 11:05 a.m. or 3:05 p.m. CT

Tournament hockey returns to the DECC this weekend for the first time since the Jeno’s/UMD Holiday Classic in 1983 as the Bulldogs host the first Silverado Shootout.

And for Minnesota-Duluth, it will be the second tournament in which they’ve competed in a week. The Bulldogs took home the second-place trophy from the Marine Midland Bank Holiday Tournament after a 4-1 setback to Rensselaer on Tuesday in the championship game.

Despite outshooting the Engineers 51-21, the Bulldogs could only muster a goal by sophomore Derek Derow as the hosts took home the trophy.

UMD defeated Union, 4-2, the previous night to get to the final. Mark Gunderson and Shawn Pogreba each collected a goal and an assist.

"We were sloppy," UMD coach Mike Sertich said after the win. "The layoff really hurt. The first period was okay but [Union] made adjustments and we weren’t very good with the puck. But we won and I guess that’s the main thing."

Duluth drew Air Force in the first round of the Shootout, but there isn’t a whole lot of history to discuss between these teams. UMD holds a 2-0 advantage in the series, but those games took place in 1972 and 1982.

One thing to watch from the Bulldogs in this tournament is how they react to playing at home. In their seven games at the DECC this season, they are 0-6-1 and have scored just 10 goals (one goal in six of the seven games, four in the other).

Junior center Jeff Scissons had his five-game point scoring streak broken in the loss to Rensselaer. He still leads the team, however, with nine goals and eight assists.

One part of the Bulldogs’ team that is looking up is the penalty killing. In its last eight games, UMD has allowed only one power-play goal, that coming Tuesday against RPI.

Picks: Army gets past Mass-Lowell, 4-1 and Duluth takes Air Force 3-2 in the first round. Air Force squaks past Mass-Lowell in the consolation game, 2-1, and Army takes out the hosts, 4-2, to claim the title.

For more on UMass-Lowell, check out Dave Hendrickson’s Hockey East Preview.

Upcoming schedule

The conference schedule resumes next weekend with a full compliment of four WCHA series and one non-conference set. Here’s the lineup:

Alaska-Anchorage at Michigan Tech, Friday-Saturday Colorado College at St. Cloud State, Friday-Saturday Minnesota-Duluth at Wisconsin, Friday-Saturday Minnesota at Denver, Saturday-Sunday North Dakota at Minnesota State, Mankato

Thanks to USCHO ECAC Correspondent Jayson Moy for his help in this report.