Does the winner of this weekend’s battle between first-place North Dakota and second-place Colorado College have the MacNaughton Cup in hand? Well, no. But if either team should happen to sweep the series, they will hold the upper hand over the other.
And that is especially true for the Sioux. Already with two games in hand on the rest of the league, UND is one point up on CC. If coach Dean Blais’ team gets two wins, they will have a nearly-insurmountable five point lead on the Tigers.
If the Tigers ride the home-ice advantage to a pair of victories, they will have a three-point lead, but will still trail by one in the loss column because of the difference in games played. But CC would hold the tiebreaker, having won three of the four games played this season.
What does all this mean? Well, for one, UND is in good shape no matter what. But, really, this is it. We all know CC and North Dakota are the top two teams in the conference and they, barring one of them forfeiting a good number of their remaining games, will finish 1-2 in the standings.
This may be the big time, but this is by no reason the last straw. After this weekend, there are still six (or seven) series remaining. In other words, a lot of time for maneuvering.
Speaking of maneuvering, there’s the rest of the league. Oh yeah, those guys, you may be saying. The real battle down the stretch may be for third place, and Wisconsin (currently third) and Alaska-Anchorage (fourth) duke it out for that position this weekend.
But we all know what score we’re going to be looking for this weekend…
No. 1 NORTH DAKOTA (15-2-1, 10-1-1 WCHA: 1st) vs. No. 7 COLORADO COLLEGE (15-6-1, 10-4 WCHA: 2nd) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.
ON THE SIOUX: For North Dakota from here on, the road doesn’t bend too much. 16 games to go, all of them in the WCHA. The Sioux finished their non-conference season last weekend with 5-4 and 5-2 victories over Minnesota State, Mankato. In their six non-conference games this season, they went 5-1.
But the injury bug seems to have hit the Sioux. Paul Murphy and Aaron Schneekloth are both out.
"It sounds like Colorado is short of forwards and we’re short of defensemen," Blais said. "We’ve got forwards that are playing defense and they had to move a couple defensemen up to play forward. So it could be a weird weekend."
And who knows about goaltender Andy Kollar, who missed last weekend’s series after a concussion the week earlier.
Of course, when Karl Goehring is your other goaltender, there’s not too much of a problem. He made 26 saves Friday and 38 stops on Saturday. The 5-foot-7, 150-pound Apple Valley, Minn., native extended his winning streak to six games and his record to 11-1-1 this season.
Blais said he believes Goehring will start Friday night and then they will make the decision on Saturday’s starter.
Team scoring leader Jason Blake (12-22–34) tallied four points in Saturday’s game, with three assists to go along with a goal. He also had a shorthanded goal on Friday. Blake has a five-game scoring streak and has been on the score sheet in 15 of 16 games this season.
There are so many streaks to deal with on the Sioux roster, there is a section of UND’s weekly release titled "The Streaks." Some of those include: Jay Panzer’s 13-game point streak; Jeff Panzer’s 12-game point streak; Brad Williamson’s four-game assist streak; and Blake and Lee Goren’s two-game goal scoring streaks.
Here’s another string to remember: The Sioux are undefeated (7-0-1) on the road this season.
ON THE TIGERS: Colorado College coach Don Lucia might just tell Blais, "you’ve got your troubles, I’ve got mine." It’s not bad enough that K.J. Voorhees and Toby Petersen are still out, now two more forwards have gone down.
Junior right wing Berk Nelson will miss this weekend’s game with a knee sprain and freshman forward Chris Hartsburg is out with a separated shoulder.
"Basically, we have four of our 12 forwards that won’t be in our lineup this weekend, including three of our top nine," Lucia said. "But that’s life. You can’t worry about the guys you don’t have, you have to worry about the guys you do have."
The Tigers participated in a pair of shutouts at St. Cloud State last weekend. On Friday night, CC scored three goals in the first period, en route to a 4-0 victory. Jeff Sanger made 28 saves for his first collegiate shutout.
But on Saturday, the scoring just wasn’t there. One goal was all the Huskies got, and it was all they would need. Despite outshooting SCSU 41-31, the Tigers fell, 1-0.
Allowing one goal on the weekend was just what Lucia was looking for in his defense. It’s just unfortunate the goals couldn’t come in the second game.
"What we wanted to do going into St. Cloud is play well defensively, that was our goal," Lucia said. "Giving up one goal on the weekend, I thought we played extremely well. Jeff Sanger was great. If we can do that from here on, we’re going to be a good hockey team when we get people back and healthy."
But questions have to be brought up concerning the Tigers’ ability to win when Brian Swanson (18-26–44) doesn’t score. He and linemate Darren Clark each netted a goal in Friday’s game, but the Huskies, following their game plan, shut down the top line Saturday.
THE MATCHUP: The teams split their earlier meeting, in Grand Forks. CC defeated the Sioux, 5-4 the first night before falling, 5-4 in overtime the next night. Now that’s an even series.
Both teams appear to be ready for the other’s best.
"They’ll be ready to play for us," Blais said. "We’ve had a tough time out there. They’re a good hockey team and playing in front of a sold-out building will definitely give them some motivation. I don’t care if they’ve got forwards that are hurt, they still have a good lineup."
Lucia is concerned about North Dakota’s depth, and has split up a couple lines to get some speed deeper in his lineup.
"We know that one of North Dakota’s strengths is their balance up front," Lucia said. "We know that Blake and Panzer are great players, but you can’t overload a couple guys. What we’ve had to do is take (Jesse) Heerema off Brian (Swanson)’s line, we’re taking Johnny (Austin) off (Mark) Cullen’s line and putting them together for a third line. You have to have speed for every line. If you don’t have speed on every line, North Dakota will eat you up."
The CC leader also wants to see that defensive effort continue.
"We know going into this weekend that we can’t outscore North Dakota," Lucia said. "What we have to do is out-defend them."
Lucia said he would be happy coming away with a split on home ice. That’s what North Dakota will do to a team, even one as good as CC.
PICKS: Colorado College 4-3; North Dakota 3-1.
WISCONSIN (8-10-2, 7-6-1 WCHA: 3rd) vs. ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (9-9-2, 6-6-2 WCHA: 4th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, Alaska
ON THE BADGERS: A weekend sweep of Minnesota-Duluth won’t do too much to silence Wisconsin’s critics, and Jeff Sauer knows it. Neither will the fact that the teams the Badgers have built their three-game winning streak against — Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha — have a combined seven wins.
"We’ve got a lot of work to do in certain areas," Sauer said after Saturday’s 5-2 victory. "Our biggest problem this weekend on our power play, even though we didn’t have a lot of power plays, was that we never got it in the zone to get it set up. Guys are trying to do too much."
But, despite the competition, the thing that has been going well of late has been the scoring. Yes, that’s right, the scoring. After going 17 games without scoring more than three goals, UW has done it in each of its last three.
"I think the team learned if you move the puck, let it do the work for you, you can get some opportunities," Sauer said.
Wisconsin freshmen were the catalyst last weekend. The class accounted for 55 percent of the team’s scoring. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when so many get their chances because of injuries. Four Badgers remain out with various problems.
With two goals last weekend, junior center Steve Reinprecht reached 10 on the season. His closest teammate is defenseman Jeff Dessner, who has five.
Sauer knows his team needs to consistently play at the level it did against Duluth.
"The next step is to be consistent," he said. "We can’t afford to go and drop three or four games in a row. We’re not going to win the rest of our games — I don’t think there’s a team in college hockey right now that’s going to win the rest of its games this year. We have to build on this offensively."
ON THE SEAWOLVES: That is not a misprint in the summary of the Alaska-Anchorage vs. Michigan Tech game last Saturday night. The Seawolves indeed took more penalties (5) than their opponent (4). And yes, Tech was 3-for-5 on the power play. All this contributed to a 4-3 overtime loss for Anchorage.
"It was a funny game," UAA coach Dean Talafous said. "It wasn’t an unbelievable amount (of penalties), but more than we normally take. It’s difficult because every team is good in this league and if you’re not sharp, you’re not going to have success. It’s not that we didn’t play hard, but I thought whether it was taking some lazy penalties or whether it was just a lack of concentration, there’s no excuses. You can’t blame it on the four weeks off. But for whatever reason, I didn’t feel mentally we were sharp."
But the Seawolves still managed to grab two points on the road. Not too bad, after all.
"I think we’re pleased now that we look back and we realize we had a month off, Michigan Tech played very well, being on the road, being a young team, all things considered, two points on the road is two points on the road," Talafous said. "We’ve got to be better this weekend, but we learned a lot and managed to pick up a couple points."
Last weekend’s offensive star for UAA was Klage Kaebel. He scored three goals, giving him his most productive collegiate weekend. In fact, the weekend doubled his conference goal total to six, good for second on the team.
In its last eight games, Anchorage has outscored its opponents, 21-10. Over that stretch, UAA is 6-1-1.
Freshman center Steve Cygan scored his fourth game-winning goal last Friday. That gives him more career game-winners than anyone else on the Seawolf roster.
THE MATCHUP: This series has never been kind to the Seawolves, although they managed a tie earlier this season in Madison. Anchorage is 0-10-3 in its last 13 against the Badgers and 2-16-4 all-time.
If you want the bright side, those two wins took place in Anchorage, the site of this weekend’s series.
But Talafous said he thinks his team may be on more even footing with the Badgers now.
"We’d like to think so, but you have to prove it on the rink," he said. "I think they certainly still have a big edge on size and talent, but I feel our kids are learning how to compete at this level and gaining some confidence. All of that has allowed us to have some success in the first half. But we’re not fooling ourselves. We still have some major steps to take. We’d like to think we’re closing the gap. This weekend will tell us something new."
PICKS: Wisconsin 5-3; Alaska-Anchorage 4-3.
DENVER (11-8-1, 6-7-1 WCHA: T-5th) vs. MINNESOTA-DULUTH (5-15-2, 2-10-2 WCHA: 9th) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn.
ON THE PIONEERS: Denver took three points at home (if you can call the Colorado Springs World Arena and McNichols Arena that) from Minnesota last weekend, but forgive DU coach George Gwozdecky if he still has some things he’d like to fix.
"I still remain concerned about the inconsistency of our play from one game to another on the weekends," he said. "That’s something that has been getting a little bit better since we came back from our Christmas break. We were two different teams when you look at the games Saturday and Sunday. We played better on Sunday and that’s the kind of team, the kind of execution and style I expect our team needs to play with."
The Pioneers and Gophers battled to a 3-3 tie on Saturday in a game, honestly, Minnesota probably should have won. But Denver came back on Sunday to throttle Minnesota, 5-0. Stephen Wagner made 32 saves to collect his third shutout of the season. He leads WCHA goaltenders in that category. As a matter of fact, he’s the first DU netminder to have three shutouts in a season since Gerry Powers collected five in 1968-69.
Junior Jon Newman broke a seven-game scoreless skid with two goals Saturday and another Sunday. Gwozdecky said he’s been expected that kind of performance out of Newman for a while now.
"I think he was in the right spot at the right time on a couple occasions this weekend," Gwozdecky said. "He’s been playing on a line with two guys that have been having very good years — Bjorn Engstrom and Gavin Morgan. I’ve been waiting for the third part of that line to start to lend a little bit more offense to that line because, of the three, Jon Newman is the most gifted offensively.
"Yet he’s been a little bit quiet. We were pleased to see that he was able to contribute a little bit offensively to a line that is more of a defensive line. He’s got a real good knack for developing offense and scoring goals and we sure hope this is just a sign of things to come."
The Pioneers bring a three-game unbeaten streak into this weekend’s play, and are 4-1-1 since Christmas.
ON THE BULLDOGS: Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Brant Nicklin didn’t exactly have the best weekend against Wisconsin in the Bulldogs’ last action, but that’s not really what concerned coach Mike Sertich.
"It wasn’t just the goaltending," Sertich told Adam Mertz of The Capital Times after his team’s 5-2 loss last Saturday. "They made us look like we didn’t belong. That frustrates me."
Wisconsin scored three quick goals to take command in the game.
"I don’t know how to address this," Sertich said. "They had no concentration, no intensity and no focus at the beginning and before we knew it, we were three down. Athletes are supposed to come prepared and show up with intensity, and tonight it didn’t happen.
Now, the length of time the Bulldogs have to turn their season around is becoming shorter and shorter.
"There’s 14 more games to play and not a lot of time," Sertich said. "Certainly we realize the importance of each weekend now. We’ve dug ourselves quite a hole. We also have to understand that every team but two has a losing record. In the loss column, there’s not a large separation between third and ninth."
Duluth now enters a period of time when they will have nine of their next 12 games at home. Of course, when you’ve only won one game at home this season, what kind of advantage is that?
Nicklin was pulled after 20 minutes Saturday night, marking the earliest exit in his collegiate career.
THE MATCHUP: When it comes down to numbers, Denver has not had a lot of success at the DECC, and Gwozdecky had trouble coming up with a reason why.
DU has lost five straight in Duluth, not having won since December 1993. Gwozdecky is 0-4 at the DECC.
"Duluth has played well up there against us," the Denver coach said. "They’ve got some really strong goaltending. We, on the other hand for whatever reason, have not played well. We’ve got a little bit of a different team now; our team is different than it was two years ago. We’re a bigger team, we’re a physical team. I think we enjoy playing on the more-confining spaces, the smaller ice surfaces. I would like to think our game is more fitted to an ice surface like Duluth as opposed to a few years ago when we were more wide open."
PICKS: Denver 5-2; 3-1.
ST. CLOUD STATE (10-9-1, 6-8 WCHA: 7th) vs. MICHIGAN TECH (5-14-1, 5-9 WCHA: 8th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, Mich.
ON ST. CLOUD STATE: Does St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl feel fortunate that his team only scored one goal against Colorado College last weekend and still grabbed two points? Duh.
"Against a team like CC? Yeah," he said. But Dahl also noted that the last five periods of the series were even. CC scored three goals in Friday’s first period and only managed one thereafter, as did the Huskies.
Dean Weasler followed up a game where he was pulled after allowing three goals on 13 shots by making 41 saves for his first collegiate shutout. Dahl said 18 of his saves were on shots from the slot.
"Weasler was really good, he came back after a rough outing and really did a nice job," Dahl said.
Sophomore Keith Anderson scored the Huskies only goal of the weekend, a first-period power-play goal Saturday night. It was his first goal of the season. Tyler Arnason picked up his 10th assist of the season on the play.
Jason Goulet leads SCSU with 21 points this season. He also leads the Huskies with four game-winning goals. Brandon Sampair, however, holds the team lead with 10 goals. He also has three shorthanded goals to lead the team.
ON MICHIGAN TECH: Michigan Tech’s 4-3 overtime victory over Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday just may have been essential if the Huskies plan on making anything out of their second half. It not only ended a seven-game winless streak, it was the team’s first win of the season at home.
"It was very important that we were able to get the lead and be able to hang onto it and get the win on Saturday night," Tech coach Tim Watters said. "I believe it’s a big confidence builder for our hockey club and it comes at a time when it was sorely needed, at home."
The Huskies’ four goals in that game equaled a season high, something Watters attributed to simply putting the puck on net.
"I think, overall, we made more attempts at the opposition’s net," he said. "That’s what we’ve been looking for as a staff, and it was nice to see the results this weekend."
MTU put a season-high 32 shots on goal Saturday night as 10 different players figured into the scoring, also a season best.
Brad Mueller had two goals and an assist against the Seawolves. That includes the game-winning goal Saturday.
THE MATCHUP: Tech surprised St. Cloud earlier this season by sweeping them at the National Hockey Center, so obviously SCSU has payback in mind. Dahl said the goaltending will play a big role in the series.
"I think it’s going to make a huge difference in the series because their goaltender played so darn well against us the first time we played them and really shut the door on us," Dahl said. "Obviously, our goaltender will have to play well, as they always do. I think the key to the series is going to be goaltending."
MTU goaltender David Weninger backstopped his team to 3-1 and 3-2 wins earlier this season.
Watters said his team is going to have to go at St. Cloud State with everything it has.
"Our whole team has to be prepared to play against everybody on that team," Watters said. "We’re the type of team that we can’t take any shifts off. If we’re prepared to play that way for a full 60 minutes on each given night, we feel that we could have some success."
PICKS: St. Cloud State 5-2; tie 3-3.
MINNESOTA STATE, MANKATO (9-9-2) vs. MINNESOTA (7-11-4, 5-6-3 WCHA: T-5th) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis
ON THE MAVERICKS: Minnesota State, Mankato is in the middle of an eight-game stretch against WCHA teams. So far this season, they are 2-6 against conference teams.
The Mavericks’ only victories over WCHA opponents this season came against Anchorage early in the season. They have been swept by Colorado College, St. Cloud State and North Dakota.
ON THE GOPHERS: One night after playing what some called its best game in a long time, Minnesota came out flat and Denver pounced on them, winning 5-0. But that has been just a part of the problem Doug Woog’s team has faced.
"It wasn’t like we got blown out territorially," Woog said. "We had many more good opportunities the first night and didn’t score a lick. We played extremely well against Boston College the second day and should have won that game, should have won the (first) Denver game. We should have been going in there with back-to-back victories, instead we were playing off two ties when we had dominated the games. Nobody expected that to happen on Sunday, not by the way we played on Saturday, not by the way we played the previous Sunday."
When a team should probably win a game but only comes away with a tie, it begins to wear on them.
"In Denver, over those 120 minutes, we probably got outplayed for 15," Woog said. "We’ve played the best teams and we can play right with them. It’s just we’ve only beaten Michigan State. We have to turn that around."
One of the Gophers’ troubles has been finishing chances. They had a number of opportunities last Saturday, but couldn’t capitalize.
"We’re getting chances. At this point, we’ve got to score a little bit more based upon our opportunities," Woog said. "We are generating opportunities on a consistent basis. Normally, if we played as well as we did the last three games, we’d be 2-1. You just have to regroup and keep going."
Reggie Berg is one of those players who is getting his chances. He has 38 shots in his last eight games but he hasn’t scored in that time. He is still second on the team in scoring, though, with 7 goals and 15 assists for 22 points.
THE MATCHUP: The Gophers lead the Minnesota rivalry, 2-0, but Woog said this weekend will be interesting.
"This is kind of a pressure weekend because they’re a much better team than their record and they’re going to come here all juiced up," he said. "They’ve dominated a lot of the teams they’ve played, territorially, shot-wise. If we don’t score any goals this weekend then we’re really going to be concerned."
PICKS: Minnesota 4-3; 4-3
UPCOMING GAMES We’ll know a little more about the top of this conference at the end of the weekend, but the race for third will take a little longer to figure out:
Michigan Tech at Colorado College, Friday-Saturday Minnesota-Duluth at St. Cloud State, Friday-Saturday Minnesota at North Dakota, Friday-Saturday Alaska-Anchorage at Denver, Saturday-Sunday Minnesota State, Mankato at Wisconsin, Saturday-Sunday