The Western Collegiate Hockey Association may not have as many ranked teams as other leagues, but there’s probably a good reason for that. Other than No. 1 North Dakota, everyone is defeating everyone else.
Ninth-place Minnesota-Duluth earns a split with Denver, and comes darn close to getting four points on the weekend.
The former eighth-place Michigan Tech Huskies, who had been having its share of bad luck on home ice, completes a sweep of St. Cloud State. Not just a series sweep, mind you, but a season sweep. The result: MTU is now in sixth place, a point out of fourth and four out of third.
Alaska-Anchorage, long considered an easy sweep for WCHA teams, emerges from last year’s last-place shadow to assert its claim to third place last weekend with a home sweep of Wisconsin. UAA had not beaten the Badgers in its previous 12 games.
Maybe that’s why this league is still up for grabs. Well, maybe except for that first-place spot. You might as well call FedEx to get the packing materials and address label for the MacNaughton Cup. Just send it to Grand Forks, N.D. — they’ll know who to get it to.
With a road sweep of Colorado College, North Dakota opened up a five-point lead on the rest of the league, and that’s still with two games in hand. If the Sioux keep winning, they could have a double-digit lead in points by the end of the season.
Can you say three-peat? UND should become only the second team to complete the trio of regular-season championships.
But there are still seven weekends of hockey remaining in the regular season, and, after all, who knows what else could happen? Except, of course, more bad picks.
ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (11-9-2, 8-6-2 WCHA: 3rd) at DENVER (12-9-1, 7-8-1 WCHA: T-4th) Saturday-Sunday, 7:05 MT, McNichols Arena, Denver, Colo.
ON THE SEAWOLVES: When you can hold a team to two goals on a weekend — no matter who the team is — you have to be pleased. When that equates to four points, it’s even better. Alaska-Anchorage coach Dean Talafous saw his team go all out for a pair of home wins over Wisconsin last weekend, 3-1 and 2-1.
"It was a pretty consistent effort by everybody," Talafous said. "We worked really hard for the six periods. There were times things didn’t go our way, but all you can ask is for kids to do their best and that’s what we did."
One key to the wins was the play of goaltender Gregg Naumenko. But what else is new? The freshman has a 2.00 goals-against average in conference games, tops in the conference. Over his last nine games, he is 7-1-1 with a 1.32 GAA and a .952 save percentage. In that span, he has allowed one goal in all but one game.
Naumenko, in Talafous’ estimation, made one spectacular save on the weekend, but it came when it counted — to preserve the win late in Saturday’s game.
"He made one of those saves where you go, ‘wow, how did he make that?’" Talafous said. "The rest of them were very good saves, but something very common you see in the WCHA is good goaltending. He gave us very good goaltending and with that one save, he gave us spectacular goaltending."
One of the things that separates this Seawolves team from the one which won six games all of last season is the total package. There has always been the defensive presence which has frustrated any number of WCHA coaches, but now, there’s some scoring punch. While you still won’t find any of the Seawolves among the conference scoring leaders — or on the top 25 list, for that matter — the gap is tightening.
"You need everything to win in this league," Talafous said. "The big thing is you need the right people in the dressing room that will listen and work and have some talent and discipline. We still probably have the least talent in the league but we’ve closed the gap some. It’s not as wide where, before, we could do everything right and still didn’t have enough talent to win. Now, if we do everything right, it gives us more of a chance to win because our talent’s a little better. With the better talent and better attitude, we’ve been able to play more aggressive on the offensive end."
Take the scoring numbers this season as an example. They have scored 54 goals this season, compared with 59 all of last season, the nation’s worst. Even the power play is improving. Whereas the Seawolves couldn’t buy a power-play goal earlier in the season, they have scored with the man advantage in two of their last three games and twice in their last 10 chances.
ON THE PIONEERS: Coaches will generally take two points on the road and be happy. Denver coach George Gwozdecky will take the two points his team earned last weekend against Minnesota-Duluth and be ecstatic.
"We would have liked to have more points from last weekend, maybe more success," Gwozdecky said. "But at the same point in time, they pushed us right to the brink both games. Both games were tied in the third period and we did not play poorly by any stretch of the imagination. After Saturday night I was thankful we got out of there with two points."
The 4-2 victory last Saturday followed a 4-3 loss the previous evening and broke a five-game road losing streak. With the way things are going in the WCHA, even a modest four games can improve your situation.
"The funny thing is, nobody has really had any sort of consistency," Gwozdecky said. "You take a look at how jumbled up the league is right now and we’re 2-1-1 over the last two weekends and we have been climbing. It just makes every weekend left even more important. With Anchorage here this weekend, this is like a playoff series."
Senior center Paul Comrie netted two goals on Friday and two assists Saturday to add to his team-leading point total. He now has 12 goals and 20 assists for 32 points this season. The multiple-point games last weekend were the 40th and 41st of his collegiate career and his multi-goal game last Friday was the 15th time that has happened.
Yet, does Comrie get the kind of respect he deserves? Sure, it’s more difficult when you’re in the same league as Brian Swanson and Jason Blake, but Comrie is tied for third in the league in scoring. Gwozdecky said the respect has been coming this season largely because of his participation on the WCHA all-star team that went to Europe this summer.
"I think he gained a lot more respect from not only his teammates but from the staff that went with him," Gwozdecky said. "Obviously, this year there have been weekends and games where he has been outstanding — most recently probably Saturday night against Duluth and the overtime game in the Denver Cup against Boston College where he assisted on three of the four goals.
"He is probably the most talented player on the ice. He has been much more consistent this year with what he is doing on the ice than he ever has been in the past. As a result, he’s allowing his talent to show. He hasn’t put up the numbers in the past that Blake and Swanson have, but he’s in the top five in scoring in the league this year. I think these next two months are the most important months for Jason Blake, for Brian Swanson and for Paul Comrie as far as teams and their own individual accolades. This is the time period where these guys really have to step forward because if someone starts to fizzle at this time of year, no one is going to remember what kind of October, November and December they had."
THE MATCHUP: Each of these teams knows it’s going to take its best effort to emerge victorious.
"We’re going to have to play at our best in order to give ourselves the best chance to win because Anchorage is a damn good team," Gwozdecky said. "They are not the Anchorage of the last two or three years."
Talafous understands that, since the Seawolves swept the Pioneers in Anchorage earlier this season, Denver will be ready for redemption.
"They’re probably very upset that they lost two games up here," Talafous said. "Going into their building, they’re playing well, they’re talented and they probably want to send a message back to us. So this is not going to be a friendly place to go to, and we realize that.
"We’re not afraid to lose, that’s not the attitude we have. What we’re concerned about is that we play our game. If it’s not good enough, we can deal with that."
PICKS: Alaska-Anchorage 3-2; Denver 4-1
MINNESOTA (7-11-6, 5-6-3 WCHA: 7th) at No. 1 NORTH DAKOTA (17-2-1, 12-1-1 WCHA: 1st) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.
ON THE GOPHERS: How many more ties can Minnesota endure?
"How many games do we have left?" Golden Gophers coach Doug Woog said. "(Of the 14 left) we can tie at least seven."
All jokes aside, Woog’s team has tied four of its last five games, including both ends of a home series with Minnesota State, Mankato last weekend. The Gophers had to rally from a 6-2 deficit to earn a tie on Friday while they let a 2-1 lead slip away on Saturday. Woog said his team probably could have won both nights.
"We had many chances to tie that game before we had to pull our goalie," Woog said of Friday’s game, when Minnesota evened the score with its netminder out. "We had 15 good chances in that (third) period. Then, we had an open net the second night, we took the winning shot, it hit the pipe and then they came down and tied us.
"Neither one of them felt real good because we were expecting to beat them, although the team is better than most people think. We didn’t feel really good about ourself on Friday. Coming back for a tie was OK but it wasn’t good. To be down that much was the worst part."
The Gophers now have a total of six ties on the season, two away from the team record set in 1992-93. They finished that season with a 22-12-8 record. Plus, 10 of this year’s last 14 games have been a tie, a one-goal game or a two-goal game with an empty-netter.
Erik Westrum has three goals and eight assists in his last seven games, but Woog said that’s not an indication of his team’s overall performance.
"We don’t score very well," he said. "We’re probably outshooting opponents by 8 to 10 shots a game and that gives you an indication that we’re not very good scorers. We don’t generate very much offense from our defensemen, we don’t have a lot of goal scorers."
Wyatt Smith leads the team with 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists). Reggie Berg is next with 24 points (7 goals, 17 assists), but he has not scored in his last 10 games. He leads the team, though, with 50 shots on goal in that span. Yet another indication that the shots just aren’t finding their marks for the Gophers.
ON THE SIOUX: Despite occupying the WCHA driver’s seat, North Dakota coach Dean Blais is still a little cautious.
"No question, the sweep gives us a huge advantage. Those are points no one will take away," he told Gregg Wong of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "But we haven’t forgotten last year, when we wrapped it up early and then didn’t improve over the last month. In fact, we might have gotten a little worse. We lost our intensity or whatever. It seemed to drain us."
The Sioux took a pair of games last weekend at Colorado College to open up the lead with still a couple games in hand. Blais doesn’t think there’s going to be a letup this season.
"I don’t think that will happen this year," he said. "Right now, our guys think they can’t lose. They have an attitude that they’re not going to let up, no matter what."
Which should make any of the Sioux future opponents a little concerned. Just for the sake of knowledge, those opponents are: Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan Tech, Denver, Alaska-Anchorage, Wisconsin and St. Cloud State. Come to think of it, the Sioux gets a shot at everyone except the Tigers from here on.
Defenseman Aaron Schneekloth got on the scoring sheet for the first time this season with a pair of third-period goals against CC last Friday, a part of the comeback that gave UND a 5-4 win. Those goals, incidentally, came just 32 seconds apart.
Here’s something for those who think Jason Blake is the entire Sioux team: He didn’t score a point last weekend and they still swept. He still leads UND with 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists).
THE MATCHUP: Woog said this matchup will be a test for his team to get out of its doldrums.
"It’s electric shock treatment," he said. "You’re either going to come out of it there or you’re going to wait and have to come out of it sometime later."
How does a team beat the Sioux? Not many have found out this season, but Woog said the Gophers’ game plan will be to forecheck, forecheck, forecheck.
"I think we have to forecheck because if we don’t forecheck, we play in our end," he said. "You have to play a little bit like a stop light — be aggressive in the offensive zone, be a little cautious in the neutral zone and come back and play smart in your own end, make sure you cover guys."
PICKS: North Dakota 5-2; 4-3
MICHIGAN TECH (7-14-1, 7-9 WCHA: 6th) at No. 7 COLORADO COLLEGE (15-8-1, 10-6-1 WCHA: 2nd) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.
ON THE HUSKIES: Michigan Tech, which had been dormant for the first part of the season, has suddenly come alive the last two weekends and are now on a three-game winning streak.
But before the Huskies can get too high on themselves, here comes another huge test: a series at Colorado College.
"We’ll have to be on top of our game to be successful against Colorado College," Tech coach Tim Watters said. "We have built some momentum and we’ll look to keep it going."
One player who will look to keep the momentum going is Riley Nelson. The junior center had a goal and four assists last weekend for his best series of the season.
Possibly the most impressive performance of the weekend, however, came from goaltender David Weninger. He stopped 69 of the 73 shots that came his way against SCSU. Weninger is fourth in the WCHA with a 2.63 goals-against average.
Junior Devin Hartnell got into the action with two goals Friday night. He now has a four game point-scoring streak, with four goals and three assists in that time.
ON THE TIGERS: In stark contrast to the Huskies’ three-game winning streak, Colorado College is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, its longest of the season.
Two of those games were costly home losses to North Dakota. Losing a two-goal lead in Friday night’s game was certainly a factor in coming out flat in Saturday’s game.
"We didn’t give ourselves a chance," CC coach Don Lucia told Tim Bergsten of the Colorado Springs Gazette after Saturday’s game. "We didn’t have the energy after last night. I think we were emotionally and physically down."
The Tigers are going to have to pull it together quickly, as they now find themselves closely followed by charging Alaska-Anchorage. The Tigers only have a two-point lead for second place.
Of course, early-year blues are nothing new to the Tigers. Last season, they opened 1998 with a 4-6-1 record before going on a nine-game winning streak. This year, they are 1-4-1.
But here’s the good news for CC: There is a possibility Toby Petersen will be able to play one game against Tech. Plus, Chris Hartsburg could return from an injury.
THE MATCHUP: Tech is hot, but the return of a couple players could be a big spark for CC.
PICKS: Colorado College 4-2; 3-2
ST. CLOUD STATE (10-11-1, 6-10 WCHA: 8th) vs. MINNESOTA-DULUTH (6-16-2, 3-11-2 WCHA: 9th) Friday, 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn. Saturday, 7:35 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.
ON THE HUSKIES: Even the most hardened journalist would feel sorry for St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl. The guy has been forced to endure a season of ups and downs and it sounds like he still can’t get a break.
His team outshot Michigan Tech last weekend, 37-23 and 36-17, but still lost both games. In fact, his team lost all four games against the other Huskies this season.
To make things just that much worse, leading scorer Jason Goulet (9-12–21) suffered a medial collateral knee injury in Houghton and will miss the next six weeks. That leaves the team with 10 forwards. Period. That’s it. The defense isn’t much better. There, Dahl has only six left.
Dahl said, however, that the team still is in good spirits.
"All those things kind of add up, but our spirit is good, our work ethic is good," Dahl said. "We deserved a better fate but we didn’t get it. As long as my kids work hard, their spirit’s good, their attitude’s good, their morale’s good, I guess I’ll have to take whatever comes."
But that wasn’t exactly the case earlier in the week. After the loss on Saturday, Dahl said the team was pretty down on itself.
"They played hard all the way to the end, but Monday they were really down," he said. "I had to have a really long session with them (Tuesday) and point out all the good things."
To add on to the list of concerns, just mention the Huskies’ power play. They were 0 for 8 in the series with Tech and have scored just one power play goal in 18 chances over the last four games. Dahl was seemingly at a loss for words in describing the problem.
"We have tried so many different power plays," he said. "We don’t get a darn break. I thought it was going pretty good there just before Christmas and the first week after. Now the last four games, it’s been dead."
ON THE BULLDOGS: Minnesota-Duluth’s play last weekend left Denver coach George Gwozdecky just happy to have two points. So why is Duluth in last place?
A couple bounces will do things like that to a team. But following a weekend which saw them come up empty-handed against Wisconsin, UMD players said Friday’s win was deserved.
"We should have won last weekend," Shawn Pogreba said after Friday’s game. "It’s frustrating when the team can play good, create opportunities, and then get nothing in return. I guess that’s hockey. We were fired up in the locker room before the game, and everyone had a good feeling about tonight’s game."
Junior center Jeff Scissons leads the Bulldogs with 12 goals, including seven on the power play. He adds nine assists for a total of 21 points.
One of the keys for Duluth is to get on the scoreboard first. They have only done so in seven of their games this season, but have won five of those. Of course, they’ve also only held a lead in nine games this season.
THE MATCHUP: Duluth lost both ends of the previous home-and-home series, but they have improved significantly since then.
PICKS: Minnesota-Duluth 4-3; St. Cloud State 3-2
MINNESOTA STATE, MANKATO (9-9-4) at WISCONSIN (8-12-2, 7-8-1 WCHA: T-4th) Saturday-Sunday, 7:35 CT, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
ON THE MAVERICKS: One week removed from a pair of ties at Minnesota, Minnesota State, Mankato brings its pre-conference tour to Madison for a pair against Wisconsin.
Junior center Aaron Fox leads the Mavericks with 27 points on 12 goals and 15 assists. Senior center Rob White also has 12 goals and senior winger Tyler Deis has 11. Obviously, there is no shortage of scoring punch on this team. MSU has a total of 11 players in double figures in points this season.
Deis said this season is about learning for the future.
"We’re ready with our talent and hard work as a group," Deis told Rachel Blount of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "What we lack is that we don’t always play smart hockey. That will come. This is a learning year, and we’re realizing a lot of things along the way that are going to help next season."
The Mavericks are 2-6-2 against WCHA teams this season, sweeping Anchorage early before falling to Colorado College, St. Cloud State and North Dakota.
ON THE BADGERS: After taking a step forward, Wisconsin took a giant step backwards last weekend in falling twice to Alaska-Anchorage. Not only did the Badgers lose their hold on third place, they only managed two goals in 120 minutes.
For the longest time, Wisconsin couldn’t score more than three goals a game. Then they scored 15 goals over three games — all wins. Was that stretch a fluke?
"Our problems are still kind of the same," Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. "We weren’t able to score against Anchorage. We had a lot of chances, we just weren’t able to score."
Oh yeah, there’s that other problem, too. The injury bug hit again as defenseman Luke Gruden sat out Saturday’s game with the residual effects of a concussion suffered two weeks ago against Duluth. He is questionable for this weekend’s series.
That means the team may be without three senior defensemen — Craig Anderson, Tim Rothering and Gruden. Sauer is experimenting with forward Dan Bjornlie back as a defenseman and different pairings up front.
"We don’t have a lot of people," Sauer said. "We’re pretty much down to bare bones right now with the guys we have out of the lineup. With moving people around, hopefully some of them will produce goals for us."
First, they’re going to have to produce shots. The Badgers certainly cannot afford a third period like the one Friday night against Anchorage, where they only managed three shots compared to the Seawolves’ 15.
THE MATCHUP: These teams have never faced each other, so it’s safe to say there will be a certain amount of getting a feel for the other team early. Mankato is coming off a pair of ties at Minnesota, and Sauer is not taking them lightly.
"This is not an easy series, Mankato is a very capable team," Sauer said. "They have some maturity, they have three or four kids that are 24, 25 years old. This is going to be a challenge for us. It’s not like it’s a non-conference opponent like Omaha coming in."
MSU will become the 10th member of the WCHA next season. The question for the Badgers this season concerns their own scoring. If they can’t put some goals on the board this weekend, they may be surprised.
PICKS: Minnesota State, Mankato 4-2; Wisconsin 6-3
UPCOMING SCHEDULE: Colorado College gets next weekend off and we get back to that Friday-Saturday thing again. It’s a lot easier to remember, isn’t it?
St. Cloud State at Alaska-Anchorage Denver at Wisconsin Michigan Tech at Minnesota North Dakota at Minnesota-Duluth
Thanks to USCHO game reporter Ryan Kern for his contributions to this report.