It seems that every week I open with something about North Dakota edging ever closer to the MacNaughton. Dang it, I did it again. Well, let’s put the Sioux aside for a while and look at some teams that don’t really know where they’re going to finish.
As it has been for a while now, the middle of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is very tight. Positions three through eight are separated by six points. If everyone keeps beating everyone else, this race is going to come down to the last weekend.
While second-place Colorado College gets the weekend off, new No. 3 Denver, fresh off a sweep of Alaska-Anchorage, travels to face Wisconsin. Anchorage, now in fourth place, hosts fifth-place St. Cloud State this weekend. The interesting thing about these series is that teams are not only playing for points now, they’re playing for positioning in case of a tie. Wisconsin and Denver split earlier this season in the Rockies and this is the only meeting this season between the Huskies and the Seawolves.
In other action, Minnesota, quickly getting desperate for a victory — something the Gophers haven’t had in two months — hosts Michigan Tech, which comes off a pair of close losses at CC, something they hope to learn from.
Oh yeah, North Dakota plays at Minnesota-Duluth. You’ll be interested to hear the comments of UMD coach Mike Sertich on how he plans to take on the Sioux.
How’s that for keeping the reader involved?
DENVER (14-9-1, 9-8-1 WCHA: 3rd) at WISCONSIN (9-13-2, 7-8-1 WCHA: 6th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, The Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
ON THE PIONEERS: Denver had to fight back from deficits entering the third period on both ends of last weekend’s series with Alaska-Anchorage, and the fact that they successfully did so says one thing: The Pioneers are in this race until the end.
But coach George Gwozdecky knows there’s no room for error, considering the competition is always just a step back.
"This race, if anybody looks at the point standing, you realize how close it is," he said. "One weekend you can be in second place and the next weekend, you can be in fifth. You can change order so drastically."
Pardon Gwozdecky if he had some flashbacks last weekend. From the sound of the crowd at McNichols Arena Saturday night, when the game drew 5,227, he might have thought he was back at the old DU Arena. So what if it’s already been knocked down?
"Our crowd that we had on Saturday night reminded me of some of our old days at DU Arena," he said. "We had a little over 5,000 and they were really into it. That really helped us, it gave us quite a bit of energy, especially going into the third period down 2-0 and down 3-1 with eight minutes to go.
"We’ve been off our campus for almost two years now, and you kind of have a tendency to forget what it’s like. We’re playing in a great game, and all of a sudden the crowd starts getting into it and they were loud in the third period. It was fun because, prior to the puck being dropped at certain face-offs, the crowd would start clapping their hands and stomping their feet, yelling and doing all the chants that we used to have at the old DU Arena when we had such a home ice advantage."
The Pioneers came back from that 3-1 deficit with a goal by Paul Comrie and a 6-on-4 tally by Chris Paradise in the last minute. DU won, 4-3, on another power-play goal by James Patterson a half minute into overtime. That opportunity with the advantage came as the result of a major penalty for checking from behind assessed to UAA’s Mike Scott at the end of regulation.
For the weekend, Denver clicked on four of seven power-play chances. In fact, they clicked for four power-play goals on four power-play shots. That’s right, a 100 percent shooting percentage with the man advantage.
Ryan Hacker, the victim of the check from behind, is likely to be ready to play this weekend. After being knocked out from the hit.
ON THE BADGERS: Just when you thought Wisconsin’s injury situation was getting better, you get knocked for a loop again. At least Kent Davyduke did.
On the same day that coach Jeff Sauer announced his team would probably get senior defenseman Tim Rothering back from a broken jaw, he also noted that Davyduke, a freshman forward, may not be available. Davyduke took a jolt to the head in Sunday’s 3-2 Badger victory over Minnesota State, Mankato. Sauer said doctors performed a CAT scan, and are concerned about Davyduke’s vision.
But who needs anyone else when Matt Murray is on the ice? The freshman walk-on continued to make an impact with two goals on Sunday, including the game-winner with less than four minutes to play. With that extra something at forward, Sauer might shuffle things up with the return of Rothering.
He said it’s possible that Rothering will line up at forward, as he did in the consolation game of the Badger Hockey Showdown in December, and that forward Dan Bjornlie will play his second consecutive series at defense.
"I really liked Dan Bjornlie back there last weekend," Sauer said, despite the fact that Bjornlie was a minus-3 and committed an error that led to a Maverick goal. "I like what he does back there, especially on the big ice."
Sauer said the fact that his team has not lost focus despite its sub-par showing this season is a tribute to the players.
"I’m disappointed in our standing, I’m not disappointed in the team whatsoever," he said. "With all the adversity this team has had, we haven’t lost them as a staff."
The team’s current sixth-place position, however, could be misleading. UW has two games in hand on the four teams directly in front of them.
"There’s no question that we have a great opportunity," Sauer said. "We could finish as high as second — it’s possible if we went on a run here. There’s a lot of hockey to play here."
THE MATCHUP: Sauer, who coached Denver’s Hobey Baker candidate Paul Comrie, had some kind words for the Denver scoring leader (13-23–36). First, he said Comrie would be in his top three if he voted for the Hobey Baker Trophy (the others being CC’s Brian Swanson and UND’s Jason Blake). Then:
"If I had to take one of the three top players right now to help us do what we have to do, I’d take Paul Comrie."
Why’s that, a reporter asked? "Consistency. It’s something that he didn’t do the last couple years, but now he’s doing it," Sauer said.
Denver has had a reasonable amount of success in Madison recently. The Pioneers have won four of their last five at Wisconsin. Of course, that was at the Dane County Coliseum, where Gwozdecky played college puck, grabbing a national championship in 1977. So he knows both sides of the Madison atmosphere.
"I really can’t give you a reason why we’ve had the kind of success we have had there over the last short while," he said. "I know Wisconsin is a school that is one of the two marquee programs in our conference; they have been for years and years and years. Every hockey team that plays them gets up for them and is excited to play Wisconsin."
Sauer said that Denver has not fared as well on the big ice this season. Maybe his team can play that up. Gwozdecky said the only thing his team prepares when they get to practice on the larger ice is the different angles for the goaltenders.
PICKS: Denver 5-2; Wisconsin 4-3
No. 1 NORTH DAKOTA (19-2-1, 14-1-1 WCHA: 1st) at MINNESOTA-DULUTH (6-18-2, 3-13-2 WCHA: 9th) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn.
ON THE SIOUX: You want dominance, I’ll give you dominance. North Dakota is 14-1 since Nov. 20.
But Nos. 13 and 14 didn’t exactly come easy. The Sioux had to fight off a Minnesota charge on Friday and came back from 3-0 and 5-2 deficits on Saturday for a 6-5 win. Not that the come-from-behind victory should have been that much of a surprise. It was the third year in a row the Sioux made a third-period comeback in the second game of the series with the Gophers in Grand Forks.
Jeff Panzer was the story on Friday. He scored four of UND’s five goals on the night and assisted on the fifth. He also scored the game-winning goal on Saturday.
Senior defenseman Brad Williamson had five assists on Friday, to tie the nation’s best performance this season. Of course, his team-leading seven-game assist streak came to an end Saturday, when apparently, the well ran dry.
Goaltender Andy Kollar was pulled from Saturday’s game after giving up three goals in just over 11 minutes, and on only seven shots. Gee, pretty tough when the backup is Karl Goehring, huh? The sophomore came in and stopped 17 of 19 shots to get the win.
ON THE BULLDOGS: When things aren’t going a team’s way, you have to look for the positives. Minnesota-Duluth was swept last weekend by St. Cloud State, but 12 of the 18 Bulldogs who played figured in the scoring.
"I guess if you’re looking for something, that would be one," UMD coach Mike Sertich said. "I guess I’m more concerned in two things: One, in our effort Friday night and (two) Saturday night, the effort and no result. Those two things concern me more than anything."
Against Wisconsin a couple weekends ago, the Bulldogs had a great effort, but came away with nothing. The series with the Huskies wasn’t exactly that way.
"We had some kids on Friday night that, because of effort, didn’t execute," Sertich said. "That bothers me. It bothers me to this day. Saturday night, we had the effort and the execution, and we didn’t get the results. I can’t put my finger on it."
So what’s next for the Bulldogs, besides the impending matchup with North Dakota?
"Keep plugging away," Sertich said. "Most of our problems are inexperience, and unfortunately that’s one thing you can’t coach."
Jeff Scissons has been one of the bright spots on this team, and that hasn’t gotten past Sertich. He leads UMD with 13 goals and nine assists.
"He’s one of those kids you don’t need to worry about," Sertich said. "He’s there every night. He’s one of the better players in the league."
THE MATCHUP: I’ll just let Sertich’s words speak for themselves.
On his strategy to stay with UND: "Bus crash," he said jokingly. "I don’t know. How the hell do you beat them? Everybody else has tried and never done it either. I have no idea. They’re definitely good. They don’t have a weak spot — that I can tell, anyway.
"Now I know how Custer felt…I’m weird, I know."
If levity could just get him a couple wins…
PICKS: North Dakota 5-2, 6-3
MICHIGAN TECH (7-16-1, 7-11-1 WCHA: 7th) at MINNESOTA (7-13-6, 5-8-3 WCHA: 8th) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis
ON THE HUSKIES: Michigan Tech coach Tim Watters knows his team had a good shot to get out of Colorado Springs with some points last weekend, but the bounces just didn’t go the Huskies’ way. But the fact that his team was able to compete with CC was a good sign.
"I thought both games, we skated with CC and we contained them quite well," Watters said. "They are a pretty talented club, it was just one of those things. I thought we had a good opportunity on Friday to maybe get a point or two out of there and it just didn’t go that way."
The loss on Friday snapped Tech’s three-game winning streak. It’s just time again for the Huskies to regroup, something they’re probably getting accustomed to. Their play at CC was pleasing on one hand yet frustrating on another.
"I think we’re optimistic," Watters said. "We went to CC, who’s the No. 6 team in the nation, and we played fairly well. Although it’s frustrating that we played well and we didn’t get anything to show for it."
Another promising sign for the Huskies is that their power play has started to come around. They have scored at least one power-play goal in eight of their last 10 games and are now scoring on 13.3 percent of their conference chances.
The Huskies scored first in both games last weekend, both coming from freshman Paul Cabana. He now leads WCHA rookies with 10 goals overall and seven in league play, making a run for a spot on the all-rookie team.
"Any time you have a freshman come to your program and he’s able to contribute offensively right away the way he has," Watters said, "it’s going to be an impact on your team. He certainly has done that."
ON THE GOPHERS: Maybe, just maybe, if Minnesota was playing anyone in this nation besides North Dakota last weekend, they would have come away with a pair of wins. Just goes to show what bad timing will do to you.
Here’s more bad timing for the Gophers: They haven’t won a game since Nov. 29. That’s right — two full months. It’s now a school-record 10 game winless streak. Gophers coach Doug Woog can’t speak for his players, but he knows the hard work the team showed last weekend should have paid off.
"I do know we played our butts off the last couple weekends and we haven’t got anything to show for it," he said. "Hopefully we’ll continue to play hard like we have. We’re scoring some goals and some positive things are happening. It’s just that the most positive thing is not, and that’s winning."
When Minnesota was up 5-3 on the Sioux, they had two breakaway opportunities but could not capitalize. The rest is history.
They are a little better team in certain spots than we are, but we had a chance to win those games," Woog said.
So what’s the problem with the Gophers? It might stem from a simple fact — if you give up too many goals, you’re not going to win too many games.
"I don’t like the fact that we’re giving up as many goals as we are, that’s concerning us," Woog said. "Our penalty kill has not been where it should be, our five-on-five coverage at times has not been good and our goaltending needs to be a little better at times. It’s a composite issue."
THE MATCHUP: If the Gophers can keep up the level of play they showed against North Dakota, they could probably defeat anyone…except maybe North Dakota.
"We have to continue to score and we have to continue that intensity," Woog said. "If you continue the intensity, things will work out better. We have to realize that these, again, are must-points and get after it."
Watters said he respects Minnesota’s front lines.
"I think Minnesota has a lot of very good forwards that are very capable of scoring lots of goals," he said. "We’re going to have to contain them."
Minnesota took 40 penalty minutes on Saturday against North Dakota, and Woog said his team can’t afford to do that again this weekend.
PICKS: Minnesota 5-3; Michigan Tech 3-2
ST. CLOUD STATE (12-11-1, 8-10 WCHA: 5th) at ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (11-11-2, 8-8-2 WCHA: 4th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, Alaska
ON THE HUSKIES: Despite the fact that coach Craig Dahl’s team is riddled with injuries, despite the fact that he has only 10 forwards, St. Cloud State also should be in the race until the finish.
The Huskies took both ends of a home-and-home series with Minnesota-Duluth last weekend, finally getting the reward they deserved, Dahl said.
"We played hard and got rewarded this time," he said. "Up against Tech (two weeks ago), I thought we played really well except in the nets. This time we played pretty well again and got better goaltending, too."
Dean Weasler stopped 68 of 74 Bulldogs shots last weekend. Just another part of an up-and-down year in Husky goaltending.
"He was good for quite a while and then he kind of went south on us, and then he was good last weekend again," Dahl said.
The Huskies also netted a pair of power-play goals, but Dahl isn’t exactly jumping for joy. Both shots came from the point, and he doesn’t see the power-play getting much better.
"We’re not going to have a lot of execution because we just don’t have that type of high-skill," Dahl said, referring to the loss of top-scorer Jason Goulet, among others, from the ranks.
With all the young guys, Dahl tries to keep it simple.
"I tell them to do two things: work your ass off and work smart," he said. "As far as goals, you can’t always control that. If i think they’re getting uptight, I try to joke with them a little bit, make sure they’re not squeezing their sticks and turning them into sawdust. I say you’d better work and you’d better work hard and you’d better do our systems, really be disciplined, and we’ve been doing that great. That’s why we’re still able to be where we’re at, even with all those injuries."
ON THE SEAWOLVES: Alaska-Anchorage lost each of its third-period leads against Denver last weekend and ended up losing each of its games. Disappointing, yes, but also a learning experience.
"It was a little disappointing," UAA coach Dean Talafous said. "Our young team learned that it’s playoff time now. To beat teams like Denver or anybody in the league on the road at this point in the season, we’re going to have to step our game up one more notch if it’s possible. It was a good thing to go through for our team. Disappointing, yeah, but I think we learned a lot."
But it was an uncharacteristic way for the Seawolves to lose. The penalty killers allowed four power-play goals on four shots.
"Penalties never help you, that’s why we take the least penalty minutes per game in hockey — I realize the importance of not taking them," Talafous said. "But we’re human and over the course of the season, you’re going to get a couple penalties. It was untimely, but we still could have killed them off, but we didn’t do a very good job of that either."
The killer was the major penalty for checking from behind that allowed Denver to win the game in overtime. While Mike Scott, the checker, didn’t play in Sunday’s game, neither did goaltender Gregg Naumenko. Doug Teskey, from whom Naumenko took the starting job earlier this season, got the call.
"I wanted to get Teskey in there to get him a game," Talafous said. "Naumenko, he’s played a lot of hockey for a freshman. I thought it doesn’t hurt to get a breather at the same time. It’s going to be a long stretch drive here, so it’s a chance to give him a breather."
Last weekend’s games marked the first and second times this season UAA had lost a game which it led entering the third period.
THE MATCHUP: Of course, games are always important as the season begins to wind down, but this is the only meeting between these two teams. So this is probably each team’s biggest series to date. Of course, every week’s series has been the biggest series to date, and that trend will continue until the end of the season.
"I’m sure a lot of people could make the argument that it’s the biggest series, but it seems like every weekend is bigger," Talafous said. "I think everybody feels that way. It’s so close in the standings that every game is crucial. We’ve got to be at our best and try to do everything we can to win these hockey games."
Said Dahl: "To me, head-to-head is the name of the game. I think our guys are looking forward to it. We’re not looking forward to the plane trip."
Dahl said he would be satisfied with a split, but that would probably change if the Huskies win the first game of the series.
PICKS: Alaska-Anchorage, 2-1; St. Cloud State, 3-2 (ot)
UPCOMING SCHEDULE: Hey, it’s Winter Carnival time again! Oh, wait, the Huskies have to go up against the Sioux. Looks like the Carnival Queen might have to go it alone at the Sno-Ball Dance.
Friday, Feb. 5 Minnesota-Duluth at Alaska-Anchorage Minnesota at Colorado College North Dakota at Michigan Tech Wisconsin at St. Cloud State Denver at Air Force
Saturday, Feb. 6 Minnesota-Duluth at Alaska-Anchorage Minnesota at Colorado College North Dakota at Michigan Tech Wisconsin at St. Cloud State Minnesota State, Mankato at Denver