Among all the competition, the struggles in positioning for the upcoming Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, we finally get to take a little bit of an aside.
The University of North Dakota’s Student Senate has proposed legislation that would change the school’s nickname from the "Fighting Sioux." Although the students do not have the power to take such action unilaterally — the school’s president makes the final decision — their decision to bring this subject again to the forefront has, if only slightly, taken some attention away from the No. 1 hockey team in the nation.
The Senate has allotted funds for a student survey on the school’s nickname, and further votes on the matter have been postponed. UND coach Dean Blais emphasized that it is a small group that wants the name changed.
"You check around the state and the name Fighting Sioux is a very honorable name," he said. "It’s a small portion of the population that thinks it’s derogatory. When we put that jersey on, it’s with all the respect you can imagine."
Will the Star-Spangled Banner at Engelstad Arena soon conclude with "…and the home of the Nothings?" Stay tuned.
North Dakota should be more concerned right now with Denver, which comes to Grand Forks this weekend looking to take a step up in the conference. UND, fresh off a sweep of Michigan Tech at the Winter Carnival, has already become the first team to claim home ice for the playoffs. Denver is one point out of third and six out of second, but holds two games in hand over both those teams (Alaska-Anchorage and Colorado College, respectively).
Elsewhere in the WCHA this week, a pair of series go along non-traditional lines. Due to scheduling conflicts at the Kohl Center, Wisconsin is forced to host Colorado College on Thursday and Saturday morning. Minnesota welcomes Anchorage to town on Saturday and Sunday, with both games at 2 p.m.
The series between Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth may not appear to hold much significance, but it certainly does for the parties involved. Tech is four points ahead of Duluth in eighth place and remember, the No. 8 team travels to the third-place team while No. 9 goes to No. 2.
St. Cloud State will look to regroup from a home sweep with a nonconference series with Nebraska-Omaha. Let’s take a closer look at these matchups.
No. 10 DENVER (17-9-2, 10-8-2 WCHA: 4th) at No. 1 NORTH DAKOTA (22-2-2, 17-1-2 WCHA: 1st) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.
ON THE PIONEERS: Nonconference games this time of the year don’t really mean too much. Unless of course you lose when you’re the No. 10 team in the country.
All the more reason Denver’s wins over Air Force and Minnesota State-Mankato last weekend were more important. But Denver didn’t look its best the whole weekend, according to DU coach George Gwozdecky.
"I think at times our opponents made it difficult for us and at times I thought we were rather sloppy," he said. "We didn’t play at the top of our game, but I don’t think we played badly. It’s always a little more difficult to get any team excited to play at the top level of your game when you’re playing a non-conference opponent that is not going to have a major bearing on the national picture."
Things looked downright bad for the Pioneers on Saturday, as they trailed Mankato, 3-1 after one period. But DU exploded for five goals in the second and rallied to a 6-4 win. Those goals came from five different sources, as Todd Kidd, Gavin Morgan, James Patterson, Joe Murphy and Chris Paradise each tallied in the period. Patterson now has 19 goals to lead the team.
That kind of production, something Gwozdecky said showed what his team is capable of doing, has been emblematic of Denver’s squad all season long.
"Obviously Paul Comrie has been the one that everybody talks about, and rightly so," Gwozdecky said. "But in a very big game in Madison two weeks ago, Paul Comrie was eliminated from the game early on Saturday and we still win 5-0 on contributions from a lot of players. We have the capability of a lot of people playing well for us at both ends of the ice."
Denver has scored five or more goals in each of its last four games, and has netted a total of 23 goals in that span. The Pioneers are also unbeaten in their last seven games and are 10-2-2 since Christmas.
Despite some rough edges, Gwozdecky maintained that the important thing for the Pioneers last weekend was to gain confidence.
"Even though we were sloppy, we found a way to win both games and, more importantly, continue to develop a little bit more confidence and get ready for the rest of our conference games," he said.
ON THE SIOUX: In the grand scheme of things, there are really only two things North Dakota is still playing for this season. They still have to lock up their third consecutive MacNaughton Cup and they still have to win in order to earn one of the two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
But after the way last season went — when the Sioux won the regular-season title early and seemed to coast into the playoffs — Dean Blais isn’t going to tolerate any slacking off.
"We just want to play good hockey," he said. "Last year we felt when we won the league in Duluth, we didn’t play as well for the remainder of the year. It was almost too easy; there were too many games left in the regular season."
UND doesn’t have the appearance of a team that is shutting down, or even slowing down, for that matter. The Sioux are in the midst of a 10-game unbeaten streak, going 9-0-1 in that span, including 9-3 and 3-1 wins over Michigan Tech last weekend. Those two were wins Blais appreciated.
"We scored 12 goals on the weekend and Michigan Tech played great defensively and had good goaltending," Blais said. "We were happy with four points, especially at Winter Carnival. They had a packed house and a great atmosphere."
It didn’t hurt in Friday night’s game that the Sioux went 5-for-8 on the power play. Hey, you give UND eight power-play chances and that’s going to happen. Still…
"It’s never as good as you want it to be," Blais said of the power play. "Any time you get a power play, you want to score. That’s just the nature of the game. As long as you’re generating good opportunities and getting good shots off … that’s what we care about."
The road — in the literal sense — gets a little shorter from now on. North Dakota plays three of its final four series at home. Blais said the bus trips get to be a grind after a while. UND drove to Duluth two weeks ago and again to Houghton — leaving on Wednesday with a stopover in Superior, Wis. — last weekend.
"Anytime you’re on the bus for 9, 10 hours, it takes its toll on you," Blais said.
THE MATCHUP: In the teams earlier meeting this season, North Dakota swept Denver, 6-4 and 5-3. Gwozdecky freely admits UND was the better team then.
"They beat us, they were the better team," he said. "They’ve been the best team in the WCHA pretty much since Day One. We really respect what they’ve been able to do this year and at the same time I think the feeling in our locker room is perhaps we weren’t able to put our best foot forward in that series. I think they perhaps caught us by surprise in certain things that they did."
That sweep was followed by two losses to Alaska-Anchorage, which put Denver in a hole going into the Christmas break. But the Pioneers have since rolled through the second half.
"I think we’re a lot better team than we were back then," Gwozdecky said. "I expect that we’ll be able to play better this weekend than we did back then. Whether that’s good enough to win, we’ll see."
Blais said the difference in Denver’s play is in its confidence.
"I think the big thing with them is they’ve played with a lot of confidence and emotion," Blais said. "Without it, they’re a middle-of-the-pack team. With it, they’re one of the better teams in the league."
PICKS: North Dakota 3-2, 5-4.
No. 5 COLORADO COLLEGE (19-8-1, 14-6 WCHA: 2nd) at WISCONSIN (11-14-3, 9-9-2 WCHA: 5th) Thursday-Saturday, 7:35 p.m.-11:05 a.m. CT, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
ON THE TIGERS: And I thought I had a tough week just because I had an exam. How about this:
Colorado College is at the end of a block and in the middle of exams. That’s bad enough, but when you have to leave on Wednesday to fly to Madison for a Thursday-Saturday series immediately following exams, it’s a whole lot worse.
"It’s a real disjointed week for us," said CC coach Don Lucia, whose team didn’t practice on Tuesday and was hoping to get in 45 minutes on the ice before departing on Wednesday.
"This is not really a normal week of practice with our final exam schedule and traveling on the road. Normally we’ve played very well during our block breaks because there’s no school that you have to worry about, but that’s Friday and not Thursday. I’m hoping that we can have a good night’s sleep on Wednesday and be refreshed enough to play well on Thursday."
Perhaps the way CC played last weekend will be motivation enough to tide them over. The Tigers controlled Minnesota in a 5-1 win on Friday and scored the game-winner in the third period of Saturday’s 3-1 victory.
"The Saturday game was a real good game," Lucia said. "They worked really hard. What I was happy to see was that we won the game in the third period. We took the game over and outplayed them, and that’s where a lot of games from here on out are going to be decided. You have to learn to be comfortable in a 1-1 game with 10 minutes to go."
This weekend’s series probably means a little bit more for Tigers’ goaltender Jeff Sanger, a native of Madison. And it may mean more for CC because of a couple of people in the stands.
"The one thing I will say is that he’s played very well in front of his mom and dad," Lucia said. "His mom and dad have seen him play three games this year and he’s given up one goal at Minnesota and one goal all weekend at St. Cloud. I’m hoping that will continue."
Another trend Lucia hopes will continue is the good play of native Madison goaltenders against the Badgers. Northern Michigan Dieter Kochan always played well against UW and Notre Dame’s Forrest Karr has won his last two games in Madison, including the season opener this year.
"I think there’s always an extra bit of incentive that maybe your senses are a little more heightened when you go back home and play," Lucia said. "I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve had so much success against Minnesota — over half our lineup are Minnesota natives."
ON THE BADGERS: Has Wisconsin finally found a combination that will produce some goals? The line of Steve Reinprecht, Dustin Kuk and Tim Rothering produced early and often in a road sweep of St. Cloud State last weekend.
Reinprecht scored the first of two goals on Friday nine seconds into the game and, with five points on the weekend, earned the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honor.
The line scored a total of nine points in Friday’s game, but the Badgers still needed Jeff Dessner to score with 22 seconds left in overtime to get the 5-4 win. UW coach Jeff Sauer said getting that win was imperative.
"If we’d have lost that game or tied, going two weeks in a row losing two-goal leads like we did and coming out with less than a win, it would have been very disappointing," he said. "We wouldn’t have won Saturday if we had lost Friday."
Rothering is a converted defenseman who has made his presence at forward known immediately.
"Tim Rothering gives us something at forward that we didn’t have before," Sauer said. "He’s a good skater, he works hard in the corners. He’s getting beat up pretty well. People seem to know what was wrong to him (he missed six games with a broken jaw) and every time he gets hit it seems to be high. Offensively, I know he’s having fun right now because he’s getting some points."
The Badgers now control their destiny to secure a home playoff series. But there are a number of obstacles they’ll have to overcome. First, there is Colorado College this weekend. After a trip to Michigan Tech, they welcome North Dakota to the Kohl Center. Then, they close with a trip to Minnesota, and a building they have never won in.
Sauer said it’s been a long time since the race for seedings was this close.
"You look at the loss column, I think that’s the key," Sauer said. "In the loss column, with the exception of North Dakota and CC, we’re all about equal. A lot of things can change here still in the last four weeks. I kind of expect, the way things are going, the last weekend series at Minnesota, we’re going to go in there for home ice. We’re going to battle for home ice and end up probably playing the Gophers in the playoffs. That’s kind of in the back of my mind, what I’m looking at."
THE MATCHUP: The thing that concerns Sauer the most about CC is their 26.8 percent success rate on the power play. If the Badgers allow the Tigers to roam free with the advantage, it may spell doom for UW.
"If you look at our league statistics, the major telling factor is power plays, and Colorado College has gotten many more opportunities than a lot of other teams in the league on the power play," Sauer said. "We can’t give them the power-play opportunities — that’s the key to the weekend. We can’t play penalty situation all weekend. If we do that we’re going to struggle."
Lucia said a number of factors should lead to Wisconsin playing tough this weekend.
"I think the biggest thing with Wisconsin is they’re starting to get healthier," he said. "I think that, more than anything, has been a detriment and an effect on their season. Now, they’re in position with the big weekend they had. I know they’re going to be playing with a lot more confidence after winning two games in St. Cloud."
PICKS: Colorado College 4-2, 3-2.
ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (12-11-5, 9-8-5 WCHA: 3rd) at MINNESOTA (9-15-6, 7-10-3 WCHA: 7th) Saturday-Sunday, 2:05 CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis
ON THE SEAWOLVES: A team wins on Friday night, 5-3, and can’t manage a goal on Saturday night? It happened to Alaska-Anchorage last weekend. Luckily for them, Minnesota-Duluth couldn’t score on Saturday either as the teams staggered to a 0-0 draw.
So what changed between Friday and Saturday? UAA coach Dean Talafous struggled to come up with a response, but found an explanation.
"I think we may have played better and I certainly think Duluth played a lot harder, but I think that’s typical of the WCHA," Talafous said. "Sometimes the second night is much more difficult to get some points. I don’t know what it is, it just seems like teams really dig in and take a stand. It was much more physical and the teams were doing a better job in their own end. The scoring opportunities were few and far between."
In Saturday’s game, the Seawolves took a season-high 22 penalty minutes. But Talafous was quick to point out 10 of those were on a misconduct penalty where the referee thought he heard a UAA player say something and most of the others were matched up.
So before you start thinking the Seawolves are becoming the Broad Street Bullies, remember that they are the Seawolves, after all.
Anchorage probably has the toughest remaining schedule of all the WCHA teams. They are at Minnesota this weekend, at North Dakota next weekend and host Colorado College in two weeks before taking the last weekend off. Talafous said these experiences are going to help his team down the road, no matter what.
"I guess I always look long-term," Talafous said. "We’re trying to raise our game up and our program to a level where we’re looked upon as a team that can make a difference at playoff time. To get there, we have to play the best at their best so we can learn. I don’t know what’s going to happen the next six games. I know that we have to prepare to be at our best and see how we stack up.
"Our goal one day is to be with these teams. I don’t know if we’re a long ways (away), how much ground we’ve made up. I certainly would prefer to play these three teams right now, under these conditions, than to play somebody that we’re expected to beat. It’s the only way we can continue to make progress in our program."
Talafous also said playing at Mariucci and at Engelstad will continue to build his team’s character.
"It’s great experience for our players," he said. "We went into Colorado the first weekend on the road in the WCHA and we didn’t handle it very well. That was months ago. It was a big, brand new building, I think they were ranked No. 2, they had lots of talent, and we just didn’t handle it, we were young. I don’t know if we’ve made progress. We’d like to think we learned from all these experiences. Now we’ll see how we match up again as we go through a similar swing."
ON THE GOPHERS: Coming off a 5-1 loss to Colorado College, one might think the effort Minnesota put forth last Saturday in the second game of the series would have been enough to get a win.
But alas, effort is not everything, and the Gophers fell, 3-1.
"Effort is one thing, execution is another," Gophers coach Doug Woog said. "I thought we had a pretty good team effort on Saturday but our power play vs. their power play was like boys and men. If we would have scored on the power play in the second period, we might have had a chance to win that game."
If you’re looking for positives from the series, it didn’t look as bad as the 7-1 and 6-1 losses suffered at the hands of the Tigers earlier this season.
"The first series we played they just toyed with us, up and down the rink," Woog said. "On Friday night, they just overwhelmed us too, but after that, for the next four periods, it was pretty even. They won the bookends — the first of Friday and the third of Saturday. In between was pretty even. I think we closed the gap."
The Gophers’ schedule is a little kinder in the last eight games as it had been for the first 30. They play all eight in the state of Minnesota, including five at Mariucci, two at Duluth and one in St. Cloud.
Minnesota has played exactly half of its games this season against teams that are currently in the top 10 in the country. Of its remaining four foes, none is ranked.
"There’s a real urgency in the games we’ve got ahead because everything we play is like a playoff game for us to get in a good position for the playoffs," Woog said. "We’re at home, it’s familiar circumstances, but we’re going to be playing teams that are our rivals. We couldn’t ask for any better schedule — I don’t know if we could ask for any worse one either. We’re positioned to make a move if we’re going to make a move."
THE MATCHUP: This isn’t the time of the season Talafous is going to start straying from his game plan.
"We have to play our game," he said. "At this point, I think if anybody’s changing, they’re in trouble. Whatever you’ve worked on for four or five months, if it isn’t right, it’s too late."
Woog said his team may have to force the issue — be a little more aggressive — against Anchorage to be successful.
"You have to get in and work on (the puck)," he said. "I don’t think you’re going to make pretty plays. They’re going to force you to dump it but you’re going to have to get the puck back. That’s probably the way the game’s going to be played."
The teams split the previous series this season in Anchorage.
PICKS: Minnesota, 4-2; Alaska-Anchorage, 4-1.
MICHIGAN TECH (7-20-1, 7-15 WCHA: 8th) at MINNESOTA-DULUTH (6-20-4, 3-15-4 WCHA: 9th) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn.
ON THE HUSKIES: It’s not really fair to judge a team based on its play against the No. 1 team in the nation. But Michigan Tech’s pair of losses to North Dakota last weekend were its fifth and sixth in a row.
What Huskies coach Tim Watters would really love to see is his team play at the same level every night.
"I think the bottom line is that we want to get the team playing consistently well here at this point of the season," he said. "Whether we can move up in the standings or stay where we’re at in the standings, the bottom line is we want to be playing as well as we possibly can."
That wasn’t the case last weekend, as they got shelled, 9-3 on Friday before playing better on Saturday in a 3-1 loss — a game in which the Huskies held a 1-0 lead after one period.
"We didn’t play so well Friday night and I thought we played much better on Saturday night," Watters said. "We need efforts like we had on Saturday night consistently in order for things to fall into place for our hockey club come the stretch run."
Watters said he thought the Huskies played more disciplined hockey on Saturday. Of course, I revert to my previous statement about giving North Dakota eight power-play chances (see "On the Sioux").
Michigan Tech continues to ride David Weninger in goal. He played in his 100th and 101st conference games against the Sioux and moved into fifth in the Tech history books with 2,529 career saves.
"I think David Weninger has been a big part in each and every win we’ve had," Watters said. "How he goes is how our team goes, generally."
ON THE BULLDOGS: The scoreless tie Minnesota-Duluth played against Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday was only the second in Bulldog history, the other also coming against Anchorage last year.
Think UMD will have to break out of it this weekend? Don’t be so sure. The last time the Bulldogs hosted Michigan Tech, UMD took a 1-0 win. Brant Nicklin earned Duluth’s first shutout of a Tech team.
But Nicklin is a question mark for the Bulldogs. He missed last weekend’s series after suffering minor cartilage damage against North Dakota the week prior. Tony Gasparini filled in last weekend, and Nicklin is listed as probable for this weekend’s series.
Jeff Scissons is still the man to turn to on offense for Duluth. Not only does he lead the team with 13 goals, he has 7 goals and 5 assists in 10 career meetings with Michigan Tech.
Minnesota-Duluth is 2-10-2 at the DECC this season while 4-10-2 away from it.
THE MATCHUP: A six-game losing streak against a seven-game winless streak. That’s going to make for some interesting games.
"You’re going to watch two desperate hockey clubs this weekend," Watters said. "Both teams are desperate for wins and that’s going to make for some exciting hockey this weekend."
PICKS: Minnesota-Duluth, 4-2; Michigan Tech, 5-3.
NEBRASKA-OMAHA (6-21) at ST. CLOUD STATE (12-13-3, 8-12-2 WCHA: 6th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.
ON THE MAVERICKS: Nebraska-Omaha comes to St. Cloud on a bit of an upswing, having swept Manitoba, 5-2 and 2-0 last weekend. Unfortunately, that doesn’t count toward their record, which includes only American opponents.
The concern for the Mavericks right now is the status of leading scorer Jason White. The sophomore center has seven goals and 12 assists, but has missed most of the last five games with a neck injury.
Concern No. 2 is the road record. UNO is winless away from the Omaha Civic Auditorium this season, at 0-9.
Including the wins last weekend, the Mavericks are 6-4 in their last 10 games.
ON THE HUSKIES: More than not getting any points out of a two-goal comeback last Friday night, a two-goal swing last Saturday might have hurt St. Cloud State the most.
Trailing Wisconsin, 1-0, a Husky shot clanged off the post, but the foghorn at the National Hockey Center went off. As SCSU players celebrated, Wisconsin went the other way and scored on a breakaway. Instead of 1-1, it was 2-0 Wisconsin.
"That was a big momentum swing, although we did come back and score three minutes later," St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl said. "But we just had chances and we couldn’t put the puck in the net."
What’s worse, the Huskies lost yet another player to injury. Senior left wing Ryan Frisch suffered a knee injury in Friday’s game, again giving Dahl only nine healthy forwards.
So in this non-conference series, there should be a big sign in the Huskies’ locker room, reading:
"DON’T GET HURT!"
"I’ve never seen anything like it in 18 years of coaching," Dahl said.
It’s just been a lot of bad luck for the Huskies, but they still have a shot to earn a top-five spot in the final standings. They play a home-and-home series with Minnesota, a home series with Denver and close at North Dakota.
The Huskies may control their fate, but, "without a healthy lineup, there’s nothing you can control," Dahl said. "The only thing we can control is making sure our guys work hard and try to play as smart as they can."
THE MATCHUPS: St. Cloud State swept Omaha last season, 2-1 and 6-2 last January. But that was with a full roster.
"What we’re going to try to do is play as hard as we can and as smart as we can and see if we have enough firepower to get it done," Dahl said. "Obviously our goaltending becomes even more critical right now."
PICKS: St. Cloud State 4-2, 3-2.
UPCOMING SCHEDULE Three more weekends lie in front of WCHA teams. The next one features a couple of key matchups in the jockeying for position:
Friday, Feb. 19 Alaska-Anchorage at North Dakota Denver at Colorado College Wisconsin at Michigan Tech Minnesota at St. Cloud State
Saturday, Feb. 20 Alaska-Anchorage at North Dakota Colorado College at Denver Wisconsin at Michigan Tech St. Cloud State at Minnesota