Attention, those who doubt the power of North Dakota: The Denver Pioneers have a message for you.
It would probably involve their game with the Sioux on Saturday. Things looked good for George Gwozdecky’s team early. They managed to stay with Dean Blais’ UND squad through 20 minutes, and even pulled two goals ahead early in the second period, 4-2.
Maybe you’ve heard of the cliche, "waking a sleeping giant." North Dakota may not have been asleep, but the Sioux certainly awoke, scoring the next nine goals of the game for an 11-4 victory.
It’s tough living with the No. 1 ranking. Blais would be the first one to mention that everyone is gunning for you because he has the experience. Almost since Day One, the UND coach has seen teams put forth their best effort to unseat the top-ranked team in the nation. But still, only two teams — Colorado College and Notre Dame — have been successful, while two others — Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth — managed ties.
North Dakota just seems to have that knack for coming out of adversity on top. Call it luck if you will, but everyone knows the race for the Broadmoor Trophy goes through the Sioux. There’s just no need to mention the MacNaughton Cup anymore. With either a win this weekend against Alaska-Anchorage or a Colorado College loss to Denver, the Sioux will claim their third consecutive Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season championship, a feat previously accomplished by CC (1994-96).
So then, the race is for second. And third. And fourth. And … well, you get the idea. Here’s your weekly look at just how close the race for a top-five finish is. North Dakota has No. 1 wrapped up, barring, of course, the unforeseen situation that every member of the team gets a lucrative offer from the NHL they just couldn’t pass up. Heck, they might even win it then.
But, with three weeks in the season, no other team is firmly planted into a spot. CC has second place in its grasp, with 30 points and two games in hand on the third-place team. Alaska-Anchorage, said third-place team, has 25 points, good for third place, but has the toughest remaining schedule. The Seawolves are at North Dakota this weekend and host Colorado College next week before taking the last weekend of the season off.
Denver and Wisconsin each have 22 points and are tied for fourth. Denver holds the tie-breaker in this series, having gone 2-1-1 against the Badgers this season. Minnesota (19 points, sixth place) and St. Cloud State (18 points, seventh place) have a pivotal home-and-home series this weekend. This may be a make-or-break series for the clubs, both of which really need a boost into the last two weekends.
Michigan Tech (16 points, eighth place) and Minnesota-Duluth (12 points, ninth place) each have a week off before the end of the season — Duluth’s just happens to be this weekend.
Don’t think the WCHA coaches won’t be doing a little bit of scoreboard watching this weekend. And not just of their own game.
ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (13-12-5, 10-9-5 WCHA: 3rd) at No. 1 NORTH DAKOTA (24-2-2, 19-1-2 WCHA: 1st) Friday-Saturday, 8:35-7:35 CT, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.
ON THE SEAWOLVES: This is an interesting week, to say the least, for Alaska-Anchorage. Instead of going back to the Land of the Midnight Sun after Sunday’s game with Minnesota, they stayed in Bloomington to train before heading to Grand Forks for this weekend’s matchup with North Dakota.
"We make about one of these a year when we play somewhere around the Twin Cities," Seawolves coach Dean Talafous said. "One, it’s a tremendous savings dollar-wise because you only make one flight. It saves you a little bit on travel. It’s more of a cost factor than anything, but along with that it saves on travel. We get some quality training time down here."
UAA was defeated, 5-1 on Saturday before getting a 4-2 win on Sunday. That four-goal deficit on Saturday, however, was a little misleading. The Gophers were ahead, 3-1, when Anchorage pulled goaltender Gregg Naumenko for an extra attacker. Minnesota scored an empty-netter and a five-on-five goal at 19:41 to extend the score.
"Until we pulled our goalie, it was a 3-1 game and we were starting to generate some offense," Talafous said. "They had played better than us, but it wasn’t 5-1. We thought we could play better and we knew we had to. We wanted to come back Sunday and put our best game on the ice and hope it was enough."
With the help of two goals the Gophers put in their own net, the Seawolves’ effort was enough on Sunday. John Pohl and Chris Pont, a pair of third-line forwards, each scored goals in the game. That’s the kind of effort the Seawolves are going to need down the stretch, as they face North Dakota and Colorado College.
"We don’t have a lot of gifted scorers so we have to work real hard as a team to score goals," Talafous said. "All you can do is go out there and play as aggressive as you possibly can and hope to score some goals. At the same time, play some pretty good defense and hope it’s enough to win over the 60 minutes. That’s all you can do, give it your best both defensively and offensively and hope you can score enough as a team.
"We don’t have a line that has Hobey Baker candidates or All-Americans that, even though we’re having a so-so night, they can carry us. It’s got to be a total team effort. Sunday afternoon, Pont, Simon and (Klage) Kaebel is our third or fourth line and they score two goals. We need everybody contributing."
Naumenko continues to lead the WCHA in goaltending with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. In conference games, he has a 2.02 GAA and a .931 SV%.
ON THE SIOUX: You want to talk streaks? I got some streaks for you. Or, more appropriately, North Dakota has a couple streaks it is proud to display.
First, the Sioux are in the midst of a 12-game unbeaten streak. The last game they lost was a 4-3 setback to Notre Dame on Jan. 3. At that time, coach Dean Blais said even his team couldn’t win them all. Maybe not, but they’re dang close.
UND also has a 17-game conference unbeaten streak going. They are 16-0-1 in that time — the only tie coming Jan. 30 at Minnesota-Duluth — and have been tearing through the league, leaving a trail of frustrated opposing coaches in their wake. A win Friday will set a WCHA record for consecutive games without a loss, passing the mark set by the 1960-61 Denver Pioneers. That team went on to claim an NCAA title.
Goaltender Karl Goehring has an 11-game unbeaten string intact. Goehring is 15-1-2 this season with a 2.67 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage. Andy Kollar is 9-1 with a 2.85 GAA and a .883 SV%.
Senior David Hoogsteen leads the Sioux with a seven-game point streak. Since missing nine games due to injury, he has 15 points in 13 games, including a goal last Friday and a goal and three assists on Saturday.
But the streak that may mean the most could come to fruition this weekend. It is strongly probable (see the requirements above if you doubt me) that the Sioux will win their third straight MacNaughton Cup this weekend.
Senior center Jason Blake furthered his campaign for the Hobey Baker Award with a six-point weekend against Denver. He had a goal and four assists last Saturday. Jay Panzer added his first career hat trick on Saturday to become the second Panzer brother to score three in a game this season. Jeff collected a hat trick earlier this season.
It may seem like it, but the fifth goal scored on Saturday was not UND’s 8,000th goal of the season. It was however, the 8,000th goal scored in Sioux hockey history.
THE MATCHUP: Talafous knows what lies ahead of his team. Let’s just let him explain:
"North Dakota’s probably the most difficult place in the country right now to play," he said. "A very good Denver team that had been playing very well went in there and you saw what happened to them. We realize that we’re playing the No. 1 team in very difficult circumstances. If you want to, one day, be a championship program, which is our goal down the road, there’s no better opportunity to play the best at their best and see how you stack up and where you need to improve.
"We want to go up there and put our best game on the ice both nights and then stand back when it’s over with and say OK, they’re this much better than us or these are the areas they exposed or these are our real weaknesses. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we can’t go up there scared. We have to play our game with confidence. That’s all you can do."
PICKS: North Dakota 6-3, 4-2.
DENVER (17-11-2, 10-10-2 WCHA: T-4th) vs. No. 5 COLORADO COLLEGE (20-9-1, 15-7 WCHA: 2nd) Friday, 7:35 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo. Saturday, 4:05 MT, Cadet Ice Arena, Air Force Academy
ON THE PIONEERS: At this point in the season, Denver coach George Gwozdecky said he hopes his team has a short memory. It’s probably better, he said, that the Pioneers just forget about last weekend’s series with North Dakota and move on. But that’s not to say DU can’t learn something.
"The way I look at it, we learned something from our opponents," Gwozdecky said. "I was very impressed with some of the things they did. Hopefully we can add that to our game to make us a little more effective.
"The way North Dakota played this weekend, I don’t know how many teams, if anybody, could have stayed with them. They were really, really good. As good a team as there is in the country. Probably the best team in my mind. They were excellent. We just try to move on from here."
The last time North Dakota swept the Pioneers, Dec. 5-6 in Denver, it sent the Pioneers into a mini-tailspin. They then were swept by Anchorage a week later.
"I look at this little pothole in the road compared to the valley that we were in back in December," Gwozdecky said. "This is nothing compared to what we faced at the break. We were, at that point, buried in the bottom half of the league, playing very poorly. Yet we were able to come back and win the Denver Cup, play some very competitive teams nationally and beat them and put a pretty good record together. I don’t think this is going to have any type of effect, considering how resilient we were when we faced a heck of a challenge back in mid-December."
The Pioneers know there’s a lot at stake in their last six games. Their hold on fourth place could be easily compromised with a slip this weekend. Gwozdecky doesn’t know exactly how many games his team is going to have to win in order to move up, just that his team will have to finish strong.
"The way Anchorage is playing right now, it’s hard to say," what his team will need, Gwozdecky said. "We want to be able to chase Anchorage and be able to catch third spot, but at the same time, Wisconsin is starting to get hot, Minnesota is right on our heels. I don’t know if there is a magical number. Six may be the magical number, I don’t know."
One of the things that will have to come together for DU down the stretch is goaltending. Stephen Wagner has to be able to shake off last weekend and play well in the next three for the Pioneers to move up and make their case for the NCAA tournament.
ON THE TIGERS: Colorado College had every right to be a little down last Saturday. The team’s No. 2 scorer, Darren Clark, had gone back to Colorado Springs to have season-ending surgery on his broken left arm.
But the Tigers, who somewhat collapsed after Toby Petersen went down earlier this season, regrouped in time to put together a solid performance in a 3-0 shutout of Wisconsin. The fact that CC was able to pull it together was a good sign for coach Don Lucia.
"I just think it was important psychologically," Lucia said. "I think having the day off in between (games) really helped. It gave our guys a chance to recover a little bit mentally, gave us a chance to practice with a different lineup and different power plays and et cetera. When you lose a player like Darren, it affects not only your five-on-five play, but it probably even affects your special teams even more."
Clark, a senior who had missed just one prior game in his career, was fourth in the conference with 40 points this season on 17 goals and 23 assists. Petersen took his spot on the right side of the top line Saturday and is expected to stay there for a while. Jon Austin, who is still about two weeks away from returning from an ankle injury, may take over upon his return.
"We’re not going to rush that because with Darren out of the playoffs, we want to make sure that Jon’s back," Lucia said. "You not only miss their play, but they’re both seniors. Life goes on, and we have to adapt. The one thing without Darren and Jon in our lineup, all of a sudden we’re a bigger team with the guys that are going in. The bigger guys have to play physical. We have to go from a team that could score a lot of goals to a team that’s probably not going to score a lot right now. We have to win low-scoring games and play well defensively from here on out."
That also means goaltender Jeff Sanger is going to have to come up big.
"He’s going to have to play well night in and night out," Lucia said. "You look to four of the past five games we’ve won, we’ve only scored three goals. We’re second in the league in goals-against average. How well we play on defense will ultimately determine what we do the rest of the year."
The Tigers defense is second in the conference defensively, behind Alaska-Anchorage. They allow an average of 2.54 goals per league game and 2.70 overall. They have been scoring 3.86 per conference game and 4.20 overall, but those figures are in serious jeopardy with Brian Swanson’s right-hand man out of the lineup.
THE MATCHUPS: The Gold Pan is on the line this weekend. Because the teams split their previous home-and-home series this season, whoever wins the series this weekend takes the Pan home. But what if they split again? The parties involved would rather you didn’t ask right now. They didn’t have an answer as of Wednesday.
"We’re trying to come to a final decision," Gwozdecky said. "There was a feeling a couple years ago when the Gold Pan was first established that, in the event of a tie after four games, then a shootout would take place. To our understanding, a shootout is not allowed, but it was never confirmed or decided as to what was the official way to break a tie."
They have summoned the NCAA ice hockey rules committee for an answer.
Another interesting twist to this series is, although it’s a home-and-home pair, both games are in Colorado Springs. Denver’s "home game" on Saturday will take place at the Air Force Academy, where there may be more Tigers fans in attendance.
"That’s going to help," Lucia said. "I don’t think there’s any question that I like the fact of playing at Air Force on Saturday."
Remember Nov. 14? CC probably does. On that day, the Pioneers made a lot of jaws drop with a 6-0 shutout of the Tigers. That wasn’t a surprise to Lucia at the time, so nothing should catch him off guard this weekend.
"I always felt they had that capability," Lucia said. "Heck, they beat us 6-0 (in Denver) the year before. They’re getting good play out of their seniors, and that’s what they need this year. (James) Patterson has more goals this year than he’s ever scored before, their power-play leads the nation, their penalty killing is strong."
PICKS: Colorado College 4-2; Denver 6-4. And I’ll take the Gold Pan if they can’t decide to whom to give it.
WISCONSIN (12-15-3, 10-10-2 WCHA: T-4th) at MICHIGAN TECH (8-21-1, 8-16 WCHA: 8th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, Mich.
ON THE BADGERS: Here’s something you may remember from earlier in the season: No one is quite sure which Wisconsin team is going to show up on a nightly basis. And this time, it has nothing to do with injuries, rather it’s a question of effort level.
Take last weekend’s series with Colorado College. On Thursday night, the Badgers played very well en route to a 5-4 victory. Put one in the positive column. Saturday afternoon, they get 12 shots and are blanked, 3-0. Negative. What may be worse is the way Wisconsin got those 12 shots. They only had five in the final two periods — all of them on two power-play chances. Maybe the Thursday-Saturday scenario didn’t work as well as coach Jeff Sauer had thought it would.
"Let’s say we’re going to work like heck not to have it happen again, in terms of the scheduling and all that," Sauer said. "From a playing standpoint, I was really pleased Thursday. Of course, when you win it’s a positive, but I thought that’s the best game we’ve had in the Kohl Center. I was real pleased with the outcome. I think a lot of people thought we were just going to dump two games this weekend because of the competition. I think the guys really showed something."
Putting aside Saturday — a day Sauer said he made too easy for CC coach Don Lucia — the Badgers still have won three of their last four and are now tied for fourth.
"We’re battling for a first-division finish, which is what our goal was for the season," Sauer said. "The (WCHA) coaches, right or wrong, picked us to finish third, and it’s still a reasonable scenario that we could finish third in the league. I think we’re going to finish third, fourth or fifth; I don’t know exactly where it’ll be, but I think we’ve got a chance to do that with the way the schedule falls, not only for us, but for the rest of the teams."
After this weekend’s tilt with Michigan Tech, the Badgers host North Dakota — a team that blasted them in a pair earlier this season — and travel to Minnesota — a place in which they have not won since 1993. Not exactly an easy finish.
Maybe that’s why this series is so important for UW. It’s not a must-sweep situation, but two wins would put the Badgers in a better position.
"This weekend becomes most important for us again," Sauer said. "If we can win two games, we put some space. If we lose two games, we’re really in a struggle. If we split, we haven’t lost a lot of ground. There’s three scenarios there: we could help ourselves, we could hurt ourselves or we could stay the same."
ON THE HUSKIES: Michigan Tech scored a season-high five goals in an overtime win at Minnesota-Duluth last Friday, but don’t expect coach Tim Watters to be pushing for more high-scoring games.
"I don’t think that’s the make-up of our hockey club, to get into a run-and-gun game," Watters said. "I’d certainly like to see it a low-scoring contest vs. a high-scoring contest. Anyway you can get a win, it doesn’t matter if it’s high-scoring or low-scoring, as long as you get the ‘W.’"
Duluth came back for a 6-4 victory the next night, showing the problem that has plagued the Huskies all season long: inconsistency.
"I thought we played a little bit inconsistent last weekend and made some very costly mistakes," Watters said. Those mistakes both indirectly and directly led to goals, he continued.
Buried in the statistics of last Saturday’s game was the fact that captain A.J. Aitken ended a 30-game pointless streak with a goal. That streak dated back to last season.
This series marks the last time Tech will play in the MacInnes Student Ice Arena this season, which may or may not be a bad thing for the Huskies. MTU has a .324 conference winning percentage (5-11-1) this season on the road while have won just 23 percent (3-10) of their league home games. The five WCHA road wins this season mark the most since 1994-95, when they won eight conference road games.
Matt Ulwelling leads the Huskies with 22 points (7 goals, 15 assists), while freshman Paul Cabana leads the team and all WCHA rookies with 12 goals.
THE MATCHUP: The question was posed to Sauer this week: Why has his team struggled in Houghton. The Badgers are 0-3-1 in the last four in the U.P.
"People asked me that question before St. Cloud, what’s the difficulty up there?" Sauer said. "In reality, we haven’t played up there very often. Tech, we went last year, two years ago we weren’t there. I think we’ve played four games in St. Cloud the last four years. The last time we were at Tech, we lost two games, that was last year. The difficulties, I don’t even remember the games, honestly."
Watters expects to see a very competitive series, much like the one earlier this season — a split in Madison.
"The matchup of the two teams, especially this year, I think you’re looking at two very similar hockey teams," Watters said. "They’re a young team, we’re a young team. Both teams have trouble scoring goals. I think it’s going to be a very competitive weekend, and that’s been a result of the close games earlier this year."
PICKS: Wisconsin, 5-3; Michigan Tech, 3-1.
MINNESOTA (10-16-6, 8-11-3 WCHA: 6th) vs. ST. CLOUD STATE (14-13-3, 8-12-2 WCHA: 7th) Friday, 7:35 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn. Saturday, 7:05 CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis
ON THE GOPHERS: Coming off a 5-1 victory an afternoon earlier, Minnesota fans might have been expecting a similar result on Sunday against Alaska-Anchorage. But when the bounces don’t go your way, you can play as hard as you want and probably still not get rewarded.
The Gophers knocked two pucks into their own net in a 4-2 loss at Mariucci Arena on Sunday. It was a game Minnesota certainly could have stood to win.
"I knew they would come back and play very, very hard, and they did," Gophers coach Doug Woog said. "We were pretty good on Saturday — good, solid all throughout the lineup. We kind of knew we wouldn’t be quite there (Sunday). We didn’t get many breaks either. We knocked two of them in our own net, we hit three pipes. We just kind of had one of those days."
Maybe you could make the point that it’s been one of those seasons for the Gophers. The encouraging thing, however, was that the team’s seniors really stepped up. Reggie Berg, Wyatt Smith and Mike Anderson accounted for 8 of the team’s 16 points last weekend, including three goals on Saturday and another Sunday.
"Our more veteran guys gave us some offense, they gave us determination," Woog said. "I wish they would have gotten rewarded the second night, but we might have had to put a little bit better energy in it too. Our guys, considering the frustration sometimes, have done a pretty good job of hanging in there."
It wasn’t just the bad breaks that cost Minnesota the game. Woog said they needed to do something to get the crowd in the game, but couldn’t find the offense.
"Our biggest thing was we didn’t muster enough goals to get the crowd (going)," he said. "(The Seawolves) don’t give up many, either, and we don’t score a lot, so when you start putting them in your own net, then you’ve got to overcome that. Now you have to overcome a bigger obstacle and we never did that."
Woog assessed that his team probably has to win five of its last six games to make the top five of the conference. It just so happens that five of his team’s remaining games are at Mariucci Arena. Even still, there are some things that can’t be controlled.
"Then you have tiebreakers come into play also," Woog said. "You could end up right where you’re at now or you could end up tied for fifth. It’s two points at a time and that’s it. It sounds cliche-ish, but you don’t know. You certainly can’t project us to win four in a row — we haven’t won more than two or three in a row all year."
ON THE HUSKIES: How often do you hear of this? St. Cloud State goaltender Dean Weasler shut out Nebraska-Omaha for the series last weekend in 2-0 and 5-0 wins. He made 55 saves for the second and third shutouts of his career.
Weasler became the first Husky to collect consecutive shutouts since Grant Sjerven did it in 1993. Coach Craig Dahl was quick to note that his goaltender also looks good on the stats sheet.
"His save percentage is at 90 percent — that’s not bad for a freshman in our league," Dahl said. "I’m pleased with him. I think he’s doing a good job."
The blue line figured into the Huskies’ offense last weekend, with the first four goals of the series coming from defensemen. Mike Pudlick netted both scores on Friday. Brian Gaffaney scored the first goal Saturday before Pudlick hit the back of the net again.
That kind of scoring is a direct result of the redistribution of offense after a wave of injuries hit the St. Cloud team. Another sign was that the five goals on Saturday were scored by four freshmen and a sophomore.
One of those freshman was walk-on Archie Bifulk, who scored the first goal of his career in the third period Saturday.
"We invited him out of the student body after we started getting all those injuries early in the year, and I kept him around," Dahl said. "Now when we got this second round of injuries, it kind of forced him into the lineup. I gave him a couple shifts when we got up 3-0 and he scored on the first shot of his career. It was a highlight for him, I’m sure."
Out of all the things Dahl can’t control — injuries, a poor power-play, etc. — one of the things he knows his team can control is its attitude.
"No matter how many guys are out or who’s injured, you can still play as hard as you can and you can be disciplined," Dahl said. "That’s what we’re going to try to do. That doesn’t take any talent, it just takes an attitude. Our attitude is really good."
THE MATCHUP: The interesting thing about these home-and-home series is the variance in crowds from one night to another. Woog knows exactly what to expect in St. Cloud on Friday.
"It’s going to be wild on Friday," he said. "Saturday, you have to take them back in your barn and address it. They don’t like us there and they’re pretty expressive about it. In a way, it’s a different kind of environment, it’s real challenging. It’s kind of like North Dakota’s in one sense. When either one of those teams get a goal or two in a row, boy those places go nuts against us."
Dahl has a different reason for liking home-and-home series: They help avoid road trips where a team has to stay overnight.
"I kind of like them because your fans get to see the visiting team at two different times of the year and you don’t have to stay in hotels on a road trip," he said. "It’s kind of like what Hockey East does a lot of, but we don’t do much of out here in the west."
The question of injury remains for Dahl’s team. The coach, however, knows he can’t do anything about that now, and just has to play with what he has.
"We use the statement, ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,’ right now," Dahl said. "I think our guys will do the best they can. If we get a break here and there, if our goaltending is good, we’ll be good. I can’t ask for anything more; I can ask them to play as hard as they can, and they will do that, I know that."
PICKS: St. Cloud State, 5-3; Minnesota, 2-1
UPCOMING SCHEDULE Next weekend marks the end of the regular season for Alaska-Anchorage, so they’ll have to make a move now if they want to keep their third-place position. And look out for that North Dakota-Wisconsin series.
Friday, Feb. 26 Colorado College at Alaska-Anchorage Denver at St. Cloud State Minnesota at Minnesota-Duluth Nebraska-Omaha at Michigan Tech
Saturday, Feb. 27 Colorado College at Alaska-Anchorage Denver at St. Cloud State Minnesota at Minnesota-Duluth North Dakota at Wisconsin Nebraska-Omaha at Michigan Tech
Sunday, Feb. 28 North Dakota at Wisconsin