This Week in the WCHA: February 26, 1999

This is just about the time of year when people in college hockey start wondering "What if?" What if we win our last four games and team X loses its last four games? What if we split our games and team Y wins three?

It’s commonly called scoreboard-watching. Coaches hate talking about it because they want to concentrate on their game. But who could resist? If you’re two points behind a team, you want to know if you’re going to pick up any ground on them if you win.

So, in that spirit, this week’s preview will focus on the ever-present question: "What if?"

What if Alaska-Anchorage can grab two wins on home ice against Colorado College this weekend? With time running short for the Seawolves to hold on to home ice, what if they only get one win? Are they bound for the road yet again? Does coach Dean Talafous even care? Stay tuned…

What if Denver has a tough weekend at St. Cloud State? What if Minnesota sweeps Minnesota-Duluth? What if Wisconsin gets stomped by North Dakota? In that case, the Gophers would jump from sixth to fourth place.

What if North Dakota keeps playing like they have been? Does anyone stand a chance? Should the WCHA just cancel the Final Five and hand the Sioux that trophy, too? Of course not, but a good bettor (not that I condone gambling or anything) knows not to bet against UND.

These questions and more stand a good chance to be answered in the near future.

No. 5 COLORADO COLLEGE (21-10-1, 16-8 WCHA: 2nd) at ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (13-14-5, 10-11-5 WCHA: 3rd) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 AT, Sullivan Arena, Anchorage, Alaska

ON THE TIGERS: Colorado College has the second spot in the WCHA standings wrapped up, so what’s next for the Tigers? Well, there’s still the matter of the NCAA tournament CC is fighting for. Coach Don Lucia said his team is still shooting for a No. 3 seed in the 12-team tournament.

"Right now we want to try to maintain a third seed if we possibly can," he said. "We’re only playing one senior forward and we’re playing six junior forwards. We need some of our junior forwards to step up, besides Toby (Petersen), and score some goals for us."

With Darren Clark out for the season, the Tigers indeed need some other faces to step up. Some names that come to mind include Justin Morrison (23 points in conference play), Jesse Heerema (21 points) and Mark Cullen (19 points).

Last weekend’s action saw the Tigers split a "home-and-home" series with Denver, and as a result, Denver retaining the Gold Pan. CC lost a 3-1 lead in the third period Saturday, eventually losing, 4-3 in overtime. But Lucia said the Pioneers’ tying goal was kicked in, and should have been disallowed.

"That was disappointing, but we didn’t play a great game on Saturday, we were a little short handed, (Chris) Hartsburg didn’t play," Lucia said. "We’re just getting down in numbers again. Denver’s a good team and they had a lot to play for that day."

The injuries continue to pile up for the Tigers. CC won’t get Jon Austin back until at least next week, and Aaron Karpan may not play this weekend after an injury in practice.

"It has an effect, I don’t think there’s any question," Lucia said. "Actually, I feel pretty decent about where we’re at considering what we’ve had to go through this year. I’m frustrated because it seems like it’s a different guy every night. We can’t get continuity to our lineup. I’m hoping Austin can come back and play next week so he gets a couple games in before the playoffs."

ON THE SEAWOLVES: Alaska-Anchorage didn’t have anything to show in the standings for its pair of losses in Grand Forks last weekend, but coach Dean Talafous doesn’t really care about that.

"It’s a learning process," Talafous said. "One day, if we want to be a champion, we have to learn to play like that. We went out and tried to skate with them and play aggressive, not back down. We’re not there yet but what we found out is we’ve made up some ground. We still have a long ways to go to ever be with the top boys, but at least we had the experience of what it’s like to play against a team that good that’s playing that motivated. Now we go back to the drawing board, back to practice and take it one day at a time. We walked out of there disappointed we didn’t pick up a point the last night, but also feeling that we made a lot of progress. I think it helps us for this weekend and for the playoffs. I think it was a very beneficial weekend for us."

If nothing else, UAA may have won some respect from the North Dakota faithful. After losing, 8-0 on Friday, the Seawolves regrouped to hold a 3-2 lead with 5 minutes left on Saturday.

"I don’t want to forget about Saturday because that was the best college game I’ve seen in years," Talafous said. "It took an hour and 59 minutes. I think there were two penalties. I don’t remember an offsides. It was just up and down, we were playing in North Dakota, a very hot No. 1 team. It’s the best we can play and they forced us to raise our game up another level. For our young hockey team it was a tremendous experience to, first of all, get shellshocked and then recover 24 hours later, raise our game up and actually be able to skate with them for a game."

This weekend’s series with Colorado College marks UAA’s last of the season. Therefore, to stay in the top five, they are probably going to need at least one win. But again, that stuff isn’t all that important to Talafous.

"I think the media and the fans, the standings are very important to them, and maybe even some coaches," Talafous said. "I’ve had teams that have won championships and I’ve had teams that have come in last. Wherever you are, I think you’re best just concentrating on the next game and getting better. We need to get better. We not only want to win this weekend, and we not only want to get home ice and we not only want to get to the Final Five and everything else, but on top of all that, we’re a young program that’s trying to earn some respect and trying to move up in the college ranks. We don’t ever want to lose sight of that, we don’t ever want to play conservative, we don’t want to play scared, we don’t want to play unsure of ourself or hoping to win. We want to play a fearless, aggressive, attacking, confident game."

"If we can’t win with it this year because we don’t have the talent, it will carry into next year with more experience and more talent. Attitude is what wins championships and that’s why North Dakota’s doing so well. Sure, they have the talent now, but it’s the way they play the game, along with their talent, that makes them a champion. If I told our guys, ‘we’ve got to win, we’ve got to win,’ they’re going to play differently. It’s more important that we go out and play the same way we did Saturday against North Dakota, the same way we did against Minnesota (last) Sunday. We need to go after people and play as hard as we can and not worry, not want to win so bad that we play not to lose. We need to play with confidence and without fear. That’s going to be my message to my team."

On another note, the Seawolves are happy to be home. Sure that’s not really news for most teams, but the team was on the road for around 10 days, staying in Minnesota between the series with the Gophers and that with the Sioux.

"It gets to be long, to be honest with you, by the end of it," Talafous said. "You’re pretty weary and kind of anxious to get home and sleep in your own bed. It’s just something we do every year. You look at all the positives, but when you finally get home you kind of crash."

THE MATCHUP: CC swept Anchorage, 8-2 and 4-1, earlier this season in Colorado Springs. Lucia knows what to expect from UAA, but knows his team hasn’t had the greatest success in Alaska.

"I think you know what to expect, they play very close to the best, a very defensive-oriented system," Lucia said. "They try to win games 3-2, 2-1. You know going in it’s going to be low-scoring games. We’ve had good success lately because we’ve been patient. It’s never easy going up to Alaska. I don’t think they’ve lost a home game since November. This will be our sixth year going up and I know last year we swept, and we won in overtime the second night, that’s the only time we’ve ever won two up there."

Talafous kept it simple: "We’re just going to get out there and play hard. If it’s good enough to beat Colorado, we’re excited. If we have to go on the road (in the playoffs), we’ll go on the road. We just want to get better."

PICKS: Alaska-Anchorage, 3-2; Colorado College, 5-2.

No. 1 NORTH DAKOTA (26-2-2, 21-1-2 WCHA: 1st) at WISCONSIN (13-16-3, 11-11-2 WCHA: T-4th) Saturday-Sunday, 7:35 CT, The Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.

ON THE SIOUX: Is Dean Blais and North Dakota getting a little bit greedy? They won the MacNaughton Cup for the third straight year last weekend, and this weekend in Wisconsin, they want more.

"No one’s ever been undefeated on the road in the WCHA, and this would do it for us," Blais said. "If we get two ties, that would still keep the record going. Also, Wisconsin is the only team that has a (winning) record against these seniors."

This group of Sioux seniors has a 7-8 record against Wisconsin, including playoff games.

"You have to use little things like that at this time of the year," Blais said. "Obviously, after the league’s wrapped up, you have to take some other angle and motivation for the guys."

One of the more astounding statistics to come out of the WCHA this season emerged after UND’s 8-0 win last Friday. At that point, the Sioux had scored 17 consecutive goals — the last nine against Denver last Saturday and the first eight against the Seawolves. Yikes.

"When we’re moving the puck and intense, we’re a pretty good hockey team," Blais said. "There’s real good balance up front and the real key is for our defensemen to play sound defensively. They join the offense but their big thing is to make an outlet pass, get the puck to the forwards. You can sit and have fun watching the forwards go down the ice, but get them the puck."

The Sioux are currently on a 14-game unbeaten streak, and have outscored teams 42-14 in their last six games. Elsewhere on the streak watch, David Hoogsteen leads UND with a nine-game point streak after a four-point weekend against UAA. Goaltender Karl Goehring has a 12-game unbeaten streak and Andy Kollar has a six-game winning streak.

"This is the first time I’ve seen it where both goaltenders have been about even," Blais said. "Karl is our No. 1 goaltender, he’s fresh, but Andy’s only lost one game this year. That’s helped Karl because the way we run practice, you need three goalies because we do so many shooting drills that if you don’t have three, it’s just too tough."

After all, would you want to face the Sioux shooters every day in practice?

ON THE BADGERS: Wisconsin allowed a three-goal comeback at Michigan Tech last Saturday to go to waste, as the Huskies all-but-killed the Badgers third-place hopes with a 4-3 victory to force a split.

It’s strongly improbable that UW will be able to get third place because of their upcoming competition: they face North Dakota this weekend and then go to Minnesota. The last time Wisconsin won in Minnesota? To put it in context, it was in the Met Center. You know, that place you probably parked on top of if you’ve been to the Mall of America.

Since the Madison media didn’t really want to talk about last weekend’s action, the topic of conversation at the weekly news conference was — guess who — North Dakota.

"They’re trying to build some momentum going into the playoffs. I think the last thing they would want to do is take a weekend off," UW assistant coach Pat Ford said. "They’re playing for pride as much as anything, they’re trying to get that momentum going into the playoffs. There’s a heated rivalry with us. Coming into this building this year, I don’t see them backing off at all. If you know Dean Blais, one of his traits as a coach is intensity. I would anticipate that he would carry that over with the team."

But enough about them, let’s talk about the Badgers. Like about what they’re going to have to do to get a point out of this series.

"You look at three, four weeks ago, a lot of people were wondering if we had a pulse," Ford said. "We got out, we won four of six games. We should have probably won the Saturday night game at Tech and we would be sitting in third place right now. For us, we’re going to have to play a great weekend to get a win out of it. We’re battling for home ice, so there’s a lot on the line. One of the things our guys have shown throughout the year is that, we’ve had a lot of injuries, it’s been a sub-par year for us, but the guys have kept battling. As a coaching staff and as a team, this is a measuring stick for us — how well can we play against the No. 1 team in the country."

One of the keys for Wisconsin is the play of goaltender Graham Melanson. If he can play anything like he did in the championship game of the WCHA Final Five last season, UW has a shot. No pressure or anything.

"For us this year, Graham Melanson has done a fantastic job," Ford said. "There’s been a very very fine line between winning and losing and a lot has been placed on his shoulders. I think, for the most part, he’s reacted very well. I would have to give us the edge in the goaltending department."

THE MATCHUP: It also looked impossible for Wisconsin to get a victory in the late season matchup with North Dakota last season, but the Badgers did it.

"Jeff Sauer has a way of bringing his team along at the end of the year," Blais said. "Every year you can count on it. Wisconsin beat us in the Final Five last year and beat us right in Grand Forks, and deserved it. It wouldn’t surprise me again if they made a charge. They have two difficult situations, playing us and having to go to Mariucci, where they haven’t played well. But don’t be surprised if they pull out some kind of upset or some kind of magic. Jeff has got a way of doing that with his teams."

Ford said this is a true test for the Badgers.

"It’s a challenge. If it was easy, everyone would do it," he said. "We understand that we need to have home ice. With the No. 1 team coming in and the rivalry that we’ve had over the years, I would expect nothing less than a great effort out of our team. We have more on the line than they do, and we’re playing at home. Hopefully we’ll get a huge crowd, we can execute and stay out of the penalty box, play well defensively and get some confidence."

If UND gets a lot of power-play chances, look for the scoreboard to get a lot of action.

PICKS: North Dakota 6-3, 5-1.

DENVER (18-12-2, 11-11-2 WCHA: T-4th) at ST. CLOUD STATE (14-13-5, 8-12-4 WCHA: 7th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.

ON THE PIONEERS: When Denver needs a goal, Mark Rycroft seems to be there.

Just like the championship game of the Denver Cup — when Rycroft netted the overtime winner against Boston College — he scored in overtime on Saturday to give the Pioneers a crucial win over Colorado College.

"He seems to be in the right spot at the right time, and I don’t think it’s luck at all," DU coach George Gwozdecky said. "He enjoys those situations. There are some athletes who respond better than others in pressure situations, he’s one of those guys."

It’s hard to overestimate the value of the win. It broke a three-game losing streak and kept Denver right in the hunt for third place.

"It was very important in many ways," Gwozdecky said. "The way we won it, being able to come back and win in overtime and having to kill off the seven-minute power play they had (early in the second period), and then come back in the third period when we were down by two and put it into overtime and win in overtime, just being able to win a game like that boosts your confidence even more."

"We have played some pretty good teams over the last three games and perhaps hadn’t played very well. Some of the things we did on Saturday once again reinforced how important the basic fundamentals of the game are. We needed to work harder, for one thing. I think we took a step forward in that regard."

Denver controls its own destiny in terms of third place, with two games in hand on Anchorage and the tie-breaker over Wisconsin. While that may also mean more pressure for the Pioneers — knowing one slip may cost them dearly — it also is the case for many teams around the league.

"It’s a real short season left," Gwozdecky said. "You have two weekends, four games and I think everybody around the league knows what it’s going to take to finish in a certain position. We’re very aware that we control our own destiny. More importantly, we want to be able to continue to improve on where we left off on Saturday and instill in us that the college hockey season has about five weeks left and this is the time where you have to make that final push."

ON THE HUSKIES: Two points in a home-and-home series might sound like a reasonable result, but when it’s a pair of ties and you led in both games, there’s a tendency to take it another way.

St. Cloud State scored first and held a 4-3 lead down the stretch until Minnesota’s Jordan Leopold evened the game at 17:55 of the third in St. Cloud on Friday. In Minneapolis the next night, SCSU scored the game’s first two goals, only to have the Gophers claw back for a 2-2 draw.

"When you have 10 players out of your lineup, I’m just pleased we got two points," Huskies coach Craig Dahl said. "There’s not much else I can ask from my players right now."

But goaltender Dean Weasler deserves a lot of the praise for keeping the Huskies in the games. He made 41 saves Friday — including 20 in the second period — and 40 on Saturday to backstop St. Cloud.

"He’s playing really good," Dahl said. "He’s doing the job, and he’s playing just outstanding for a freshman, particularly in trying times."

The injuries are still present for Dahl’s team, which only skated nine forwards and five defenseman against Minnesota. Despite the plague, SCSU is 4-2-4 in its last 10 games.

"It says a lot about the character of our team," Dahl said. "It’s all building a base for next year, whatever happens. Our freshmen and sophomores are really playing great."

The Huskies lost another forward last weekend when Keith Anderson went down with a sprained knee.

St. Cloud — who has the fourth-best overall record in the league but is still in seventh place in the standings — needs to make up ground this weekend, as they travel to North Dakota to close out the season next weekend.

THE MATCHUP: The key matchup here may be the power play. While Denver is at the top of the WCHA, converting on 30.9 percent of its conference chances, St. Cloud is near the bottom at 9.3 percent. The Huskies are also the worst in the WCHA in penalty killing (76.8 percent).

"It’s been one of our strengths this year," Gwozdecky said. "I would fully expect that it would continue to be a strength of ours. It’s something that has worked well, we have relied on it, it has won us games, and our penalty killing has also been strong. Hell, it won us the game on Saturday."

Of course, the DU power play may not make much of an effect, considering SCSU has the second-lowest penalty minutes-per-game average in the league (16.03 minutes).

Gwozdecky is almost expecting Dahl to have something up his sleeve this weekend.

"Craig always seems to have some special things that their team does differently than any other team in the league," Gwozdecky said. "Whether it be face-off plays or whether it be certain break outs, they always seem to have a little bit of a uniqueness. I know at times it gives teams a real test because of it."

PICKS: Denver, 5-3; St. Cloud State, 3-2.

MINNESOTA (10-16-8, 8-11-5 WCHA: 6th) at MINNESOTA-DULUTH (7-21-4, 4-16-4 WCHA: 9th) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn.

ON THE GOPHERS: Despite all the troubles Minnesota has experienced this season, in essence, they still have a good opportunity to make the top five in the standings.

Follow me here: If Wisconsin loses two to North Dakota and Minnesota sweeps Duluth, the Gophers have 25 points and the Badgers have 24. Minnesota and Wisconsin face-off in the last weekend of the series, with the Gophers only needing a split on home ice. They could even finish in fourth if Anchorage slips up this weekend.

Ah, the "What if" game in its best form.

What the Gophers have to do this weekend is just take care of business, something they’ve had quite a bit of trouble doing.

"We’ve kind of had that same scenario in front of us for quite a while here," Gophers coach Doug Woog said. "We’ve had Anchorage here, we had St. Cloud here. All year you have your fate in your hands, but realistically, we’ve had a chance to take care of business the last couple weeks and we haven’t. But we still have life, we still can do it. That’s kind of the way this schedule has worked out."

Minnesota might look at the pair of ties with St. Cloud last weekend as more missed opportunities. Woog said the Gophers had more than their share of opportunities to score in regulation, but missed.

One of the more interesting stats on the Minnesota team is that 10 different players have scored its last 10 goals. Sure, names like Reggie Berg, Wyatt Smith and Dave Spehar are included, but more out of them would certainly help.

"It’s kind of just worked out that way," Woog said. "It really means that Reggie and Wyatt and Spehar and those guys haven’t knocked the cover off the ball. The effort’s been pretty good. The results haven’t reflected the effort."

Here’s one for the record books: The Gophers eighth tie of the season Saturday tied the WCHA mark for most ties in a season.

ON THE BULLDOGS: Here’s where we can get some differing viewpoints. North Dakota coach Dean Blais has said that breaks in the middle of a season can sometimes be more harmful than beneficial.

Minnesota-Duluth coach Mike Sertich would beg to differ. His team played Michigan Tech two weekends ago with six walk-ons because of a slew of injuries and illnesses. This time off has allowed his players to recuperate to the level where all will be back in the lineup this weekend.

"In our case, it was very good," he said.

One of the most important comebacks may be that of goaltender Brant Nicklin, whom Sertich said appeared to be 100 percent recovered from a left knee injury. One more win would put the junior into third place on the UMD all-time win list.

Overall, the drive for the Bulldogs, who have won only one out of their last nine games, is to get ready for the postseason.

"Our motivating factor is to get us ready to play in the playoffs," Sertich said. "We’ve had a tough run. Now, we’re approaching a whole new season. We try to keep it as positive as we can and try to grow up."

THE MATCHUP: Duluth’s feelings toward native son Dave Spehar are well known and probably don’t need to be repeated here. But the Gophers junior has had his way with the Bulldogs. He has more goals against Duluth — 9 in 11 games — than any other opponent.

Sertich wants to have something to say about Minnesota’s plans for a home-ice playoff series.

"They’re fighting for a home playoff spot. We’ll have something to say about it," he said. "We’re not going anywhere. We’re probably going to Colorado, it’s pretty obvious to us. We’re six (points) down with eight (points) to play. We have something to say about what happens next week."

PICKS: Minnesota, 6-3; tie, 3-3.

NEBRASKA-OMAHA (8-23, D-I Independent) at MICHIGAN TECH (9-22-1, 9-17 WCHA: 8th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, Mich.

ON THE MAVERICKS: Nebraska-Omaha, who will join the CCHA next season, claimed its second NCAA sweep this season with 8-2 and 7-3 wins over Bemidji State last weekend.

The 15 goals the Mavericks scored is a record for the young team in a two-game series. They also set records for: most goals in a period at home (5); most shots in a period (29); most shots in a game (57); most goals in a game (8); and most power-play goals in a game (4).

Showing that hockey is popular in Omaha, despite the Mavericks rough season, they sold out the Omaha Civic Center (capacity 8,314) for the 40th and 41st consecutive times last weekend.

ON THE HUSKIES: Tim Watters made himself look like a genius last Saturday.

Wisconsin had just completed a three-goal comeback early in the third period to even the game, 3-3. Then, Watters called a timeout. The Badgers momentum disappeared, and Riley Nelson scored the game-winner midway through the period.

So what did Watters have to say to his troops? Turns out it was relatively simple.

"Calm down," Watters admonished his players. "You have to relax and be composed and think about what we were trying to accomplish out there, not what Wisconsin was trying to accomplish. I thought the guys responded quite well."

Nelson scored two goals and added an assist on Saturday. It was his second three-point night of the season for the junior.

"We need Riley to step up his game offensively and defensively and he did that on Saturday," Watters said.

But the Huskies are still searching for that elusive consistency Watters has always preached. The 4-2 loss Friday was a different story than the win Saturday.

"I think we played well at times and at other times, we let up," Watters said. "You have to play a full 60 minutes in this league to win consistently."

THE MATCHUP: This weekend’s series with UNO may give Watters and Tech the boost they need into the playoffs.

"The main thing is we’re looking to have the team play as well as it possibly can at this time of the year," Watters said. "It’s important that we do that and try to maintain some momentum going into the final WCHA series and into the playoffs."

PICKS: Michigan Tech 3-1, 2-0.

UPCOMING SCHEDULE You know next week’s going to be interesting. No further hype needed.

Friday, March 5 Minnesota-Duluth at Colorado College St. Cloud State at North Dakota Wisconsin at Minnesota

Saturday, March 6 Minnesota-Duluth at Colorado College Michigan Tech at Denver (at Colorado Springs World Arena) St. Cloud State at North Dakota Wisconsin at Minnesota

Sunday, March 7 Michigan Tech at Denver (at Colorado Springs World Arena)