We don’t want to gloat, but…
With all due respect to my colleagues from the East, for those of us who, in the past, have been accused of the so-called Western bias in college hockey, this weekend is going to remain in memory for quite a while.
Minnesota knocks off No. 1 Boston College, despite their best efforts to give away a 4-0 lead and the win. Nate Miller’s end-of-shift hit and goal surely made more than one person do a double-take when they saw the highlights on SportsCenter (and not just because there were college hockey highlights on SportsCenter).
North Dakota goes into Clarkson and takes two wins. St. Cloud State does the same in Vermont. Wisconsin takes a pair at home against Northeastern.
That’s seven wins against teams from the East in one weekend. It’s not tough to remember times when the Western Collegiate Hockey Association would be lucky to get seven wins against the East in a month.
It’s weekends like these that renew enthusiasm for the league’s chances in the NCAA tournament. With the exception of North Dakota’s national championship run three years ago, the league hasn’t had much success in the postseason, including a 1-3 record last year.
But this season’s early nonconference schedule offers some hope. Aided by this weekend’s showing, the league is 15-11-1 in games against non-league opponents. At the end of October last year, the league was 5-8 against non-conference teams.
Before we study why the league is doing so well this season outside the conference schedule, a word of caution from North Dakota coach Dean Blais:
"I think it’s too early to tell anything yet," he said. "Certainly, our two wins at Clarkson, the games could have gone either way. I think it’s too early to say the WCHA is the strongest conference."
That being said, let’s get back to celebrating … er, breaking things down.
Bruce McLeod, the WCHA commissioner, said last weekend’s action might just have been a consequence of some good matchups, but there’s always that part of you that hopes it’s a sign of things to come.
"The honest truth is, the last few years, our perennial upper-level teams haven’t been the upper-level teams," McLeod said. "I think those teams are getting back to the top, and normally those upper-level teams are the ones that are taking on the tough, more attractive opponents from the other conferences.
"I think what you’re seeing from Wisconsin, and from Minnesota splitting at home with a tough opponent in BC, I think it’s an indication of those programs getting back to where they normally would be, in the upper echelon of the WCHA."
If that happens, weekends like this might not be so uncommon in the future.
"I’ve heard a lot from (Hockey East commissioner) Joe Bertagna the last couple years, so I called Joe and he didn’t call me back right away," McLeod said. "When he did call me back, I said, ‘Joe, what’s the deal? We finally win a couple of games and you don’t call me back or what?’ They made a lot of hay about that the last couple of years."
Let’s not be vengeful, now.
Return of the Don
Sure, you look at the schedule, see Minnesota at Colorado College and think about Don Lucia’s return to Colorado Springs.
That’s the natural thing to immediately come to mind. Lucia had a tremendous amount of success in Colorado Springs, bringing the team back into the national spotlight. His first trip back, much like Mike Holmgren’s return to Lambeau Field this week in the NFL, has to be a little special.
That’s great, but let’s not let it cloud what should be a great hockey series. Consider:
With Colorado College and Minnesota, you have two teams that play a similar style of hockey. And why not? Lucia took his style to Minnesota and Scott Owens hasn’t done a whole lot of tinkering with what Lucia had at CC.
Although it’s early, both teams sure could use the points. Minnesota has one point to show for a series with North Dakota two weekends ago and Colorado College split a pair at Minnesota-Duluth last weekend. Both will be looking to get some of those points back.
These teams can skate. On the big ice of the Colorado Springs World Arena, that should be very apparent.
The importance of the series is not lost on Owens.
"Hockey-wise it is (important) because it’s a team that we feel is an upper-echelon team and somebody, here at home, we need to play well against," he said. "From that standpoint, it’s a big weekend because of the matchup, even though it’s still early in the season."
From looking at the records, it becomes apparent that both of these teams could use the wins. Colorado College is 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the WCHA. Minnesota is 1-4-1 overall and 0-1-1 in the WCHA. These were two teams virtually everyone had in their top five of the conference, and they need to start playing like it.
Of course, as Owens said, it’s early. Nothing is decided in November, but what happens now may impact the final standings.
Still, despite all the talk of a great series, you can’t overlook Lucia’s return. Owens, though, is trying to stay as far from it as possible.
"I’m sure there’s a lot of emotion. Personally, I’m not that involved with it," Owens said. "I think it’s more Don coming back home after being here six years, and a lot of our players have played for him before. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of emotions."
You may not have noticed…
Another key series that may get lost this weekend is the Wisconsin-Denver matchup. Surprisingly to some, these teams are tied for first in the WCHA, and this series may mean quite a bit as one of them tries to hold onto that top spot.
With some of the other favorites (North Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado College) not having played as many league games, the Badgers and the Pioneers were each able to jump out to 3-1 records in the conference. North Dakota is the true leader in the loss column (with zero, tied with St. Cloud State, who hasn’t played a league game yet, if you want to get technical).
So if one of these teams can sweep this series, it stands to be in a pretty good spot.
And if it was Denver, some eyebrows might be raised. Remember, this is a team the league’s coaches picked to finish sixth — just a year after taking third. If the Pioneers are in first place after the first weekend of November, it may not change the coaches’ minds, but maybe make them give Denver a little more credit.
After last weekend, some of that credit may have to be directed at two Pioneers players — Jon Newman and Joe Ritson.
Newman was named the WCHA’s offensive player of the week for his efforts against Michigan Tech, including a goal and two assists on Friday and another assist on Saturday. He’s second on the team and fourth in the WCHA with nine points.
Ritson leads the team and is second in the conference with 10 points. He came up with his second overtime game-winning goal on Saturday.
This is the first time on the road this season for Wisconsin, which, like Denver, has jumped out of the gate. And there’s no hiding what the difference is between this Badger team and last year’s:
UW is averaging 4.5 goals per game this year, compared to 2.58 last season. The power play has continued to contribute, with the Badgers averaging two PPGs per game. At that rate, they would have 72 at the end of the season, the second-most in Wisconsin history.
The wait pays off
As it turns out, the wait to get into the league was a lot longer than the wait for the first win.
Minnesota State-Mankato picked up its first WCHA victory last weekend, a 3-0 decision at Alaska-Anchorage on Friday. Sophomore goaltender Eric Pateman got his third career shutout.
Needless to say, that’s a good start for the Mavericks and coach Don Brose. With their 2-1 loss to the Seawolves on Saturday, MSU has a 1-2-1 overall record and a 1-1 mark and a week off in the WCHA.
So in the week off, the Mavericks have been told to pick it up.
"We’re asking the kids to pick up the intensity with each other," Brose said. "Even though they tend to back off when they’re playing against their own teammates, we’re asking them to increase that to make each other better players."
The week off comes before what will promise to be quite a special weekend for Brose and the entire university. The Mavericks host Denver next weekend in the first WCHA battles in the Midwest Wireless Center in Mankato.
Brose must really like this league thing. It seems that’s all he can talk about. When asked about how special the first home WCHA games are going to be, he came back with this:
"Denver is picked to finish ahead of us in the coaches’ ratings. We would definitely like to be successful."
That’s a seasoned WCHA coach for you.
Around the league
St. Cloud State: The Huskies go into North Dakota this weekend and, as everyone knows, the smaller rink can be a challenge to some teams who play on the Olympic-sized sheet. SCSU coach Craig Dahl said that makes one part of his team’s game all the more important.
"We have a certain style that we want to play and I think our biggest key is to make sure we win the special teams battle," Dahl said, "because I think that’s going to be the difference in the game."
One of the big improvements over last season, when the Huskies couldn’t buy a power-play goal is the skill the freshman class provides. Joe Motzko, Duvie Westscott, Ryan Malone and Mark Hartigan are all on a power-play unit in their first season, and for a simple reason:
"Skill is skill," Dahl said. "That makes a big difference."
The Huskies are 11-for-38 on the power play this year, good for second in the league at 28.9 percent. St. Cloud has also killed 34 of 35 penalties.
Minnesota-Duluth: Along with Mankato, the Bulldogs have the week off. We hope coach Mike Sertich is using the time to get well from that bout with pneumonia.
UMD is at St. Cloud State next weekend.