Climbing the ladder
When Wisconsin beat Michigan Tech at home, it could have been called expected. When it split with Minnesota-Duluth at home, it could have been called a setback. When the Badgers swept non-conference foe Northeastern, it was — interesting.
But with a 5-1 record through six games, the question of the Badgers’ opponent quality could easily be raised, and they had played all six games at home. Yes, the scoring was finally there, but against who?
Maybe that’s why it took until last weekend’s road sweep of Denver for the Badgers to be nationally ranked. UW made its debut this week at No. 7 in the USCHO poll following a pair of games in which it had to pull wins out down the stretch.
On Friday, Dany Heatley — who has so far lived up to his billing as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s top freshman — scored off a deflection off a Denver defenseman with 37 seconds left to give the Badgers a 3-2 win. Saturday, freshman Brian Fahey scored with four minutes left to break a 3-3 tie and, after an empty-net goal, UW had a 5-3 win and the cherished road sweep.
As far as UW coach Jeff Sauer is concerned, now his team can forget about the home loss to Duluth. The Badgers stand in first place with 10 points through six league games. Alaska-Anchorage is two points back and North Dakota has seven points, but also two games in hand over the top two.
You can just see the character building on this Wisconsin team. When freshmen show the poise to be out there when the game is on the line and come through with game-winning goals, things are looking good.
"The interesting thing, we scored eight goals on the weekend and we had seven different people score," Sauer said. "We have a lot of that type of thing going on now, which is a real positive.
"The big thing is we’ve played eight games, and the last three Saturday nights, we’ve had major people out of our lineup. (Steve) Reinprecht was out, (Dan) Bjornlie was out one night, Saturday night (against Denver) we only played with four defensemen and we were still able to win. That tells you a little bit about the character."
Yes, it was easy to dismiss the Badgers as pretenders early in the season, given the schedule. But Sauer knew the early part of the schedule was when his team was going to have to play well. A bad start this season would not allow the Badgers to contend for the title in early March. Sauer said his team deserves to be ranked where it is, and that they will have to push forward on the ice to maintain that ranking.
"In our own minds, we felt we had a team that should be a pretty good team this year," he said. "I think we’re just doing it on the ice. We’ll just continue to try to do it on the ice and take it where it goes, so to speak.
"I think people underestimated our freshman class from a year ago. They have really contributed to us this year. Now, everything has kind of fallen into place. We have to stay free of injury. We’re like any team — we lose two or three key people and it brings us back."
Beginning with the Denver series, Wisconsin’s schedule has begun to pick up. The Badgers host Minnesota this week, and despite the Gophers’ rough start, this series is always one to watch.
Minnesota has flat-out owned this series this decade (25-9-4) but there may have been a crack last season the Badgers can try to crawl through this year. Minnesota won both games at the Kohl Center last season, but the Badgers got their first win at the new Mariucci Arena later in the year, followed by a tie.
But the "Border Battle," as it has been dubbed, may have lost some of its luster, especially on the Wisconsin side. Sauer claims his team’s Minnesota natives are the only ones that really understand the rivalry.
"Minnesota, to Dany Heatley (a Calgary, Alb., native), it’s another country," Sauer said. "That’s the thing that we have to do as a coaching staff, get our non-Minnesota players to understand what this rivalry is all about. There’s been enough talk about football this year when we played Minnesota early on that the guys know that.
"I didn’t have a very good record against Doug Woog; hopefully I can turn that around against Donny (Lucia), at least while he’s coaching at Minnesota."
The biggest thing about this weekend, as opposed to some meetings in the past, is that both teams have something to gain besides the satisfaction of beating the other. Wisconsin can hold onto the top spot with a sweep and Minnesota could climb back into the top half of the league with a pair of wins; and, as Sauer put it, the Gophers just have a lot to play for.
"I know the Minnesota teams get ready to play us, it’s a big weekend for them," Sauer said. "It’s a big weekend for them in terms of making the next step. From our standpoint, we want to continue what we’ve started here.
"If you’re going to have a matchup of two big teams in the WCHA this weekend, this certainly is the right time for both teams to make a statement. Hopefully, we’re the ones that do."
Anchorage next in line
This is nothing new to North Dakota.
For the second straight week, the No. 1-ranked Fighting Sioux face an opponent looking to validate its claim as an upper-level team. Last weekend, it was St. Cloud State. UND promptly gave the Huskies a setback, winning 6-0 and 4-3.
This weekend, Alaska-Anchorage steps up to face the team that always seems to kill any momentum its opponent may have. It happened last season to the Seawolves, when they lost to UND 8-0 and 4-3, starting a six-losing streak that ended the season.
Once again, this is a measuring stick for the team the coaches picked to finish dead last in the league. They’re in second place right now. But coach Dean Talafous said there’s really nothing special his team can do to prepare for the Sioux.
"At this point in the season, we have to play our game," Talafous said. "We realize playing a team like North Dakota, we have to be at the top of our game, no question. But there’s not a whole lot else we can do. We’ve been working real hard all year to continue to improve and be at our best. That’s pretty much what we have to do.
"We can’t play nervous, we can’t play scared, we have to play our game to the best of our ability."
The Seawolves swept Michigan Tech in Houghton last weekend, giving the team a bit of a boost into what most likely will be their toughest weekend of the young season.
No matter what happens this weekend, Talafous said he’ll accept the effort because he’s seen a lot of pride in his team.
"We’re obviously not a perfect team, we were picked by everybody to finish last. We’re not a powerhouse by any stretch," Talafous said. "As a coach, when you have a team where each individual is coming to the rink every day and giving it his best effort, that’s all you can ask. I haven’t always had that here, but I can honestly say now that we have a team that takes pride in their effort and their performance and tries to get better each day.
"I don’t know what the season’s going to end up being, I just know it’s going to be very rewarding because of the effort they give each day."
Sertich is back; will Bulldogs follow?
Good news for Minnesota-Duluth: coach Mike Sertich should be back on the bench this weekend after missing the team’s last four games while fighting pneumonia.
Sertich said Tuesday that he wasn’t fully recovered — that probably won’t happen for another month — but he was well enough to return to practice.
Bad news for Minnesota-Duluth: Sertich returns to see his team travel to St. Cloud, where they have had a history of mediocre performances, according to Sertich.
"My biggest concern is having 20 guys on the rink compete," Sertich said. "Historically, we’ve had a tough time there. Some of the times we’ve been there, we have not played with a full contingent of players because a few people never showed up to play."
Having a week off may help the Bulldogs, though. At the very least, it gave them a week to get some health back — Sertich included.
"This is the first time I’ve been with them for a couple weeks," Sertich said. "I haven’t been near the rink. When they had the week off, the staff wasn’t there. So it was kind of a week off. The only thing that I noticed is that a couple guys who were nicked up are pretty well healed now. I think that’s the best thing that came out of the week off."
To be successful this week, Sertich said, the Bulldogs will have to stop the mistakes and protect the puck.
"That’s where we’ve had trouble with Wisconsin and Colorado, to date," Sertich said. "A lot of it was self-inflicted pain. We just can’t panic, we’ve got to be patient."
Bad times in Houghton
To put it nicely, things have been better at Michigan Tech.
The Huskies are 0-8 overall and 0-6 in the WCHA. Four of the team’s eight losses have been shutouts, including a 3-0 loss Friday to Anchorage.
The team’s leading scorer is Jarrett Weinberger with six. Through eight games.
Things don’t get much easier for the Huskies this week, as they face Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
Michigan Tech coach Tim Watters said he would prefer not to comment for this story, saying only: "We’re fragile right now, but we’re going to plug ahead. It hasn’t gone as well as we expected."
One wonders how long it may take for the Huskies to get their first win of the season. After the series with Colorado College, they have another home-and-home series with Northern Michigan, who blanked them in two games to start the season.
Only once before in the long history of the Michigan Tech program has the team lost its first eight games. That was in 1940-41, when Tech lost its first 10 before winning the season finale.
That one may be in danger of falling.
Thumbs of the week
This is a new segment of the column, highlighting some of the good and bad performances of last weekend’s action.
Up to Don Lucia. He got through the weekend he had been dreading since he took the position at Minnesota — a return to Colorado College — with a split.
Down to A.J. Aitken. The Michigan Tech senior co-captain took a spearing penalty in the last minute of Friday’s loss to Anchorage, putting him out for Saturday’s game. Captains have to know better than that.
Up to Toby Petersen. He became the 60th member of the Colorado College "Century Club" with his 100th point late in Friday’s win over Minnesota.
Down to whoever planned the Wisconsin-Minnesota series the same weekend as the game where Ron Dayne will probably break the NCAA rushing record. Not a lot you can do about this, though.
Around the league
Denver: One of the biggest questions for any coach is "How will my team respond to adversity?" George Gwozdecky should get his answer this weekend.
A week after dropping a pair at home to Wisconsin, the Pioneers have to regroup and face Minnesota State-Mankato on the road.
"What I would like to have is two wins," Gwozdecky said. "That’s probably the No. 1 response that I would like to see out of our team. That’s a big response, because Mankato’s a pretty good team. We’ve played them over the past two years and had really had some great battles. We’re not an experienced or mature team yet.
"The ideal response is for us to be able to go in there and play as well as we can, having corrected some of the areas or having improved some of the areas that we were weak in this past weekend.
"Believe me, it was extremely disappointing to come out on the short end on the scoreboard both nights," he added, "but the feedback that we got, all I can say is thank you very much, now we know where we’re at, now we know what we have to get better at, and we will."
Minnesota State-Mankato: You’ve read about it, you’ve heard about it and now it’s finally here. The Mavericks finally drop the puck in a home WCHA game on Friday against Denver.
Now that it’s here, I can probably stop writing about it, huh?