This Week in the WCHA: December 1, 1999

Sleepless in Grand Forks?

Dean Blais can usually sense a problem before it happens.

Not that he’s one of those Tarot readers on the 1-900 lines. Rather, he seems to be able to sense problems in the dressing room before his North Dakota team takes the ice. When they’re not mentally prepared, he knows it.

For example, after the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five championship game last season in Minneapolis, Blais divulged to reporters in his postgame news conference that there was something wrong in the Fighting Sioux locker room before their loss to Denver.

But he also knows when his team is just outplayed. Like it was against New Hampshire on Sunday. He also appears to know a hot goaltender when he sees one.

UNH’s Ty Conklin stopped 40 of the 42 shots that came his way, and the Wildcats won 6-2, sending North Dakota to its second loss in three games.

"New Hampshire was just that good," Blais said. "We outshot them, but Conklin was an All-American goaltender. He had a little luck and he was really good. Lee Goren hit three goalposts. He had saves (where) I was on the bench and going crazy. Usually, I’m pretty calm, but there were three or four saves that were unbelievable.

"They (the Sioux) were mentally ready to play. They didn’t back off, we didn’t just go out and go through the motions. It was a good hockey game. There was a lot of intensity."

Not that it’s time to check on the insurance or anything, but this is the first time the Sioux have lost two of three games since the end of the 1997-98 season. At that time, UND lost 7-0 to Minnesota-Duluth, beat Wisconsin 6-3 and lost to Wisconsin 6-4 to close the regular season. They also lost the WCHA Final Five championship game to Wisconsin.

So is there something wrong with the Sioux? On one hand, a team that loses as rarely as North Dakota is open to a stretch like this every two years. On the other, the Sioux have given up six goals in the two losses — the previous one was to Minnesota State in Grand Forks, N.D.

Karl Goehring, who, with the exception of a few stretches, has been a rock in goal for the Sioux, has weathered both six-goal losses. Andy Kollar played the game in between, and notched an 8-0 shutout of Vermont.

"My feeling right now is probably to play Andy Friday night in Duluth," Blais said. "We’ll see about Saturday."

The concern with Goehring right now isn’t his effectiveness in net. Well, it is, but in a different way. Blais said Goehring has been struggling with a shoulder injury that may have been hindering his performance.

"He had a little stinger against Mankato, which we lost 6-5, no coincidence, and then we lose 6-2 to New Hampshire when Karl’s in the net," Blais said. "He doesn’t make excuses, but we know from the trainer that he has a problem with his shoulder."

Which leaves the UND coaching staff with a dilemma. Do the Sioux go with the guy who has played most of the games in his collegiate career and carried them to the NCAA tournament, albeit without a win there, or with the capable backup who has a 12-1 record in a little over a year in college?

It’s a question that will certainly be pondered by many as the season goes on.

Denver’s struggles continue; Gwozdecky says Pioneers may be pulling out of funk

The best thing Denver can say about the month of November is that it’s done. Finished. Gone. Torn off the calendar.

The Pioneers were 0-8 last month, with sweeps coming from Wisconsin, Minnesota State and Colorado College, and losses last weekend to Providence and Boston University. DU hasn’t lost eight straight games since the 1988-89 season and is one loss shy of the school’s record for futility.

If you’re an optimist, however, there is a good note: Denver didn’t light the world on fire early last season, either.

Through 14 games this season, the Pioneers are 5-9. At that point last season, they were 7-7. You know the rest: a 26-13-2 finish and a WCHA playoff title. So you just never know.

But the Pioneers need to turn this around soon. Coach George Gwozdecky there’s a long way to go before anything is decided, and that his team may be starting to do just that.

"When you’ve coached at this level for a number of years, I think you realize that at no time are you out of it," Gwozdecky said. "This is no time to panic or start putting all kinds of pressure and stress on the team. It’s starting to come around. We’ve been demanding in some of the things we ask our players, but at the same time we remain positive. That’s the way you come out of a streak, that’s the way you maintain your positive outlook.

"There was no question that, with the makeup of our team this year, there were going to be periods where we were going to be very good and other times where we were going to struggle. We have gone through both periods. We’ve been very good at times and at times you look and say, ‘That’s not the same team I saw last week or last month.’"

One of the players it is tough to fault for the Pioneers’ slump is goaltender Stephen Wagner. He just hasn’t received much help.

Wagner has a 3.26 goals against average and a .871 save percentage, but defense doesn’t affect those numbers. Gwozdecky said the ease with which Denver’s opponents have obtained quality chances is especially troubling.

"Defensively, we haven’t been good," Gwozdecky said. "We’ve given up a lot of what I consider easy goals. We haven’t forced our opponents over the last few weekends to work real hard for the goals, and a lot of them have been the back-door variety. I think Steve Wagner has done a good job of keeping us in certain games.

"I don’t think we’re going to be successful a lot if we get into shootouts. We need to be a little bit better defensively and try to win games where we keep the other team’s shots low and the goals against down. Until we start getting some guys who are struggling back in sync offensively, I think that’s going to be our forte."

That struggling offense hasn’t helped things either. Denver is seventh in the 10-team league with an average of 2.93 goals scored per game, more than a goal-and-a-half off the pace set by North Dakota.

In general, the high turnover in players from last year’s success story may be hurting the Pioneers.

"When you really analyze our team, I think you look at, No. 1, the inexperience," Gwozdecky said. "With that big graduating class, we had a lot of guys who played some very important roles on our team last year. With them graduating, we have a lot of guys who have had to step in and have struggled with the additional responsibilities."

That optimist will always say there’s a chance, maybe especially for the Pioneers.

"We started out a little average last year. So, who knows?" Gwozdecky said.

Don’t blink

St. Cloud State always seems to have this way of sneaking up on the league just when it seems like the Huskies have dropped off the face of the Earth.

Who would have thought they could be able to sweep Wisconsin out of the WCHA playoffs last March, on the road, no less? This year, they have started to turn around what could have easily become a disaster.

Two weeks ago, the Huskies lost to Wisconsin on a Friday to drop to 0-5 in the league. On that Saturday, though, Scott Meyer notched a shutout, the first of three straight wins for the Huskies, including two last weekend at Minnesota State.

So they go into this weekend’s series with Denver with confidence, and, perhaps more importantly, things working.

"I really didn’t feel like we weren’t working hard or anything, I felt like we weren’t finishing," Huskies coach Craig Dahl said.

And now?

"The last four games, Scott Meyer has played very well in the net for us," Dahl said. "He’s about 91 percent (in save percentage — he actually leads the league at 92.1 percent), and we’re finishing on our opportunities."

Dean Weasler, the No. 1 goaltender entering the season, dislocated a kneecap in a game against Minnesota-Duluth three weeks ago, giving Meyer the spot. And Meyer has made the most of it. So much that Dahl said Weasler probably could have played last weekend, but he chose to go with Meyer instead.

Meyer is third in the conference with a 2.34 goals-against average and first in the league with an .800 winning percentage (4-1).

If the goaltending question can remain answered and the pucks can keep finding the back of the net for the Huskies, the league may just be forced to pay attention. In the meantime, though, the Huskies have to make sure they don’t beat themselves.

"What we’ve talked about this week is that our real opponent seems to be us, how we play," Dahl said. "That’s probably true for most teams. You just play as well as you can and as hard as you can and see what happens."

A funny thing happened in Duluth

Was it incumbent upon the rest of the league to lose for Michigan Tech to get its first win of the season?

Darn near.

Saturday was not a good one for the WCHA in general — the league was 1-4 in non-conference games — but the Huskies claimed their first win of the season, a 3-0 decision over Minnesota-Duluth.

MTU broke a 19-game losing streak dating back to last season and improved (hmm…) to 1-13.

A sign of things to come or just a bright flash in a dark season? The Huskies host Minnesota State this weekend with a chance to make sure teams won’t overlook them in the future.

Thumbs of the week

Down to my Nov. 4 column, in which I pointed out that the WCHA had won seven teams in one weekend against Eastern opponents. Boy, that came back to bite me this weekend, when the league was 3-7 in non-conference games. I should have known this would happen.

Up to Minnesota-Duluth for passing its 1998-99 WCHA win total (four) on Friday. Then again…

Down to Minnesota-Duluth for failing to hold home ice against Michigan Tech. At 5-5, the Bulldogs aren’t bad, but losing to Tech at home is bad. No offense intended.

Up, again, to Don Lucia, who suspended a player because he wasn’t doing well in his classes. It’s nice to remember, especially at Minnesota right now, that there is no such thing as college sports without college.

Around the league

Wisconsin: Take Badgers captain Steve Reinprecht out of the lineup, and UW apparently has problems. The guy has missed two games in over three years with the team and the Badgers have lost both games, including Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Michigan.

In the game in which he was hurt — Friday’s 5-1 win over Michigan State — the senior notched the first five-point game of his career. He also received seven stitches to the back of his head after he went crashing to the ice. His status for this weekend is unknown.

Colorado College: The Badgers’ hosts this weekend got a pretty big dose of reality last weekend, falling back to Earth hard in two losses out East and falling out of the USCHO poll.

After the 5-1 loss to Boston University on Saturday, coach Scott Owens said BU was the best team he’s played so far this season.

"It’s the first time we’ve been outshot all season long in a game," Owens told USCHO’s Scott Weighart. "And I actually thought we played not a bad hockey game tonight."

Minnesota: The Gophers’ RPM line appears to be carrying on without the R. Shawn Roed was suspended from the team for being behind in classwork, leaving linemates Nate Miller and John Pohl to carry the team.

Each had three points last weekend — Miller had two goals and Pohl one.

Alaska-Anchorage: Haven’t heard much from the Seawolves lately? No one has. In case you missed it, Anchorage had the last two weekends off and now hosts Minnesota this weekend.