It’s the end of the world as we know it … or is it?
Dean Blais isn’t mincing his words this week.
Flat-out, undeniably, he knows exactly what this weekend means.
"This," Blais said, "is the MacNaughton Cup."
When presented with Blais’ remarks, Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer was a bit more diplomatic about the situation.
"If one of us wins two games this weekend, we’re definitely in the driver’s seat. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world," Sauer said.
And so it’s come to this. Wisconsin and North Dakota. As luck would have it, and because of North Dakota’s tie against Colorado College last week, these two teams are tied for the lead in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association at the league’s halfway mark. Two games in Madison, Wis.
And two ways of looking at the series.
You could take Blais’ interpretation, and say that whoever wins this series takes home the MacNaughton Cup. Two wins and it’s time to make hotel reservations for the West Regional.
Or, you could take Sauer’s more cautious approach, meaning that there’s still quite a bit of hockey left to be played.
Sauer’s story, taken with a lot of analysis, might hold more weight at this time.
Not to say this isn’t a huge series, and no offense to Blais. But a look into the schedule shows that the future may be a bit kinder to the Sioux than to the Badgers.
After this weekend’s series, the Badgers will host only two more conference weekends. North Dakota has three.
But, proving that every statistic between these two teams has to be close, the winning percentage of the conference opponents left differs by .002. North Dakota’s opponents are statistically a bit tougher, at .431, than Wisconsin’s, at .429.
In other words, a split in this series will probably mean this race will go down to the last weekend. And if that happens, North Dakota will be watching. The Sioux gain two games on the Badgers on Jan. 28 and 29, when they go to Michigan Tech while Wisconsin is idle.
The Badgers pick those two games back up in the last weekend of the season, when they host Colorado College and North Dakota hosts nonconference foe Bemidji State.
There’s no doubt, however, that two wins from one of these teams this weekend will go a long way in that race.
There’s also no doubt that the player most eyes will be on this weekend is Wisconsin’s Dany Heatley. He was with the Canadian national team at the World Juniors when these teams met for the Badger Hockey Showdown championship, and everyone wants to know if things would have been different if he was at the Bradley Center instead. North Dakota won that game, 3-2 in overtime, adding just a bit more fuel to this already-heated rivalry.
Sauer knows Heatley can have an impact, but who would have thought Blais would have drawn his ire — jokingly, we hope — when the freshman’s subject came up?
"Dean’s the one that solidified him going to the junior team. I’m mad as hell at him because he’s the one that made that statement that if they don’t take him, they should be shot, or whatever," Sauer said with a smile.
"If I were an opposing coach knowing that we have a guy like him in our lineup, I’d be a little concerned too. He definitely can score. We had some opportunities to score (in Milwaukee). If we can get Dan the puck, relative to the guys who had the puck, probably a good chance that there’s going to be some goals scored."
The Badgers and the Sioux have tended to be similar in wins, losses and ties, Heatley noticed.
"In the dressing room, we’re always looking at the board to see how North Dakota did," he said. "It seems whenever we tied or we lost, they did the same and when we won, they won. It’s been neck and neck."
North Dakota is coming off what Blais initially called his team’s best game of the season, a 4-0 win over Colorado College on Saturday. Blais backed off that statement a bit this week — admitting he said it but adding that his team has played well in other games — but said his team was sound down the line.
"We only allowed (CC) 24 shots or something like that, and they weren’t a lot of great quality shots and not a lot of second shots," Blais said. "(Goaltender) Karl (Goehring) had a great game, obviously, by shutting them out. We had good line play all the way through. Our defensemen were solid. Our forwards created a lot offensively.
"When you beat a good team like Colorado College by four goals and only allow them 20-some shots, that’s a pretty good game."
And on the subject of goaltending, Blais said Goehring will start Friday’s game, but remained uncommitted on Saturday’s starter. He has been known to utilize a rotation liberally, with Andy Kollar seeing time as well. But he does think this series means the MacNaughton Cup, and if his team loses on Friday, don’t be surprised to see Goehring, the more battle-tested of the two, back in goal on Saturday.
And for a team that plays as well at home as North Dakota does, here’s fodder for the double-take of the week:
"At times, I think our team plays better on the road than it does at home," Blais said, noting the controlled atmosphere on the road and the routine teams go through with pregame meals and such. "It kind of brings the team together and you’re focused more."
One decision, many consequences
The pressures placed on college hockey players — some as young as 18 years old — are numerous. Trying to balance school with a rigorous ice schedule is something most of us have trouble fathoming.
But there’s a lure out there for college hockey players. If their dream is to be in the NHL, some will tell them, they have to get noticed.
Matt Pettinger got noticed this week.
Yes, every case is different, but this seems to fall into the file into which so many others have been thrown: Too eager to get to the pros.
Pettinger, a sophomore at Denver, decided to skip out on the rest of this season and take a shot at the pros. He signed with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League.
This may not be as troubling if it were an isolated case — if one player a year left the WCHA for what he assumes is greener pastures. But Pettinger is the third player in just over a month to leave league teams in the middle of the season.
In early December, Shawn Roed left Minnesota and Matt Noga left St. Cloud State. Roed apparently left because he had difficulties getting into the college mindset — playing and practicing coupled with schoolwork — and Noga said he left because of problems with the way he was being used as an athlete.
But, DU coach George Gwozdecky said Pettinger’s sole reason for leaving was to improve his standing in the June NHL draft. With more games to play, there more opportunity to get noticed.
Yes, Pettinger will probably get double the number of games on the ice, but then what? He’ll get drafted and probably sign with his NHL team and play next season in the minor leagues.
Again, but then what? Few people will ever make the NHL for an extended period of time, and while the end result is going to be up to Pettinger, the odds are probably against him.
It’s a little like Las Vegas. Millions every year see the lights and want to try it out. Most of them crap out.
Much of this has to do with Pettinger’s play with the Canadian junior team at the World Juniors earlier this month. One of his assistants on the team was Dean Clark, the head coach of the Hitmen.
Gwozdecky said Pettinger may have been persuaded by people telling him he could do much better than the two goals he has scored this season in the WHL, where defense apparently is no priority.
But Pettinger may actually have just abandoned the one thing that was truly helping his game — not just his stats.
"The reason he had so much success at the world tournament is based upon his development in the WCHA, nothing else," Gwozdecky said. "He and Dany Heatley were the two best players on the Canadian national team. I think that tells you an awful lot about what college hockey does for these guys.
"He’s not going to be challenged nearly as much as he was here."
Heatley said he wasn’t surprised that Pettinger chose the WHL, saying there was some pressure on the Denver forward at the World Juniors.
Pettinger may have started down a slippery slope. Eventually, he will determine if his decision was the right one. But the NHL is always going to be there. While the doors to college will always be open, there’s no going back to college hockey.
"When you start letting hockey use you as opposed to you using hockey," Gwozdecky said, "all of a sudden you start to run the risk of problems, you start to run the risk of things you can’t control."
That’s a keeper
Alaska-Anchorage coach Dean Talafous maintains that he doesn’t look at standings or statistics.
In that case, here’s a friendly bit of advice for the coach: You might want to look this week. You might be pleased with what you see.
Talafous’ Seawolves own third place in the WCHA this week thanks to their sweep of Michigan Tech at home last weekend. Not bad, considering the top two teams in the league are ranked two and four in the country.
Still, standings apparently don’t mean much to a coach just looking for a solid effort from his players.
"Our kids are playing as hard as they possibly can," Talafous said. "I’m very pleased with their effort. I can’t ask any more of them."
Keeping that third-place spot is probably going to be a tall order for the Seawolves. But, again, that doesn’t seem to concern Talafous too much.
"If you’re playing at the top of your game and you’re putting every ounce of energy into each shift, what else can a guy ask?" he said. "These are guys that were unanimously picked to finish 10th and they’re battling every weekend and doing a good job of it. All we can do is continue to play at the top of our game. There’s a lot of good teams, and we don’t know where we’ll sit at the end of the year, but we’re not really concerned. We just want to get better every weekend and keep working."
(I would just like to point out at this time that I did not pick Talafous’ team to finish 10th. I picked them to finish ninth. Thank you.)
The Seawolves even have some WCHA insiders pulling for them to hold on to a top-five finish, just so we can finally see what it would be like for Anchorage to host a first-round series.
And if that happens, Klage Kaebel just might have a hand in it.
The senior, who has four goals and three assists this season, drew Talafous’ praise for upping his play.
"Klage Kaebel has probably been the one in the last month-and-a-half that really surfaced as a senior," Talafous said. "He’s scored some big goals and really been a leader. I think everybody on the team would say that Klage has been the one that has really surfaced as of late."
But don’t use the term "go-to guy" with Talafous. Folks in Anchorage might not know what that means.
"We don’t have a go-to guy," he said. "Everybody has to chip in for us to score a few goals a game. We don’t have the Reinprechts and the Heatleys and the Panzers. We just don’t have all the stars. These are guys that are scoring 40, 50, 60 points a year and I think our leading scorer last year was under 20 points. It really has to be a team effort."
Nothing wrong with feeling good about a team effort. And, if the Seawolves keep winning, there’ll soon be nothing wrong with seeing them in third place.
Thumbs of the week
Up to Goehring. The North Dakota goaltender earned his 54th career win with a 4-0 victory over CC last Saturday. He is tied with Darren Jensen as the Sioux’s winningest goaltender.
Down to Wisconsin only playing North Dakota in one league series this year and the next. Rivalries must be considered for scheduling, but is there any bigger, competition-wise, right now?
Around the league
St. Cloud State: Even though Michigan Tech has won only one conference game this season, it might be the last team St. Cloud State wants to see this weekend.
The Huskies — Minnesota version — have not played since a 2-2 tie with Minnesota on Dec. 11. And no matter how bad the Huskies — Upper Peninsula version — have been, they’ve always seemed to have St. Cloud’s number.
MTU won all four meetings last season and has won five of the last six games. Even though it lost both games last weekend, Tech at least played, which might give them an advantage on Friday.
Colorado College: The Tigers have to hope that they have hit rock bottom. They are 2-7-1 in their last 10 games, including a tie and a loss last weekend at North Dakota.
But maybe a return home will help. CC plays at home for the first time in more than a month this weekend when it hosts Minnesota-Duluth.
Wisconsin: More from Heatley. He was named the No. 1 North American prospect for this summer’s draft by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau this week.
His reaction? "It means a little bit. It’s nice to have, but that’s not my main focus. I just want to come out here and try to improve every day and help the Badgers."
Alaska-Anchorage: Goaltender Cory McEachran returned from suspension in time for last weekend’s series with Michigan Tech.
McEachran was suspended on Dec. 3, according to the school, after his involvement in an incident involving the use of a fire extinguisher in a dorm. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor reckless endangerment charge last week and received a one-year suspended sentence, a fine, restitution charges, community service and alcohol screening.
McEachran dressed in both games last weekend, but did not play.
Know of a WCHA player that doesn’t get the recognition you feel he deserves? Let me know with an e-mail to [email protected] so I can start to compile what I’m calling the All-Unknown team. They don’t have to be the biggest scorer or the greatest goaltender or the best defenseman on the team; they just have to do a solid job and not get noticed as much as some others.