This Week in the WCHA: January 20, 2000

This hasn’t happened in a while

This is a weird situation.

Not many times in the last few years have we been forced to give credit to North Dakota for a great effort … in a losing cause. Most of the time, when the Sioux give that kind of performance, they win.

But as hard as they tried, the Sioux couldn’t turn a pair of impressive comebacks into a pair of impressive comeback wins. Try as they did, David Hukalo wouldn’t allow it.

The soft-spoken Badgers sophomore left quite a ringing in the Sioux’s ears with two overtime game-winning goals — on nearly identical feeds out of the right corner from Steve Reinprecht.

Speaking of which, how many times in practice this week do you imagine North Dakota coach Dean Blais drilled his team on the pass from the right corner to the slot? Probably more than once.

And now, these teams separate for the rest of the season. With no more regular-season meetings, the next time Wisconsin and North Dakota face off could be the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five’s championship game. And then, who knows?

Each team has a different way of looking at things from now on.

Last week, Blais put a lot on the line when he said the series with Wisconsin was the MacNaughton Cup for his team. With two losses, one could assume, therefore, that the Cup is bound for Madison.

Don’t believe everything you read.

"I still think we can come back and win it," Blais was quoted as saying after Saturday night’s game. "This makes it a little tougher. All we can do is take it week by week. We’re not going to give up. These guys have won (the last) three (regular-season) championships with a lot of character.

"Don’t count us out yet."

But as impressive as was the Sioux’s ability to make a comeback — from two goals on Friday and three on Saturday — their ability to fall into such deficits was equally as shocking.

Blais said his team’s performance was dominating, but his offense ran into a brick wall in UW goaltender Graham Melanson. Still, not being able to complete the comeback was frustrating.

"They still have a good hockey team, don’t get me wrong," Blais said, "but when you come behind from 2-0 and make it 2-2, that’s a real disheartening loss on Friday night for character."

While not all the blame rests there, you have to look at the goaltenders. Karl Goehring only allowed three goals on Friday, but also three goals in the first period on Saturday. He was then replaced by Andy Kollar, who allowed the Badgers’ fourth and fifth goals before the OT winner.

On the Wisconsin side, how improbable is it that the Badgers would beat North Dakota with the same play two nights in a row? And how improbable is it that the person who would win it is Hukalo?

Maybe the lesson to be learned from this series is that you don’t trust probabilities in this rivalry. Who would have expected UW’s John Newberry to squirt water on UND’s Carey Eades in 1982, causing the most celebrated brawl in college hockey history?

The Badgers and their fans have probably now had enough time to celebrate two huge victories to face some facts:

1. Wisconsin nearly lost two games they should have won in regulation. There is a case to be made that the Sioux nearly took the games from the Badgers, but really, the Badgers nearly gave them away.

2. There’s a long way to go here. Wisconsin can’t afford to take periods or games off, or it’s going to bite them. And it may be a team like Mankato that’s ready to do the biting.

So with the WCHA season down to six weekends and with the Badgers holding a four-point lead, Blais was more than happy to put all the weight on Wisconsin’s shoulder.

"With 12 games left, let Wisconsin carry that cross for a while," Blais said. "Let them try to get No. 1 in the country and let them try to protect that lead. It’s not easy to do."

He should know.

And Blais got in a jab at Wisconsin fans, in regard to the capacity crowd of 15,237 and how he hopes to be able to pack the house nightly in the new building the school is building.

"Our crowds are like that all the time and we only get 6,200 in," he said. "I know we can get 10, 11,000 in there every game. That’s the difference: we’ll do it all the time, Wisconsin did it only once so far in two years. Are they true fans? I don’t think so. They weren’t there for the NCAA quarterfinals last year at Dane County."

Departure of the week

Alaska-Anchorage’s Rob Douglas didn’t make the plane to Minnesota last weekend. It wasn’t until he showed up playing for the Anchorage Aces of the Western Professional Hockey League that anyone knew where he was.

Therefore, the senior forward gave up the rest of his season with the Seawolves, joining a list that now includes four players who have left WCHA teams in the middle of this season.

Without knowing all the facts of the situation, it’s hard to comment on it directly. But when exactly did bailing out in the middle of the season become acceptable?

"Your teammates are counting on you through thick or thin," said St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl, who went through this process when Matt Noga left his team in December. "Frankly, I’m a parent; my kids aren’t going to quit in the middle of anything until it’s over. Then, if they want to quit, that’s their choice. But during it, they can’t because people are counting on you, even if you’re not playing a lot, they’re counting on you to be there for practice or if somebody gets hurt you need to be ready to play.

"It’s life. It’s learning life lessons. You can’t run when things aren’t going your way."

Very superstitious

Superstition can be an interesting thing in hockey.

And for a team mired in a scoring slump that was starting to approach epic proportions, it can be a way out.

On Saturday night, Colorado College coach Scott Owens pulled out last season’s home jerseys — the gold ones with the green eyes. The result? The Tigers ended a scoring drought that extended over 150 minutes and went on to beat Minnesota-Duluth 5-1.

Yes, Owens freely admits, he is a superstitious man. After all, he was a goaltender.

"Why not change it up a little bit?" Owens said. "We juggled our lineup, we went with our goaltender that had played fewer minutes (Colin Zulianello), we thought we’d change the jerseys too. Who knows, we could have worn the same jerseys, gone with the same lineup because you’d like to think the guys are going to come out fired up. It’s that time of the year to maybe try some things."

And yes, the plan is to wear the golds for the time being.

"We are going to wear them for a couple weeks yet, win or lose," Owens said. "We’ll wear our golds on Saturday (at home against Denver) and we’ll wear our golds in the non-conference games after that. We’ll just take it from there. We got quite a nice response from our fans and that’s part of it too."

Bad blood or bad calls?

Minnesota is one of the most disciplined teams in the WCHA. Before last weekend, they had not been assessed a major or disqualification penalty.

But against Denver last weekend, something strange happened. On Friday, the teams combined for 73 penalty minutes; on Saturday it was 48.

The big blow on Friday was Erik Westrum’s five-minute kicking penalty and game DQ for, obviously, kicking Denver’s Erik Adams. Reports from the game said Westrum’s skate went through Adams’ jersey and left a mark on his chest.

When did this series become a heated rivalry? DU coach George Gwozdecky said he didn’t think there was bad blood since his team had only played Minnesota twice a year for the last two years.

"I don’t know if I’ve ever been one to focus on officiating, but I thought officiating was a factor in the series," Gwozdecky said. "I thought they called both games very close, very tight. I thought especially the second game was extremely close called, due in a large part to a predetermined idea by the officials, based on the Erik Westrum kicking incident, that both teams, especially us, would be emotionally charged up and angry and want to seek retribution.

"I don’t know if the game was any more physical or there were any more incidents that occured compared to any other game that either Minnesota has played or we have played. It was just the opinion of the officials that they were going to call it close, and they did."

Said Minnesota coach Don Lucia: "I think the game dictates what ends up happening."

Another idea that came up was that this may have been carryover from the DU-CC series of the last years, when Lucia was at CC. Not so, Gwozdecky said.

"Between the assistant coaches, absolutely," he said though. "When it comes to recruiting, if you sit down with them over a cold one I think they’ll have all kinds of stories to tell you."

Going for the Gold Pan

Don’t look for either Gwozdecky or Owens to be a guest appraiser when the Antiques Roadshow rolls into the Rockies.

When asked to affix a monetary value to the Gold Pan, awarded to the winner of the DU-CC season series since 1993-94, neither could come up with a definitive answer.

"I would say it’s a very inexpensive piece of … piece of … (you really wonder what he wanted to say here) apparatus," Gwozdecky said. "I don’t know what the hell to call it. I have no clue, I’m saying 40 bucks, 30 bucks, 50 bucks, something like that. I could be way off, it could be $200, 500, it could be 10."

Owens countered: "Probably not that much. It’s an old prospector’s pan that has been more symbolic than anything. In a year when you’re 1-6 in one-goal games and you’re 11-11 overall, you take the little things too. We think it’s a small championship but we’re taking it very seriously."

The Tigers have the upper hand this season. With a pair of wins in the previous home-and-home series this season, all they need is a tie to take home the pan for the first time since 1997-98. And right now, they could use a couple of rivalry wins to get things going.

"Our guys are very excited to play DU," Owens said. "It’s something that we stress. It’s getting to the point of the year where the points are very valuable, aside from the rivalry and the Gold Pan. We need the points. There’s going to be a lot at stake this weekend."

Gwozdecky said there is such a thing as over-preparing a team to play a rival.

"We purposely try not to do a whole lot different because this is always a bit more of an emotional series than other series because of the rivalry," Gwozdecky said. "You can stoke fires maybe too much and all of a sudden, when it comes time to drop the puck on Friday night, guys are going to be so keyed up they’re not thinking about how they’re supposed to play."

Still, the Gold Pan is no centerpiece.

"When you look at it, it’s nothing very special," Gwozdecky said. "The significance of it is the special thing. As a piece of furniture or whatever the hell you call it, it’s not much to look at."

But with two wins this weekend, Gwozdecky would certainly find a place to keep it.

Underappreciated player of the week

Last week, I asked you, the readers, to send me your thoughts on players whom you felt were underappreciated or didn’t get the press they deserve. Through the end of the regular season, we’ll be spotlighting some of those players in this column.

Scott Meyer probably wasn’t exactly sure what his role was going to be this season.

Dean Weasler had finished last season as St. Cloud State’s No. 1 goaltender and by all appearances was ready to take it again this season. But when Weasler dislocated a kneecap, Meyer had to step in.

And he has done so capably. In his last nine starts, the junior has three shutouts — including one on Saturday against Michigan Tech. He is 8-2-1 this season with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. He leads the league in all three categories.

Dave Kendall, who nominated Meyer, had this to say in his e-mail: "Great lesson in not getting discouraged and making the most of your opportunities."

Dahl said Meyer’s improved play has a lot to do with his improved practicing.

"We had talked last spring, and I said, ‘Here’s what you need to do to play,’ " Dahl said. "He needed to bear down and practice better — he wasn’t a very good practice player. From Day One, he has been practicing to get better since we got him started. He’s really been working hard every day. The difference between a guy who just goes through the motions and a guy that you can really tell is trying to get better is the difference between being successful and not. He’s definitely doing that.

"I always tell him that good follows good. You practice good, you play good."

More good might be on the way.

Thumbs of the week

Up to throwing articles of clothing on the ice after your team scores in overtime. When Hukalo scored for Wisconsin on Friday, a pair of pants and a shirt rained on the ice. On Saturday, a bra came out. Here’s to new traditions. Let’s get this going!

Down to using a skate as a weapon. Westrum kicked DU’s Adams, drawing a DQ, which eliminated him for the next game. This week, WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod also handed down an addition game suspension, meaning Westrum will sit on Friday.

Up to the Gold Pan. It’s probably worth about $1.50, but it’s worth more than its weight in gold to the teams. Too bad neither of the originating coaches — DU’s Frank Serratore and CC’s Lucia — are involved anymore.

Final note

Did you notice the two No. 2 teams in the country are from Wisconsin? The Badgers are second in the Division I poll and St. Norbert is No. 2 in the Division III poll.

Thanks for all the e-mails for underappreciated players. There’s still time if you want to nominate someone. Let me know at [email protected] you think isn’t appreciated enough.