The final countdown
This shouldn’t be such a shock every year, but sometimes it seems like it.
With five weeks remaining in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s regular season, every spot — from No. 1 to No. 10 — is up for grabs. Sure, some teams are locked into finishing in a certain area (Michigan Tech, for instance can finish no better than sixth, and that would take a Herculean effort), but each league team is currently involved in a struggle to keep or better its position.
And that’s the way it should be. A year ago, North Dakota was so dominant that the Sioux more or less had the league wrapped up by the beginning of February.
So with 10 conference games left for the majority of the teams (four of them have eight remaining), let’s look in depth at each team and what can happen before the MacNaughton Cup is awarded:
Wisconsin Records: 19-6-1, 14-4 WCHA Place: First (tie with North Dakota), 28 points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): Michigan Tech (2), ST. CLOUD STATE (2), Alaska-Anchorage (2), Minnesota (2), COLORADO COLLEGE (2) Record of remaining league opponents: 57-66-6 (.442) Outlook: The coincidence is almost uncanny. Wisconsin plays Michigan Tech in Houghton this weekend for the annual Winter Carnival series. UW coach Jeff Sauer remembers well the last time Wisconsin played at the Winter Carnival. Does 1990 ring a bell? WCHA champion? Playoff champion? National champion? For Sauer, it does.
The Badgers are tied with North Dakota for first, but they have two games in hand on the Sioux. And even if UW and UND have the same record in the next eight games, the Badgers will enter the final series of the season having clinched the MacNaughton Cup by benefit of the tiebreaker they earned by sweeping the Sioux last month.
Yes, things are good right now for the Badgers. They become No. 1 in the nation by watching New Hampshire lose. They hold their fate in their hands. Their schedule in the last five weeks is the third-easiest (by opponent winning percentage). But don’t be completely fooled.
The Badgers’ last game, a loss at Minnesota State, may end up showing up more often unless they can get some more scoring from players other than Steve Reinprecht, Dany Heatley and David Hukalo. In other words, the second and third lines need to produce. Otherwise, North Dakota, and maybe even St. Cloud State, will be happy to take over first place.
Not to disparage Tech, but the Huskies are probably the closest thing UW has to a gimme the rest of the way. Going into Minnesota has never been fun for the Badgers (with the possible exception of last season), Anchorage already beat UW once this year — at the Kohl Center, no less — and St. Cloud State looks very strong. Not to mention that series with CC that may mean the title.
North Dakota Records: 18-6-2, 13-5-2 WCHA Place: First (tie with Wisconsin), 28 points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): St. Cloud State (2), ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (2), MINNESOTA-DULUTH (2), Minnesota State (2) Record of remaining league opponents: 51-43-5 (.515) Outlook: North Dakota coach Dean Blais doesn’t want his team to peak too early, as he said they have done each of the last two years. The results of those years were disappointing and frustrating exits from the NCAA tournament in the quarterfinals.
But with this schedule, the Sioux will have to be at their best to avoid falling out of second. Hope remains for a fourth consecutive WCHA regular-season title, but Blais knows that will take some help from the Badgers — or, more accurately, the Badgers’ opponents.
The Sioux still have to take care of business for themselves. This weekend’s series at St. Cloud should be a good gauge to see how focused UND is on the end of the regular season.
St. Cloud State Records: 15-8-1, 11-6-1 WCHA Place: Third, 23 points
Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): NORTH DAKOTA (2), Wisconsin (2), DENVER (2), Colorado College (2), Minnesota, MINNESOTA Record of remaining league opponents: 72-53-8 (.541) Outlook: St. Cloud State has the second-toughest remaining schedule, having to play both of the teams ahead of it in the WCHA standings as well as teams looking to crawl ahead. But that suits SCSU coach Craig Dahl just fine.
"You like to be in that position rather than being at the bottom staring up," he said. "It’s a chance to find out how good you really are. We get to play the top two teams in the league and we’re right behind them, so if you have any designs of winning the title, obviously you have to do well against them. I’d rather be in this position, it’s a good position to be in."
The Huskies have two games in hand on fourth-place Alaska-Anchorage, so there is a little bit of a gap there. Realistically, first place is quite a longshot. If they can sweep North Dakota this weekend, though, they will be one point behind the Sioux with two games also in hand on them.
To keep third place, the Huskies will probably have to defend home ice (not an easy task when North Dakota is coming in) and steal a couple on the road. UAA and Colorado College, and maybe Minnesota and Minnesota State, will be on their heels.
Alaska-Anchorage Records: 12-10-2, 10-8-2 WCHA Place: Fourth, 22 points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): COLORADO COLLEGE (2), North Dakota (2), WISCONSIN (2), Minnesota-Duluth (2) Record of remaining league opponents: 62-37-4 (.602) Outlook: For some reason or another, it always seems the Seawolves have to continually prove they belong among the league’s leaders. Here it is again. UAA has the toughest remaining schedule in the league, having to travel to North Dakota and welcoming Wisconsin.
Somehow, however, all this does nothing to faze UAA coach Dean Talafous, at least on the outside. Standings, polls … garbage. Quality on the ice is what matters. "Had we looked at the polls to start the year off, right now we probably would have already secured 10th place," he said. "I think so far it’s worked well that we try to get better every week."
Without question, this will be an uphill climb for the Seawolves. Of their eight games, they may need to win five or six to hold onto a home-ice spot, depending on what happens below them. That means taking care of business against CC and Duluth and stealing one from either North Dakota or Wisconsin, or both. Not an easy proposition, but certainly one Talafous is willing to take.
Colorado College Records: 14-12-1, 10-7-1 WCHA Place: Fifth, 21 points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): Alaska-Anchorage (2), Minnesota (2), MINNESOTA STATE (2), ST. CLOUD STATE (2), Wisconsin (2) Record of remaining league opponents: 52-41-7 (.520) Outlook: Don’t discount the Tigers, but they need to find their offense. Fast. They can score 10 goals against Air Force, but how will that translate against the likes of Anchorage and Wisconsin? This is the third-toughest remaining schedule, and it shows. The test they will face against a stifling defense like Anchorage’s is a big one.
They can help themselves simply with a split against the Seawolves this weekend. Because they have two games in hand on UAA, the Tigers should be able to gain the point difference in those two games that are the difference.
CC will have to scrap for points in the remainder of the season, especially against the likes of … well, everyone.
Minnesota State Records: 13-11-2, 9-8-1 WCHA Place: Sixth, 19 points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): Denver (2), MICHIGAN TECH (2), Colorado College (2), NORTH DAKOTA (2), Minnesota-Duluth (2) Record of remaining league opponents: 56-72-5 (.421) Outlook: One of the reasons some think the Mavericks could be the big winner in the last five weeks is their schedule. Numbers-wise, it’s the easiest in the league. Granted, North Dakota comes to the Midwest Wireless Civic Center, but MSU has had its share of success against the Sioux.
Minnesota State faces the bottom three teams in the league in the last five weeks. But two of those are on the road. The Mavericks also have to travel to Colorado Springs. But road trips are nothing new to Don Brose’s team. He’ll happily tell you that, of the 31 games his team played against WCHA teams before it became a member of the conference, 26 of them were on the road. That gets you battle-ready.
Getting the win last Saturday at Minnesota was crucial for Minnesota State because it not only got the Mavs two points, it got them a split in the series with the Gophers. You never know when tiebreakers will come into play.
Minnesota Records: 12-12-2, 8-8-2 WCHA Place: Seventh, 18 points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): Minnesota-Duluth (2), COLORADO COLLEGE (2), Michigan Tech (2), WISCONSIN (2), ST. CLOUD STATE, St. Cloud State Record of remaining league opponents: 63-63-3 (.488) Outlook: To avoid going on the road for the WCHA first round for the second time in three years (and this should sound familiar by now), the Gophers need to start this weekend. They can’t allow Duluth to catch up in the standings.
Getting some points out of every weekend from now on is imperative for the Gophers.
Minnesota-Duluth Records: 11-13, 7-11 WCHA Place: Eighth, 14 points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): MINNESOTA (2), Denver (2), North Dakota (2), ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (2), MINNESOTA STATE (2) Record of remaining league opponents: 64-56-10 (.492) Outlook: The Bulldogs have again fallen upon lean times, having won once in their last five games. They have two games in hand on ninth-place Denver, but eighth place isn’t where they want to finish.
And they have something to say about it. Besides a pair with Minnesota, Duluth plays sixth-place Minnesota State. Six of UMD’s last 10 games are at home, which may help, but that alone won’t move the Bulldogs anywhere.
Denver Records: 9-17-2, 5-14-1 WCHA Place: Ninth, 11 points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): MINNESOTA STATE (2), MINNESOTA-DULUTH (2), St. Cloud State (2), MICHIGAN TECH (2) Record of remaining league opponents: 43-56-3 (.422) Outlook: If the Pioneers want to move up (and why wouldn’t they?), there is a clear opportunity for them. With Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan Tech all coming to Magness Arena, there’s a chance.
But DU will have to turn things around quickly, or a trip to North Dakota for the first round may be in the future.
Michigan Tech Records: 4-24, 2-18 WCHA Place: 10th, four points Remaining league schedule (home games in CAPS): WISCONSIN (2), Minnesota State (2), MINNESOTA (2), Denver (2) Record of remaining league opponents: 53-46-7 (.500) Outlook: It isn’t good. But then again, the outlook hasn’t been good all season for the Huskies. They may need to win five or six of their last eight games to climb out of the cellar. That, however, is unlikely.
When offenses collide
Pit the nation’s No. 2 offense against its No. 3 offense, and what do you get? A goaltender battle?
That only follows reason for North Dakota, the nation’s second-ranked offense, at St. Cloud, third in the country. Whichever team has the hotter goaltender on any given night will probably win, a statement echoed by both Blais and Dahl.
But who, then, has the advantage? St. Cloud’s Scott Meyer leads the WCHA in goals against (1.92), save percentage (.931) and winning percentage (.833). A North Dakota goaltender is second in all three categories — Karl Goehring in goals against and save percentage and Andy Kollar in winning percentage.
Blais said he plans to start Goehring on Friday and Kollar on Saturday.
"It’s just too tough to go with one goaltender and I think a lot of teams are finding that out right now," Blais said. "It’s nice to have one guy, but after practicing and playing all the games, it’s tough to get up every weekend, especially when you’re playing the top teams."
Both of these teams have quite a bit at stake this weekend, and Wisconsin even has a stake in this series. If St. Cloud can get a sweep, that would likely put the Badgers four points up on North Dakota and five up on the Huskies with four weeks left in the season. That, my friends, could seal the deal.
As a side note, North Dakota is apparently good for league attendance numbers. Not only do the Sioux fill Engelstad Arena on a regular basis, they also do wonders for other teams’ figures. Wisconsin got its first sellout at the Kohl Center when UND came to town, and Dahl said tickets were sold out for this series early in the week.
Winter Carnival or Winter Carnage?
Anyone willing to dismiss Michigan Tech this weekend in its series with Wisconsin at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena probably hasn’t seen the numbers.
Since 1950, the Huskies are 65-29-6 during Winter Carnival. No matter how bad it gets in Houghton, the players always seem to take it up a notch for Winter Carnival.
"Winter Carnival is always a special time for us," MTU coach Tim Watters said, "and I’m sure our players will be pumped up and ready to go."
Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer played at Winter Carnival when he was at Colorado College in 1965. The Tigers got beat. Badly. To the tune of 3-1 and 10-1.
"It just seems it’s the big night of the year," Sauer said. "One of the major reasons, it’s not so bad this year, but in the past you played Friday night and turned around and played at noon or 1 o’clock on Saturday. It’s a pretty quick turnaround, and that always works to the home team’s favor."
The Saturday game this year is scheduled for 5:05 p.m. after a 7:05 p.m. start on Friday.
Getting back to the last time Wisconsin was at Winter Carnival, that 1990 team swept the Huskies and then went 12-1-1 the rest of the way to win the NCAA title.
A bit of randomness
Other thoughts that hit me sometime between the Super Bowl on Sunday and watching "The Kids in the Hall" today (What has become of my life?):
Minnesota State coach Don Brose said this week he thought his team played better on Friday but got a win on Saturday. How many times do you hear coaches say this, and not really understand what it means?
What part do you get upset about then? That you played well on Friday but didn’t have enough to win, or that a slightly less impressive effort the next night was good enough to win. Pound your head over that one.
Cory McEachran started both games for Alaska-Anchorage last weekend, seeing his first action since being suspended for using a fire extinguisher in the UAA dorms.
The result: A tie and a win. And a very happy coach.
"He’s had a couple good practices but we’ve always said we have a couple freshman walk-ons and whoever’s hot’s going to play," UAA coach Dean Talafous said. "The door opened a little bit for him to get an opportunity and he did very well."
But with all the trouble the Seawolves have had with goaltenders in the last nine months, with Doug Teskey leaving the team last season and Gregg Naumenko signing a pro contract at the Frozen Four, it’s refreshing for Talafous to see some success between the pipes this year.
"I’m just thrilled we have a goalie on campus this year and that he knows how to put his gear on," Talafous said. "We thought we were set for four years with Naumenko and in April, he’s gone."
How many teams get handed the No. 1 ranking off a loss? That Wisconsin was named the top team in the country in the USCHO poll this week just shows how fickle voters can be, and how much a week off can mean.
If New Hampshire had lost two weekends ago, when Wisconsin lost to Minnesota State, it’s probable that the Badgers would have fallen as well. Which gave Sauer an idea.
"I told the guys (Tuesday), hey maybe we’d better not play the rest of the way," Sauer said. "It’s kind of goofy, but it’s certainly an honor to be in that position. I told the guys it’s great to be there but it really doesn’t mean anything in January; let’s make sure it means something at the right time of the year."
Niagara-bashers keep having bits of their argument for why the Purple Eagles shouldn’t be in the NCAA tournament chipped away. Winning in Colorado Springs last Saturday gives Niagara another nice note to put on its tournament resume.
Underappreciated player of the week
If there has been a mark left upon the WCHA this season by Wisconsin’s Andy Wheeler, it surely came against North Dakota. The sophomore left winger put everything on the line for the Badgers in the series that may have determined the league winner.
One memory that sticks out is, on a UND power play, Wheeler sprawled out on the ice twice in a row to block Sioux shots. You may not know about Andy Wheeler, but you probably will soon.
"That series, he almost played like his life was on the line in terms of blocking shots and trying to help the team win, and he certainly did," Sauer said.
"From a coach’s perspective, he’s one of those players that you know what you’re going to get every shift. At this level, a coach really appreciates that type of player. He’s going to go out and give it 150 percent every time. That’s what I appreciate about him."
With players like Steve Reinprecht to look up to, Sauer can see leadership qualities in Wheeler’s future.
"He’s a good kid in the locker room," Sauer said. "He’s kind of one of those guys that’s got a twinkle in his eye. I can see him being a captain when we get to that point because, even though he may not be a left wing on the first line, he’s got that kind of character."