Hotter than … well, it’s hot
It’s a good thing coaches don’t sit during action on the ice. For some, the seats may not be too comfortable.
It’s called a hot seat, and certain WCHA coaches, and other league programs, are feeling the heat.
No one’s particularly comfortable talking about it in public, especially those most in the line of fire.
Last season, Wisconsin’s Jeff Sauer and, to an extent, St. Cloud State’s Craig Dahl had some pressure to improve. Sauer’s contract wasn’t extended another year — not a sign he was on the way out, only that the Athletic Board may have been displeased with the way things were going.
Dahl, meanwhile, followed a fourth-place finish in 1997-98 with a seventh-place finish in 1998-99.
But both coaches proved they still belonged with their team’s with trips to the NCAA tournament last season.
The story may be the same this year.
League sources say there is at least one WCHA coach sitting squarely on a hot seat, with others on shaky ground.
What comes as little surprise to most close to the league is that Michigan Tech’s Tim Watters is most likely in the worst position of all the league’s coaches.
Five years ago, Tech brought in Watters, a former all-American for the Huskies who played in the NHL for 13 years, to resurrect a sleeping program, one with three NCAA titles in its long history.
But the Huskies’ slide has continued, to the point last year where they set an NCAA record with 34 losses.
It is believed Watters has a five-year contract with the school, meaning this is the last year under the original deal.
If that is the case, it’s make-or-break time for Watters.
He said before the season that his freshman class is the best he’s seen during his time in Houghton, Mich. But there are doubts as to whether strong freshman play will be enough to pull the Huskies out of a long funk.
For others, the situation isn’t as critical as it is in Houghton. But the pressure is on.
Dean Talafous is in his fifth season at Alaska-Anchorage, having taken over a program that won just eight WCHA games in 1995-96. Talafous is a bit of a maverick among WCHA coaches in that wins and losses apparently don’t concern him as much as solid play.
Despite a change of style, the wins have been slow in coming. The Seawolves made tremendous strides last year, finishing seventh in the league, but that’s the highest they’ve finished in the Talafous era.
They still have never hosted a WCHA first-round playoff series, or even won a league playoff game.
Success can be measured in a number of ways. Talafous measures it by whether his team gives its all day in and day out. If the athletics program at UAA feels the same way, Talafous should have a job for quite a while — his players are noted for their tenacity and willingness to put it on the line.
But he might feel pressure soon to put wins on the board.
Colorado College’s Scott Owens is in his second year, but he has the misfortune of following Don Lucia, one of the winningest coaches in the long, proud history of the program.
Under Lucia, NCAA tournaments were considered a mere formality. The Tigers won three straight WCHA regular-season titles.
But Owens’ first year proved to be a challenge. The Tigers earned home ice for the league playoffs but were swept by Minnesota.
There is little chance Owens will lose his job after this year, even if the Tigers once again fail to make the Final Five.
But the Colorado College faithful expect results. Owens has to provide them.
The Kids Are Hot Tonight
Fortunately for the CC coach, he may have hit the jackpot.
The additions of Peter Sejna and Alex Kim have thus far proven to be genius. Sejna was named WCHA rookie of the week after scoring three goals and assisting on two in a sweep of Minnesota State-Mankato.
Kim has teamed with Noah Clarke. They are both from the same area in California and grew up playing hockey together. But that’s not the only interesting connection on the team.
Kim and Sejna played for the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League, where Owens coached before taking over at CC. The insider knowledge of the pair appears to have helped so far this season.
Kim and Sejna played the second half of last season on separate lines, which Owens has carried over onto his team.
The results have been exactly what a team in dire need of offense has been looking for.
Sejna, in particular has played with the composure of a senior, Owens said.
“He handled the puck very well for a freshman in this league. He handled the puck in situations like an upperclassman,” Owens said. “He is older (21), but there’s still an adjustment to be made to the WCHA and the size of the sheet. He just protected the puck well and moved it at appropriate times and went hard to the net, and that’s where he got a couple of his goals.
“He helps us on the power play — he’s very good along the wall and down low, which will help our special teams somewhat. He just gives us another quality, proven scorer up front, in an area that we really struggled in last year. Up to this point, he and Mark Cullen have really hit it off well playing together. In an area where we needed a lot of help, he steps in with a lot of experience and should be able to help out right away.”
The Tigers’ offense has a lot to prove this season. Scoring six goals in each game last weekend against Mankato is just a start.
But with some welcome additions, confidence is building.
“We feel more confident opening things up a little bit,” Owens said. “We’ve gotten some scoring out of Tom Preissing as well, a defenseman. We’ve been able to get 40 shots a game, including the exhibition (against Calgary) and we’ve gotten some early success scoring. All of a sudden now, guys are feeling more confident, aren’t gripping the stick so hard. And we’re hoping that it carries over to the rest of the team.”
Light it Up
Is the glass half-empty or half-full?
Do Minnesota fans take seven- and nine-goal outputs in the Gophers’ first two games this season as a sign of a strong offense or a result of playing Notre Dame and Bemidji State?
Maybe a little bit of both.
But what Gophers coach Lucia can take pride in is that he can finally say he is putting a complete offense onto the ice. With freshmen such as Grant Potulny and Troy Riddle, who scored two goals each against Bemidji last Saturday, adding firepower, Lucia can roll four lines.
“I think the one thing that’s different this year is we have four lines that are capable of scoring,” Lucia said. “Last year, we had basically two lines that generated all the offense. Some of the returning guys look better and the freshmen have come in — we’ve put one of them on each of the four lines — and they’ve looked good so far.”
Lucia’s other focus before the season was limiting the opponent’s shots on goal. Well, through two games, the Gophers have allowed only 24 shots.
Mission accomplished … so far. A more mature defense could be the reason.
“I think that’s a big difference,” Lucia said. “Last year we played three sophomores and two freshmen. All of a sudden, that group of five is a year older. The six guys who played last year all return, and we have Paul Martin, who played the first two games and moved a guy who played last year out of the lineup. It gives us a little bit more depth back there.”
Light it Up, Part 2
As promised, all three Minnesota-Duluth goaltenders saw action in the Bulldogs’ exhibition game Sunday against Regina.
But the unadvertised special was that the Bulldogs would treat the DECC crowd — the 2,821 that were there for a Sunday night game — to something they hadn’t seen from the local side in quite a while:
If not for the unabated offense of the marginal Indoor Football League during the summer, the DECC scoreboard wouldn’t have seen this much action in years. UMD beat Regina, a team admittedly weakened by a long road trip, 9-1.
To put that in context, the last time the Bulldogs put nine on the scoreboard in the regular season, Northern Michigan was still in the WCHA, Brush Christiansen was still coach at Alaska-Anchorage, Bob Mancini was leading Michigan Tech, Frank Serratore was ending a run at Denver and “Who Let the Dogs Out?” was still “Whoomp! There It Is.”
Duluth beat Northern 9-4 in February 1994. It’s pretty much been a downslide ever since.
But, if nothing else, the ability to score nine goals — be it against Regina, the Sisters of the Poor or the local bantam team — has to be an encouraging note for the Bulldogs.
Don’t Call it a Comeback
Maybe St. Cloud State wasn’t expected to be in this situation against Ferris State last Saturday. But the Huskies made as much as they could out of it.
Down 3-1 in the third period, the Huskies managed to claw their way back into a tie by, apparently, outworking the Bulldogs.
That’s the kind of attitude coach Craig Dahl wanted to see.
“I just told our guys, ‘If you want to compete for national recognition and stuff, you have to be able to come back from being down,'” Dahl said. “You’re not always going to be leading every game all year long. You have to be able to fight through adversity and still come out in the third period.
“I was real happy with the way we responded. We outshot them 18-4 [in the third] and 4-1 in overtime. We just really played well and came back and probably could have won it.”
Have I mentioned before that freshmen are having a significant impact on WCHA teams early this year? The Huskies are no different. Four of their six goals last weekend were registered by newcomers, including two by defenseman Jeff Finger. Andy Lundbohm and Brian Schuster scored the others.
“That’s good news because they get that out of the way and get some confidence,” Dahl said of the rookies’ first scores. “It also shows the rest of the team, ‘Somebody else can score if I’m having an off night.’
“Jeff Finger played very well, a freshman that can score a goal in each of his first two games, that’s quite something for him.”
He Said It
“In the long run, it helps to get goals from everybody.”
— Minnesota’s Potulny.
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On the Docket
The highlight of this weekend’s schedule is the opening of Denver’s, as the Pioneers’ regular-season debut is against Boston College. DU gets a pretty good opportunity to show if it’ll be able to compete against the nation’s top teams.
Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks tangle for the first time this season with a home-and-home series. Fairbanks hosts on Friday and Anchorage is the site on Sunday. The Governor’s Cup series will be completed with two more games in March.
In the conference, North Dakota and Michigan Tech will meet for the 200th time on Saturday.