WCHA Column: Oct. 26, 2000

The Penalty Push

You know something’s wacky when Dean Talafous starts noticing more penalties in his Alaska-Anchorage team’s games.

In the biggest surprise of last weekend (beating by far the Michigan Tech upset of North Dakota … note the sarcasm), Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks combined for 38 penalty minutes in a two-game series — 24 in Sunday’s finale.

An aberration? Maybe. Or is it a sign of things to come this season?

Look at the numbers. In 12 games involving league teams last weekend, there was an average of 36.1 penalty minutes per game. Doesn’t sound like all that much, but take into consideration that Anchorage is always going to bring that number down — not at all a bad thing, either.

But there’s the other end of things. Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth combined for 78 penalty minutes last Saturday — a 9-2 Gophers victory. (Plenty of those whistles came in the last minute, though.) Wisconsin and Minnesota State-Mankato put up a full hour in the box on Friday and 52 minutes on Saturday — both one-goal wins for the Badgers.

“Boy, that’s a lot of penalties,” Talafous noted.

You said it.

One particular instance stands out. In Saturday’s Wisconsin-Mankato game, the Badgers went 0-for-9 through three periods with the man advantage. In overtime, already playing four-on-four, referee Mike Riley whistled Mankato’s Andy Hedlund for holding Wisconsin’s Dany Heatley as he went for the net.

(While it’s debatable if Heatley got the call because he was Heatley, that’s a topic for another time. It was probably a penalty, but in OT?)

On power play No. 10, Heatley finds Jeff Dessner in front of the net. Game over.

Obviously, penalties played a role in Wisconsin’s win. But are penalties playing too much of a role in some games?

“I try not to pay a lot of attention to officiating,” Talafous said. “You know, they do their job, we do ours. It can be a distraction if you get caught up in it. But we’ve taken more penalties than in the past, and so have the teams we’ve played against.”

The early statistics this season seem to back that up league-wide.

Last season, league teams totaled 6,396 penalty minutes in 396 games, an average of 16.2 per game. Already this season, there have been 780 penalty minutes in 39 games. That’s an average of 20 minutes per game.

It may turn out this is just a temporary trend, one that may even out later in the season.

“Every year you look at that, and the penalties are always a little bit higher in the early part of the season,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, whose team combined with Boston College for 40 penalty minutes last Saturday.

“Obstruction is a big factor that everybody is trying to crack down on. For a nonconference series, there were quite a few penalties.”

Obstruction, a penalty committed against a player without the puck, is a part of the game some have linked to a decrease in scoring. In that respect, a crackdown may be welcome.

“Those are things I’m glad to see being called,” Gwozdecky said.

Upset No. 1

Colorado College coach Scott Owens reportedly had to look at the Headline News ticker twice to make sure it wasn’t a misprint.

Phones started ringing off the hook at newspaper sports desks.

And the e-mails to incorrect prognosticators started flowing in.

All because of a simple 5-4 game made not so simple by the fact Michigan Tech had the 5 and North Dakota the 4.

Yes, the Huskies pulled off college hockey’s first huge upset of the season last Friday, downing the defending national champion Fighting Sioux in UND’s home opener.

Plenty were asking, “How the h-e-double hockey sticks did this happen?”

Well, when one team scores more goals than its opponent, it wins. Plain and simple. That’s hockey.

Coaches are fond of saying that in the WCHA, any team can beat any other on any given night. The unspoken part of that used to be that an exemption was made for the team predicted to finish 10th beating the team predicted to finish first.

Not anymore.

Michigan Tech turned the WCHA on its ear last weekend. Maybe we can consider it a change for the better.

“Hopefully we’ll see more of that this year, from everybody,” Talafous said. “I think everybody’s program is growing and improving, and I think that’s good for Tech. It may send a signal that maybe that’s the kind of year it’s going to be … hopefully.”

A Touch of Class

Troy Jutting has already proven himself to be a classy individual.

At times, emotions can cloud better judgment. That’s when a coach is around to put things in perspective, and Jutting passed his first such test with Mankato last weekend.

After Wisconsin’s overtime goal last Saturday, members of the Mavericks team made a beeline for the exit — some quicker than others.

Now, not only is it tradition for teams to shake hands at the end of series, it’s just plain sportsmanlike.

But after such a heartbreaking loss, in front of a raucous student section that had been on goaltender Todd Kelzenberg all night, the players just wanted out.

Jutting jumped off the bench and starting running — on the ice, mind you –after his players. He got into the locker room and pulled them back onto the ice to shake hands.

Jutting could have joined his team in the locker room. But he did the right thing.

It’s good to see that kind of attitude present in the WCHA.

A One and a Two and a…

Somehow, it had to work out this way.

With North Dakota’s shocking loss to Michigan Tech, the Sioux fell out of the top spot in this week’s USCHO.com poll. Wisconsin moved up from No. 2 and Boston College took the second spot.

And to think of it, just before the Badgers and the Eagles tangle on Friday. How fitting.

Add to that drama Wisconsin’s loss to BC in last year’s national quarterfinal in Minneapolis, and, ladies and gentlemen, you have a storyline.

“I think it’s kind of neat, early in the season like this,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said at his Monday news conference. “Hopefully, we’re at 1-2 at the end of the year as well.”

But the Badgers are going to have their hands full to hold onto the nation’s top spot this weekend. Ask Denver’s Gwozdecky.

He saw his Pioneers play pretty good hockey last weekend, but still fall a goal short in two games.

“I can’t believe there’s a better blueline corps in the country than what Boston College has,” Gwozdecky said.

Sauer doesn’t expect to see much of the clutch-and-grab style of hockey his team has grown accustomed to through its first six games.

“It’ll be a fast-skating series,” Sauer said. “What we’ve been through here the last six games, I don’t expect that to happen. I expect Boston College to come out, drop the puck and tell us, ‘Come out and get us.’ I hope they do that, and we can kind of freewheel a bit. I think that will be to our advantage.”

King of the Road

Anchorage’s Talafous doesn’t want to throw freshman goaltender Chris King into the fire.

Throwing him into the scalding heat of a rivalry, however — that’s another story.

King started both games last weekend against Fairbanks and, lo and behold, came out with two victories.

“He seems to handle it well,” Talafous said. “He just loves to play the game of hockey. He’s a competitor and he just seems to have a real good approach to the game. He goes out and has fun, he’s aggressive throughout the game and the score doesn’t really bother him. It could be a one-goal game and he just does his thing, and I like that about him.”

That’s good because, from now on, the heat is on. The Seawolves travel to Minnesota this weekend to face what Talafous called “the hottest team in the country.”

There’s a good chance King will play again. Corey Strachan is still in the mix, though, and Talafous doesn’t want to commit to anything this early in the season.

“It’s early in the year and we’ve got one freshman with no WCHA experience and we’ve got a kid with only one year of experience that had a good year last year — not a great year,” Talafous said. “They have to get it done on the ice day in and day out, but I think our goaltending situation is better this year than it was last year.”

A Moral Victory is Still a Loss

Gwozdecky doesn’t buy into moral victories. He’s not going to run around saying how his team was close to beating one of the top teams in the nation or how his Denver squad had some chances to win.

But they were that close against BC. And that gives the coach something from which to work.

“We got a great amount of feedback from this weekend’s series,” Gwozdecky said. “As the first games of our season, we knew there were going to be things we’d find out that we have to work on, and we did so.”

The power play might be on top of that list. The Pioneers were just 1-for-15 with the man advantage. Something the Pioneers will learn quickly is that when you have that many chances, you have to take advantage of more than one.

“Our special teams, especially our power play needs to have work, but we knew that going in,” Gwozdecky said. “That’s an area we’re really trying to hammer on this weekend in preparation for our first league series of the season.

“You do a lot of things. You try personnel, you look at different formations, you look at drills that you need to work on to simulate certain situations that cause you to have problems or cause you to have success. Boston College was a very tough team to play against.”

Oh, About Those Gophers

There’s always a market for coaches trying to pump up the team they’ll be playing in the upcoming weekend.

But Talafous has a different spin on Minnesota — more long-term.

“I think the only reason [the coaches] picked them third is because you have to pick North Dakota No. 1 until somebody beats them. And Wisconsin was No. 1 all last year. So I think we just put them there,” Talafous said. “But I think if people were honest, looking at the recruits they have and all of their big players coming back — their goaltender, Westrum, Leopold — I really think the coaches felt that Minnesota was as good as the other two teams. When the other two teams had such great years, you just kind of put them there to start the year off.”

He Said It

“I think they have an excellent hockey team. We think we’re very good. And we had back-to-back nights where we’re defending our lead with their goaltender pulled. That kind of says it all.”

Boston College coach Jerry York, on Denver. The Eagles escaped with a pair of one-goal wins over the Pioneers last weekend in Denver.

News and Views

  • Minnesota-Duluth’s Adam Coole stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced in a 3-1 loss to Minnesota last Saturday. If only the Bulldogs could have mounted some offense, they probably would have won.
  • Speaking of goaltenders that didn’t deserve to lose, there’s Mankato’s Kelzenberg. He stepped in as the starter last weekend when Eric Pateman’s back injury took him out of the lineup. Against Wisconsin, he played as well as the Mavericks could have expected in two one-goal losses. It’s been a rough start for Mankato: first the suspension of three players and then Pateman’s injury.
  • St. Cloud State is off to its best start as a Division I team with a 3-0-1 mark. That’s not really a surprise, considering the opponents — Ferris State and Bemidji State. When the Huskies start playing the elite of the WCHA, then we’ll talk.
  • North Dakota’s penalty shot last Saturday was its first since the league playoffs in 1979. And Quinn Fylling will go down in the books with Kevin Maxwell — who took that shot in ’79. Both missed.

    On The Docket

    The Wisconsin-Boston College matchup on Friday is this weekend’s featured game, but there are a few other matchups worth noting this weekend:

  • Can Michigan Tech pull another upset this weekend when it hosts Colorado College? The Tigers went into their off week on a roll, but who knows if they’ll keep it up after a layoff.
  • Scott Sandelin has his home debut at Minnesota-Duluth when the Bulldogs host Northern Michigan in a non-conference series.
  • And Mankato’s Jutting will be in charge behind the Mavericks’ bench at home for the first time when they host North Dakota.
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