A Pipe Dream
It is not, the parties agree, the end-all, be-all of the WCHA regular season — perhaps unless one of the teams sweeps. But it may end up coming down to the last line of defense.
When first-place North Dakota hosts second-place St. Cloud State this weekend, there’s going to be more than enough offense to go around. North Dakota’s Jeff Panzer could take care of that himself, in fact.
But that places more importance on the defense, and in particular the goaltender, to try to win a game.
St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl has one of the best in Scott Meyer. North Dakota coach Dean Blais has two of the best in Andy Kollar and Karl Goehring.
We’ll see which steals the show this weekend.
“I hope [Meyer plays well] because I know Kollar and Goehring are going to play well,” Dahl said. “It’s going to be important because both teams are going to get some chances. Goaltending has to be excellent at both ends in order for the game to be excellent. We hope we don’t give up a whole lot of quality chances.”
That may be a tough thing to prevent, especially when the Sioux’s top line is on the ice. The most formidable line in the country — Panzer, Ryan Bayda and Bryan Lundbohm — has the ability to dominate. In fact, it’s hard to find a game this season in which it hasn’t made some kind of impact.
“We have to try to shut them down some way,” Dahl said. “There’s a couple different things we can do and we’ll work on. That’s going to be the key to the whole series, shutting that line down, because they do most of their scoring.”
Back to the goaltending for a moment. The successes of the three are similar, at least during the regular season. Each seems to play better when there’s a lot on the line.
For Meyer, that’s partially a result of some bad experiences.
“He’s a very competitive young man who does not like to get scored on, even in practice,” Dahl said. “He competes hard every day and that’s kind of the cornerstone of his success, he’s so competitive. He just does not like to get beat. Combine that with talent and you’ve got a pretty good player.”
Blais said he plans to play Goehring on Friday and Kollar on Saturday. It’s been the best combination he said, and only once when one goaltender has played both nights on the weekend has it turned out well — at Anchorage.
But just as the Huskies have to be concerned with talent on offense with the Sioux, North Dakota faces the same with St. Cloud’s front lines.
Namely, Tyler Arnason, Nate DiCasmirro, Brandon Sampair and Co.
“They’ve got six or seven forwards that are as good as anyone in the WCHA,” Blais said. “Forget their solid defense and Scott Meyer in goal — most of the time they have the puck so they don’t have to worry about defense.”
This scenario is probably starting to get old for Denver and coach George Gwozdecky:
Play Colorado College. Lose. Get back up and try to rebound. Repeat.
For the second time in three weeks, the Pioneers are being forced to overcome a loss to rival Colorado College and get ready for important games the next weekend.
Two weeks ago, they went from a sweep at the hands of the Tigers to Madison, Wis., where they took three points from Wisconsin.
Not bad. Now do it again.
The stakes aren’t as high this weekend, when the Pioneers host Alabama-Huntsville in a Friday-Sunday series caused by a Saturday basketball doubleheader at Magness Arena.
But then again, there’s always those Pairwise Rankings to think about.
“Every weekend, starting this weekend, is going to be extremely important for us,” Gwozdecky said. “Not only for the confidence level, but for the Pairwise Rankings. Right now we’re in a good situation and we want to make it better if we can. There’s no question starting this weekend, our final 11 games are going to be of the utmost importance for us for postseason play.”
Gwozdecky doesn’t want his team to be the one going into the Final Five (should it make it that far) in the same position as Minnesota was last year.
That is, he doesn’t want to (a) have to win the tournament to make the NCAA field or (b) step off the ice and check with that always-popular USCHO crew manning the Pairwise in the media room.
He’d like to have everything wrapped up by that point. While that’s theoretically not possible anymore because the automatic bid has been yanked from the regular-season champion, there’s a strong chance that if you’re in the Pairwise’s top six or so to end the season, you’re in. (Don’t quote me on that, though.) At No. 10, the Pioneers are the fifth WCHA team in the rankings.
“We’ve got enough guys on our team who have been through that before, when we won the league championship and we were in position to possibly go to the NCAA tournament without even having to win the league championship,” Gwozdecky said. “For the most part, we have things in our control right now, and that’s what you want to be able to concentrate on.
“When you have to pay attention to the out-of-town scoreboard, that’s when it becomes very uncomfortable. You’re putting your fate in other people and that’s when you run into some problems.”
So saying this weekend’s series with Alabama-Huntsville is meaningless is only true to a point. It won’t do the Pioneers any good for that league race, but slip-ups at this point of the season go right to the heart of the Pairwise. You don’t get those chances back.
“Our season right now is down to 11 games. I don’t have any fear of anybody coasting,” Gwozdecky said. “We’ve talked about this week so far. We’ve had a pretty good season over the last two months if you take CC out of the equation. Unfortunately, you can’t. We’ve played pretty well, but we’ve got 11 games.”
By the Numbers
Very quietly, Colin Zulianello has made his mark on the WCHA this season.
The Colorado College goaltender leads the league in goals against average (1.79) and save percentage (.936), despite only seeing roughly 45 percent of the action for the Tigers this season.
His counterpart, Jeff Sanger, has a 2.55 GAA and has stopped 89.3 percent of the shots he’s faced.
“We’re in a pretty good routine right now, and we’re probably just stay with that until something changes, if it changes at all,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “That’s the way it’s worked out well for us. Everyone seems comfortable with it at this point.”
That could make for an interesting dilemma down the stretch. When things come down to one game, say in the Final Five or the NCAAs, who does Owens go with?
Good thing he has a couple months to sit on that one.
“I think that’s going to be an interesting decision,” Owens said. “At that point we’re just going to have to see. We had one game this past weekend and we went with Zulianello for a couple reasons. And that could change.”
Those reasons include it being a Friday night in Magness Arena, where Zulianello had played well two weeks before, and that Sanger was fighting a head cold.
“All those things made it easy for us to make that decision,” Owens said. “And it turned out to be the right decision because he played very well.”
The situation isn’t unfamiliar to CC. For the last three years, Sanger and Zulianello have been the top two goaltenders, in one order or another. It’s even reminiscent of the height of CC hockey.
“Remember when CC had those championship years, they were basically splitting with Judd Lambert and Ryan Bach, and they were both all-Americans. It’s not unprecedented.”
The Point is Moot
It was just one point Minnesota State-Mankato claimed in Grand Forks, N.D., but it wasn’t necessarily the number of points: it was the way the Mavs claimed them.
Three goals in the last 13:38 of the third period last Friday helped them climb back from a 3-0 deficit and tie in what could be the toughest place to play in the WCHA.
That single point for which Mankato battled so hard in the third period might actually end up being the difference between home and road for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
The Mavericks have 15 points, four behind sixth-place Wisconsin, which is idle this weekend. A sweep of Minnesota-Duluth on Thursday and Friday would put the Mavericks in a tie with the Badgers, and just one point behind fifth-place Denver, which will have played one more game.
But for the Mavericks, the road to that top-five finish goes through, as would make sense, the top five. Denver, Minnesota, St. Cloud State and Colorado College are all on the schedule for the last 10 games of the regular season.
It’s getting to that point of the season where the Pairwise listings are almost as important as the conference standings.
(Is that a good thing? That’s another story altogether.)
And there’s some interesting tidbits in the inner workings of the formulae. Such as:
What does it all mean? Not much right now. But if one of those teams is fighting for the last NCAA spot, or the last bye for the first round, watch for these important Pairwise points.
He Said It
“It is not the end-all, be-all because we’re trying to focus on the NCAAs and doing well there also. In the last seven years, only one team has won our league regular-season title and then also won the Final Five.”
— Dahl, on his St. Cloud State team’s series with North Dakota.
News and Views
On the Docket
The first weekend of February is highlighted by St. Cloud State’s hosting of Colorado College. The road stays tough for the Huskies.
Keep an eye on that Mankato-Denver series, too. That might be for fifth place.