Too Close to Call
The WCHA standings may not show it, but North Dakota and Wisconsin may be the most evenly matched teams in the conference.
How else do you begin to explain five straight regular-season overtime games?
The Badgers and the Sioux have a special connection, something that makes every game they share an instant classic.
“You just don’t get jacked up as much to play against some of these other teams,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said.
Said North Dakota coach Dean Blais: “Whenever we play them, our players are geared up and so are they. We seem to bring out the best in each other’s games.”
Sound similar? These teams are so similar that their coaches have started sounding alike.
(I can just see the hate mail coming in from firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com now. Before you try them, those aren’t their real e-mail addresses, by the way.)
The Sioux and the Badgers played their fourth and fifth straight overtime games last weekend at Engelstad Arena. Wisconsin rallied in the third period Friday and North Dakota did the same on Saturday.
With the exception of Friday’s game-tying goal, North Dakota managed to keep Wisconsin star Dany Heatley off the scoreboard. And although his linemates did a number on the Badgers, Jeff Panzer’s goal-scoring prowess was held in check.
“Last weekend was a key series for us,” Sauer said. “They’re looking to win the WCHA championship and I know that they were disappointed in not getting a couple wins. But I think they forgot what we were playing for, too, from that standpoint.”
Last season, the Badgers and the Sioux played for nothing more than control of the league. The Badgers came away with two OT wins and cruised to the MacNaughton Cup.
This time, the Badgers and the Sioux are distant rivals in the standings. North Dakota looks like it’s going to win its fourth regular-season title in five years and Wisconsin is fighting just to host a first-round series.
That didn’t matter.
“It doesn’t matter if Wisconsin had the No. 1 team in the country or North Dakota, we’ve always managed to play close games,” Blais said. “It’s not very often since I’ve been here — nine years as an assistant and seven as a head coach — that one team has dominated the other. During the course of a game once in a while but never a series.”
It’s unfortunate that the last two seasons have been the ones in which the teams have played only twice in the WCHA schedule. They squared off in the final of the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown last year and again in the Final Five title game (North Dakota won them both).
There’s an outside chance they could meet again if they both advance to the Final Five this year. If North Dakota finishes first and Wisconsin wins the Thursday night play-in game, they’ll meet in a semifinal. It’s just a theory, but I, for one, would be willing to see these teams play again this season.
Is Blais rooting for a split in this weekend’s Colorado College-Minnesota series?
“Oh yeah,” he said.
It’s not often coaches concern themselves with the goings-on of other series, but when you’re this late in the season and you know you’re not going to be able to do anything but watch the standings change in the last weekend, things are different.
A split in the Tigers-Gophers series at Mariucci Arena, coupled with a North Dakota home sweep of Denver (that’s not a given, either) would give UND a six-point lead. The Sioux have only two WCHA games left after this weekend; CC and Minnesota have four each.
By winning out, the Sioux would at least claim a share of the WCHA title, and they hold the tiebreaker over the Gophers. But if Minnesota slips up once, four wins would give North Dakota the MacNaughton Cup outright.
The chasing parties have all but given North Dakota the big, silver cup and the top spot in the WCHA playoffs. They’re more focused on being the next team.
“I think realistically we can still battle for two and three,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “Other than the league championship, one, two and three are kind of the same this year because there’s no automatic bid.”
Said Minnesota coach Don Lucia: “I’m still worrying about trying to finish in the top three. If we’re still around when we get to the last week of the year, great. The reality is we’re in a dogfight for two, three and four right now with St. Cloud and CC.”
Power on Display
Minnesota has won seven games in a row, and you don’t need to do much searching for a reason why.
The Gophers are hitting on all cylinders when it comes to special teams. During that winning streak, they’re 19-for-46 with the man advantage — that’s 41.3 percent.
Meanwhile, they’ve allowed just two power-play goals in the last 12 games.
It’s no surprise that the Gophers are, by far, the best with the special teams in the WCHA. Lucia may just be lowballing his team’s chances this weekend, but he’s not expecting that to continue.
“I think it’ll be different because we’re playing against a team that’s very good at killing penalties and has good goaltending,” Lucia said. “I don’t think you’ll see us put up those type of numbers. I think more important is that we try to get one [power-play goal] every night. And penalty killing has to be good.
“One thing you have to bear in mind is your power play is streaky. We’ve been good on it all year long and then we had that four-game stretch at Thanksgiving and the next weekend at Denver where we were horrible on it. I think that power plays generally are streaky; you go through streaks where you are really hot and you go a few games where you don’t score. We’ve pretty much been able to at least get a goal in almost every game. I think that’s been real important for us.”
CC’s Owens is trying to be realistic about Minnesota’s power play.
“I think their power play is scary right now,” he said. “And I think it’s something that’s definitely going to be a factor. I would give them the edge on power play and special teams. We’re second or third or whatever and they’re first across the board. Obviously, keeping power-play opportunities against to a minimum is going to be key.”
If the Gophers run wild on the power play, don’t expect CC to be running with them.
Wisconsin goaltender Graham Melanson surpassed Duane Derksen for first in career minutes played with the Badgers last weekend. Who is third? Answer later.
When it comes to the WCHA’s major postseason awards — MVP, rookie of the year and goaltender of the year — some are, in most minds, foregone conclusions by this point in the season.
Jeff Panzer is the league’s most valuable player. That’s not just a product of his stats; that’s a result of him being able to dominate games in much the same way Steve Reinprecht and Jason Blake did in the last two years.
Peter Sejna is the league’s rookie of the year. No freshman has come close to having the impact on a team as Sejna has. He might not be the equivalent of Dany Heatley, but he’s by far the best newcomer.
And the goaltender of the year is … well, that’s where a lot of WCHA coaches are stumped. St. Cloud’s Scott Meyer? Denver’s Wade Dubielewicz? Colorado College’s Colin Zulianello? North Dakota’s Andy Kollar?
That’s just scratching the surface. There’s no way of getting a consensus right now (I’d really like to be the person who actually has to get votes from these coaches), but here are some lines of thinking from the league’s leaders:
Dan Boeser’s name didn’t even get fully out of the mouth of the questioner when Sauer started responding.
“Danny Boeser has probably been our most consistent player all year long,” the Wisconsin coach said. “He goes out, he uses his head well. He really sees the ice extremely well and, for a freshman, he’s showed a great deal of poise since day one.”
He flashed some scoring prowess last weekend, scoring two goals against North Dakota on Saturday. He broke onto the leaderboard for defenseman points with 10 points. It’s not stellar, but for a freshman blueliner in the WCHA, it’s not bad.
“The two goals he scored were nice goals. The first one, the power-play goal, he made a difficult play look easy because he was shooting off his forehand,” Sauer said. “The second one he shot and the guys did a good job in front of him. Basically we tell the defensemen, just get the puck to the net and good things will happen. That’s certainly what happened.”
Boeser has been the recipient of some excellent teaching over the years. He played two years for the Green Bay (Wis.) Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. There, he was coached by Mark Osiecki, a former Badgers defenseman who has a knack for teaching solid defense.
But, as he showed last weekend, there’s still a little bit of an offensive streak to him.
“He’s a converted forward,” Sauer said. “He’s like a Danny Bjornlie or a Jeff Dessner. They get that offensive thought to them.”
Mike Sertich was practically glowing over the phone when asked about last weekend’s Winter Carnival.
“It was totally awesome,” the Michigan Tech coach said. “The whole week was really fascinating. All the things that were going on were in many ways mind boggling — the statue building and sculptures and the themework. As the week went on, the excitement built, and that carried over at the game.
“Any time you have a packed house, the kids are going to rise to another level and I think that really helps them emotionally.”
But emotion has been an interesting element to Tech’s game recently. As Sertich has found out since taking over for Tim Watters, it can work both ways — it can lift but it can also deflate.
“When we play with poise and focus, we’re OK,” Sertich said. “But when we get distracted, when we get into revenge and retaliation, we’re not very good. Against Minnesota, we spent more time going back and forth cross-ice to the penalty box than we did up ice against Hauser.
“In the end, despite getting 40 shots, we were our own worst enemy. Not to take anything away from Minnesota, because particularly on the power play they were awesome. But we didn’t help our own cause.”
You don’t hear this from people very often, let alone coaches saying it in public, but a referee did a darn good job last Saturday, and Gwozdecky had to make sure it was known.
He was pleased with the way Tom Goddard controlled the Denver-Colorado College game last weekend.
“I thought both teams played smart, but there weren’t any ticky-tack little fouls called,” Gwozdecky said. “I think both teams had one power play each, so there was some pretty good flow and pretty good rhythm to the game.”
Here’s to giving credit where credit is due. Even to referees.
Kirk Daubenspeck is third with 6,966 minutes played from 1993 to 1997.
He Said It
“A very good team is going to end up in fourth, which is a little unusual this year because in any other year, you’d see that [it] would be a top-three team.”
— Lucia, on the race between Minnesota, Colorado College and St. Cloud State for second, third and fourth place.
News and Views
On the Docket
North Dakota may be able to claim the MacNaughton Cup next weekend at Michigan Tech, but that remains to be seen after this weekend’s action.
It’s also the last regular-season WCHA series for Alaska-Anchorage, as it travels to Denver.