This Week In The WCHA: Nov. 1, 2001

Get Rid of the Ref!

Can’t you just hear the wisecrack remarks about the WCHA finally getting rid of one of its referees? It’s probably the same thing from followers of Hockey East.

Hold on there, ye of little faith in officiating.

Yes, the WCHA and Hockey East have agreed to switch officials, but it’s only on a one-weekend basis. Hockey East ref Jeff Bunyon was in charge of last weekend’s Minnesota-Colgate series at Mariucci Arena, and the WCHA’s Mike Schmitt will work two games in Boston late in November.

Bunyon received a big compliment from Minnesota coach Don Lucia.

“I didn’t really notice much,” Lucia said. “It was a pretty easy weekend, so it’s hard to determine how somebody’s going to do under pressure. But I didn’t notice anything different in how it was called.”

That’s what referees like to hear — they weren’t noticed.

Greg Shepherd, the WCHA supervisor of officials, and Brendan Sheehy, his counterpart in Hockey East, worked together to make the trade. Shepherd asked for Bunyon; Sheehy asked for Schmitt.

At least part of the reason for the swap was to give the refs and the teams a look at what the officiating is like on the other side of the college hockey world.

“They’re pretty close to us as far as officiating style,” Shepherd said of the Eastern officials. “It’s not like it used to be, when teams would think — underline think — that they go out East or come out West and get jobbed. That’s not true anymore.”

In the NCAA tournament last season, however, some Western coaches mentioned that their games weren’t officiated the way they were used to.

One big sticking point was that the assistant referees (linesmen by any other name) called penalties on plays that the referee was watching.

“I think that was a real issue, there was a vast difference East-West,” Lucia said. “In the West, at least in our league, the linesmen weren’t calling penalties in front of the referee. Out there, they were. It was almost like two different systems. The more important issue is to get everyone on the same page.”

Competition, Please

Let’s be frank here. Minnesota is thrilled with a 5-0 record, but, with the possible exception of the opening game against North Dakota, hasn’t really been challenged this season.

Bemidji State? Outscored the Beavers 14-3.

Colgate? 17-0. At least Bemidji scored.

The Gophers have outscored opponents 38-8 in this young season, but against teams with a 7-10 combined record.

So are the Gophers happy to be finally opening their WCHA schedule this weekend? You betcha.

“Our goal was to try to be 5-0 in nonconference; we were able to do that,” said Lucia, whose Gophers play Michigan Tech in Houghton, Mich., this weekend. “Now we get back into conference play, and the level of competition is going to be a lot higher than we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks.

“We’re back to a small rink, things are going to happen in a hurry. We’re not going to have the same time to make plays as we’ve had in the past couple of weeks.”

The Gophers players seem to understand that the way it’s been is not likely to be the way it’ll be, Lucia said.

Things are going to be more challenging from now on.

“We scored a lot of goals, but people are making a bigger deal out of it than it is,” Lucia said. “I think our team’s pretty focused on looking ahead and knowing the competition’s going to get more difficult every weekend we go on.”

Thinking Back

Denver coach George Gwozdecky was asked what has pleased him the most about the Pioneers’ 4-0 start to the season.

He paused.

He paused some more. Maybe it’s because there has been plenty to be happy about.

“I think one of the things that I’m really pleased with is the fact that our returning players have seen the fruits of their labor,” he said. “Meaning, over the course of the six months of training after the season … they trained harder than I’ve ever seen a team train here.

“There are times where you say, ‘I hope this translates into some positive type of success,’ so the guys understand that the harder you train, the more likely you are to be successful. We might not be able to light the world on fire, but you definitely will see positive results.”

One factor in Denver’s strong start is that its offense isn’t defined by one line. Chris Paradise hasn’t been called upon to be the sole breadwinner at forward. He has three points through four games.

Six players have four points, four players have three points. It’s balance that is carrying the Pioneers early in the year.

“Some of those guys are slowly starting to become untracked,” Gwozdecky said. “I don’t think everybody’s in sync. We’re still experimenting with our forward lines and our defensive pairings. But Saturday night, some of our upperclassmen forwards had the best game of the early season.”

Paradise scored his first goal of the season last Saturday against Alaska-Anchorage.

If, as Gwozdecky claims, the Pioneers’ forwards are just starting to get rolling, there’s no better time than the present. They play rival Colorado College, the preseason favorite to win the WCHA, in a home-and-home series.

A Trying Saturday

Tom Wheeler, the father of Wisconsin captain Andy Wheeler, was released from a Grand Forks, N.D., hospital this week. He was hit by a car while jogging last Saturday afternoon.

Andy Wheeler played in Saturday night’s game against North Dakota, and scored a shorthanded goal.

“It was scary because of the quickness of how it happened,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “Andy went to the hospital, got it all straightened out. He came back to the rink, said his dad was going to be fine and we went from there.”

It was part of a challenging weekend on all fronts for the Badgers. It was their first WCHA series, on the road and in a new building.

They won Friday and stayed in Saturday’s game before losing. That showed Sauer that his team is as mature as he has claimed.

Perfect For Now

Bad news, St. Cloud State fans: Despite a 6-0 record to start the season, the Huskies will not go undefeated this season.

So said coach Craig Dahl. You know, one of these days, I’d like to hear a coach go out on a limb and say, “Yeah, we’re going to win every game this year.”

Probably be waiting for a while on that one.

Still, at 6-0 the Huskies have shattered the best start in Division I team history. They’ve won 15 of their last 16 games going back to last year.

Dahl said the team is trying to keep things in perspective. Starting 6-0 isn’t going to carry them through the whole season.

“I think our guys are confident, but we’ve won six games and that’s that,” Dahl said. “We don’t really talk about it too much. We’re trying to take a low-key, even-keel approach to it.”

Why, Oh Why?

There are different stages of frustration for a hockey team’s offense. In between the shake-your-head-and-forget-about-it stage and the utter-collapse stage is the point where players start to question how pucks aren’t going into the net.

Minnesota State-Mankato reached that second level of offensive frustration last weekend against St. Cloud State and, in particular, goaltender Jake Moreland.

The Mavericks threw all they had at the Huskies goaltender last Saturday — 37 shots — but came away with nothing.

Jerry Cunningham exemplified Mankato’s day. He had a shot at the net with Moreland looking the wrong way, but the puck went right into the goaltender’s pads.

“I don’t know how he stopped that,” Cunningham told the Mankato Free Press. “That has to go in.”

It’s not like the Mavs are hurting for offense — they average 3.67 goals a game early this season. If the frustration of not scoring is allowed to continue, that’s when it becomes a problem.

A Daunting Task

In his team’s weekend off, Michigan Tech coach Mike Sertich returned to his home state to do some scouting. He came back to Houghton with eyebrows raised and a firm grasp of what the Huskies face this weekend against Minnesota.

“That’s a very imposing hockey team we’re up against,” Sertich said. “The success they’ve had in the last three weeks has been a bit overwhelming.”

For that matter, many of his players went home to Minnesota and got a chance to see the Gophers play on television.

“I don’t think you have to make it an issue bigger than it is,” Sertich said. “It’s not like we’ve got no chance at all. I’d like to think we have a chance here. Our guys have to understand that we have to play with the least possible margin of error and we can’t be foolish and do stupid things like we did in St. Cloud or we’re going to pay.”

Get The Keys

It may be a palace, but is it a home?

North Dakota concluded its seven-game homestand at the new Ralph Engelstad Arena at 4-3. Considering the Sioux went 12-2-5 at the old Ralph last season, it would be easy to infer one of two things:

Either the new arena doesn’t intimidate opponents the way the old one did, or the Sioux are struggling to get going this season.

Some combination of the two is the likely cause. That doesn’t negate, however, the fact that at least some of the element of home-ice advantage seems to be missing.

The reactionary would advise finding the keys to the old arena, throwing on the lights and playing there, especially because the Sioux won 10 of their first 11 games in the old building when it opened in 1972.

But North Dakota’s struggles — struggles maybe being too harsh a word — seem to mirror a WCHA trend. Teams in new buildings have had difficulties getting started.

Wisconsin lost its first two games and four of its first five in the Kohl Center in 1998. Colorado College was 0-2-1 in its first three games at the World Arena in 1998. After winning its first three games at Magness Arena in 1999, Denver lost five straight at its new home.

This weekend, we finally find out how this North Dakota team will fare outside Ralph’s Palace. The Sioux face what could be their toughest test to date with two games against St. Cloud State at the National Hockey Center.

SCSU’s Cullen Out

St. Cloud State forward Joe Cullen will not be able to return from an injured knee this week and will miss the Huskies’ home series against North Dakota.

The early prognosis was Cullen would miss two to four weeks with the injury. This will be the third weekend he’ll be out.

“We don’t want to rush him back,” Dahl said, “and he doesn’t want to rush back either because he realizes we have a lot of games left.”

The Double O Kids

Chalk it up to the level of the competition if you will, but Minnesota goaltenders Adam Hauser and Justin Johnson still deserve accolades for blanking Colgate for the entire weekend.

For Hauser, it was old hat. The senior has returned strong after a poor debut to the season in Grand Forks. The shutout on Friday was the eighth of his career, a school record.

Johnson, a freshman, stopped 28 shots last Saturday for a shutout in his first career start.

Lucia said he expects to take Hauser and Travis Weber to Houghton this weekend, and have each play a game. He hopes to get Johnson another chance next weekend against Mankato.

“You get on the road in our league, you have to have good goaltending if you’re going to win,” Lucia said. “We understand we’re not going to score seven or eight goals this weekend. You have to go on the road and try to win with three or four.”

No Matter

Here’s a twist: Denver enters this weekend’s Gold Pan series with Colorado College as the team with the higher ranking.

Say that to Gwozdecky and you might as well be saying, “Blah blah blah ranking blah blah blah.”

“If this was January and we were looking at the Pairwise Rankings, I would say that is not only legitimate, but it’s something that we’re pleased with,” Gwozdecky said. “That’s not really the case. Both teams are just starting their season.”

Take Your Pick

So, which Minnesota-Duluth team will we be seeing this weekend? For that matter, which Alaska-Anchorage team will fans at Sullivan Arena pay to see?

For the Bulldogs, will it be the one that proved its mettle in gaining two victories last weekend over Rensselaer, or the one whose goaltenders take a night off?

Will the Seawolves find the spirit and scoring that netted them a win and a tie in their season-opening tournament, or will they find the goals hard to come by like in sweeps by Alaska-Fairbanks and Denver?

These two teams meet this weekend, with someone needing to take a step forward and show the WCHA that they are going to be the one that is improved this season.

Duluth is undefeated (4-0) in nonconference games this season after beating Nebraska-Omaha and Michigan and sweeping RPI. But the efforts in those games were in contrast to a sweep at the hands of Minnesota State-Mankato.

The Bulldogs won a pair of character-building games last weekend, rallying to win on Friday after losing the lead and holding on for a one-goal victory on Saturday.

Field Set

Next year’s Nye Frontier Classic will feature host Alaska-Anchorage, Colorado College, Maine and Iona.

Good News, Bad News

The Minnesota-Duluth special teams have performed well enough to make Bulldogs followers smile. They’ve also performed poorly enough to make them nauseous.

The Bulldogs’ power play is third in the WCHA at 34.3 percent. That would be a great statistic for UMD, if only the penalty kill didn’t give back as many goals as the power play earns.

Through six games, Duluth is killing just 75.9 percent of opponents’ power plays, eighth in the WCHA.

No Game Today

Here’s your Clay “Woodrow” Wilson update for the week:

The Michigan Tech freshman defenseman didn’t play last weekend. That’s OK, though, because neither did his team. Tech was idle, but hosts No. 1 Minnesota this weekend.

So, for the season, “Woody” has played four games with no goals or assists, and four penalty minutes.

He Said It

“If you have the leaders on the team — the older players who are the hardest workers who remind everybody that this is what we believe in, this is what needs to be done, this is how we’re going to do it — if you have that type of attitude, it’s just a natural, everyday occurance. You don’t change because you’ve won a game or because you’ve lost a game.”

— Denver coach George Gwozdecky, on his players ability to keep up a positive outlook on their own.