This Week In The WCHA: Nov. 29, 2001

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So which goaltender is going to crack first?

You can’t put the nation’s top two teams, those with the country’s two most prolific offenses, into one building on two nights this weekend and expect a defensive standoff.

So maybe the question should be: Which goaltender is going to play the biggest?

Considering this weekend’s top series matches Minnesota and St. Cloud State, there’s a chance of having four or maybe even five goaltenders to choose from. The Huskies have rotated Dean Weasler and Jake Moreland all season; the Gophers use Adam Hauser as their No. 1 goaltender, but he’s been tempered often with Travis Weber and Justin Johnson.

There’s your lineup. Throw them into a hat, mix them up and find a combination. Minnesota coach Don Lucia knows who he’s starting on Friday — Hauser — but will take it from there, he said. St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl will counter with his usual rotation — Weasler on Friday, Moreland on Saturday.

“When the good teams play, goaltending is always huge,” Lucia said. “It’s not how many you score, it’s how well you defend. We want to make sure we play well defensively because we’re not looking to go into a weekend trying to outscore anybody.”

While the Gophers probably will be trying to outscore St. Cloud, his point is safe. Minnesota is going to have a tougher time with the Huskies if the games turn into run-and-gun showdowns.

Not to say that the Gophers don’t have the firepower to match up, just that they would probably get the nod in a close-checking, low-scoring game.

Lucia doesn’t even want to run the risk of seeing what SCSU could do in a fast-paced offensive game.

“They probably have more depth at the forward position than anyone in the country,” Lucia said, speaking directly to the return of St. Cloud captain Jon Cullen after an injury held him out since the first weekend.

“If we turn the puck over, we’ll be in deep trouble. We have to make sure they come 200 feet at us and not turn the puck over. That’s where they’re so deadly, in transition. They have those skilled guys that when they get the chance, they’re going to score.”

Mark Hartigan and Nate DiCasmirro stand out as those Huskies players especially adept at making things happen at forward. They’re second and third, respectively, in the WCHA in points.

But the Gophers have power up front to at least match the Huskies. Johnny Pohl continues to light up opposing teams, especially on the power play. Jeff Taffe netted a hat trick last weekend, and is coming on strong as a Gophers scorer.

There are strong similarities between the two offenses, but Dahl said he thinks the Gophers rely on their power play more than his team does. Keeping the Minnesota power play off the ice as much as possible is a key for the Huskies, but then again, Dahl said that’s going to be in the hands of the referees.

“Our guys aren’t going to go around acting goofy, I can tell you that,” Dahl said. “And I don’t think their guys will, either. These are two quality teams.”

Lucia is downplaying the significance of this weekend’s series. It may be Gophers-Huskies, it may be No. 1 vs. No. 2, but it’s still early in the season.

“We’ve got four big games coming up. We’ve got St. Cloud then we’ve got Denver the next weekend,” Lucia said. “It doesn’t do us any good to have a great weekend this weekend and a bad weekend next. We’re just trying to stay on that even keel. Each game is worth two points, just like they are in February.

“It’ll be a fun weekend, but the fans will probably be more cranked up than anybody else because it’s a 1-vs.-2 deal. I think if you asked Craig, he’d say the same thing: It’s only December. There are no big games in December or November.”

Said Dahl: “Our guys are keeping it pretty low-key. It’s so early. People say that it’s the 13th, 14th game. Yeah, but we play 39 this year. Last year they swept us early, we got them late. You don’t know how big it is or how big it isn’t, but it’s certainly going to be fun for the fans.”

A Little Off

Sometimes a team can escape with a victory when it knows it has been outplayed. Denver was not so fortunate.

The Pioneers took their first loss last Saturday, 5-2 to New Hampshire. Denver didn’t show the control that it had in building a 8-0 record in the first four weeks of the season, and it paid.

“We didn’t play that well this weekend, period,” Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said. “Part of it was the rhythm or the timing was off. I don’t think we worked as hard and I don’t think we had the intensity we needed to play with in both games. … I don’t think I prepared the team properly, but I think that’s something we all have to get better at.”

Gwozdecky takes absolutely nothing away from New Hampshire; he was tremendously impressed with the Wildcats’ performance. But while saying that, Gwozdecky also admitted it maybe wasn’t the worst time for the Pioneers to take a loss.

Sure, that’s an easy thing to say once you’ve lost, but it holds some validity with Denver. Everyone needs a check once in a while — on the ice and off. Sometimes it comes in a loss, sometimes not. Denver’s wake-up call came at the hands of New Hampshire.

“This gives us an opportunity to say we know there are certain areas of our game that we need to improve on,” Gwozdecky said. “I thought New Hampshire gave us a great lesson in some of the things that we want to be able to do better. They were so fast to the puck and so quick in taking away our time and space. That’s an area we’ve been pretty good at, off and on throughout the early part of the season.”

That’s Gonna Leave a Mark

Skipping out on the post-series handshake is a faux pas along the lines of shooting the puck after the buzzer. The latter will get you a pummeling from the opposition; the former gets unkind looks from the opposition.

Steve Cygan, though, gets a pass.

The Alaska-Anchorage senior headed right for the Seawolves’ locker room at the end of last Saturday night’s game at Colorado College because he had a chunk of a stick lodged in his leg.

Late in the game, a CC defender’s stick broke, sending a three-inch sliver into Cygan’s upper left leg. When he got to the bench, he tried to remove it, only to have it break off, leaving about two inches left in his leg.

A Colorado College doctor removed the rest of the stick after the game.

“It was awful,” Cygan told the Anchorage Daily News. “I could feel the wood in there under the skin. It was wierd.”

Cygan, though, wasn’t expected to miss any practice time.

A Long Time Coming

Gian Baldrica finally got his chance last Friday night. He may still be trembling.

The Colorado College third-string goaltender replaced starter Jeff Sanger for the final 8:11 of the Tigers’ 7-1 victory over Alaska-Anchorage. It was the first playing time in a NCAA game for Baldrica, a junior.

“I was definitely nervous,” Baldrica told The Gazette of Colorado Springs after Friday’s game. “I’m still shaking. It’s been a while.”

Baldrica made three saves on three shots.

Ironmen Sidetracked

This weekend’s Badgers-Seawolves series in Anchorage could be without two of the most durable — or at least valuable — players in the teams’ lineups.

Anchorage defenseman Lee Green, who was the only UAA player to start in each of the first 11 games of the season, missed last Saturday’s game with a deep thigh bruise on his left leg. He’s questionable for this weekend’s series.

Wisconsin captain Andy Wheeler suffered a high ankle sprain in last Saturday’s loss to Michigan, an injury that could keep him from even making the trip to Anchorage.

It All Goes South

Not only has Minnesota-Duluth lost seven of its last eight — with a tie being its only saving grace in that period — it has seen its power play, at one time a promising sign of good things to come, collapse.

In those last eight games, Duluth has converted on just five of 35 chances with the man advantage. That’s upsetting to the Bulldogs, considering they started the season 12-for-35.

Their power play is still fourth in the WCHA at 23.3 percent, but who knows if another PPG here or there could have made the difference in any of five one-goal losses this season.

Buried in the Stats

If you’re an Anchorage fan and put a lot of faith in statistics, things are looking better. Things aren’t great, mind you, but better. Those are the small steps needed in rebuilding.

The Seawolves are scoring an average of 2.67 goals per game this year, up from 2.28 last year. They’re putting 29.3 shots on goal per game, up from 25.7 last year.

Their lowest shots total of this season is 21, recorded last Saturday.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

No team’s going to start a celebration because it held Alaska-Anchorage without a power-play goal on a weekend. For Colorado College, though, it was another sign of the ever-improving times.

The Tigers have killed 35 straight man-down situations and is 56-of-58 for the season.

Tigers coach Scott Owens said in this space a few weeks back that he didn’t think it was possible to build around a penalty-killing unit.

He may be right, but it’s also nice to know that a bad situation isn’t all that bad after all.

More Home-And-Home?

St. Cloud coach Dahl said he’s all in favor of the home-and-home series format he’ll see this weekend against Minnesota, and he’d like to see it against more teams.

“It gives our fans the chance to see Minnesota early and late, and it gives their fans the chance to see us early and late,” Dahl said. “Late in the year last year, that had implications as to who was going to get seeded higher in the NCAA, who was going to take second in the league.”

Because of the home-and-home format, the fans in both cities got to see that crucial late-season series. In a normal, two-games-at-home series, one team and its fans would have been forced to travel and stay overnight.

That’s another reason Dahl’s in favor of the home-and-home series: No overnight stays, no checking on players in hotel rooms and no need to get there a day early.

Dahl said the home-and-home system will be in place for the Huskies’ series with Minnesota State-Mankato next year. He’s also had discussions with North Dakota about switching formats.

“You’re spending less time out of school, No. 1,” Dahl said. “No. 2, you don’t have to sleep in a hotel and try to find something to do all day long on Friday. No. 3, it saves money; you’re not paying for the hotel and the food.”

That’s Gonna Leave a Mark, Part II

If Cam Ellsworth hadn’t already learned one of the biggest lessons for a goaltender, he knows it by heart now.

Don’t turn your head.

Ellsworth, in the middle of picking up his first collegiate victory last Saturday night, took a Wayne State shot to the neck, leaving a softball-sized bruise.

“I turned my neck for some reason,” Ellsworth told USCHO’s Matt Mackinder on Saturday. “But, hey, I stopped the puck and we went on to get the late goal and win this one.

Ellsworth hit on a significant point in his postgame statement: The Huskies got the goal to win. That’s something they’ll need to do more of to remain competitive in the WCHA.

After losing Friday’s game, Tech was down by one going into the third period on Saturday. Ryan Markham scored to equalize, and Brett Engelhardt got the winner late in the third.

Tech trailed 3-1 in the second period, making it the first time the Huskies ralled for victory after being down by two goals since December, 1997.

More on the Top Two

Oh yeah, one more thing about that Minnesota-St. Cloud State grudge match this weekend: It’s six goals a game against 5.67.

The Gophers lead the nation with a half-dozen goals scored per game; the Huskies aren’t that far behind. The rest of the nation is.

After St. Cloud, there’s a 1.25-goal-per-game dropoff to the next scoring leader, Canisius at 4.42 per game.

The Gophers have scored four or more goals in each of their 13 games this season.

That’s Progress

All last year, Minnesota’s Taffe scored 12 goals.

Last Friday night, he did one quarter of that in 34 minutes, 36 seconds. His hat trick against Michigan gave him 13 goals in 13 games this year. That’s one better than all of last season, and he still has a long way to go.

Catching Up

St. Cloud State’s sizable lead in the WCHA standings isn’t so sizable when considering the Huskies have played two league games more than most teams and four more than some others.

The Huskies have a six-point lead over Denver for first place, but the Pioneers have four games in hand. Denver hasn’t lost or tied a game in the league this season, but is in second place.

Points earned, therefore, aren’t completely honest when telling who’s leading the league.

For the WCHA contenders, then, points won’t really matter until Feb. 2. At the end of play on that Saturday, the major contenders for top spots (St. Cloud State, Denver, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Colorado College) will have all played the same number of league games.

None of those teams has a non-conference game or a week off scheduled for the remainder of the season after that point.

Even More on the Top Two

WCHA teams have been involved in five of the six meetings between No. 1 and No. 2 in the poll since it was so named in 1997-98.

Friday’s game in Minneapolis will be the first time a No. 1 team has hosted a No. 2 team by the USCHO rankings.

And the statistic Huskies fans don’t want to hear: No. 1 is 4-0-2 in those six games against No. 2.

Oh, the Refs!

Still don’t think there’s a disparity between the way things are officiated in the West and the way things are done out East?

Check out last Saturday’s Boston University-Cornell game.

It was the second half of a WCHA-Hockey East referee swap, with Mike Schmitt, arguably the WCHA’s top referee, working with two Hockey East assistants.

One of those assistants, called a penalty late in the game on a play that some say Schmitt saw and on which didn’t choose to call a penalty.

A reminder of what WCHA Supervisor of Officials Greg Shepherd said last season: “The [assistant referees] are supposed to call minor penalties not observed by the referee. … The only ones they can call in front of the referee are majors.”

No New News

The Clay “Woodrow” Wilson update this week has nothing to offer. The Michigan Tech freshman defenseman did not get on the scoresheet in two games last weekend at Wayne State.

For the season, “Woody” has two goals and two assists for four points.

He Said It

“It’s just another rival for us. If you asked St. Cloud who their biggest rival was, without question it’s Minnesota. If you asked our guys, it’s take your pick — North Dakota or St. Cloud or Wisconsin, Michigan or Michigan State.”

— Minnesota coach Don Lucia

One Last Note

On the day I was born, Dec. 2, 1977, Jeff Sauer was coaching in a game with his Colorado College team.

It was his seventh season as CC’s head coach. Yikes.