A Peek Into The Future?
Do I see semifinal pairings in the makings this weekend?
The WCHA world was abuzz last weekend with the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 series between Minnesota and St. Cloud State, a pairing that could easily be the one fans will see in the championship game of the WCHA Final Five in March.
This weekend’s featured series could just as easily be the semifinal matchups.
The state of Colorado is the place to be for two top-of-the-league battles this weekend: Minnesota at Denver and St. Cloud State at Colorado College.
It’s enough to make the WCHA Commissioner, Bruce McLeod, who keeps his office in Denver, wish he could be in two places at the same time.
At Denver, the Pioneers will face their biggest WCHA test to date. They’ve rolled to an 8-0 record, but six of those wins have come against the teams in eighth, ninth and 10th place in the league — Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth, respectively. The other two wins came against Colorado College, a team that was playing some of its worst hockey of the season at the time.
That isn’t meant to downplay the significance of Denver’s start or to claim the Pioneers haven’t had to work for their eight WCHA wins. They’ve taken care of business; the business, however, gets significantly tougher this weekend against Minnesota.
The Gophers don’t have a whole lot of work to do to regroup, in the eyes of coach Don Lucia, after last week’s loss and tie against St. Cloud.
“I thought we played pretty well last weekend,” Lucia said. “I don’t have any complaints at all on how we played. We should have won Friday and probably St. Cloud should have won Saturday.”
This weekend, St. Cloud State, your new No. 1 team in the nation, finishes its season series with the only team it has lost to this year. That’s right, the Huskies are done with Colorado College on Dec. 8.
So on the off chance that the Tigers climb back into the thick of things in the WCHA race, there won’t be any head-to-head meetings between these teams to seperate them down the stretch.
The Tigers getting back into the race doesn’t seem like as much of a stretch now as it did four weeks ago. They’ve gone unbeaten in their last seven games — the longest such stretch in coach Scott Owens’ tenure at CC. Think there’s any connection between that stretch and the fact Mark Cullen has at least a point in each of those games?
But they already have five losses and a tie in the WCHA portion of their schedule, so this weekend’s series might not be as much about a race for first place as a race for a good spot in the league and a favorable Pairwise Rankings placement.
The Tip Of The Iceberg
The first 10 members of the WCHA’s all-time top 50 team just scratch the surface of the talent that’s graced the ice of WCHA rinks in the league’s 50 years, but that’s all McLeod will offer as to the rest of the names on the list.
“You just read those bios on the first 10 and say that’s a pretty damn impressive group. Well, Doug [Spencer, the WCHA’s public relations director] and I are just running through the next 10, and, I’ll tell you, it’s just as impressive,” McLeod said. “It’s a good reminder for us. Hopefully a lot of people realize the caliber of hockey that’s been played in the WCHA, and continues to be played.”
The first 10, announced last week, were: Lou Angotti, Michigan Tech; Scott Beattie, Northern Michigan; Greg Johnson, North Dakota; Keith Magnuson, Denver; John Matchefts, Michigan; Craig Norwich, Wisconsin; Bill Nyrop, Notre Dame; Doug Palazzari, Colorado College; Mark Pavelich, Minnesota-Duluth; and Robb Stauber, Minnesota.
McLeod, as is his custom, has been on the road plenty this season to see the teams and the individuals that make up the league he’s in charge of. This year, though, is just a little different.
With the league celebrating its 50th anniversary, there’s a greater sense of history.
“A lot of the fun parts have been not only traveling around to the rinks and seeing the signage … but some of the things behind the scenes that have been going on,” McLeod said.
The league’s radio show, hosted by Jim Rich and broadcast in the intermission of some league teams’ games, has featured interviews with some of the top players in the league’s 50 years.
That, and the planning of a video presentation for the Final Five, has the commissioner excited.
“It definitely will culminate for us at the Final Five,” McLeod said. “We’re going to do some special things at the Final Five and hope to have a real strong contingent of [alumni] there.”
Not Another One
Maybe Lucia already has enough rivalries to worry about to get too interested in another one with Denver.
In other words, you won’t hear too much from the Minnesota side this week about what the Denver Post called a “nasty rivalry” between the teams.
“Our guys are used to seeing that everywhere they go,” Lucia said.
The Pioneers may have a different take on things. It seems they are still upset about the Erik Westrum kicking incident of a few years back.
Two years ago in Minneapolis, Westrum, then a junior, kicked Denver defenseman Erik Adams in the chest. Westrum served a two-game suspension, but, according, to the Post, never apologized.
“With the WCHA being so tight with the top three teams, and the little bit of controversy we’ve had with Minnesota over the last two years, with the Westrum thing and all,” Denver forward Chris Paradise told the Post, “I think they’re going to come in fired up, especially because we beat them here last year.”
Lucia scoffed at the notion that the Westrum incident was keeping tempers flared between the two teams.
“That’s like saying something that happened in 1960 affects what goes on now,” Lucia said. “I mean, Erik Westrum isn’t even on our team anymore. He had the kicking incident and he was rightfully suspended, and that’s the end of it. We’ve only played the team twice a year, so I don’t see it.”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky, on the other hand, scoffed at the notion that there wasn’t a rivalry between the two teams. He pointed to the origins of the series between the two teams. Not only is it as old as college hockey itself, but there was a time way back when Minnesota wouldn’t schedule Denver because of recruiting issues.
“From our players’ minds, I think there’s a big rivalry,” Gwozdecky said, “because of not only the games that have been played — the competitive games in both buildings — but other things that have gone on, on the ice. It’s good to have a rivalry like that. I don’t think there’s really a lot of bad blood, but there’s some.”
Keep The Faith
You may remember something written last week in this space:
“If you’re an Anchorage fan and put a lot of faith in statistics, things are looking better.”
That was in reference to the Seawolves’ spike in goal and shot totals. Then, last Friday night, they outshot Wisconsin 41-12 in a 4-1 victory.
Cause, meet effect. Effect, cause. Hope you guys get along well.
“When you’re a hockey player and you’re creating scoring opportunities, even when you’re not scoring you know you’re doing something right,” UAA coach John Hill said. “I think it’s only going to build your confidence. I think our style of play right now lends itself to that.”
Hill is quick to mention his team’s aggressive forechecking style and ability to force turnovers as a reason for the improvement in shots on goal.
“The guys are seeing the benefits of doing the things we’re working on,” Hill said, “because they’re creating scoring opportunities.”
Change In Plans
For the first time this season, St. Cloud State’s goaltending rotation is expected to take on a new form.
Jake Moreland suffered a concussion in last Saturday’s tie with Minnesota, and is being held from travel to Colorado College this weekend, the St. Cloud Times reported.
Moreland, who usually plays the second game of a series after Dean Weasler plays the first, will be replaced in the travel party with Jason Montgomery. Weasler should start both games this weekend.
Playing For The USA
Minnesota freshman Keith Ballard was named this week to the U.S. National Junior Team, and will compete in the World Junior Championship from Dec. 25 to Jan. 4 in the Czech Republic.
Ballard, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound, 19-year-old from Baudette, Minn., is the only WCHA representative on the U.S. team. He has four goals and eight assists this season.
Hitting The Skids
With its losses last weekend, Minnesota-Duluth ran its winless streak to 10 games (0-9-1 in that stretch).
That’s the longest the Bulldogs have gone without a win since the 1967-68 season. That year they finished last in the eight-team WCHA, 4-20 in the league and 5-23 overall.
To put in perspective just how long ago that was, it was the second year UMD played in the then-Duluth Arena. It’s the same building the team still occupies.
A Familiar Foe
Dallas Steward, he of one goal and an eight-game goal drought before last weekend, broke out against a familiar opponent.
Steward, an Alaska-Anchorage sophomore forward, helped the Seawolves beat and tie his home-state team. Steward’s a Chippewa Falls, Wis., native.
He scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal last Friday, one-timing a pass from Gregg Zaporzan. The next night, he scored on his first shift, just 34 seconds into the game.
“I’m sure playing Wisconsin gives him extra motivation, but he works hard every time he steps onto the ice,” Hill said. “I know he’s been a little frustrated in not finding the back of the net. I was very happy for him, and I know that he was elated to do that, and even more so with it being against the Badgers.”
The Last Line
North Dakota coach Dean Blais has had some interesting things to say about his goaltending in recent days, and why not? A six-goal showing in both games last weekend against Minnesota State-Mankato — at home, even — should prompt that.
After Friday’s game, a 6-4 loss: “When you score four goals in your own building, you should win the game, but we didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t a good effort.”
Then, after Saturday’s 6-0 shutout (more on that later): “Goaltending’s the most important part of hockey. I don’t usually like to blame goaltenders for losses, but tonight was a case when Mankato’s was good and ours wasn’t. At the start of a game, you need a save, and we didn’t get it.”
Blais was speaking about Andy Kollar, the senior whose reputation has taken a dramatic turn for the worse this season.
Kollar, while never getting the majority of the ice time, was a very capable goaltender when Karl Goehring was the focal point. When Goehring was hurt in March 2000, Kollar backstopped the Sioux to a WCHA Final Five championship.
This year, however, has been a different story. On his own, Kollar hasn’t come close to being stellar at any time this season. He may, in fact, be developing a reputation for allowing what Don Cherry likes to call “Hardy Astrom Specials,” a goal scored from well outside the range of a normal shot on goal.
Minnesota’s Jordan Leopold scored from his own end in the first game of the season. Then, last Saturday, Kollar, who had already allowed a Mankato goal on the Mavericks’ first shot, saw a 115-foot, dump-in pass from Mankato’s Matt Paluczak bounce over his stick and into the net.
“I got a real bad feeling as soon as it got shot up in the air,” Blais told the Grand Forks Herald, “that it was going to come down with some damage like a grenade. And it did.”
The damage done to the psyche of the defending MacNaughton Cup champions is undetermined. They’re on the road until Jan. 11.
At Wisconsin this weekend, it’s almost like sink or swim. Play well and stay in the race for a high spot in the league. Play poorly, and a March weekend might open up for another event at the new Ralph.
Truer Than You Think
This from the “It’s funny because it’s true” file:
The portion of the WCHA weekly media notes dedicated to Minnesota mentions last week’s series as being played against “St. Clout State.”
What could there be to bring the Alaska-Anchorage players back to earth after taking three points from Wisconsin last weekend?
The knowledge that their next opponent did them at least one better.
“I told our guys on Monday that as good a weekend as we had,” Hill said,
“Mankato had a better one.”
Minnesota State-Mankato hosts the Seawolves this weekend in a series that is suddenly between two teams on the rise. There’s a feeling, Hill said, that the points on the line this weekend will come in handy for both teams.
“Mankato’s three points up on us, so I think right there we have enough motivation,” Hill said. “What they did last weekend got our guys’ attention.”
Write It Down
Denver coach Gwozdecky learned a valuable lesson in last Saturday’s game against Minnesota-Duluth: Always keep track of who’s on your bench and who’s on the lineup you submit to the officials.
When those two are not the same, you have problems.
The Pioneers were assessed a two-minute penalty late in the second period of a 3-1 victory for using an unrostered player, the official scoresheet will tell you.
Gwozdecky had two line charts made up after Friday’s game — one with Jesse Bull, one without him. Bull was injured in Friday’s game, and it was going to be a late decision as to his fitness to play on Saturday.
As it turns out, Bull did play, but the officials were mistakenly given the lineup without his name on it. Bull was sent off the ice, and the Pioneers were forced to serve two minutes.
“When it came time to circle the starters, as I’m asked to do every game, I failed to check the depth chart that I circled the starters on, which is something that I never do,” Gwozdecky said. “So it passed by me, the mistake, and with 30 seconds left in the second period, they caught the mistake.”
So it’s something he’ll check on from now on?
“You’ve got that right,” Gwozdecky said.
It’s All Ahead
If Wisconsin has aspirations of securing a home-ice spot and contending for another in the NCAA tournament, the Badgers have their opportunity right in front of them.
The Badgers’ next 10 league games are against the teams they are below or tied with in the WCHA points race. It starts with North Dakota this weekend before post-Christmas series against Denver, Minnesota, Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State.
Quite A Weekend
Talk about your defining series.
Minnesota State-Mankato may have done just that last weekend: define its season. Its first sweep of North Dakota — in Grand Forks, no less — came at a great time.
It put them back above the .500 mark overall (7-6-1) and put them at the same nine-point level as three other teams who are tied for fourth place.
There were other eye-popping results from last weekend’s series in Grand Forks. The 6-0 victory on Saturday was Mankato’s largest against a WCHA team, topping the 8-3 victory over Denver in the 1999-2000 season.
But the clincher was this: Jason Jensen’s 30-save shutout was the first time an opposing goaltender had held the Sioux scoreless in Grand Forks since 1982.
(That was a 9-0 loss to Wisconsin in the first game of the total-goals WCHA championship series. The Badgers won the series, but UND got its revenge in the NCAA final, winning 5-2.)
A Few Changes
Michigan Tech introduced new jerseys in last weekend’s series against Colorado College and introduced permanent captains for the first time this year.
The jerseys are reportedly similar to the team’s familiar gold threads, but with a tie-up collar, akin to those worn in college hockey’s early days.
The captains, as named by coach Mike Sertich, are Brad Patterson and Jaron Doetzel. Before last week, the Huskies had rotated captains every month.
Add One More
Michigan Tech freshman defenseman Clay “Woodrow” Wilson assisted on the Huskies’ only goal last Saturday against Colorado College, bringing his season total to two goals and three assists in 14 games.
This week’s bit of trivia from the Michigan Tech game notes: “Woody” lived in North Pole, Alaska, for 13 years.
He Said It
“I wouldn’t mind playing them every weekend.”
— St. Cloud State forward Matt Hendricks, on last weekend’s series against rival Minnesota.