This Week In The WCHA: Dec. 13, 2001

The Improbable

Down 6-2 to North Dakota in the third period last Friday, Jeff Sauer was going over what he was going to say to the hometown media. The Wisconsin coach would enter the Kohl Center media room a half hour or so later, sit down, watch the tape recorders click on in front of him. He’d have to explain how this happened on home ice.

In the end, no words were necessary. The Badgers did all the talking on the ice.

Bang. Alex Leavitt at 6:39.

Bang. Brad Winchester at 9:17.

Bang. Brian Fahey at 11:54.

Bang. Jake Heisler at 17:25.

Overtime. The Badgers improbably scored four goals in the third to tie the game at 6. Just to seal this game’s place among the best comebacks in Wisconsin history…

Bang. Rene Bourque at 1:59 of overtime. Good night now.

The Badgers’ 7-6, come-from-way-behind victory will enter Sauer’s memory banks in the comebacks file. Some of the others?

  • The day Wisconsin fans still refer to as “Black Sunday,” when Sauer’s Colorado College team rallied from a six-goal deficit after one game of a WCHA total-goals series for an 11-4 victory in Madison to win the series by one goal.
  • A November 1989 evening in Marquette, Mich., when the Badgers, down 5-2 late in the third period, rallied for a 6-5 overtime victory over Northern Michigan. They tied it at 5 with two seconds left in regulation, then Barry Richter’s shot from the right point in overtime found its way past Bill Pye and in. The Badgers skated singly, with arms in air, to the other end of the ice, almost like they were skating right for the exits, knowing they stole one.
  • Then, another one a reporter reminded him of: A late-season game in 1996 against Minnesota in Madison. The Gophers went up 4-0 in the second period, only to have the Badgers climb back in. Joe Bianchi scored the go-ahead goal in the third and Wisconsin won 7-4.

    Friday’s victory was along the same lines, Sauer said, so much so that he vowed after the game to go home and watch the tape-delayed replay on Wisconsin Public Television.

    He was watching it Monday afternoon, as well.

    “I’m watching it from the standpoint of listening to the announcers,” Sauer said. “We go from the worst team in the WCHA ever to the unbelievable comeback.

    Return To Normalcy, Please

    The NCAA is admirably concerned about its coaches, athletes and team representatives traveling too far from home for its tournaments this season.

    Check that. The NCAA is admirably concerned about some of its coaches, athletes and team representatives.

    The NCAA Championships Cabinet made a few changes to its seeding process for fall sports tournaments, with the intent being to keep teams closer to home for as long as possible. After Sept. 11, you can’t be too safe, right?

    So it would stand to follow that the hockey tournaments would be similarly affected this season. Instead of the common practice of sending some Eastern teams out West and vice versa, the West Regional would be a true West Regional. Same with the East.

    As disappointing as that is to those who believe the NCAA tournament should be the place where you see matchups you haven’t seen before — say the weekend before, in the conference tournaments — it’s really OK, knowing that the NCAA is going to apply this new procedure across the board.

    Isn’t it?

    As well-placed as the practice sounds, why shouldn’t it apply to everyone? The football bowl game matchups are out, and how many of them were made with respect to how far the teams are going to have to travel?

    Miami and Lincoln, Neb., are an awful long way from Pasadena, Calif., aren’t they? Michigan’s going to the Florida Citrus Bowl. Tell me that’s an easier trip than, say Minnesota or St. Cloud State or the like going to Worcester, Mass.

    If the NCAA was serious about playing by its own rules, one of two things should happen: It should change all the bowl games so proximity is the biggest concern, or it should leave the hockey tournament the way it’s been for years.

    Some would argue that air travel should be limited in these somewhat uncertain days after Sept. 11. Well, should they make the NCAAs, Denver and Colorado College are going to have to fly somewhere. Why can they fly to Ann Arbor, Mich., and not Worcester, Mass.?

    With a small amount of teams in the NCAA tournament, hockey stands to be one of the big losers in this regionalized-early-rounds system. One of the joys of the national tournament when it comes to hockey is seeing a matchup like Michigan and Mercyhurst, or Minnesota and Maine, or Colorado College and St. Lawrence, in the first round of the tournament.

    You don’t see those teams play each other very often. If this new system goes through, you may not see them at all. That would be a shame.

    Stepping Forward

    Want to know who the real leaders are on a team? Put them in this situation:

    Tied at 3 after two periods of a game that you desperately need to win to keep some momentum rolling, in a game that you led 3-0 early in the second period.

    It’s as if the coaches are saying, “Show me something.”

    Minnesota State-Mankato was in that situation against Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday night, and three of its players showed the coaches something.

    B.J. Abel set up Tim Jackman for the go-ahead goal just 15 seconds into the third period, and Jerry Cunningham added insurance later for a 5-3 victory.

    It was an essential win for the Mavericks because they had lost to the Seawolves the night before. Home losses never sit well, but especially after putting forth the work necessary to sweep North Dakota in Grand Forks the weekend prior.

    “We talked about it in the locker room after the first period when we were up 2-0, we said the next goal’s a big one. We got the goal and it kind of seemed like, well that’s the end of the game,” Mankato assistant coach Eric Means said. “Then we go into the third period and it’s tied at 3-3. We looked around and told our guys big players have to come out and make a big play right away. B.J. Abel made a nice play for Jackman, and fortunately Tim put it away. Then Cunny was in the right spot at the right time to capitalize on a turnover.”

    Abel, Jackman and Cunningham are three of the integral elements of the Mavericks team that has its sights set on hosting a playoff series this year, after missing out on that last season.

    Nate Mauer leads the Mavericks with 17 points, but that trio takes up spots two through four. Cunningham and Abel have 16 points each, and Jackman has 15.

    Cunningham, in particular, has found himself on a hot streak recently. He has already matched his career high for goals (eight).

    “Cunny didn’t have a great week against Anchorage, but the previous seven or eight games he’d been phenomenal for us,” Means said. “He’s one of the leaders on our team and we need him to score.”

    But it’s debatable that Mankato would even be able to stay near the top half of the WCHA without the capable goaltending of Jason Jensen. Jensen was thrown into a tough situation when Eric Pateman and Jon Volp were each lost to injury, but he has acquitted himself quite well.

    He’s been the goaltender of record in the last six games, going 3-2-1. At a time things could have fallen apart for Mankato, Jensen has helped to hold it together. He’ll have another big challenge this weekend when Denver comes to Mankato in the only WCHA series of the weekend.

    “I think he’s gotten better and better, and I think with that is confidence,” Means said. “He had been out essentially for two years and never played a game. When he got in there, he was a little shaky because he was nervous. The more he’s played, the better he’s gotten. Even in practice, he’s just been unbeatable lately. It’s just been a nice surprise for us.”

    Model Citizens

    Chalk one up for good citizenry at the Michigan Tech.

    Five Tech seniors appear on posters around the Houghton, Mich., area, holding infants and warning about the dangers of shaking children and of child abuse.

    Paul Cabana, Jaron Doetzel, Tom Kaiman, Tim Laurila and Brad Patterson participated in the program, which features the slogans, “Don’t shake us, you might break us,” and “Never ever shake a baby.”

    A Winner In Wisconsin

    If the big action last weekend was in Colorado, how did Wisconsin, hundred of miles to the east, end up being the big winner?

    That comeback and simple arithmetic.

    Less than a period away from possibly writing off the whole weekend, the Badgers took command against North Dakota, won Friday night’s game and then took the rematch on Saturday. The four points they earned trumped the two points each from the three teams above them in the standings, allowing the Badgers to gain some ground on the WCHA’s leaders.

    So as mediocre as the first part of their season has been, they’re in fourth place, one point back of Minnesota for third.

    They’re even doing a bit better than last year, a season that ended up with Wisconsin one game away from the Frozen Four. Through 16 games, the Badgers are 8-7-1, up slightly from 8-8 last season. In the league, they’re 6-3-1 (13 points), up from 5-5 (10 points) last year.

    And just remember: The Badgers were ranked No. 1 in the country for a good chunk of the season last year. Things may not be as bad as they appeared just a week ago.

    Upset? Maybe

    Was Dean Blais justified in verbally attacking an official after his North Dakota team’s loss to Wisconsin last Friday night? Probably not.

    Does he have a right to be upset? Let’s say maybe.

    With the Sioux up two goals in the third period, still managing to hold off the oncoming Badgers charge, UND’s Andy Schneider appeared to get his stick up high on Wisconsin’s Alex Leavitt behind the play. Assistant referee Pat McMahon made the call, Wisconsin went on the power play, the Badgers scored and, if you read this far, you know the rest of the story.

    But that’s not the whole story on that call.

    Schneider’s stick did come up high on Leavitt, but the Badgers’ freshman probably had as much to do with that as Schneider. Schneider put his stick about midway up Leavitt’s torso, replays indicate, and Leavitt’s arms brought the stick up toward his face.

    Leavitt fell to the ice, the crowd groaned and McMahon blew his whistle.

    Here’s one of the catches: Referee John Boche wasn’t too far away from being in a position to make the call. The protocol for assistant referees is that they don’t call penalties if the referee has seen the play. Boche appeared to be either a bit ahead of the puck (which was about 15 feet away Schneider-Leavitt incident) or even with it, across the ice.

    “It was the penalty by the AR that turned the game around,” Blais told USCHO’s Jon Linder after the game. “It would have been different if was called by the referee who made a judgment call, but a call by the AR? What the hell are you doing blowing your whistle even? It’s not your decision.

    “He grabbed his stick and it was right in front of him and he fell down. The crowd yells for a penalty and he calls it? No, uh-uh. I don’t complain about refereeing or AR’s — if it is once a year, it is a lot. And it was a lot tonight.”

    Run ‘Em Ragged

    Craig Dahl read a newspaper report this week about the Minnesota Wild being run through a tough practice by coach Jacques Lemaire the day after an embarassing loss to Montreal.

    It reminded him a lot of the Huskies’ Monday practice this week.

    “[I] ran ’em hard,” Dahl said of the team’s first practice after a 5-1 loss to Colorado College last Saturday. “We had a rugged practice on Monday. And rightfully so; they were all in agreement.

    “We’re not taking anything away from Colorado, I think they played very well all weekend, played very hard, like a team that knows they can’t lose very many more or they’re going to be in trouble. Their goaltender played well, but we were a day late and a dollar short all over the ice.”

    The Huskies can’t afford to take things down a notch, as many of their WCHA counterparts are doing as the holidays approach. Only five of the league teams are playing this weekend; the rest have packed things up until after Christmas.

    St. Cloud, meanwhile, has this weekend’s home-and-home series with Bemidji State and next weekend’s WCHA series with Minnesota State-Mankato to worry about before gifts are exchanged. After the Dec. 22 game at home against Mankato, the Huskies have only one weekend off before returning to action on Jan. 4, against UMass-Amherst.

    “We have quite a sled left,” Dahl said. “The point was, you can’t play this game without being very intense. Our guys had to refocus ourselves, get readjusted and get back to work.”

    Slip-Sliding Away

    Here’s a sign of the times for North Dakota:

    Even after the catastrophic collapse last Friday night at Wisconsin, the Sioux still had two good chances to win in regulation.

    A centering pass went off Brandon Bochenski’s skate and into the net. The goal was waved off.

    With time running out in regulation, Aaron Schneekloth ripped a slap shot off the crossbar.

    “They’re going to win some games, there’s no question about that,” Wisconsin coach Sauer said. “But they’re just searching for an identity right now.”

    The search goes on.

    Goaltender Update

    One goaltender is ready to return and another is ready to join.

    St. Cloud State goaltender Jake Moreland, who missed last weekend’s split with Colorado College because of a mild concussion, should be ready to play this weekend against Bemidji State.

    Moreland, who has played the role as the second-game starter for the Huskies this year, was injured late in the first period of a Dec. 1 tie with Minnesota when he collided with a Gophers player.

    “It was a mild concussion, and we always want to err on the side of safety, so that’s what we did,” Dahl said.

    Meanwhile, Minnesota State-Mankato will be adding a goaltender for second semester. Kyle Nixon, who is playing for Penticton of the British Columbia Hockey League, will join the Mavericks after the holiday break.

    A Quiet Weekend

    The Clay “Woodrow” Wilson report is quiet this week. Wilson, a freshman defenseman for Michigan Tech, and his teammates were idle last weekend. They play the grudge match, home-and-home series against Northern Michigan this weekend.

    One Last Thing

    Think North Dakota wouldn’t mind seeing Zach Parise in a Sioux uniform right now? Through 26 games for Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the Sioux recruit has 32 goals and 42 assists for 74 points.