This Week In The WCHA: Dec. 27, 2001

The Shopping Season Continues

Christmas has come and gone, but a number of WCHA teams are still shopping.

They’re in the market for a strong second half of the season. The price? Pretty high, in points and in effort.

The competition? Worse than the return line at the local department store on the day after Christmas. One slip may mean the difference between a first-round bye and a longer road to the Frozen Four; the difference between seeing your school’s name in one of the national tournament brackets and being the team that gets sympathy for being the best team not invited; the difference between playing two or three more games at home and having to hop on a bus for the league playoffs.

There’s a lot on the line from this point forward. This is the second half, where WCHA championships and spots in the NCAA tournament are won and lost.

League points won’t be awarded this weekend. That shouldn’t change the intensity as seven WCHA teams play for titles in various holiday tournaments.

In some tournaments, winning the championship is akin to having your name slotted into one of the NCAA spots three months before the bids are announced. In others, it’s about getting a jump on the competition in the second half.

The holiday season always seems to bring out the best in college hockey. Judging from some of the games on the schedule this weekend, this season should be no different.

Here’s a look at this weekend’s tournaments involving WCHA teams:

The Crystal Ball

In some tournaments, winning the championship is akin to having your name slotted into one of the NCAA spots three months before the bids are announced. In others, it’s about getting a jump on the competition in the second half.

The Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown has, in its first 12 years, been quite a predictor of success in the second half of the season.

Just once has a Showdown champion not gone on to make the 12-team NCAA tournament field. That was Bowling Green, which won the Pettit Cup in 1998 by beating Cornell and Yale in a watered-down field.

The other 11 seasons have produced champions who have been on a fast track to the national tournament.

(Well, that’s not completely true. Wisconsin won the 1991 Showdown title, beating Maine 3-2 in a classic at the Bradley Center, and then made the NCAAs, where it lost to Lake Superior State in the championship game. But because of the post-championship-game shenanigans in Albany that year, the NCAA forced the Badgers to vacate their participation in the ’92 tournament. While they were there, they weren’t. Make sense?)

So who’s it going to be this year? For sure, there are two WCHA teams in the field that could use a boost into the big dance.

Colorado College and host Wisconsin have some work to do in the second half of the season if they want to be in the final 12.

Going into the weekend, the Tigers were 11th in the Pairwise Rankings; the Badgers were 26th. The need for a second-half rally seems more desperate for the Badgers, but CC would probably be on the outside of the tournament field if it started today.

A poor start has left the Tigers playing catch-up for the last month of the season, and it had to do so while playing four games against St. Cloud State, the No. 1 team in the poll.

That they went 2-2, with splits in each team’s building, should go over well in Colorado Springs, considering CC’s the only team that has found the weakness in St. Cloud that has led to a Huskies loss.

The last time we saw the Tigers on ice, they were putting a 5-1 hurting on St. Cloud. That offensive surge came one night after the Tigers were blanked 3-0.

There lies the problem. As they open the second half, the Tigers, who play New Hampshire in the first round, need to find a balance that is going to help them gain ground on the rest of the WCHA.

The only CC player in the top 20 in the WCHA in scoring is Mark Cullen (eighth, 22 points). That is uncharacteristic of the team many expected to be leading the WCHA pack in goalscorers.

Speaking of a lack of scoring, the Badgers have the same problem. Their top scorer is Brad Winchester, who’s 21st in the league with 17 points.

Wisconsin has had its days in scoring — see the Dec. 7 comeback against North Dakota — but the question, again, is about consistency.

Through 16 games this season, the Badgers have yet to manage anything more than a two-game winning streak (they’re on one now).

The strong — perhaps even surprisingly strong — goaltending of Scott Kabotoff has kept the Badgers around the .500 mark overall. Until the scoring becomes steady, though, uncertain times are ahead for Wisconsin.

UW plays Brown in the first round and, as always, the Showdown offers the promise of kicking off the second half in style.

The Building Block

You may recall the Great Lakes Invitational of last season. You can sure bet Mike Sertich and his Michigan Tech team do.

Tech 7, Michigan 3? Michigan, as in 2001 Frozen Four participant Michigan? Yeah, that’s probably pretty memorable.

That eye-opening victory in the opening round of last year’s GLI at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena may have been the highlight of the season for the Huskies, who won just eight games.

While they won just four more games the rest of the season, it helped give the second half a better tone. That’s the power of the holiday tournament.

The Huskies, who play Michigan State in the first round this year, could use some good cheer in the holiday season for a boost into the second half of the WCHA schedule. They travel to Alaska-Anchorage next weekend for a series that could prove crucial in the final standings come March.

One reason for optimism for Tech is that Paul Cabana finally found his way out of a 13-game goalless streak. He scored two goals in a 5-3 victory over rival Northern Michigan on Dec. 14.

Meanwhile, North Dakota, which drew Michigan for the first round, has some building of its own to do.

Despite a series sweep at St. Lawrence two weekends ago, the Sioux entered the holidays at just 7-9-1. Coach Dean Blais warned that this might be an off season for UND, and it turns out he may have been right.

Blais had another warning before the season, though: The Sioux may have their share of troubles before the holidays — and they did — but watch out in the second half.

Did Blais know something before his team took the ice this season? Did he see the flaws, know that playing a predominantly freshman lineup would take its toll?

Did he see this as the time it would all come together?

It’s going to be tougher than just flipping a switch for North Dakota, which is going to have to fight just to be able to use the palacial, new Ralph Engelstad Arena for the WCHA playoffs. Concerns need to be addressed in all areas, but especially in goal.

Senior Andy Kollar has been the focal point for criticism of the Sioux defense. He has a 4.19 goals against average and is stopping just 86.9 percent of the pucks that come his way.

Freshman Jake Brandt got both starts against St. Lawrence.

Don’t Look Ahead

A coach will never admit, on the record at least, that he’s looking forward to a game that may not even happen.

Thank goodness that logic doesn’t apply to journalists. The Wells Fargo Denver Cup has the potential for one of the most intriguing matchups of the weekend.

Denver, No. 1 in the Pairwise Rankings, and UMass-Lowell, ranked No. 3, are on opposite sides of the tournament bracket. Lowell plays Harvard in the first round; Denver plays Bowling Green.

If the same fate falls on the Pioneers and the River Hawks in the opening round, a battle of the heavyweights is certain. The defensive power of Denver against the scoring punch of Lowell. A sure classic, right?

Considering that there always seems to be at least one shocker per holiday tournament season, maybe not.

Denver coach George Gwozdecky is confident that his team will be focused on Bowling Green, not looking ahead to the Saturday night game.

“I have great trust that our team is mature enough and experienced enough now to understand that you have to put all of your efforts and all of your attention onto your next game, whoever that may be,” Gwozdecky said. “I think we benefit from being in this league because you know that if you don’t prepare for that next immediate game in this league, chances are you’re going to get beat.

“Having had to go through that, I think that benefits us in a tournament situation like this because we’re used to understanding that you have to prepare for Friday night before you can advance and prepare for Saturday night. If you don’t do that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

If the Pioneers’ goaltending plays as strong as it has to this point, though, they’ll be a lock for the championship game. Adam Berkhoel and Wade Dubielewicz are 1-2 in the WCHA in goals against average (Berkhoel at 1.87 and Dubielewicz at 1.88).

If DU follows form, Dubielewicz will get the nod against Bowling Green on Friday with Berkhoel taking over Saturday.

Not Too High, Not Too Low

It seems a bit odd that Don Lucia coached in Colorado for six years considering his coaching style is probably better suited for the Great Plains than the Rocky Mountains.

Lucia knows his teams are best when they don’t get too high or too low. The Minnesota coach talks often about being on an “even keel.”

That style is showing on this year’s Gophers team. They have methodically gone about their business, putting up a 12-2-3 first-half record that has earned them a No. 4 spot in the Pairwise Rankings.

No game is more important than any other, Lucia wants his team to believe. A series between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation? No more important than, say, this weekend’s Mariucci Classic in Minneapolis. The Gophers play Ferris State in the first round.

This weekend will be important for the Gophers to get themselves ready for what could be a challenging month of January.

A home series with North Dakota next weekend precedes series at Wisconsin and Alaska-Anchorage. The month closes with a home series against Denver — one of only two teams to have beaten the Gophers thus far — and an exhibition with the French Olympic team.

Chances are good, though, that the Gophers won’t be looking too far ahead. They haven’t so far.

Rested, Ready

Maybe Minnesota-Duluth needed some time off to clear its collective head.

Despite entering their Christmas break with a pair of victories over Bemidji State, the Bulldogs probably still had the bad taste of a 10-game winless streak in their mouths at the start of the break.

With two weekends off to recover from a on-again, off-again start, the Bulldogs have the opportunity this weekend to start the second half the same way they started the first half: by shocking the college hockey world.

A win over Yale in the first round of the Silverado Shootout at the DECC wouldn’t turn too many heads, especially considering UMD is 6-2 in non-conference games this season.

But a possible second-night game against defending national champion Boston College looms large on the horizon.

Duluth opened the season with victories over host Nebraska-Omaha and Michigan at the Maverick Stampede in Omaha, Neb. Could there be room for another round of upsets?

“Everybody’s going to be better in the second half; hopefully we can too,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “It would be nice to start off the second half with a good showing like we started the year and hopefully build off that.

“I’m optimistic. I think the break was good, we healed up some guys, some guys broke out of some slumps against Bemidji. We just need to be more consistent in goal and hopefully the freshman can play at a higher level now.”

The Bulldogs’ Tom Nelson had a big weekend against Bemidji State, scoring five goals in the Dec. 7-8 sweep. Sandelin said his team played well in the last few games before the break, but that was a long time ago. UMD will have to start everything up again quickly.

“It was good to finish with a couple wins with Bemidji to go into that break feeling better about ourselves,” said Sandelin, who noted that his team had been practicing since September with no breaks. “It was just good from a lot of standpoints. Some guys probably felt we wanted to keep playing, but I thought it was a good time.”

Sandelin couldn’t help but take a quick look ahead at the second-half league schedule and laugh. It was a pretty nervous laugh.

The Bulldogs get back into WCHA play next weekend by hosting Colorado College. Then, it’s a series at St. Cloud State.

Still, the coach has a goal for the second half, one that would put the Bulldogs in a better league position than the 10th-place spot in which they reside.

“I’d love to go 10-10 in the second half,” Sandelin said. “I know it’s going to be tough, but I think that would be a good second half for us. In that case, we’d win eight league games, which is twice as many as we won last year.”

Stop The Shootout

The Silverado Shootout is almost certain to be off the holiday tournament schedule for next season, and Sandelin said he hopes the Duluth, Minn., tourney can operate every other year.

“It’s just been tough to find teams,” Sandelin said. “It seems like everyone’s got tournaments. I know North Dakota’s starting their tournament [next year].”

Sandelin said he has Bowling Green and Harvard lined up for the 2003 tournament, with another team yet to be added. Next season, the Bulldogs may host Harvard at the DECC in the holiday season, with a return trip to upstate New York in a following season.

“I think it’s good, too, because it gives us an opportunity to maybe go elsewhere or get a couple games,” Sandelin said.

No. 1 Means Little

That Denver is ranked No. 1 in the country in the Pairwise Rankings did not go unnoticed in the Pioneers’ locker room.

“It’s nice to see that, but Bryan Vines, our captain, said it best: ‘That’s nice to see, but talk to me in three months,’ ” Gwozdecky said. “If we can be in that position three months from now, it’ll mean a little bit more than it does right now.”

At the moment, the rankings could help most in ticket sales. Gwozdecky said he expects a near-sellout of Magness Arena for both nights at the Denver Cup this weekend.

A championship-game matchup between PWR No. 1 Denver and No. 3 UMass-Lowell, though, would probably help boost Saturday to a full sellout.

“Depending on the pairing for Saturday’s two games, there may be additional tickets sold to those latecomers,” Gwozdecky said. “If Lowell and Denver advance to the championship game, there will obviously be interested created in those last 24 hours.”