The Waiting Game
“Is there any news to report in the T.J. Caig case?” was the question.
Scott Sandelin sighed.
The Minnesota-Duluth coach is frustrated. He’s frustrated that he has a player who could be a star with his team and unable to suit up for a game.
He’s frustrated that things are taking so long.
Sure, he’s frustrated about the 1-14-1 WCHA record of his Bulldogs, but that’s another issue.
The Courtship of T.J. Caig has hit a roadblock. Caig, a star in Canadian Tier II juniors and a UMD recruit, expected to go to Duluth after Christmas and start playing college hockey. Sandelin expected it, too.
But Caig is presently on the shelf, grounded by the inquiry flag thrown up by two WCHA schools. Those schools say Caig, a forward, played in exhibition games in the Canadian Tier I system, which would cost him one year of eligibility under NCAA rules.
Minnesota-Duluth officials checked into Caig’s background and provided the NCAA with a report. Now, they wait. Caig started school at UMD on Tuesday.
While the issue would seem to be as simple as making one phone call to determine if Caig played in the Canadian Major Junior system, it apparently isn’t.
“It’s not an easy thing,” one WCHA coach said.
The Bulldogs might be getting to the point, Sandelin said, where even if Caig is cleared to play, it might be more beneficial to the program not to have him play this season and start next year with (they hope) four full years of eligibility.
They have 12 games left in the regular season.
“The way things are going, it might be a good chance that it might not be until next year,” Sandelin said. “But that’s all right. I’m glad he’s here.
“Whether it happens this year or next year, it’s certainly a bright spot in our future.”
Minnesota and Denver provided a pair of classic college hockey games when they got together earlier this season in Denver.
Given the talent on each team, chances are good it’ll happen again this weekend at Mariucci Arena.
Here’s what the coaches said this week about the opponent:
Denver’s George Gwozdecky: “Our perception of them going into that series was accurate. They’ve developed a great amount of respect, especially from our team because they’ve got a great team. There is no team that has a better defensive corps in the country than Minnesota, led by Jordan Leopold. And I say this with all due respect and a little bit of chuckle, there’s no way he should be playing in the WCHA. He should be playing in the National Hockey League.”
Minnesota’s Don Lucia: “I am very impressed with Denver. I think they have an outstanding team. I love their balance, they have great goaltending. They are really playing their systems extremely well.”
Gwozdecky also mentioned his respect for the Gophers’ scorers, and with good reason. While they may have struggled without Jeff Taffe last Friday, they were on the mark with him last Saturday.
“Their offensive attack is as good as anybody’s in the country,” Gwozdecky said. “When they attack, it’s not with two or three guys, it’s usually with four or five. It’s tough to defend against, that’s for sure.”
Alaska-Anchorage has shown a penchant for beating the buzzer this season.
The Seawolves have played six overtime games this season — nothing special, unless you consider the circumstances that have caused half of those extra periods.
In three of those games, the Seawolves scored in the last 10 seconds of regulation to force OT. Two of the equalizers have come with one second on the clock, including last Friday’s Steve Cygan goal to force a 3-3 tie with Minnesota.
Lee Green scored with one second left on Oct. 13 to force a 4-4 tie with Boston College and Corey Hessler scored with 10 seconds left on Nov. 3 in a game UAA won 5-4 in overtime.
Jeff Sauer calls this a “critical” part of Wisconsin’s schedule.
With the four teams directly above them in the WCHA standings on the slate over the next five weekends, the Badgers’ condition is what could be critical if they don’t manage some big victories.
It starts with St. Cloud State this weekend at the Kohl Center, where the Badgers play eight of their last 12 games. They’re just 6-4 at the home rink this season, though, so Sauer’s message to his team this week is to try to build something at home.
“Not only this weekend but the rest of our season right now, we have to turn it up a notch,” Sauer said.
Improving consistency on offense is a big part of that.
This is a team that beat Minnesota 8-3 one night, then lost 6-2 the next. This is a team that lost to Minnesota State-Mankato 3-1 one night, then beat the Mavericks 5-4 the next.
“It’s a bit frustrating from that standpoint,” Sauer said, “but the consistency is all wrapped into being able to put the puck away when we get the opportunities.”
For the Badgers, if that doesn’t happen soon, it might not happen at all.
Cure For The Ills
Scott Owens was a little sick last week, and he admitted — at least jokingly — that some of it had to do with Colorado College’s series with Minnesota State-Mankato the weekend before.
As has become the norm, however, the Tigers righted the ship. It’s become a trend that CC follows poor showings with strong efforts, and that’s the reason the team is still in good shape and fighting for a high spot in the WCHA standings.
They topped a three-game losing streak earlier this season with a five-game winning streak immediately thereafter. After a loss and tie at the Badger Hockey Showdown in Milwaukee, they’ve ripped off five wins in the six games since. The only loss was against Mankato two weekends ago, 2-1 at home.
“We’re just trying to keep things going,” Owens said, “because we’ve had a decent month so far.”
Memories of Wally
No Denver-Minnesota series at Mariucci Arena would be complete without mention of Sinuhe Wallenheimo.
You know, the Denver goalie who would actually feed off the crowd’s taunts and go along with them?
“I can remember the west end of the building was packed during warmups because they knew Wallenheimo was going to be playing,” Gwozdecky said. “Everything else was vacant, but the west end was just packed.”
Where have you gone, Wally? Drop us an e-mail and check in.
The Bulldogs may have never had anything going in this WCHA season, but you can point to the weekend when the wheels really came off.
It was Nov. 2 and 3 at Alaska-Anchorage, the team it hosts this weekend at the DECC. A week after sweeping Rensselaer at home and with a 4-2 overall record, Duluth tied Anchorage 2-2 on Friday night.
The crushing blow was that Saturday. Up 4-2 late in the third period, it all collapsed on UMD. Three goals later, Anchorage had a 5-4 overtime victory.
Over two months later, Duluth is 4-14 since that point, 1-12 in the WCHA.
“We played them earlier in the year and probably should have had three or four points,” Sandelin said this week. “We played two of six periods, we blew the lead and it’s sent us on the downfall. It seems like [the Seawolves have] played better since then.”
Who knows if things would have been different for Duluth if it would have been able to hold onto that lead. Nonetheless, it’s been a downward spiral since.
Even when Duluth has been able to put together highlights in the second half — wins over Yale and then-No. 1 St. Cloud State — the Bulldogs have been followed by more despair: three straight losses after each win.
“We have a tough time putting two, three, four wins together,” Sandelin said. “We’re a team that’s going to win one or two and probably lose a couple. Those are things that happen when you haven’t won a lot.”
The Bulldogs are finding that it’s awfully difficult to break that cycle.
Line ‘Em Up
When you find a combination that works, stick with it. When you find one in the middle of the season, getting some more players into the mix and rewarding others, even better.
That’s why the Denver line of David Neale, Matt Weber and Kevin Ulanski will stay together for this weekend’s series at Minnesota. They were put together for the first time last weekend, and came away with four goals and eight assists.
Lucia chalks up his team’s recent difficulties in the first game of series to mental errors.
The Gophers are perfect in the second game of the last three series, but they’re just 0-2-1 in the openers.
“I think it’s more mental than physical,” Lucia said. “The North Dakota game, we had the game in hand and a couple defensemen got caught in when they shouldn’t have been in, and that cost us.
“The Wisconsin game Friday night, [goaltender] Adam [Hauser] certainly wasn’t on, that contributed. And up at Anchorage, we didn’t have Jeff [Taffe] and were a little shorthanded. We got up 3-1 and we made a couple mental mistakes that ultimately cost us.”
North Dakota rallied in the third period for a 4-3 victory on Jan. 5; Wisconsin blitzed the Gophers 8-3 on Jan. 11; and Anchorage rallied from two goals down in the third last Friday to force a 3-3 tie.
“It’s not that we’re not ready to play or we’re not playing well,” Lucia said, “it’s more that those mental breakdowns, it seems like, end up in our net.”
Wisconsin’s troubles at putting together a consistently good weekend may start with offense, but defense and goaltending are playing supporting roles.
Sauer said he’s debating whether to play starting goaltender Scott Kabotoff on consecutive nights. This year in the WCHA, the best goaltenders have been the ones that play once a weekend. Those that are counted on to be in goal for every minute may be at a disadvantage, and Kabotoff falls in the latter class.
“I’m going to think long and hard about going back to back with Scott here down the stretch,” Sauer said. “But he’ll be our goaltender Friday night.”
Kabatoff’s status as the Badgers’ No. 1 goaltender is in little doubt. But in Bernd Bruckler, they have someone who can fill in, no matter the opponent, to give Kabotoff a breather.
Not that Kabotoff will tell you he needs a breather, though.
“He’ll be the first to tell you that he doesn’t think he’s physically tired or mentally tired,” Sauer said.
Ah, Graham Melanson’s influence still is strong at Wisconsin.
Five of Colorado College’s six periods against North Dakota last weekend wouldn’t have given any cause for alarm about the Tigers’ defense.
But there was that third period last Friday night. Five North Dakota goals. Owens called it an abherration. The Tigers won, albeit much less comfortably than was expected after 40 minutes.
“If we wouldn’t have rebounded with a good defensive effort on Saturday — we limited them to 22 shots — then I’d be concerned,” Owens said. “But I’m not.”
Owens admits his team is missing some of the defensive leadership provided by senior Mike Stuart, who has been out with a knee injury since the start of the month.
The Tigers hope to have Stuart back by the Feb. 1-2 series with Denver or the next weekend’s meeting with Wisconsin. In the meantime, they’re playing three freshmen on defense.
“I don’t think we’re quite as strong defensively as we were before Christmas,” Owens said, “but I think a lot of it has to do with Mike Stuart.”
Michigan Tech defenseman Justin Brown, his team mired in an 0-for-41 power-play slump, took one for the team last Saturday night, then gave two back.
Brown was the on the receiving end of a check from behind by Minnesota-Duluth’s Tom Nelson in the third period, netting Nelson a major penalty and Tech a five-minute power play.
Brown, unfazed, stepped back onto the ice and scored twice in that five-minute span.
Sauer, who has already announced this will be his last year as Wisconsin’s coach, is one away from his 650th collegiate victory.
The Badgers coach is in his 31st overall year and 20th in Madison.
Chuckle Of The Week
I’m sure it was a serious matter when it happened, but looking back on it, St. Cloud State defenseman Jeff Finger getting trapped in a Minneapolis-St. Paul airport bathroom stall last week was getting its share of chuckles.
It seems the door to the handicapped-accessible stall Finger was using after the Huskies landed in Minneapolis locked behind him. We won’t bother you with the details, but let’s just say the fire department was involved with the rescue.
The seven points Michigan Tech’s Brett Engelhardt racked up last weekend was probably the product of a year’s worth of effort.
Engelhardt scored the game-winning goal last Friday and added two more goals on Saturday. He was named the WCHA’s offensive player of the week.
“Hard work pays dividends, and hard work is pretty characteristic of Brett Engelhardt,” Michigan Tech coach Mike Sertich told USCHO’s Eric J. Habermas. “He keeps his game simple. He’s a power forward and he plays like it. And when he needs a big play, he makes it.”
He Said It
“They’re just young. They’re not as bad as their record.”
— Colorado College coach Scott Owens, on North Dakota.