The Rat Race
Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer has given the last five weeks of the regular season a moniker, and his team was the first to announce its intention to be a factor in the run to the finish.
“I think we sent a message, if not around the country, at least we sent a message within the WCHA,” Sauer said upon grabbing three points from an impressive showing against St. Cloud State last weekend.
“This is going to be a rat race the rest of the way.”
Six of the WCHA’s teams have 10 league games left; the other four have only eight. Each weekend, there’s a blurring of the lines between the top half and the bottom half, between the top three and the rest of the league.
Wisconsin did its best last weekend to draw the line between itself and the bottom half, but what’s to say Alaska-Anchorage or North Dakota, each tied for sixth place, won’t make a run in the coming weeks? The Seawolves have matters in their hands this weekend with a series at the Kohl Center.
Say all you want about the Badgers catching St. Cloud on an off weekend. If the Badgers play the rest of the way like they did against the Huskies, fifth place will be the lowest they’ll finish.
“It wasn’t a fluke or anything else,” Sauer said. “We deserved to win.”
The next challenge for the Badgers, who put together two straight solid showings last weekend for the first time in almost two months, is to take that a step further.
They made it known last weekend that home ice is the immediate goal.
“Then it’s up to us,” Badgers forward Matt Murray said. “We get home ice here and you never know what’s going to happen. Go to the Final Five and that’s anyone’s game, everyone knows that.”
It Comes To This
Everything Colorado College has done over the last two months to bring itself back into a good position is on the line this weekend against Denver.
But then again, it isn’t.
The Tigers have won 14 of their last 19 games to get to this point — 10th in the PairWise Rankings, eighth in the USCHO.com poll — and now they get to see where they really stand with a series against the best team in the WCHA.
“It is all on the line, but we have a stretch here of games where it’s all on the line,” said CC coach Scott Owens, pointing to a close of the season that includes series against Wisconsin and Minnesota after this weekend.
“We’ve worked hard to get ourselves back into position to get home ice and be respectable, and this is certainly a big series for us.”
That said, Owens doesn’t want to let this be the defining series for his team, however it turns out.
“If we win both games, all it does is put us closer to third. If we get swept, we’re probably in fifth,” he said. “But it’s not the end. There’s still four weeks after that.”
St. Cloud State isn’t giving up the fight for the MacNaughton Cup. Getting one point from a series last weekend and seeing Denver take a two-point lead with two games in hand gives the Pioneers the best position of anyone, but the Huskies aren’t ready to concede the trophy.
But then again, count them among the growing list of people who are at least slightly downplaying the importance of the WCHA regular-season championship.
“You can’t just point to the MacNaughton Cup and say, ‘What if we don’t win it?'” St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl said. “We’ll play as well as we can, as hard as we can, but we also want to go someplace in the NCAAs. That’s really the thing we want to focus on also.
“Do we want to win the MacNaughton? Yeah, we do. But if we don’t, it just means we’re second or third. I just want to be playing good late in the season like we were last year.”
They’re Not Swayed
You could give Denver the MacNaughton Cup today — and some people seem willing to — and the Pioneers wouldn’t be swayed.
Clearly, this is a team that has built itself aspirations higher than the regular-season title. The MacNaughton Cup is nice — pure silver and all — but there’s a lot of hockey to be played after it’s awarded.
“The MacNaughton Cup was not one of our goals this year,” coach George Gwozdecky said, “and that’s not going to change.”
Gwozdecky was clear that it would be a great thing for the program, which hasn’t seen the Cup on its campus since 1986.
“But it’s not going to distract us from what we need to accomplish and what we want to accomplish,” he said.
The need to accomplish part can be loosely interpreted as a spot in the NCAA tournament, preferably with a first-round bye to boot. The want to accomplish part is, well, take it from there and figure it out.
Back In Action
Troy Jutting is really hoping a weekend off this late in the season won’t throw his team too far off course.
Or maybe it was good for Minnesota State-Mankato to be thrown a little off going into the stretch. The Mavericks have won just three of their last 10 games.
Jutting isn’t really sure how his team is going to react in its home series this weekend against Michigan Tech. He just hopes the time off doesn’t show too much early Friday night.
“It’s one of those things where you’d like to look into the crystal ball and be able to tell that,” Jutting said. “But it’s been a great week of practice this week. It is a long season and I think breaks at the right time are great for teams. I guess we’ll just have to see if this was a good time for the break or not.”
The one Mavericks player who had to be cheering the idle weekend was goaltender Jason Jensen, who has started all 15 games since backup goalie Jon Volp was injured against North Dakota on Nov. 16. You’ll remember that Eric Pateman, who was the No. 1 goaltender at the start of the season, had already been ruled out for the season at that point with a shoulder injury.
“The one person for sure that will benefit from the week off will be Jason,” Jutting said. “It’s just nice to not have to get yourself to that mental level every week.”
It’s hard to ignore a 6-0 goaltender record.
As impressive as that is for Minnesota’s Travis Weber, however, it comes with a catch, at least recently: Weber’s last three starts have come on nights after the Gophers have lost or tied.
The effort as a team has been better in those situations, Gophers coach Don Lucia said, and Weber has been the beneficiary.
Starting goaltender Adam Hauser, who has played in each of the last three Friday games, only to see Weber replace him for the Saturday game, sees an average of 26.6 shots per game; Weber sees 23.1.
“I think we’ve played some good games on Friday, too, but Travis had made the timely saves,” Lucia said. “We haven’t been giving up a lot of shots either way, but it seems like what he’s done is make a couple saves in a game that have given us an opportunity to win the game.”
And it’s hard to argue with 6-0. That’s why Weber will probably continue to figure into the Gophers’ goaltending plans.
Quite A Collection
Sauer isn’t into keeping mementos from his milestone victories — like No. 650 last Saturday. He said, however, that he keeps every one of his game cards — a rink-shaped piece of cardstock paper — and he would probably make a note of the accomplishment on it.
Just like Superman has kryptonite, Denver apparently has Minnesota.
How else to explain it? The Pioneers have three losses this season in 26 games, and two of them have been to the Gophers. Granted, they have two wins over Minnesota this season, but no other WCHA team has even come close to splitting the season series with Denver.
And, with all due respect to New Hampshire, the other team that’s downed Denver this season, no one has made the Pioneers look as bad as Minnesota did last Saturday.
At least for the day, they were humbled to the tune of 6-1. And Pioneers coach/top-subject-of-coaching-search-speculation Gwozdecky gave all that credit to Minnesota. He didn’t try to blame this or that for the loss or the margin thereof.
“If I based all of my analysis on how we played, I would be doing a discredit to Minnesota because they were outstanding,” Gwozdecky said. “We haven’t played a team that has played with more intensity, was better prepared and executed better than that team did. We haven’t played a team like that all team long.
“I would be willing to say, on that night, that was the best team in the country.”
There are, indeed, some forces strong enough to derail the biggest surprise of the college hockey season.
We didn’t hear from former Denver goaltender Sinuhe Wallenheimo after last week’s delve into history, but we got word that the demonstrative one was last seen playing in Germany.
Still no word, however, as to whether he still has the band.
Business As Unusual
The normal game-week preparations at Minnesota and Wisconsin this week were thrown off because of early-week games against the French Olympic team.
The Gophers beat the French 6-2 on Monday. They took Sunday and Tuesday off and returned to practice on Wednesday to get ready for this weekend’s series against Minnesota-Duluth.
“It disrupted our preparation big time,” Lucia said.
Wisconsin tied the French 2-2 on Tuesday. Sauer said last weekend after playing St. Cloud State that it was a game that he scheduled under different circumstances.
“When we scheduled the game, I never thought St. Cloud was going to be in the position they’re in, in terms of the type of series this was going to be,” Sauer said. “I didn’t expect them to be up as high in the standings.”
CC defenseman Mike Stuart is closer to coming back from a broken leg. He won’t play Friday, might play Saturday and definitely will play next week against Wisconsin, Owens said.
“It’s been five weeks, and while we’ve been fortunate to win with three freshman defensemen, we’d like to get a senior there that’s got a little more moxy and a senior presence,” Owens said.
A Plan To Remember
You have to think WCHA teams took notice of how Wisconsin was able to shut down the St. Cloud State power play last weekend. The Huskies usually get their chances while a man ahead; the Badgers, fourth in the 10-team WCHA in penalty killing, were able to limit those to coming from players not named Mark Hartigan and clear the crease of rebounds.
Therefore, the Huskies were 0-for-9 in two games; they’re 0-for-16 in their last four games. But they’re still ranked first in the WCHA, converting on more than 31 percent of their chances.
But that could change if more teams have the penalty killing success of the Badgers. That plan was devised by Wisconsin assistant coach Pat Ford.
“Coach Ford put in a great game plan for us,” Murray said. “We wanted to take away Hartigan all weekend. We were real disciplined, we stood in his face. Our [defense] did a great job clearing out guys when shots did come through. They didn’t get a lot of second chances, and when you stop that, you’re going to be a pretty effective penalty kill.”
Wisconsin defenseman Dan Boeser’s penalty late in last Friday’s game, stopping a Matt Hendricks breakaway, was his first of the season and second as a collegian. Good timing, if nothing else.
“He prides himself in not taking penalties,” Sauer said. “The one he took was a good play.”
Jutting knows very well how difficult it is for players to make significant impacts on the WCHA in their first season. That’s why when a Dany Heatley or a Peter Sejna comes along, people notice.
Jutting has noticed the play of two of his Mankato freshmen this season — defenseman Steven Johns and forward Grant Stevenson — and he’s thankful they came around.
He would, though, also like some help from some other young players as the team vies for an upper-division finish.
“We’re going to have to depend on some young kids to score some goals for us down the stretch,” Jutting said.
Johns and Stevenson are in that category. Johns has 16 points this season — all assists. Stevenson has just three goals.
But Jutting has been pleased with what each has offered this season.
On Johns, he said, “For a freshman to come in and have the kind of impact that he’s made is something that doesn’t happen very often in this league.”
On Stevenson: “Grant got off to a little bit of a slow start, but he’s really starting to come on lately. I think he’ll be a quality hockey player in this league over the next three years.”
Getting His Chance
Sprained ligaments in his left knee put Wisconsin goaltender Scott Kabotoff on crutches for most of last weekend’s series, but gave Bernd Bruckler his opportunity to shine.
He did, stopping 57 of 60 shots in a tie and a win, and was named the league’s defensive player of the week.
Bruckler mentioned after Friday’s game that he had to get his confidence level back up to 100 percent. Weekends like the last will help.
He’s expected to play this weekend against Alaska-Anchorage. Sauer said last weekend that Kabotoff was very questionable for the UAA series.
Tell Us How You Really Feel
The good thing for St. Cloud State last weekend is that Dahl couldn’t find a weekend to compare it to all season.
In other words, the Huskies haven’t played as bad as they did in a 2-2 tie and 4-1 loss to Wisconsin last weekend. Dahl had plenty to say — most negative — about his team following Saturday’s game.
“We got outhit, outhustled and outdisciplined — really got beat in every facet of the game,” he said. “Tonight, we were outgritted, outtoughed, outhustled, outworked, outdisciplined. It was a very sorry performance on our part.”
Just so it’s clear, Dahl did say — twice, in fact — that his team was outdisciplined by Wisconsin, the WCHA penalty minutes leader. To be fair, though, St. Cloud State is second in that category.
Of all the players, Hobey Baker Award hopeful Hartigan was guilty in some of the most untimely situations. On two occasions last Friday, he was sent to the box when the Huskies were on the power play. He had 10 penalties all season entering the weekend; he had four against the Badgers.
Oh, and the Huskies were outscored last weekend, too. Dahl forgot that one.
“We couldn’t score to save our soul all weekend,” Dahl said.
He Said It
“No one has really ever asked me for my autograph before, so this will be something new for me.”
— Michigan Tech coach Mike Sertich, who appeared at a Houghton, Mich., grocery store on Wednesday to sign his trading card from the team set.
He Said It, Too
“Happy birthday, Matt. What, 28 now?”
— Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer, to Badgers forward Matt Murray last Saturday. Murray scored two goals the day he turned 24.