Surprise Times Two
So what’s more surprising: that four of the top six teams in the PairWise Rankings are from the WCHA or that those four teams are the extent of the WCHA’s involvement in the PairWise?
Sure, the league is dominating the top of the rankings this week — yeah, we know, let you know when it means something — with Denver on top, St. Cloud State in second, Minnesota in fourth and Colorado College in sixth.
(Wouldn’t it be something if three of the four first-round byes went to WCHA teams? That whole five-team argument of last year would be trumped in an instant.)
The rest of the WCHA is noticably absent, however, from the PairWise. To put it bluntly, no one else qualifies.
Even in the USCHO.com poll, much more subjective than the numbers-driven PairWise, voters are realizing that the WCHA is a four-team league as far as the postseason is concerned.
Other than the big four, Wisconsin is the only other team to have received a vote — at No. 15 by one lonely soul.
“The dropoff surprises me a little bit,” CC coach Scott Owens said, “with Wisconsin in particular.”
Remember that the Badgers were in the same league position last year, but had a stronger record and, therefore, a better position in the PairWise. This year, they’re still two games away from being eligible for inclusion in the rankings.
“Wisconsin’s a pretty good hockey team,” Owens said. “The problem is they’re just not .500.”
Where It Stands
Three teams know they’ll be at home for the first round of the playoffs. Another is on the verge of joining them.
Denver, St. Cloud State and Minnesota all have clinched home-ice spots for the WCHA first round, March 8-10. Colorado College is one point away from that status.
On the other side, Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan Tech have been eliminated from contention for a home-ice spot.
That leaves Wisconsin, Minnesota State-Mankato, Alaska-Anchorage and North Dakota fighting for the fifth spot. Even with a loss and a tie last weekend at CC, the Badgers are in a good position to hold onto fifth.
Mankato and Anchorage, the teams immediately behind Wisconsin, have each played two more games. The Badgers need seven points over the last three weeks to lock up fifth, but can still finish fifth with less points and more help in losses by Mankato, Anchorage and North Dakota.
Stay Away From Four
What is it about fourth place that’s so repulsive? No one ever seems to want it.
Well, that’s not completely true. There are six teams that would be pretty happy with a fourth-place finish in the WCHA.
But because of the league’s Final Five format, a fourth seed in the playoffs has a tough road. That’s why this weekend’s Colorado College-Minnesota series takes on a little extra significance.
Assuming the top four seeds all win their first-round playoff series, that fourth seed gets the unenviable task of having to win three games in three days to win the Broadmoor Trophy. It’s never been done. Teams that get to the championship game after two victories inevitably run out of gas.
With six games left in the regular season, Colorado College is in that fourth position, but is only one point behind Minnesota for third.
“That’s a tough spot to be in, in that 4-5 game, and then if you win that to play three games,” said CC coach Scott Owens, whose Tigers were the fourth seed last year and went 2-1 in the Final Five. “We’re one point out, series at Minnesota, that’s what we’re shooting for right now.”
Those games undoubtedly have PairWise implications. But Minnesota coach Don Lucia pointed out that the chance to play three games that weekend can actually help a team’s PairWise standing.
Take last year’s CC team for example. After beating Wisconsin in the Thursday night game, it lost the next afternoon to North Dakota. On Saturday, it beat Minnesota in the third-place game. That’s 2-1 on the weekend, which looks a lot better than just 1-1.
“On the one hand, you’d like to be in the top three,” Lucia said. “On the other hand, you finish fourth, you’ll play against a better team and if you win, that helps you. If you win a couple games in the Final Five, two out of three, that can help as well. It’s the unknown.”
Drop The Puck
WCHA coaches and officials have been watching the Olympic hockey games, and they see something they like.
It’s called the fast faceoff, where the drop of the puck works around the linesman’s timetable, not the players’.
In essence, after a whistle stops play, each team gets five seconds for a line change — first the visitors, then the home team. After five seconds with his hand up — a signal for the home team that it can make its change — the referee drops his hand.
That is also a signal to the linesman, who blows his whistle and counts to five, then drops the puck, no matter who’s ready (or not).
The idea is a great one: eliminate the heel-dragging that slows games down to a crawl. There’s no more time for players to talk to each other and delay the drop of the puck.
“Do I like it? I love it,” WCHA Supervisor of Officials Greg Shepherd said. “This year it’s in the [college] rule book that it’s five seconds between line changes. It hasn’t changed. The [assistant referees] do the best they can to get the teams in there and everything else, but it’s still a pain. This way, if they’re not in there, they put the puck down. Somebody’s going to get hurt.”
St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl, a proponent of making games shorter — even suggesting that games could go down to two 25-minute periods — said it would be interesting to see that rule in play in college hockey.
“I think that would be an excellent experiment from our standpoint,” Dahl said. “You have to make your line changes, you have to get them out there and let’s rock. It would be an interesting move.”
Said Owens: “It’s something that we’ve talked about in our league. I think it’ll speed the game up; the games definitely go much faster. I kind of like it.”
There are potential pitfalls to the rule, though. What’s going to happen the first time a team scores directly off a faceoff because the puck was dropped when the defense wasn’t ready?
“Then all hell breaks loose,” Shepherd said.
One alternative Shepherd mentioned is to use the fast faceoff only for neutral zone draws.
Discussion of the fast faceoff, used widely in international hockey, has already taken place at the college level, but not to the point where it’s the next big thing to happen to collegiate hockey.
“We brought it up last year at the coaches’ meetings down in Florida and they weren’t too in favor of it,” Shepherd said. “Maybe they will be after they see the Olympics.”
No Looking Ahead
While there are plenty of intriguing matchups around the WCHA this weekend, one can’t help but look at one series that stands out next weekend.
Second-place St. Cloud State at first-place Denver. The battle for the MacNaughton Cup, right?
Well, they have to get to that position first. Denver plays at Wisconsin this weekend; St. Cloud hosts Alaska-Anchorage and tries to keep focused on the present.
“Our players understand that this weekend is extremely important, just like they did last weekend,” Dahl said. “We have to take care of this business first. We have to worry about what we’ve got at hand first. We’ll worry about next week when it comes.”
The Huskies appear as though they’ve outgrown a stretch where they may have been looking back a bit too much. A few sub-par games turned into a mini-slump a few weekends ago at Wisconsin, where they claimed only one point.
Losing those points may have proved a point to St. Cloud.
“What our guys are finding is that when you’re a highly rated team, the teams you play are always going to be trying to play their best against you, trying to knock you off,” Dahl said. “Our players have to understand that when that happens, you have to expect the challenge and you have to meet it. I think it took our players a while to work through that mentally.
“Just because these teams are below you in the conference standings doesn’t mean they’re going to lay down and die for you, they’re going to play as hard as they can and you’d better be on your game.”
A Frustrating Position
The depths of Michigan Tech coach Mike Sertich’s frustration are starting to show. Then again, so is his positive outlook for the Huskies.
“They don’t give trophies for second place and good efforts,” Sertich told USCHO’s Eric J. Habermas after losing 4-3 and 3-2 to St. Cloud State last weekend. “Kids need more than that. They need some reinforcement. That’s the hard part. They also know that there’s still season left and I don’t think we’re done yet.”
Dropping a D
If Rob Vega’s injured ankle prevents the Wisconsin defenseman from playing against Denver this weekend, the Badgers are prepared to play with five defenseman against the nation’s top-ranked team.
That would still be a step up from the four-defenseman set the Badgers used in last Friday’s 5-5 tie at Colorado College. That manpower situation was caused by game disqualification penalties to UW defensemen Brian Fahey and Jon Krall from the previous game.
Splitting It Up
You may have noticed earlier this season that the teams that were doing the best were the ones that regularly used two goalies.
Some of that has changed recently.
Sure, Denver still has what is probably the best 1-2 goaltending tandem in the league, maybe even the country, and is on top of the nation.
But one of the Pioneers’ goaltenders has hit a slump recently. In his last five starts, Adam Berkhoel is 2-2-1 with a 3.56 goals against average and a .880 save percentage.
Wade Dubielewicz has remained solid for the Pioneers, but there’s been no indication that they will stray from the goaltending rotation that has taken them to the top of the league.
At Minnesota, Lucia threw everyone a curveball last Friday night at North Dakota when he started freshman Justin Johnson in goal. The Gophers had been slumping in the first game of a series with Adam Hauser or Travis Weber in goal, but Lucia said that had nothing to do with the decision.
“He hadn’t had an opportunity to play on the road, and we wanted to throw him in that tough environment,” Lucia said, “just to see how he would do, as much for next year as for Friday night.”
Hauser played in Saturday night’s game and collected his 72nd career victory. He’s one behind Robb Stauber’s school record and also one behind Graham Melanson’s WCHA record of 140 games played.
St. Cloud State’s Dean Weasler has been the mainstay in net since Jake Moreland broke his catching hand trying to glove a Mark Hartigan slap shot in practice last month.
Weasler, who had been splitting time with Moreland, will be the Huskies’ goaltender for the stretch run.
“Unless he doesn’t play well, that’s what our plan is,” Dahl said. “With the injury to Jake Moreland, that certainly took him out of the lineup for a while, and Dean played fairly well in his stead.”
Two weeks ago, Wisconsin seemed poised to go on a late-season run. Despite losing its starting goaltender, it had taken three points from St. Cloud State.
This was going to be the time the Badgers put it all together and started playing consistently — in a positive sense.
Fooled you, the Badgers did.
Since, they’ve lost two points and their cool against Alaska-Anchorage and lost a three-goal lead against Colorado College, starting a downward spiral that led to a tie and a loss in Colorado Springs.
“It comes and goes,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said, “and that’s the problem. Our consistency has been the problem. When we’re playing strong, we can master the system and do a pretty good job.”
When they’re not playing strong, it’s a challenge for the Badgers.
With Denver coach George Gwozdecky having pulled his name out of the hat — he claims it was never in the hat to begin with — for the head coaching openings at Wisconsin and Michigan State, many people’s favorite to get the job is off the board.
But Wisconsin is sure to see the applications fly in now that the opening has been posted (deadline March 7, bachelor’s degree needed if you’re interested).
The job posting says the anticipated start date for the new head coach is March 9. It may be a formality in the job search, but it’s sure not much of a vote of confidence about the expected depth of the Badgers’ run in the playoffs. March 9 is the same day the Badgers will be playing Game 2 of a best-of-three, first-round WCHA playoff series.
Points On The Other Side
After 18 assists, Minnesota State-Mankato freshman Steven Johns finally got his first collegiate goal last Friday night.
He scored on the power play to tie the Mavericks’ game with Alaska-Anchorage at 2 in the first period.
There were no Clay “Woodrow” Wilson sightings reported on last weekend’s Michigan Tech scoresheets, so the freshman defenseman remains at two goals and six assists for the season.
What exactly do Clay Wilson and Woodrow Wilson have in common, you may ask? Well, Clay spent many years living in Alaska. In 1915, the former president authorized funds for the construction of the Alaska railroad. Coincidence?
He Said It
“It is my sincere hope that the distraction regarding my future has now been eliminated, and we can concentrate on achieving our season-long goal of winning the NCAA championship.”
— Denver coach George Gwozdecky, on closing the book on rumors of his departure with a contract extension.