This Week In The WCHA: Feb. 21, 2002

Me And My Shadow

The common perception is that this weekend’s Denver-St. Cloud State series –the Clash for the Cup, so to speak — will be a phenomenal matchup between the Huskies’ big scorers and the Pioneers’ standout goaltenders.

Somewhere, Dean Weasler is probably waving his arms over his head, yelling, “Hey, I’m pretty good, too.”

While Denver’s Wade Dubielewicz, along with sidekick Adam Berkhoel, gets most of the attention when it comes to WCHA goaltenders, there’s Weasler, his shadow in every goaltending category.

Winning percentage? Dubielewicz .875; Weasler .840.

Goals against average? Dubielewicz 1.63; Weasler 1.93.

Save percentage? Dubielewicz .947; Weasler .933.

So when someone, like North Dakota coach Dean Blais, says, “It’s probably going to get down to goaltending,” don’t necessarily count the Huskies out.

For as equally matched as the goaltenders are, so are the teams as a whole, statistically speaking anyway. That’s what has created the buzz that surrounds this weekend’s series at Denver’s Magness Arena.

Oh, that and the fact that Denver’s one point up on St. Cloud with four games to play in the race for the MacNaughton Cup. If the Pioneers sweep, they get the Cup. If the Huskies sweep, they’re three points up with two games to play.

Still, goaltending will probably end up being the biggest factor in the games.

“You try to evaluate what’s going to happen, but the one person that always leaves a stamp on that game is the goaltender,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “I think it’s going to come down to goaltending both nights.”

If it does, it’ll probably be because these teams have clearly defined themselves as the top two in the league — in the statistics as well as the standings.

In the 24 WCHA games the teams have played to date:

  • St. Cloud has the top offense (4.42 goals per game); Denver is second (4.00).
  • The teams are tied in defense, each allowing 2.08 goals per game.
  • St. Cloud is tops on the power play (33.1 percent); Denver is second (24.6).
  • St. Cloud has the best penalty kill (87.9 percent); Denver is second (87.0).

    “They say they play good defense. We’re going to find out, because that’s what it’s going to come down to — that and specialty teams,” Huskies coach Craig Dahl said of his team. “People say we have good offense. Well, we’ll find out.”

    Only one team has been able to beat both Denver and St. Cloud this season, and its coach doesn’t even know which way to call this series.

    “They’re two different teams. They’re both the same as far as how good they are, but they’re good different ways,” said Colorado College coach Scott Owens, whose team is 2-2 against both the Pioneers and the Huskies this season. “I think Denver’s got a little advantage playing on the smaller sheet with their defensive corps and their goaltending. But St. Cloud is just so good up front with their depth.”

    One thing is sure as this series approaches: If you don’t have a ticket, get ready to cozy up with your television. The series has been sold out for weeks.

    “It’s an impossible ticket to get right now,” Gwozdecky said.

    Trickle-Down Effect

    The sweeps last weekend by Denver and St. Cloud State did more than just set up this weekend’s winner-just-about-take-all series in Denver. Moving a few spots down in the standings, it served to push the race for fifth place closer to the wire.

    Even after a home sweep by the Pioneers, Wisconsin (23 points) leads Minnesota State-Mankato by one point and North Dakota and Alaska-Anchorage by three points for the last home-ice spot.

    St. Cloud swept Anchorage last weekend, and North Dakota climbed into a tie for seventh with the Seawolves after its sweep of Michigan Tech.

    The situation is urgent for the Mavericks and the Seawolves, who play their final WCHA series this weekend.

    So if Wisconsin emerges from this weekend’s games with a lead over Mankato and Anchorage, it will contend only with North Dakota in the last weekend.

    The Badgers hold the tiebreaker over North Dakota (3-1 this season), will probably hold the tiebreaker over Mankato (though it could come down to the last tiebreaker — conference goal differential) but don’t have the advantage over Anchorage.

    Teacher Meets Pupil

    Dean Blais likes what he sees from his protege.

    Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, Blais’ understudy for six years at North Dakota, doesn’t have a flashy win-loss record. He does appear to have the Bulldogs going the right direction in the essential area of recruiting.

    “It takes years sometimes to get that tradition and ability to get the good players,” said Blais, who takes his team to Duluth this weekend. “Well, he’s in on the good kids right now.”

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sandelin would be good at recruiting for a team of his own. He helped get North Dakota to national prominence as an assistant.

    “Recruiting, as much as you’re trying to sell yourself and your program and facilities, it’s kind of a system as much as anything,” Blais said. “I learned from Gino Gasparini, Scott’s learned from me and you pass that on to the next guy. And he’s done that very well.”

    Still, the record is the first thing most people see from a hockey team. For the first half of the season, the Bulldogs couldn’t find a league victory.

    In the second half, though, they have claimed shockers over Minnesota and St. Cloud State as well as a sweep of Alaska-Anchorage and three points on the road last weekend against Minnesota State-Mankato.

    They appear head and shoulders above last year’s 7-28-4 team.

    “I just think he’s done a tremendous job,” Blais said. “If it wasn’t for maybe George Gwozdecky or Craig Dahl … maybe Jeff Sauer, Scott would be my choice” for coach of the year.

    It’s His Ship

    Barring the unforeseen and taking Minnesota coach Don Lucia at his word, the goalposts at Mariucci Arena belong to Adam Hauser for the rest of the season.

    Hauser, a senior — in fact, the only non-freshman of the Gophers’ goaltending trio — will get the starts as far as he takes the team.

    This development would have taken place last weekend, but for an ankle injury that kept Hauser out of Friday’s loss to Colorado College. He was back as the starter, though, for Saturday’s game, and isn’t expected to relinquish that spot to freshmen Travis Weber and Justin Johnson.

    “We let the freshmen have their games,” Lucia told reporters last Saturday, “but this is the time when you’ve got to let your experience take over.”

    The Gophers host Wisconsin in the Border Battle this weekend. In Hauser’s first appearance against the Badgers this season, he was pulled after allowing five goals on 23 shots through two periods.

    There’s no question that experience will be on the mind of some this weekend.

    You Look Familiar

    Hey, I know you. Yeah, you in the North Dakota 35 sweater. Aren’t you the guy that won the WCHA Final Five two years ago?

    Yup, that was Andy Kollar in net last Friday for the Sioux’s victory over Michigan Tech. And no, you haven’t missed much of his season if you haven’t paid attention to the Sioux since early December.

    Last Friday’s start was Kollar’s first since a 7-6 overtime loss at Wisconsin on Dec. 7 and his first victory since Nov. 16.

    “The guys were probably scared to see me in net because I haven’t been in there for so long,” Kollar deadpanned to USCHO’s Patrick C. Miller.

    Blais said the goaltending situation is wide open entering the last two weeks of the regular season. Kollar has a chance to take over, but so do Josh Siembida and Jake Brandt.

    “What I’m trying to do right now [is] find a guy that’s going to take it and go,” Blais said. “They all have played well, but at this time of the year, the next guy that plays a good game is going to get an opportunity to follow it up with another one.”

    Signing Off

    One of the WCHA’s legendary voices signs off from the MacInnes Student Ice Arena for the final time Saturday night.

    Bob Olson, the longtime Michigan Tech announcer, is retiring at the end of the season after 31 years behind the microphone.

    With Tech at Colorado College next weekend and on the road for the first round of the playoffs, this is the last homestand for Olson.

    Late-Season Border Wars

    It’s probably not a coincidence that some of the best Minnesota-Wisconsin games in recent memory have taken place late in the season.

    Add the adrenaline from a race to the finish to an already stirred pot between the teams and you’ve got a fantastic atmosphere for hockey.

  • In Madison in late February 1996, the Badgers scored 6-3 and 7-4 victories — the latter coming after UW was down 4-0 in the second period — to continue a late-season run that culminated with a trip to the Final Five. There, however, the Gophers got revenge, eliminating the Badgers in overtime in Milwaukee.
  • On March 1, 1997, the Gophers claimed a share of the MacNaughton Cup with a 7-3 victory over the Badgers. Some of the fans stayed around afterward to listen to the radio broadcast of North Dakota’s 5-0 loss to Denver, which allowed the Gophers to return to the ice to celebrate the title.
  • In February 1998, the Badgers entered Minneapolis with a 13-game unbeaten streak. They left with humbling 4-1 and 7-0 losses.
  • In March 1999, the Badgers got a 6-4 win and a 2-2 tie at Mariucci Arena to clinch fourth place in the standings. It was the first time UW claimed a point at the new Mariucci Arena.
  • In 2000, the teams met three times late in the season, all in Minneapolis, and the Badgers won all three, including a semifinal game at the Final Five. The Badgers went 5-0 against the Gophers that year.

    What story will be written this year? Will it be the Badgers locking up a home-ice spot with an improbable sweep at Mariucci? The Gophers staying in the hunt for a first-round bye by winning the season series (it’s tied at 1)?

    The odds are good it’ll be something special when the Badgers and the Gophers play late in the season.

    The Big Move

    There’s something about an 8-1-1 stretch that the computer that spits out the Pairwise Rankings seems to like.

    Before that stretch, Colorado College was hanging around the 10th and 11th positions in the Pairwise, a spot that isn’t bad, but doesn’t do much for the nerves come selection Sunday.

    Bolstered by a strong 11-3-2 record in its last 16 games — one of the Pairwise factors — the Tigers are sitting sixth in the Pairwise. Stay there, and they can count on being in the big dance.

    With the possible exception of the sixth-best RPI ranking, the biggest thing keeping the Tigers from making a move up the ranks is an 8-6 record against teams under consideration — the 28 other teams that, as of Thursday, were at or above .500.

    Chances are, they won’t be able to better that record anytime before the Final Five. They play Alaska-Anchorage (seven games below .500) this weekend and Michigan Tech (don’t go there) next, so those games won’t count toward teams under consideration.

    North Dakota is one game under the .500 mark and Minnesota-State Mankato is two games beneath it, but CC is just 3-3 against those teams, so it might be better for the Tigers if those two teams ended the season outside the TUC zone. Also, Clarkson, which CC beat twice this season, is at .500 and in danger of falling out of consideration.

    While that’s enough to give anyone a headache, Owens, confident his team has played itself into a NCAA bid, is having his team focus on the short-term goal of edging Minnesota for third place.

    “We think our Pairwise will be good enough to get us in the tournament, but we just want to make sure that we can possibly take third place,” Owens said, “to avoid possibly North Dakota [in the first round], to avoid the Thursday-night game [at the Final Five].”

    There are too many games left for everyone to start predicting Pairwise outcomes, but if CC is going to make a run at the top four, it’s going to happen at the Final Five, where they would likely play teams under consideration. That low record against teams under consideration is holding them back.

    “We’ve talked about it before, a chance to be in the top four,” Owens said. “But the only way we can do that is if we beat some people in the tournament, or those people get upset.”

    Got all that? There will be a quiz in St. Paul at the Final Five.

    Making The Rounds

    Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill has pulled his starting goaltender from the Friday night game in each of the last two weekends.

    On Feb. 8, third-stringer Kurt Johnson replaced Kevin Reiter after two periods in a 5-4 overtime loss to Minnesota State-Mankato. Chris King was serving a one-game suspension that day, one assessed by the school for an inappropriate gesture with his hand (yeah, you know the one) after the brawl with Wisconsin.

    Last Friday, it was Reiter being yanked after allowing seven goals in the second period against St. Cloud State. King replaced him.

    Finishing Them Off

    Minnesota State-Mankato coach Troy Jutting has lamented at times this season about his team’s lack of goalscoring punch.

    In the stretch, though, one of his key scorers has started to find the touch.

    Junior captain B.J. Abel has six goals in his last six games, giving him nine for the season.

    The Mavericks are 3-2-1 in that stretch, but are winless in their last three games.

    Chalk One Up

    Congrats to Clay “Woodrow” Wilson, who notched his third goal of the season last Friday night against North Dakota.

    The Michigan Tech freshman defenseman slapped in a shot from the point on a 5-on-3 power play to even the game at 1.

    We just won’t mention that it was a 12-2 Sioux victory. … Oh, well.

    He Said It

    “It’s so nice I made our kids take off their boots before we came in for practice yesterday.”

    –Michigan Tech coach Mike Sertich, on his first experience at the new Ralph Engelstad Arena, to a luncheon crowd in Grand Forks last Friday.