Let’s Get It Started
Question of the week to WCHA coaches: Do you want to see a different state of mind from your players as the college hockey calendar clicks over into the playoffs?
It was a stumper.
For some, this weekend’s WCHA first round could be a last stand.
“Given our case,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said, “we either win or we’re done. I think you have to play with some desperation. You have to play it like it’s your last games.”
Desperation is a common word for some teams when the playoffs start.
“Playoffs are a different mental approach than regular-season games,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “It’s more of a desperation type of feeling.”
Still, for others, the big change may be a week away. This weekend’s games aren’t the one-and-done, doomsday situation of the NCAA tournament, or even next weekend’s WCHA Final Five.
It’s a best-of-three series, which provides a little more cushion, but still not a whole lot.
“I think it changes maybe a little bit more when you get into single-elimination,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “I think everybody is trying to play the same way that they played the last few weeks. As you get down to the end of the year, things tighten up and you’re trying to get in a playoff mode.”
For some teams, playoff mode is nothing new. When you begin to think, ‘If we lose this game, we’re toast,’ that’s when it’s playoff mode.
“For a number of teams, including ourselves,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said, “it’s been kind of playoff mentality over the last two or three weekends.”
In a sense, though, that playoff mode is just an extension of what coaches would have liked to have seen all season long. It’s the perfect shift, the perfect period, the perfect game that makes a team successful in the postseason.
“What you start harping on when you get to the end of a year is a bad penalty, the bad turnover,” Lucia said. “I think you want to maybe play it a little smarter, you hope your kids will. You’re trying to become that team the whole year. In the heat of the battle at the end of the year, you revert to what you’ve kind of done all year long.”
This is the time of the year when we start losing teams. Five teams will fall out of the league playoffs this weekend.
“It’s down to the situation where there are no more tomorrows if you don’t continue to be successful,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said. “It adds to the urgency.”
Here’s a look at this weekend’s WCHA first-round playoff games:
Michigan Tech at Denver: A Decision
Gwozdecky sat down with the Pioneers’ goaltenders last week and broke the news: Wade Dubielewicz was going to be the team’s starting goaltender the rest of the way.
It’s not a surprise that Gwozdecky chose Dubielewicz instead of Adam Berkhoel, rather that the Denver coach has chosen at all. He has sounded so sure in the two-goaltender system all season long, and it’s obviously paid off.
Starting with last weekend’s split at North Dakota, Dubielewicz played both games. There are some who mused that Gwozdecky would continue to rotate goaltenders as long as his team was playing. This takes that question out of play for the playoff run.
“I don’t want to sound like we’re boasting at all, but I think Adam has played so well this year that perhaps there would be teams, who if he was playing on other teams he might be their starting goaltender in the playoffs,” Gwozdecky said. “Right now, it’s not so much what Adam hasn’t done, but what Wade has done. For the kind of season and second half he’s had, he’s played at such a higher level than so many other people.”
Michigan Tech lost 3-1 and 7-4 games to the Pioneers in Denver in January. They also were swept by Denver in Houghton in November, 9-2 and 3-1.
The Huskies haven’t had much success in the games they played against a Dubielewicz-backstopped Pioneers team. They scored just three goals on 66 shots in two games.
It won’t help that the Huskies will likely play without freshman forwards Bryan Perez (ankle) and John Hartman (concussion), each of whom suffered an injury last week.
But keep this in mind: The last time a 10th-ranked Tech team played a first-round series in Colorado, the Huskies knocked off Colorado College in three games in 1994. Many consider that to be the biggest upset in the current format of the WCHA playoffs.
Minnesota-Duluth at St. Cloud State: Can’t Avoid ‘Em
UMD may have been the least preferred opponent in the first round, which says an awful lot about the Bulldogs’ second-half run.
Without a WCHA win before the holiday break, they have collected five in the second half. It’s not stellar, but it’s progress. It’s also impressive, considering the circumstances.
Things turned for the better the weekend after a pair of losses at Michigan Tech.
“After the Michigan Tech weekend, we could have gone in the other direction,” Sandelin said. “We turned around and went the right direction and played pretty good hockey. That was probably the turning point of the second half. Which way are we going to go? We beat Anchorage on Friday [Jan. 25, in Anchorage] and, more importantly, beat them on Saturday. We weren’t satisfied with just the one. We kind of built off that.
“I think we’ve become more consistent in our performance. That’s probably why I feel a lot better. Last year, I think we went into the playoffs and I didn’t know what to expect. In a way, I still don’t with this team. I hope the playoffs, with what we’re playing for, brings out the best in our guys.”
Watch to see the impact Judd Medak has for the Bulldogs. He’s involved in 44.6 percent of UMD’s goals.
— Don Lucia
A Medak offensive explosion this weekend could be devastating for St. Cloud State, a team that finds itself reeling after being swept by rival Minnesota last weekend.
It wasn’t just that the Huskies were swept by the Gophers — although that, in itself would do it for St. Cloud fans. It’s the way it happened.
“In light of what happened to us last week, and our failure to play a full 60 minutes each night, obviously we got a big helping of humble pie,” Dahl said. “We’re looking for a change in demeanor.
“In our case, we don’t need an infusion of talent. We don’t have a massive set of injuries to deal with. We have the easiest thing of all to fix, and that’s just turning the light on mentally. From, ‘we’ll get this done,’ to, ‘we’d better go back to work.’ To me, that’s an easy thing to fix because that’s just each guy, through individual conversation, realizing where he’s at, admitting where he’s at and saying, ‘I can do better,’ and setting about doing that.”
The Huskies built a successful playoff run last year with a solid finish to the regular season. That buildup isn’t possible this year, so they’ll have to find another way.
North Dakota at Minnesota: The Rivalry
Let’s preface this by saying just about any first-round series for Minnesota could be termed a rivalry series. The Gophers have that quality about them.
But this is one of the big ones for the Gophers, and for the WCHA. The league hasn’t seen a playoff rivalry series like this one since 1998, when Denver played Colorado College and Minnesota played Minnesota-Duluth.
These teams haven’t been far enough apart to create a first-round series since the early ’90s. The Gophers swept the Sioux at Mariucci Arena the last time these teams met in this situation, in 1993.
Lucia doesn’t expect anything that easy for his players.
“One of the things I’m going to tell our guys is, be comfortable with a tie game in the third or be comfortable in overtime,” he said, “because that’s probably what’s going to happen.”
The Gophers are entering the playoffs at full stride, having climbed to No. 2 in the PairWise Rankings. They have won five in a row and eight of the last nine by getting timely scoring and leadership.
Their second-half schedule has prepared them well for the postseason.
“From January on, starting with North Dakota at home, we’ve played a tough schedule,” Lucia said. “Just rival after rival, a lot of road games in tough environments. By playing all these tough teams the second half of the year, I think it’s helped make us a better team.”
North Dakota’s youth could show through this weekend. Remember that the Sioux are playing with more than 10 players that have never been through the WCHA playoffs.
Still, those who have also have a feeling of what it’s like to be there at the end.
“They’ve got a nucleus of guys that have played in the last two national title games,” Lucia said of the Sioux. “Those guys know how to win and know what it takes.”
Sioux goaltender Andy Kollar earned a victory over Denver last Saturday night, not a bad sign for a team whose coach has said recently that the next goalie to play a good game will get a chance to follow it up.
Alaska-Anchorage at Colorado College: Another Chance
As the years go by, the losses grow.
Every year, someone says, “This is Alaska-Anchorage’s best chance to get a win in the WCHA playoffs.”
So far, all the Seawolves have done is add to a WCHA playoff losing streak that has now reached 18.
They’re 0-18 in nine years of league playoff play, and once again we’ll say this is Anchorage’s best chance for a playoff win. This time, it’ll come with a straight face.
This weekend, the Seawolves play Colorado College, a team that they swept (albeit in Anchorage) two weeks ago.
“It’s a totally different mind-set,” UAA defenseman Matt Shasby told the Anchorage Daily News. “Our mind-set is going down there with excitement. In the past, we’ve gone down there thinking, ‘How fast will we be coming home?'”
On the other hand, CC has a bit of a score to settle. Those two losses in Anchorage started a Tigers slide in the Pairwise.
They were seventh before that weekend, then fell to the precarious ninth position. Even after a sweep of Michigan Tech last weekend, they fell one more spot this week, to No. 10.
Meanwhile, the Tigers would doubly want to win this series in two games. Not only would it quickly dispatch of a team that could be a playoff hot potato, but it would give them a little more time to rest before what would likely be a spot in the Thursday-night game at the Final Five.
Minnesota State-Mankato at Wisconsin: Consistency Issues
It would have been almost natural for Wisconsin to take a bit of a breather last Saturday night against Minnesota-Duluth. After winning the first game of the series, that’s what has happened to the Badgers at times, and it’s cost them.
Inconsistency has been the name of the Badgers’ game. Then came the start of last Saturday’s game.
The Badgers showed they could play a full weekend, scoring goals on their first three shifts in a 5-1 victory.
“Nobody predicted that type of thing,” said Sauer, whose team hosts Minnesota State-Mankato this weekend. “We really went to it right off the bat.”
How does that carry over to this weekend?
“The big thing is just the nature of knowing it’s playoffs,” Sauer said, “knowing there’s got to be some desperation play because if you don’t win, the season’s over.”
Wisconsin will start Scott Kabotoff in goal Friday night, but Sauer left the door open for Bernd Bruckler to get some time this weekend.
Mavericks coach Troy Jutting didn’t tip his hand after last weekend’s series against Nebraska-Omaha as to how he’s leaning in goal.
Jon Volp took the loss last Thursday; Jason Jensen got an overtime win on Saturday.
“I think both of our goalies heading into the playoffs can feel confident about the way they are playing,” Jutting told USCHO’s Dusty Sedars.
Last week, this column listed Denver’s Gwozdecky and St. Cloud State’s Dahl as the favorites for the league’s coach of the year award.
There was, however, one major oversight: Alaska-Anchorage’s Hill, who, in his first season, doubled the Seawolves’ WCHA point total from 12 last year to 24 this year.
What Was I Thinking?
In late September, weeks of research and hours of talk with those in the know in the WCHA led this columnist to pick North Dakota to win this season’s MacNaughton Cup.
And let that be the last we ever talk of that event.
Here’s a look at the way the WCHA finished, and the way the teams were predicted to finish:
1. Denver: Our prediction was sixth; the WCHA coaches’ was fifth. After years with some things working and some not, everything just came together for the Pioneers this year.
2. St. Cloud State: Both predictions were fourth. The Huskies always managed to keep themselves above the rest of the pack, and it paid off at the end.
3. Minnesota: Our prediction was third; the coaches’ was second. There haven’t been too many sustained highs or lows this season for the Gophers, and that’s probably what put them in third.
4. Colorado College: Our prediction was second; the coaches’ was first. An awful league start put the kibosh on hopes for a league championship. Some slips late ended hopes for third.
5. Wisconsin: Our prediction was fifth; the coaches’ was sixth. The Badgers were just too inconsistent this season to challenge for anything higher.
6 (tie). Minnesota State-Mankato: Both predictions were seventh. The Mavericks proved this season, their third as a full-time member of the league, that they’re going to be one of the teams competing for home ice every year.
6 (tie). Alaska-Anchorage: Both predictions were 10th. No one knew what to expect from Hill. We do now.
6 (tie). North Dakota: Our prediction was, ahem, first; the coaches’ was third. The Sioux were too young to challenge for the title, and they proved it over and over again.
9. Minnesota-Duluth: Both predictions were eighth. If the Bulldogs could have won some league games in the first half, they might have been in that group vying for home ice.
10. Michigan Tech: Both predictions were ninth. Sertich still has some rebuilding to do.
Sauer was showered in gifts from Wisconsin administration and some of his former players after last Saturday’s game at the Kohl Center. Sauer is retiring at the end of the season.
The capper? A trip to the 2003 Masters golf tournament, provided by the former players.
“You expect the rocking chair and the blanket, maybe the clock and stuff, but a trip to the Masters, you don’t expect that,” Sauer said. “It was neat, that was really a nice gift.”
You asked: Why was Greg Shepherd the referee in last Saturday’s Badgers-Bulldogs game?
Turns out Shepherd, the WCHA’s supervisor of officials who is (apparently semi-)retired from on-ice officiating, did it as a tribute to Sauer.
Useless Stat Of The Week
Of the 14 WCHA playoff seasons that have passed since the WCHA shed the two-game, total-goals series in 1987-88, seven have passed without an upset (home team losing) in the first round.
The host teams advanced to the Final Five, or WCHA Playoff Championship, as it as known before 1993, in 1990, ’91, ’92, ’93, ’97, ’98 and 2001.
Tied At The Top
At least WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod doesn’t have to go far to present the MacNaughton Cup this year.
McLeod, who presides over the WCHA office in Denver, will present the trophy to the Pioneers this weekend.
The regular-season title is Denver’s 11th, which ties the Pioneers with North Dakota for the most in WCHA history.
Getting To Know You
Michigan Tech should be very familiar with the city of Denver by now.
For the second time this season, the Huskies are spending the week in the Mile High City, preparing to play the Pioneers.
They were on their way back from Anchorage when they stayed there in advance of the Jan. 11-12 series, and they stayed there this week after last weekend’s series at Colorado College.
The players were on holiday break the first time. They’re on spring break now.
Sadly, we’re nearing the end of the Clay “Woodrow” Wilson watch for the season. The Michigan Tech freshman defenseman provided another highlight last weekend, though, scoring the Huskies’ only goal of their series against CC.
While surely it was a scorching slap shot, we don’t have that information to be sure. What we do know, though, is that Wilson has four goals and eight assists in his rookie season.
Almost good enough to someday be on the $100,000 bill.