The season of surprises has begun, maybe a little earlier than most thought it would.
Their wins last Friday over two of the league’s elite probably weren’t surprises to Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State-Mankato, or their fans. Among the rest, there had to be some eyebrows raised.
Last season, the WCHA didn’t have an upset of this magnitude — one where a team picked for the bottom few spots knocks off a team picked for the upper spots — until January, when a visiting UMD shocked St. Cloud State, 3-2 on Jan. 11.
And 3-2 was the score again, in both the Bulldogs’ victory at top-ranked Denver and the Mavs’ win over defending national champion Minnesota.
WCHA coaches often use the line that their league is so strong that on any given night … and, well, you can probably fill in the rest.
But there have been few concrete examples of it in the last two-plus seasons, especially when looking at the league’s playoffs. Seeds six through 10 have won a total of one game in the WCHA’s first round over the last two years.
Two upsets on one night, though? Yeah, that should start the talk again.
“It’s great for the league, obviously,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “We have it much, much more competitive. From the standpoint of two teams winning here and there, I think it’s great for the league. Parity is always good.
“We’ve always prided ourselves that the league is tough from top to bottom. I think this year we’ve even squeezed it a little closer, with the top teams coming down a notch and some of the have-nots coming up.”
Having a highly competitive league might not be good when it comes to NCAA tournament time — one theory suggests that having dominant teams provides more higher seeds and a better road to the Frozen Four. But it’s good for interest in the league.
“I don’t think it’s healthy for a league if the same two teams are at the top and the same two teams are at the bottom,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “I think you want a league where the bottom goes up and the top, sometimes, comes down. And I think we have that in our league.”
On That Note
Mankato’s Troy Jutting has heard it suggested that his team is turning a corner. He didn’t know there was a corner to be turned.
“People perceive things in different ways, but I’ve looked at it over the course of the first three years in the league, I personally don’t think we’ve done that badly,” Jutting said. “Everybody says we’re turning the corner and we’re doing this and that. We’ve already been at home [for the first round of the playoffs] once in three years and we’ve already been one weekend away from being at home all three years.
“Do I think we need to get better? You bet I do. But in terms of turning the corner, it’s early in the season. It’s one win — it was a good win, but it’s one win. We’re trying to get better, like a lot of teams in our league right now. Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come and hopefully that does indicate that. But I know that if we don’t play well this weekend, we’ll get beat up twice, just like you will every weekend in this league.”
The going doesn’t get any easier in the near future, either. After taking next weekend off, the Mavericks head to North Dakota.
With 16 freshmen and sophomores on the Mavericks’ 26-man roster, Jutting’s team resembles many others in the WCHA in age.
“I think a lot of teams, it’s going to take a couple of months before they find their real identities this year, just because the league is so young,” Jutting said. “I’d like to think that one of the things we’ve been able to do over the first weeks of the season is play pretty hard from start to finish. And we’ve also come back quite a bit. We came back against St. Cloud, we came back against Minnesota, both nights really. … Maybe one of the things we’re finding out is these kids will play hard to the finish and they don’t give up.”
Though its early-season WCHA schedule was full of opportunities, Colorado College has managed to avoid a letdown against the teams picked for low finishes in the league.
Things get a little more interesting this weekend.
After five wins and a tie against Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage, the Tigers get a taste of an opponent that plays its brand of hockey with a trip to Minnesota.
Last season’s meetings? 6-5 CC and 7-3 Gophers. Think these teams can score?
This will be CC’s toughest competition to date this season, and it comes after the Gophers got something of a wake-up call last Friday night at Mankato.
But, the opposition notwithstanding, the Tigers have been playing solid hockey. In fact, with the exception of that 0-5 league start last season, they’ve been doing that for over a year.
Since being out of the race for the MacNaughton Cup after five games last season, CC is 21-5-3 in WCHA games and 33-9-4 overall.
Dreams on Hold
Ryan Malone dreams of pulling on a Penguins jersey, looking down the bench and seeing Mario Lemieux and stepping onto the ice in his hometown.
Who doesn’t? But the St. Cloud State senior forward’s dreams are a lot closer to happening than others’.
Five-point games like he had against North Dakota last Friday make your mind wander. Could he be just a few seats down from Mario?
“It would be ridiculous,” Malone said of the possibility. “It would be like all your dreams coming true. Even getting drafted by them, I was shocked by that. And then getting a chance to play there next year would be unbelievable.
“It’s like what you dream about when you’re two years old. Besides winning the Stanley Cup, I don’t think there’s a better feeling that I would ever get.”
For now, though, Malone is shelving thoughts of playing in Pittsburgh for a final run at greatness in the college game.
Not that this season isn’t just a little bit about prepping for the next level, though. Malone moved from the wing to center, the position he’s most likely to play in the pros. He trained for two weeks in the offseason with Penguins forwards Ian Moran and Kris Beech and knows the organization’s staff.
Malone has experience at center from his time in high school and in juniors, so the move hasn’t been terribly difficult. He said most of the work he has to do is on faceoffs.
“I’d like to be the go-to guy there,” Malone said. “Then [in the defensive] zone, I just have to use my body more. You have to be a little more in shape if you’re going to be playing both ends of the ice. But with Cully and Motzy [linemates Jon Cullen and Joe Motzko], all of us can play [defense as] forwards, so it’s usually the first one back in the zone plays defense. It’s not really too much of a change.”
Added Malone: “As long as I’m playing, it doesn’t really matter where.”
His five-point Friday night included three goals. It was a strong statement for someone coming off a three-game hiatus because of a hip-pointer injury.
“The bounces were going my way, I guess,” Malone said. “It was nice to see, especially coming back after not playing that last weekend.”
While We’re Talking
Here are Malone’s takes on some more topics:
“I think we need to bear down on Saturday. We’re getting ready all week for Friday, we almost forget about Saturday. We need to be mentally prepared also for that. … Hopefully we can turn it around this weekend and get two good nights out of the guys.”
It was time for a change with North Dakota’s top production line.
With the Zach Parise-Brandon Bochenski-Quinn Fylling line held in check and checked hard in a 7-3 loss at St. Cloud State last weekend, Sioux coach Dean Blais made minor changes.
Bochenski moved from Parise’s left wing to the right. Kevin Spiewak took over on the left, and Fylling joined Tyler Palmiscno and Mike Prpich on the fourth line.
“We just needed a little bit more balance,” Blais said. “Not that you want to screw up the Parise line, but we thought they were being checked too closely by three seniors from St. Cloud. So we had to distribute the scoring a little bit. It paid off.”
It did. Bochenski and Parise each scored in a 3-2 overtime win on Saturday.
Blais said, however, he isn’t sure whether the changes will stick for this weekend’s series with Alaska-Anchorage.
“If the Parise line’s going to score three and four goals a game, we’re going to leave them together no matter what,” Blais said. “But then it’s easier for the other team to key on that line.”
Get out of Troy Riddle’s way when he sees a Colorado College jersey. He’s headed straight for the net.
In six career games against the Tigers, the Minnesota junior forward has five goals and 14 points for the Gophers.
“Part of it is the recruiting process,” Lucia said. “[CC was] involved in recruiting him real hard, and he ended up coming here. And he played with [CC forward Peter] Sejna on the same line in Des Moines. I think all of those things, you get a little stoked up in a situation like that.”
Lucia has seen Riddle’s worth in practice and games for more than two seasons, but it was on display for everyone to see last weekend. He scored in Friday night’s game, then left with a separated shoulder before Mankato rallied.
After being OK’d to play after the warmup on Saturday, he scored twice and had a four-point night.
“When you begin a year and you lose [Johnny] Pohl and [Jeff] Taffe and [Jordan] Leopold and some of these guys, you want other players to step up into some of those roles,” Lucia said. “Troy is one of those guys that, I think he was licking his chops when Johnny graduated because all of a sudden he’s going to get No. 1 power-play time, he’s going to be one of the first forwards over the bench in every situation, as opposed to maybe the second group of forwards over the bench last year.
“And he’s delivered. To his credit, he has scored more than I had anticipated this early in the season. He’s generating chances and he has been, by far, our best forward so far this year.”
Home Away From Home
Wisconsin has won 10 straight times at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, through a variety of circumstances. No matter how good or how bad the Badgers are, the DECC has been a welcome sight since the 1996-97 season.
All kinds of situations, yet still one result at the DECC.
Watch the Mailbox
The NCAA’s weeklong early-signing period started Wednesday, giving the next crop of college hockey players the chance to return signed letters of intent to the schools they’ll attend.
Meanwhile, it gives coaches a reason to check the mailbox, though with mass communication in college hockey, everyone knows who’s going where even before it’s official.
“We are starting to get to that point of the season where there could be some separation starting to happen. Along with the signing period and all the other responsibilities you have, it is a little bit of a hectic time, but it’s a fun time,” Jutting said. “You do the job 365 days a year to get yourself in position on the weeks that you’re playing. It seems fast more than busy. It seems like Monday turns to Friday in a hurry.”
The next signing period runs from April 16, 2003 to Aug. 1, 2003.
Fourteen for the Road
With his team’s next 14 games at Ralph Engelstad Arena, Dean Blais is thinking of you, the fans.
He empathizes with the plight of the season-ticket holder who makes trips to the rink weekend after weekend. Boy, such a chore.
“By the fourth weekend, the crowd’s going to be going, jeez, we’ve got another weekend of hockey,” Blais said. “Kind of like a parent that’s got two or three kids, having to shuffle them all over to different events.”
So don’t ever claim Blais isn’t sensitive to the needs of his fans. But he also realizes the price to pay for such a homestand early in the season — heck, this is so long it carries over into midseason — will be time away from home down the stretch.
Ten of these 14 games are for WCHA points, so you don’t need to tell the Sioux this stretch is big. After all, they’ve been through their share of frustrations at the new Ralph — see the 7-9-1 home record last season for proof — and want to do well in front of their fans this time around.
“It was just odd coming into the rink every day [last season], and I think that players are used to it now,” Blais said. “The old glitter of the arena … it’s an ice sheet right now. Yeah, things are nice, it’s got a nice weight room, but it’s not like they’re going ga-ga over it. We should have a better record at home this year than we did last year.”
For the record, a 14-game homestand ties for the longest in UND history. The 1950-51 and 1955-56 seasons both opened with 14 straight home games. It’s also the longest home stretch for any WCHA team this season.
Second Time Around
Wade Dubielewicz didn’t lose his second game last season until Feb. 1, his 14th game and Denver’s only losing streak of the year. This season, the Pioneer goaltender had two losses by Nov. 8, his sixth game.
Now, let’s not sound the alarm here, but last’s season’s top WCHA goaltender has seen his stats slip.
After six appearances last season, Dubielewicz was 6-0 with a 2.00 goals against average and a .937 save percentage. This season, with five starts and one relief appearance in which he earned a win, he’s 4-2 with a 2.26 GAA and a .912 save percentage.
And that’s while facing fewer shots than he did in his first six appearances last season. He saw a shot, on average, every 1 minute, 54 seconds early last season. That time has risen to 2:20 this season.
After both Friday night Dubielwicz losses this season, Adam Berkhoel has taken over as Goaltender 1A and put up a victory. On each occasion, the Pioneers allowed five fewer shots than in the loss the night before.
The Home Advantage
There are buildings around the WCHA where the atmosphere is enough to carry the home team at times. There are teams around the league that would like that atmosphere in their barn.
Such is the case with St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato, who square off in a home-and-home series this weekend.
Both played to sold-out home crowds last weekend, but the atmosphere at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud is widely considered one of the liveliest in the league. That’s the kind of thing that can swing a game from time to time.
“I look at St. Cloud and the environment they’ve managed to create in their rink, and I personally think it’s worth a goal or two every game to them if they can get things started,” Jutting said. “I think it’s the same for all teams. Obviously, to have a full building and a crowd that’s energetic, I don’t think the kids necessarily hear it as much as they feel it. I think it helps all teams when they’ve got a supportive crowd behind them, making some noise and causing the energy level to go up in the rink.”
That National Hockey Center’s energy level is one of the things Malone missed in his injury absence.
“It gives you goose bumps almost,” he said. “They play ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and everyone just goes crazy. Even during the starting lineup, everyone’s just going nuts. The atmosphere’s great. That’s why it hurts so bad when you’re not playing, you’re watching the game. You just hear how rowdy the fans get and how into the game they are. The atmosphere is one of the best I’ve ever played in. You can’t ask for better fan support than St. Cloud.”
On The Shelf
“Must be the national championship jinx,” Lucia said. “It happened to [Boston College] last year.”
In Other Words
In the interest of promoting the WCHA Final Five to fans, Carol LaBelle, the assistant commissioner of operations and the tournament director, is going around to league arenas with brochures on ticket and travel packages. One of the league’s emphases is to sell fans on the tournament, even if their team isn’t playing. She was in St. Cloud and Mankato last weekend. … It’s “Bandanna Weekend” at Michigan Tech. The first 1,000 fans into the MacInnes Student Ice Arena for games against Denver will get Huskies bandannas. … Since opening the season with a victory over Alaska-Fairbanks, Alaska-Anchorage is 0-5-2. The program’s 350th victory remains one away. … The Seawolves practiced at Minnesota’s Ritter Arena, home of the Gophers’ women’s team, and used the Gophers’ weight room this week before traveling to Grand Forks. The Seawolves stayed in the lower 48 this week after a series at Colorado College. “Gotta treat your league members good,” Lucia said. …
Colorado College freshmen played a big role in the rally to overtake Alaska-Anchorage last weekend. Marty Sertich, Weston Tardy, Trevor Frischmon and Brett Sterling scored the Tigers’ first four goals in a 5-2 win. … Sejna, who added an empty-net goal, ran his point-scoring streak to 11 games, dating back to the loss to Minnesota in last year’s NCAA tournament. … League players of the week were St. Cloud State’s Malone on offense, CC’s Tom Preissing on defense and the Tigers’ Sterling as the top rookie. …
Bochenski’s shorthanded goal in last Saturday’s 3-2 North Dakota victory over St. Cloud State was the Sioux’s sixth of the season. They had four all of last season. … Denver’s Kevin Doell recorded his 100th career point last Saturday. He’s the 10th George Gwozdecky-coached Pioneers player to do so. … Friday’s game against CC will be Lucia’s 600th as a Division I head coach. … With about a dozen players in the training room, Minnesota took Tuesday off from practice.