This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 2, 2003

Eyes on Grand Forks

Some thoughts this week, while seeing the possibility of Minnesota knocking on the doorstep of first place after this weekend:

  • Is this Scott Owens’ biggest weekend as Colorado College’s coach? Either way, his Tigers’ series at North Dakota will have a lot of people around the WCHA keeping an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard.
  • An attendance of 13,966 at the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown used to be a good one-day total at the 17,800-seat Bradley Center in Milwaukee. This year, that figure was the tournament total, sending up more red flags that the tournament may have run its course.
  • They’re back. The Denver Pioneers, who managed just three shutouts in their breakout 2001-02 season, claimed two in a row last weekend in winning the Denver Cup. Winning the WCHA title still would require a monumental second half, but a high seed in the NCAA tournament might be just as good.
  • Think Dave Spehar got some stick from the fans when he returned home to play against Minnesota-Duluth? St. Cloud native Chris Harrington will make his first appearance in a Gophers jersey at the National Hockey Center on Saturday.
  • One of the teams most interested in the CC-North Dakota series might be Minnesota, which could find itself within four points of first place, with two games in hand on leader CC, after this weekend if the Gophers sweep St. Cloud State and the Tigers and Sioux split. Of course, don’t think the Huskies aren’t looking to jump up, too.
  • And finally, Brandon Bochenski showed he didn’t need Zach Parise on his line to produce goals*, scoring six in helping the Sioux win the inaugural Subway Holiday Classic last weekend. The asterisk signifies that he didn’t need Parise on his line to produce goals against Brown and Bemidji State.

    Match ‘Em Up

    Bochenski’s matchup against the Colorado College defense may be the key to the North Dakota-CC series this weekend at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

    Peter Sejna’s matchup against a depleted UND defense may be the key. Curtis McElhinney’s goaltending matchup against Josh Siembida, Jake Brandt or whoever North Dakota plays may be the key.

    The World Junior Championships may be the key, too. Five players that would have been big elements in this series are playing for the United States in the junior tournament in Nova Scotia.

    “It’s a good argument, who does it favor or disfavor?” Owens said. “I think it’s a little bit of a tossup.”

    For North Dakota, losing Parise takes some kick out of the offense, but losing Matt Greene and Matt Jones off the defense may be more significant against the powerful CC offense.

    For CC, not having defenseman Mark Stuart and forward Brett Sterling disrupts the flow almost as much as winter break does.

    “More on the special teams because they both play on the power play, and a little on penalty killing because of Mark,” Owens said. “But we’re healthy, so we’ve been able to make some adjustments. We had that Western Michigan series where we were able to try some things because they weren’t there for that, either. It’ll hurt us a little bit, but they’re in the same boat.”

    A couple of the biggest guns in the WCHA are left, however, in Bochenski (25 goals, 36 points) and Sejna (21 goals, 41 points). The supporting casts aren’t too shabby, either.

    We’ll see how North Dakota playmaker David Lundbohm matches up against his counterpart from CC, Noah Clarke. We’ll see who can go deeper down the lineup for production.

    “A lot of times when the emphasis is put on the big guys like Bochenski and Sejna, it’s the other guys that come through for you,” Owens said. “Bochenski’s definitely on fire coming off six goals last weekend. Sejna doesn’t have those big outbursts, he’s more of a one- or two-goals-a-game guy.

    “Hopefully, it will be some other guys stepping up for us, because they get the last change playing in their building.”

    Any Advantage

    The advantage St. Cloud State holds over rival Minnesota going into this weekend’s home-and-home series is in manpower.

    While the Gophers have lost some — forwards Barry Tallackson and Gino Guyer are at the World Junior Championships — the Huskies are getting it back.

    Senior defenseman Derek Eastman should make his first appearances of the season this weekend after being ineligible for the first semester because of an academic shortfall. Freshman blueliner Tim Conboy is back after serving a team-issued, two-game suspension, the reason for which was not released.

    It’s no secret that being thin in numbers, particularly on the blue line, hurt the Huskies in the first half of the season. With some of the key elements returning, the hope in St. Cloud is that the Huskies can rise up from seventh in the league in defense (3.19 goals allowed per game).

    “There’s no question we’re going to be a better team with [Eastman and Conboy] back there,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl told the St. Cloud Times.

    “Derek’s attitude has been excellent. He’s dealt with (sitting out) like a good senior. As for Timmy, it doesn’t seem like his teammates have an issue with him. They’re concerned for the well-being of the team and his well-being academically and socially.”

    Making His Case

    Travis Weber has done nothing to suggest to Minnesota coach Don Lucia that he doesn’t deserve the Gophers’ starting goaltender job.

    Lucia said he looked at the sophomore’s stats recently and was surprised to see that in no game has Weber allowed more than three goals.

    “He’s been very consistent,” Lucia said, noting something the coach is particularly fond of in players and teams.

    “He’s given us a chance to win, and he’s not giving up very many soft goals, especially in the last month. I think that has given the rest of our team a lot of confidence. As he has played better, our team has played better in front of him.”

    Weber got the starting spot full-time over fellow sophomore Justin Johnson on Nov. 22, and has gone 6-1-1 since. Last weekend, he was named the MVP of the Dodge Holiday Classic after stopping 60 of 64 shots, including 29 of 30 in a 2-1 overtime victory over Boston College in the championship game.

    “I think he’s emerging and has really improved,” Lucia. “That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to make a decision to play one guy more. We had two guys without experience and I didn’t want to have two guys sitting into February, each playing one game a weekend. That’s not a lot of experience, and you’ve got to see how guys will respond in back-to-back games.”

    Pulling It Together?

    Maybe first-year Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves wasn’t too far off in his thinking that the Badgers would start to show progress after Christmas.

    The Badgers have struggled this season, but Eaves has continued to point toward this stretch as where he’s expecting everything to come together.

    Their offense may not have yet turned the corner, scoring five goals in two games last weekend at the Badger Hockey Showdown, one of them into an empty net. But as long as the defense keeps chances to a minimum like it did in Milwaukee, there’s promise.

    “I think this is the first weekend where we really got rewarded for what we did, system-wise,” Badgers defenseman Brian Fahey said after his team didn’t allow Northern Michigan a third-period shot on goal in the 3-1 championship game victory last Monday.

    “A lot of times we’ve had good games but haven’t won the game. So this is a kind of a good weekend for us to show us it does pay off. We finally are getting rewarded for what we’re doing. That’s just one more step in getting better.”

    Eaves said, “It’s amazing what guys will buy into when you’ve got a chance to win.”

    The Badgers start the second half of the league schedule tied for last place, but with four games in hand on most of the WCHA. So far, they’ve played the teams that occupy second through fifth place in the standings (North Dakota, Minnesota, Denver and Minnesota-Duluth). They start January with home series against Minnesota State-Mankato and UMD sandwiched around a trip to Anchorage.

    If the Badgers are to make a second-half run, they’ll have to eliminate more errors — turnovers and needless penalties come to mind. They say it’s already started.

    “I think you have to look at the little things we’re doing better,” Wisconsin forward Brad Winchester said. “The common eye might not see it, but we’re doing the little things — stuff in the neutral zone, stuff in the breakout — that are helping our team out a lot. Creating turnovers for ourselves, and also eliminating the ones that we’ve been giving away in the past month or so.”

    Back to Work

    The winter break gave a lot of players the opportunity to clear their heads. For some, the first half was a tremendous experience, but can’t be used as a crutch for the rest of the season.

    For others, it was a tremendous downer and needs to be erased from memory as soon as possible.

    This season’s WCHA freshman class has a world of talent at the top, with Parise and Thomas Vanek getting the most attention. The break may have been just a bump in the road as far as they’re concerned.

    But for the rest of the first-year players, it was a time to examine where they are and to become more comfortable there.

    “They come in and have a lot of expectations and a lot of anxiety toward their first year in college hockey, and I think they learn a lot in a hurry,” Minnesota State-Mankato coach Troy Jutting said. “It gives them a chance to go home and relax a little bit and think about things without actually being at the rink every day, maybe evaluate where they’re at.”

    Jutting’s experience with Grant Stevenson last season provided the basis for that logic. He said Stevenson got by in the first half, but after the break he picked things up.

    This season, Stevenson is fifth in the WCHA with 34 points and third in the nation at 1.89 points per game.

    “I think you see a lot of freshmen do that, that have a chance to go home and think about things a little bit and come back and maybe have a little bit better understanding,” Jutting said. “There’s not so much anxiety, and [they] can get to work and improve on their game.”

    This season, Jutting said he would keep an eye on Brock Becker and Jeff Marler as candidates to do that on his team. Marler missed last season after wrist surgery.

    “He’s had his moments where he’s looked very good,” Jutting said, “but he’s also had his moments where he’s looked like a freshman that hasn’t played in a year.”

    Meanwhile, Colorado College didn’t get much of a break — only one weekend off — but it came at a perfect time.

    “We were mentally stale,” Owens said. “The Mankato series and the Western Michigan series, we gutted our way through a 3-1 record but we were mentally not real sharp. I just think the guys needed to get away. … I think we’re pretty rejuvenated.”

    Missing the Finish Line

    The Mavericks need more consistent goaltending if they’re going to break a season-long trend of not putting together two solid games in a weekend, Jutting said.

    Last weekend, Mankato beat American International 7-3 on Friday, only to have to rally twice for a 3-3 tie a night later.

    Against Colorado College on Dec. 13 and 14, the Tigers won 6-3 on Friday before the Mavericks responded with a 4-2 win on Saturday.

    Maybe the most frustrating thing for the Mavericks is that they see in their victories that the talent and production is there to win, but it hasn’t been there on a regular basis.

    In the 3-3 tie with AIC, Jason Jensen stopped only 17 of 20 shots. In a 3-3 tie with Alaska-Anchorage on Dec. 7, he stopped only 19 of 22 shots.

    “With us only having three seniors and being as young as we are, there’s times our goaltender needs to bail us out,” Jutting said. “At times, consistency is a little bit of a problem, and I think a lot of that is attributable to age, and a lot of it is attributable to consistent goaltending.”

    This weekend, the Mavericks go to the Kohl Center to face Wisconsin, another team that has struggled with consistency. You may remember the last time Mankato played in Madison, the Mavericks were ousted from last season’s WCHA playoffs, but with a controversial goal hanging over the series.

    A Wisconsin shot that appeared to have hit the post was called a goal, giving the Badgers a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1.

    “Last year was last year and we had it go against us a little bit, but that was last year,” Jutting said. “We need to do the things we need to do to make sure it goes for us this year. I don’t personally use the past a whole bunch because we have a lot of new kids.”

    Your Turn

    With some teams reaching the halfway point of the WCHA schedule this weekend, here’s your chance to pick the first-half All-WCHA first team. Send an e-mail to [email protected] with the six players that make up the league’s first team at the halfway point.

    All selections must include three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie — feel free to make some comments on each, too. Please include your name and e-mail address for verification.

    Next week, we’ll report the results, as unscientific as they may be, with your comments.

    On the Shelf

  • At Minnesota-Duluth, junior forward Jesse Unklesbay should return to the lineup this weekend after missing 10 games with a broken right tibia. Meanwhile, sophomore defenseman Tim Hambly and senior wing Matt Mathias will sit out against Rensselaer, each with an injured right knee.
  • At Denver, goaltender Wade Dubielewicz returned from a hamstring injury last Friday to blank Miami 6-0.

    In Other Words

    Alton and Myrtle Dahl, parents of St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl, were seriously injured in an automobile accident last Sunday in Naples, Fla. Their car was hit by a sport utility vehicle, leaving Alton with internal injuries that forced him into intensive care and Myrtle with surgery to repair a broken shoulder. … The Wisconsin State Journal reported title sponsor Bank One probably will not return in that capacity for the Badger Hockey Showdown, putting the tournament’s future in Milwaukee in further jeopardy. …

    In case you missed it: T.J. Caig is still waiting for his first collegiate game. The Minnesota-Duluth forward was eligible to play in last Sunday’s game against Union after sitting out a year on an NCAA penalty, but he was suspended along with four housemates for an unspecified violation of team rules, according to the Duluth News Tribune. Others who sat out one game were forwards Junior Lessard and Tyler Brosz, defenseman Tim Hambly and goalie Rob Anderson. … Lucia has pulled even with Michigan Tech coach Mike Sertich for eighth place in victories among active Division I coaches at 369. Lucia has 199 losses and 41 ties; Sertich has 383 losses and 52 ties. …

    Players of the week were North Dakota’s Bochenski at forward; Denver goalie Adam Berkhoel and Minnesota netminder Weber on defense; and UMD’s Justin Williams as the top rookie. … Williams scored on his first collegiate shot for the Bulldogs last Saturday. … Next season, Minnesota and St. Cloud State meet each other only two times, both at Mariucci Arena.