This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 9, 2003

Nice to Meet You

Some thoughts this week, while frantically looking up information on Joe Jensen:

  • There’s just no separating Colorado College and North Dakota, it appears. It looks like they’ll be locked up in a MacNaughton Cup race, they played to two ties last weekend and now they’re tied in the PairWise Rankings.
  • Best line of the week: Minnesota’s Matt DeMarchi squirts St. Cloud State’s Jon Cullen with water from the bench late in overtime last Saturday night. “I guess DeMarchi thought someone was thirsty,” Huskies coach Craig Dahl deadpanned.
  • A bad situation got worse at Alaska-Anchorage. Thirteen players have been suspended for NCAA violations dealing with scholarship money for textbooks. Petr Chytka, meanwhile, was thrown off the team, which hasn’t won since the season opener, over complaints about his attitude. Anyone have a towel?
  • North Dakota finished its 14-game homestand at 11-0-3. To steal a couple cliches from every coach ever quoted, that’s doing what you have to do to set yourself up for the stretch run.
  • And finally: Joe Jensen, freshman forward, St. Cloud State, 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, from Plymouth, Minn. He enjoys fishing. Four big goals against the Gophers last weekend. There, now you know.

    Your Picks

    Peter Sejna is a unanimous pick to be on the WCHA’s first team if it was announced today. Or so you say.

    Last week, we asked you to submit selections for the first team at the halfway point. Among the 19 valid ballots — one had to be tossed out because it included five forwards and one goalie — Colorado College’s Sejna appeared as one of the three forwards on each one.

    The rest of the team: forwards Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski of North Dakota; defensemen Tom Preissing of Colorado College and Paul Martin of Minnesota; and goaltender Curtis McElhinney of CC.

    Sejna’s selection comes as no surprise. The Tigers junior leads the nation in points, with 43, and is near the top with 22 goals in 22 games. He has scored at least a point in 23 straight games, going back to last season, and has been the dominating offensive force for a CC team that’s leading the WCHA and hanging around the top of the national rankings.

    Minnesota-Duluth fan Patrick Budion said: “Sejna is the best player in the WCHA and possibly the country. He makes plays happen that you think are not possible and he finds a way to get everyone involved.”

    John Nielsen of Minneapolis added, “Most players would settle for his worst night as their best.”

    Parise appeared on 14 ballots, while linemate (maybe, more on that later) Bochenski was mentioned on eight. They are both in the top three in the nation in points — Bochenski has 40 and Parise has 38.

    Bochenski, a sophomore, has a pair of four-goal games to go with a three-goal hat trick this season and was key last Saturday, bringing the Sioux within one goal with 1:47 left, then assisting on the tying goal with 10.9 seconds on the clock.

    Alex Evenson of St. Paul, Minn., said: “Not as much of a playmaker as his stat sheet would indicate, but he’s made great improvements from last year. He’s a hard worker and either he trained a lot during the offseason or he’s upped his physical game because he can really muscle defenseman around in front of the net and dig the puck out of the corners.”

    Parise’s was the most ballyhooed arrival to the WCHA in many years, and the freshman hasn’t disappointed. Only 13 of the center’s 38 points are from goals, meaning he’s been the fuel behind Bochenski’s start.

    He missed the last two weekends while playing for the U.S. national team at the World Junior Championships, where he led the Americans with eight points in seven games. Two of his four goals were game winners.

    “Easy pick, right?” Neilsen wrote. “Not for a Gopher fan.”

    CC captain Preissing was the runaway choice on defense, appearing on 16 of the 19 ballots.

    Last weekend, he earned his 100th point with the Tigers and 15th goal this season, tops among defensemen nationally. He’s perhaps the biggest factor in CC being second in the conference in scoring defense (2.32 goals allowed per game).

    “Leading the nation in power-play goals (he’s actually tied, with 11) is one thing,” Gerry Lopez said, “but his leadership as the captain for a surprising CC team should not go overlooked.”

    Martin got votes on nine ballots — not exactly a resounding statement that he’s getting noticed around the league. But with the Gophers losing star defenseman Jordan Leopold after last season, Martin has done an admirable job taking over the top defensive role.

    That he can start plays that’ll turn into goals is an added bonus. The junior is third nationally among defensemen with 1.10 points per game (23 points in 21 games).

    John Anderson said: “Heir apparent to Jordan Leopold? Has the stats to say so. The best all-around defenseman in the WCHA.”

    Goaltender was the closest race, with McElhinney getting votes on six ballots to edge Minnesota-Duluth’s Isaac Reichmuth.

    McElhinney’s development has been critical in CC’s fast start. He played in only nine games last season as Jeff Sanger’s backup, so the sophomore had to prove this season that he could be the one to be counted on.

    So far, so good. He leads the WCHA with 12 victories (12-2-4), despite ranking seventh in the league with a .900 save percentage and fifth with a 2.63 goals against average.

    For those who voted for McElhinney, the win total appears to have been the deciding factor.

    The vote in full:

    Forwards: Sejna, CC, 19; Parise, UND, 14; Bochenski, UND, 8; Ryan Malone, SCSU, 4; Grant Stevenson, MSU-M, 3; Thomas Vanek, Minn., 3; Noah Clarke, CC, 1; Jon Cullen, SCSU, 1; Joe Cullen, CC, 1; Shane Joseph, MSU-M, 1; Ales Parez, UAA, 1; Troy Riddle, Minn., 1.

    Defensemen: Preissing, CC, 16; Martin, Minn., 9; David Hale, UND, 4; Mark Stuart, CC, 3; Andy Schneider, UND, 2; Keith Ballard, Minn., 1; DeMarchi, Minn., 1; Beau Geisler, UMD, 1; Lee Green, UAA, 1.

    Goalies: McElhinney, CC, 6; Reichmuth, UMD, 4; Adam Berkhoel, DU, 3; Travis Weber, Minn., 3; Wade Dubielewicz, DU, 2; Jake Brandt, UND, 1.

    Turning the Tables

    Speaking of goalies, is this the year the WCHA’s forwards get their revenge?

    The league in recent years has fashioned some of the finest goaltenders in the college ranks, but this season the numbers aren’t there.

    For example: In the national rankings, seven of the top 10 players in points per game come from the WCHA. Only one of the top 10 in goals against average is from a WCHA team.

    “We lost some pretty darn good defensemen in our league last year, led by Jordan Leopold,” said Denver’s George Gwozdecky, who coaches the only goalie in the top 10 in GAA, Adam Berkhoel. “This league had some outstanding defensemen who not only could create offense from the blue line but knew how to keep the puck out of the zone.”

    Asked for his analysis, former Minnesota coach Doug Woog said, “It’s a lot of young and inexperienced goaltending.”

    Another view:

    “Maybe part of it is the league is very young,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “It’s kind of scary when you look at most teams; they don’t have that many seniors, so next year, the league should be stronger.”

    Three of the top five in the national points-per-game rankings are WCHA freshmen or sophomores: Parise, Bochenski and Stephenson. The only seniors are Clarke and Malone, although there’s serious doubt whether Sejna, a junior, will return for his senior season.

    Interestingly, scoring actually is down in conference play from last season. In the 62 WCHA games played so far, the combined scoring average is 6.45 goals per game. Through the 140-game schedule last season, it was 6.61.

    From Bad to Worse

    As much as John Hill tried to prepare himself for this, there was no way to predict the waves of bad fortune for Alaska-Anchorage this season.

    The second-year Seawolves coach started strong, improving his team to 12-19-5 in his first season. Since then, disaster.

    UAA has gone 17 games without a win, and had everything come to a head last week.

    Not only did 13 players get named in a NCAA secondary-violation case, the team sent senior Chytka packing for having a poor attitude.

    “When I took the job, I thought the second year could be the most difficult,” Hill said. “I didn’t think it would be anywhere near these proportions.”

    The group of 13 was disciplined for using scholarship money for textbooks outside the scope of NCAA legality. Two players — Kurt Johnson and Jim Dahl — were suspended for seven games, while the other 11 each received a three-game suspension.

    They are: B.J. Ballas, Chytka, Spence Gilchrist, Dan Gilkerson, Green, Pavel Hlavacek, Sean Honeman, Vladimir Novak, Sean Ober, Morgan Roach and Matt Shasby.

    The suspensions are being staggered, so the Seawolves may be able to dress only five defensemen and 10 forwards this weekend against Wisconsin.

    The timing was one of the worst parts for the team. They had just come off what Hill characterized as a rejuvenating break and a good week of practice. Then, hours before playing last Friday, they got the news.

    Add in the winless streak, and watch the confidence hit rock bottom.

    “I guess the worst thing is you worry about the morale of your players,” Hill said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys who are playing and actually doing quite well. But when your team isn’t having any success, you don’t have any fun, regardless of how you’re doing individually.”

    The Seawolves have loosened things up at practice in hopes of at least allowing the players to have some fun. There’s a line that has to be drawn between that and letting go of the season, Hill said, but that’s one step the team is making toward what it hopes will be better days.

    If they come, Chytka won’t be around to see them. Hill said a chat he had with the senior forward didn’t do much good.

    “Petr’s attitude has been very questionable since I got the job,” Hill said. “Last year, we had some seniors that took control of the team and it didn’t affect anything. This year, I just began to sense that it was affecting the dressing room. I had a discussion with the other coaches and the captains, and everyone was unanimous that it would probably be in the best interest to dismiss Petr.

    “It’s not something that I think any coach does lightly. I talked to Petr two months ago about his attitude and his priorities and his work ethic, and it didn’t seem to make a difference. I don’t want our young players here to think that you can have a questionable attitude and a poor work ethic and stay in this program.”

    It’s not easy to make a team a winner, and if Hill didn’t know that already, he’s finding out the hard way this season.

    Still, he said he’s sticking to his guns.

    “There’s no special formula, there’s no magic wand anyone can wave,” he said. “I think you have to stay consistent in your philosophy and your systems. … The focus has been on building confidence, having fun, going out and playing and living with the results.”

    Breaking the Tie

    So North Dakota and Colorado College are tied in the PairWise Rankings, too, eh? Be warned: This is going to turn statistical real soon.

    The teams can be separated by their comparison in the PWR. North Dakota wins the comparison between the teams 2-1, taking the teams-under-consideration and common-opponent races while losing in the RPI. The two ties last weekend give no one the edge in head to head.

    The Sioux is 8-1-1 (.850) against teams under consideration — which this season includes teams at .500 or better in the RPI. CC is 9-2-2 (.769).

    UND has a 3-0-1 record against common opponents — so far, that’s Alaska-Anchorage and Minnesota State-Mankato. CC is 3-1. The Sioux’s tie and the Tigers’ loss both were against Mankato.

    CC pulls a point back by having the higher RPI, but barely: CC’s 0.6069 shades North Dakota’s 0.6065, with a sneeze from somewhere out East likely to change that.

    Dreaming of Third

    With expectations so high at Denver, the Pioneers could easily be disappointed with being nine points out of first place as they get ready to start the second half.

    The defending MacNaughton Cup champions look ready to relinquish that title — most likely to Colorado College or North Dakota, it appears — but Gwozdecky implied this week they don’t intend to go down without a fight.

    “One of the things we did right when we came back at Christmas was we sat down and re-evaluated our season from this point on,” Gwozdecky said. “I think it’s going to be very difficult for teams — for us or for anybody — to try to catch Colorado College. And, for that matter, North Dakota. …

    “But I still believe there are four, maybe even five teams outside of Colorado College and North Dakota who could finish in the top three in this league. That’s the push we’re making. Does it add any more pressure? I don’t think so. It brings things back into focus with only 16 games left in the league schedule. At the same point in time, we’re still within striking distance.”

    To strike, the Pioneers would like to duplicate their performance in winning the Denver Cup two weeks ago. Gwozdecky called it the team’s most consistent weekend of the season.

    Of particular note was that the Pioneers scored four times on the power play — three in a 6-0 win over Miami and one in a 4-0 win over New Hampshire. Special teams was one of the weaker spots in Denver’s first half, with the power play in the middle of the league at 22.9 percent and the penalty kill at 80.5 percent at the break.

    “There’s no question that our whole performance as a team in all types of situations was less than what we expected,” Gwozdecky said. “At least in a two-game tournament like the Denver Cup, we showed some signs of the kind of team that we expect to be.”

    The Pioneers struggled with injuries in the first half, most notably to Wade Dubielewicz, last season’s goaltending champ, who missed over a month with a hamstring injury. But the break, plus having last weekend off, has Denver in a manageable position in terms of health.

    That’s important because the Pioneers will be looking to gain points on idle leader CC at home this weekend against St. Cloud State, which is two points ahead of DU in the standings.

    The Carrot

    This is the weekend for Minnesota. They’re in or they’re out.

    “If we’re going to have a shot toward the top, we’re either in or we’re out this weekend as far as I’m concerned, as far as trying to win the league,” Lucia said of the Gophers’ home series with No. 1 North Dakota.

    “We have a wonderful chance this weekend because we’re four points behind North Dakota, so we could, theoretically, catch them. Obviously, we’re going to have to play outstanding for six periods of hockey to be able to do that. But at least that carrot is out there.”

    Anywhere You Can Get It

    Michigan Tech has been looking for some breakout stuff from upperclassmen, so what Chris Conner and Colin Murphy are doing doesn’t count.

    Don’t think the Huskies won’t take it anyway.

    Conner, a freshman, has a nine-point scoring streak going, the longest for a Tech player since 1995-96. Murphy, a sophomore, has 11 points (six goals, five assists) in his last six games.

    For a team in need of a consistent big-time player or two, it’s a start.

    And for a team in need of some points, last weekend at Alaska-Anchorage was a start. Last Saturday, Murphy scored the winner in overtime to complete a four-point weekend.

    “We’ve got a little bit of momentum and it’s important now that we build on it,” Huskies coach Mike Sertich said in this week’s Tech press release.

    Hit the Road

    It’s been suggested that the piece of the puzzle that may hold North Dakota back this season is its goaltending. No one has stepped forward to claim the No. 1 spot for the Sioux.

    But that’s been fine because everything else has been running smoothly. But now, with their 14-game homestand history, a steady diet of road crowds stands in the Sioux’s way.

    Mariucci Arena is just the beginning for Josh Siembida, Brandt and Marc Ranfranz, the maligned UND goaltending trio.

    Their only WCHA road action this season was at St. Cloud State, where, in a 7-3 loss on Nov. 8, Siembida allowed five goals before making way for Brandt, who allowed two more in UND’s only loss this season.

    It remains to be seen whether that’s a road trend in the league for the Sioux or an exception. This weekend’s series could foreshadow how their other five league road trips will go.

    You Asked

    An e-mailer this week wondered why Lucia didn’t shake hands with the St. Cloud State players after last Saturday’s game. Lucia pointed toward this passage from the NCAA rule book:

    “At the conclusion of each game, players shall assemble at center ice for the traditional handshake. Coaches shall exchange handshakes and remain at their respective bench areas until the conclusion of the player handshake.”

    On the Shelf

  • At Minnesota, captain Grant Potulny was scheduled to have the screws removed from his broken left leg on Thursday, with a return to practice next week. Lucia said the forward could be back for the Gophers’ home series with Mankato on Jan. 24 and 25.
  • At Alaska-Anchorage, freshman forward Spencer Carbery left practice on Tuesday with an injury that Hill feared was a broken ankle.
  • At Minnesota-Duluth, forwards Drew Otten (bruised rib cartilage) and Jon Francisco (separated right shoulder) have been held out of practice this week in hopes they’ll recover in time for the Bulldogs’ next games, at Wisconsin next weekend, the Duluth News Tribune reported.

    In Other Words

    Blais told the Grand Forks Herald he’s breaking up Parise and Bochenski on the Sioux’s top line. Bochenski will play with David Lundbohm and Jason Notermann, while Parise will center Kevin Spiewak and James Massen. Blais told the paper he’s looking for more balance down the lineup. … Former St. Paul Pioneer Press sportswriter Gregg Wong will be honored before Friday night’s Minnesota-North Dakota game at Mariucci Arena. Wong recently retired after a 33-year career, Wong covered the Gophers hockey team for 15 years. He’ll drop the ceremonial puck. … Parise was the rookie of the month for December, as named by the Ice Hockey Collegiate Commissioners’ Association. …

    Last Saturday, all four WCHA games went into overtime, with Michigan Tech getting the only win. … Minnesota State-Mankato has reached the .500 mark for the first time this season. After taking three points at Wisconsin last weekend, the Mavericks are 7-7-6. … Junior Dan Welch was dropped by the Gophers last week because of academic issues, the school said. Welch was academically ineligible for the 2000-01 season and the first semester last season. … Since Nov. 15, Wisconsin is just 2-for-57 on the power play. …

    Players of the week are Tech’s Murphy on offense, St. Cloud State goalie Jason Montgomery on defense and St. Cloud’s Jensen as the top rookie. … It didn’t take T.J. Caig very long to make a difference on the scoreboard for Minnesota-Duluth. He scored the winning goal last Saturday night in a 3-2 win over Rensselaer. It was just his second game with the Bulldogs. … The Badgers, who had been rotating the captaincy this season, have named permanent letter-wearers. Brad Winchester is the captain, with Brian Fahey and Dan Boeser the assistants.