This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 16, 2003

You Take It

Some thoughts this week, while pondering who in the WCHA I’d pick above all others to take a penalty shot in overtime, if ever given the chance:

  • What horror last Saturday night for Michigan Tech in Mankato. The Huskies saw their lead vanish in the last minute, then hopes of even a tie slip away on Shane Joseph’s penalty-shot goal in OT. That’s a morale killer.
  • North Dakota coach Dean Blais said he wants the Fargo, N.D., radio personality who berated him on the air for missing an interview taken off the UND football broadcasts he does. Cooler heads, everyone. Cooler heads.
  • Colorado College is excited about its trip to Houghton, Mich., this week? One that will take the Tigers through the lovely Green Bay, Wis., airport, only to have a four-plus-hour bus trip over snowy roads waiting for them? Maybe this team is something special.
  • Mark this one down in Mankato: Even though they will have played four more games, next weekend, the Mavericks will go to Mariucci Arena with at least a one-point lead on the Gophers.
  • The tie count this season: There have been 17 in conference play and 24 in all games involving WCHA teams. And counting.
  • And finally, Joseph is 1-for-1 on OT penalty shots, so why not him? A first thought was Colorado College’s Peter Sejna, but he was 0-for-2 in a shootout last season at the Badger Hockey Showdown.

    Know When To Hold ‘Em

    Playing in overtime in the WCHA appears to be a little like being down to your last few dollars in Vegas. If you let it ride, you open yourself to going home empty-handed. If you take the money and run, at least you’ll be able to get the $1.99 steak-and-eggs special at Denny’s.

    Maybe that explains why the WCHA has seen an explosion in the number of ties this season … all but the part about Denny’s, anyway.

    Coaching in overtime takes a little bit of a gambler’s mentality. Depending on your situation, that one point either can look real good or real marginal. Going for the win, however, leaves you exposed for a loss just as easily.

    “Definitely, that’s the mentality from coaches, when you’re on the road in particular,” said Colorado College coach Scott Owens, whose Tigers left Grand Forks, N.D., with a pair of ties two weeks ago.

    “You’d hate to battle that hard on the road and end up making a mistake and losing in overtime. I’m sure Tech feels sick about [last] Saturday night. There’s definitely that mindset on the road. It can hurt your team’s morale so much to battle like that and lose it with a minute to go.”

    So far this season, 17 of the 23 WCHA games that have gone to overtime have ended in ties. Of the six game-winners, Mankato has two, while Michigan Tech, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State and North Dakota have one each.

    In the entire regular season a year ago, only 12 WCHA games ended in ties.

    In Alaska-Anchorage’s case, its seven ties this season are a school record.

    “I think it tells you [there’s] parity,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “I think it just tells you how close and tight things are. I’ve never seen that many [ties].”

    In the last two weeks, two series have ended in double ties — the meeting of the top teams, Colorado College and North Dakota, and the meeting of the bottom teams, Wisconsin and Alaska-Anchorage.

    That kind of outcome makes you start wondering if there’s a better way of doing things. In the NHL, both teams are guaranteed a point for going to overtime, with a bonus point up for grabs for the winner. The NHL also plays OT at 4-on-4.

    “I thought about that after our North Dakota series, and I thought about the possibilities, with the bonus point or playing 4-on-4, but I don’t know,” Owens said. “I think we need a few more years to think about it. So I’m not one to jump and change anything quickly.”

    Said Sandelin of a bonus point: “I’d be kind of interested to see how that would play a factor. But I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. … I think you’d see the 4-on-4 before you’d see the bonus point.”

    The Hot Hand

    You know things are going well when you get a penalty shot and have an honest-to-goodness dilemma on who to send out to take it because a couple of players are qualified and performing well.

    Troy Jutting sent out Joseph to take care of things last Saturday night, but he just as easily could have used Grant Stevenson with expectations of the same result.

    The decision may have been impacted by something Jutting saw before the series.

    “He’s had the hot hand. He’s a very crafty kid,” Jutting said of Joseph. “Every Friday in pregame skate, we have a little showdown competition with the team and the goalies. Shane’s usually up there with the kids that score the most on that, so it was nice that he was on the ice.

    “Grant Stevenson was also on the ice, and he’s also very good. But Shane had the hot hand and it felt like the right thing to do.”

    Joseph’s goal vaulted the Mavericks into third place, although they have played two games more than Minnesota, which shares fourth place with St. Cloud State.

    “This weekend was huge,” Joseph told USCHO’s Dusty Sedars after Saturday’s game. “We went from seventh to third in two weeks. We gotta beat the teams that we should beat, and this was one of those weekends and we got the job done. Now we’re in third, and we got to maintain that. We’re coming up against some tough teams up here, so we gotta maintain our poise and maintain our level of play in order to keep our position in the league.”

    Sliding Away

    It may be only a small part of a large dilemma, but the scoring slump of Brad Winchester has robbed Wisconsin of one of its best sources of goals.

    Winchester, a senior who led the Badgers with 34 points last season and figured big in the team’s offensive plans this season, hasn’t scored a point since Nov. 1 — a span of 15 games without getting on the scoresheet. (That’s without counting the exhibition game against Team Italy, in which he had a goal and an assist.)

    “The thing about being a guy that’s counted on for scoring, when it’s not happening — there’s an old saying: The first rule of thumb when you’re in a hole is stop digging,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “Winnie’s still digging because he’s trying so hard. He’s just got to relax a little bit.

    “I remember last year listening to Brett Hull and watching him. He went through about a 17-game scoreless streak, and that’s a lifetime in the pros. He was hitting posts and having an open net and hitting guys’ (rear ends) and you just start laughing about it because he knew it was going to repeat itself. We haven’t been on Winnie at all, other than, ‘Take some pressure off yourself.'”

    One of the curious things is that John Funk, who has played on the opposite wing from Winchester since the Badgers returned from winter break, has been one of the most productive Wisconsin forwards in that time.

    After appearing in only two games before Christmas, Funk started the second half with at least a point in his first four games. John Eichelberger, the center on the line, had a point in three of those games.

    How that production hasn’t rubbed off on Winchester is puzzling.

    But Eaves wants to make sure Winchester, who recently was named the Badgers’ full-time captain, doesn’t make things worse by squeezing his stick too tightly.

    “Then he gets the captaincy and he really wants to help the team do well and really feels that he can contribute,” Eaves said. “It just kind of compounds itself and he’s wearing shackles. We just have to get him to relax. Hopefully by playoff time, this is gone and he’s in a real offensive flow and can really help us out.”

    Turn On the Power

    You have to think it’s a lot easier for anyone connected to the Minnesota-Duluth program to look at the WCHA standings than it has been in many years.

    Sandelin, however, isn’t so sure that’s made it easier for the Bulldogs to be motivated for a strong second-half run.

    “I think our guys know that we’ve put ourselves in a better position than we’ve ever been in to maybe challenge for a top-five spot,” he said. “But we could also have a good second half and not move from where we’re at.”

    For Sandelin and the Bulldogs, a good second half likely would include a special-teams surge. Overall, they’re scoring almost a goal per game more than they allow, but some power-play production might be the difference between winning and losing some one-goal contests.

    UMD is seventh in the league with a 19.2 percent rate of success on the power play. It’s also seventh with a 78.4 percent rate of success on the penalty kill.

    That adds up to Bulldogs opponents having the advantage in special teams, which could cost UMD down the road.

    “For us, we have to get our power play going,” Sandelin said. “That’s where you’re going to score goals. Our power play and penalty kill are things we’ve really been working on, and will continue to work on probably more than anything through the rest of the year.”

    Junior Lessard leads the team with seven power-play goals, half his total of 14 goals for the season. Sandelin expressed optimism that the addition of T.J. Caig might take some of the pressure off Lessard and Jon Francisco as the team’s goalscorers.

    On the Road Again

    Owens seemed a bit surprised at how his Colorado College team returned from a weekend off.

    “There seemed to be a real eagerness,” Owens said of his team as it prepared to play at Michigan Tech this weekend. “I don’t think we’re in great shape yet for the second-half drive, and I think we’re a bit rusty. But the morale, the energy is good. The guys want to play. It isn’t too often you look forward to traveling up to Tech in the middle of January, but our guys are looking forward to playing.”

    This is one of the final opportunities before tournament time for the Tigers to play in unfriendly conditions. After this weekend, nine of their final 12 regular-season games are at home, with only a trip to St. Cloud State and a game at Denver left away from the World Arena.

    “We very quietly are in a stretch of nine of 10 league games on the road, and we’ve done pretty well,” said Owens, whose Tigers are 4-1-3 in the first eight of those games. “Granted, we have a lot of ties, but it seems like we’ve been doing OK on the smaller sheets and don’t mind playing on the road.”

    Good thing, too, because the WCHA Final Five and the NCAA tournament both will take them away from home.

    On the Shelf

  • At Wisconsin, forward Adam Burish suffered a broken collarbone last weekend and will be in a brace for four to six weeks. It’s likely that the earliest he could return is the first round of the league playoffs. Eaves said Joe Simon will get another chance in the lineup.
  • At Minnesota, forward Matt Koalska will miss three weeks after having surgery Monday to repair a sports hernia. Next weekend’s games against Mankato will be the first he’s missed in his Gophers career.
  • At Minnesota-Duluth, forwards Drew Otten (bruised rib) and Matt Mathias (sprained knee) and defenseman Steve Collova (concussion) likely are out this weekend, Sandelin said.
  • At Alaska-Anchorage, senior defenseman Steve Suihkonen is out with a knee injury. Meanwhile, the broken foot forward Spencer Carbery suffered last weekend was as a result of a slapshot from assistant coach Jack Kowal in practice.

    In Other Words

    Mike Erickson left the Gophers this week to play for the Des Moines Buccaneers in the United States Hockey League. … The Badgers’ Ryan MacMurchy will sit out Friday’s game against Minnesota-Duluth after being hit with a game DQ last Saturday in Anchorage for abuse of an official. Apparently, he instigated contact with one of the on-ice officials during a scuffle. …

    Here’s what a couple shutouts will do: Denver’s Wade Dubielewicz has moved into the national top 10 in goals against, at 1.80. He’s third in the country. … If you were wondering: The record for most ties in a season by a WCHA team is seven in conference play (Minnesota, 1992-93) and nine overall (Minnesota, 1998-99; North Dakota 2000-01). … Wisconsin has gone to overtime in four straight games. The Badgers are 0-1-3. …

    Players of the week were Mankato’s Joseph on offense, Denver’s Aaron MacKenzie on defense and Mankato’s Jeff Marler as the top rookie. … Streaking: Sejna, 23 games with a point; Mankato, unbeaten in seven games; MacKenzie and Michigan Tech’s Clay Wilson, each five games with a point; Anchorage, 19 games without a win; Wisconsin’s Rene Bourque, five games with a goal; North Dakota’s Brandon Bochenski, 12 games with a point; and his teammate Zach Parise, 10 games with a point.