The race is on in for playoff position in the WCHA. However, the interesting race is not so much the one at the top between No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 3 Minnesota, but the one for fourth and fifth place, where four teams are within five points of each other.
The battle between the league’s top two teams will likely be decided in one weekend, Feb. 14-15, when the Bulldogs and Gophers meet at Lakeview Arena in Duluth.
No. 6 Wisconsin has just a two-point lead over Ohio State for third place but is the only team in the league without UMD remaining on its schedule, and, with the fourth through seventh-place teams left on the schedule, the Badgers should have little trouble maintaining their current position.
Ohio State, currently fourth with 12 points, had a chance to put some distance between itself and the three teams trailing it over the weekend at St. Cloud State but managed just two goals on the weekend and split the series with the Huskies.
Still, Buckeye head coach Jackie Barto realized her team missed an opportunity.
“We had a chance to get into third place,” she said after the game. “We still control our own destiny but we need to win these games.”
Sunday’s victory enabled St. Cloud State to regain sixth place and move to within three points of Bemidji State for fifth place, the final playoff in the WCHA.
The Huskies have played 16 league games to date, while the remaining six teams have all played 14 games, so they may need some help down the stretch. Still, head coach Jason Lesteberg was immediately aware of where his team stood following Sunday’s game.
“We’ve got Bemidji next weekend,” he noted. “They’re three points ahead of us and we need to come out and play like we did today to put ourselves in a position to win those games next weekend.
“We realize we can be right back in the hunt if we come and play well next weekend and that was our goal coming into the season — to make the WCHA Final Five — and we want to keep our destiny in our hands.”
Picking up four points, which the Huskies would need to do to move into fifth place, will be a tall order as St. Cloud State faces the Beavers in Bemidji, where Lesteberg led BSU to a fifth-place finish in the WCHA standings last season.
The Beavers still control their own destiny but, in the midst of a seven-game homestand, must put some distance between themselves, St. Cloud State and seventh-place Minnesota State, just four points back.
BSU is 0-4-3 in its last seven games and has scored just eight goals in that stretch, five of which came Jan. 10-11 as it twice tied MSU, 3-3 and 2-2 at home. An anemic power play, operating at just 12.5 percent efficiency, and an offense which is averaging just two goals per game, and has no single player with more than six goals in 20 games, have been the Beavers’ downfall. Yet they’ve maintained their position thanks to some solid goaltending.
Sitting in seventh place is Minnesota State, which has finished last in the league the past two seasons. However, the Mavericks appear poised to make a move as they ride the crest of a six-game unbeaten streak. Any move they may make in the league standings, though, will likely have to wait as they host UMD this weekend. With no games remaining against Bemidji State, the Mavericks will definitely need help from other teams to catch the fifth-place Beavers.
Johnson to stay at Wisconsin
Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson turned down an offer from fellow Badger hockey alum Tony Granato to join the Colorado Avalanche as an assistant coach.
Named to his current post last spring, Johnson cited his commitment to the program and players as being his primary reasons for turning down an opportunity to return to the National Hockey League.
A member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and a 1999 inductee into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame, Johnson spent 11 seasons in the NHL before getting into the coaching ranks, starting out as an assistant for one season at his high school alma mater, Madison Memorial. He then spent one season as the head coach at Verona (Wis.) High School before taking over the Madison Monsters of the United Hockey League for the 1995-96 season.
Johnson then spent six seasons as an assistant with the Wisconsin men’s program, a program which his father, the legendary “Badger” Bob Johnson, led to national prominence in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Badgers overcoming key injuries
Wisconsin’s 7-1-3 record over its last 11 games has come despite missing two key players during that stretch.
Sophomore defenseman Carla MacLeod suffered a broken ankle in the fifth game of the season, a 7-2 home loss to UMD, and has not returned to the lineup since the Oct. 25 injury.
MacLeod, who also missed the Four Nations Cup, where she was scheduled to compete with Team Canada, was the Badgers’ top scoring defenseman last season and second overall on the team in assists, racking up 23 assists and 25 points.
Freshman forward Nikki Burish, one of the team’s top scorers with four goals and seven points through the team’s first 10 games, broke her leg in practice the week prior to the Badgers’ beginning their 10-game unbeaten streak, which came to a halt with Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Minnesota-Duluth.
Neither will be available this weekend and are still considered to be out indefinitely.
Kawamoto’s resurgence timely for Huskies
Emerging from the locker room Sunday, St. Cloud State junior captain Kobi Kawamoto had a big grin on her face.
Her team had just snapped a seven-game conference losing streak and her goal in the game’s final three minutes proved to be the game-winner.
The grin was for more than that, though. After missing the first seven games of the season due to a broken ankle, she returned to the team’s lineup in time to help them earn a split of a two-game series at Wisconsin, Nov. 8-9. Even though she was back in the lineup, she certainly was not fully recovered from the injury.
Sunday’s game-winning goal was an indication that she may be back to 100 percent after making an end-to-end rush, splitting a pair of defensemen and tucking the puck under Buckeye goalie April Stojak for her first goal since Feb. 23, 2002 in a 6-2 loss at UMD, a 17-game goalless streak.
Kawamoto may have had a premonition of her first goal. After scoring, she immediately raced to the Huskies’ bench to celebrate with her teammates.
She admitted after the game, “I told the girls between the second and third periods that, if I scored, I was coming right to the bench. They were ready for me.”
It’s not only the offensive part of Kawamoto’s game that is picking up, a major reason she has earned All-WCHA honors each of the last two seasons. She’s also doing more in the defensive zone.
“She showed me that she’s got bruises all over her body from blocking shots,” Lesteberg said. “We’ve been working on that with her for the last couple of weeks because, as long as she’s played hockey, she’s never had to block shots. But she’s making the sacrifices and doing the little things that, as an individual, you have to do to help the team be successful.”
Another player whose game is coming together is senior goalie Laura Gieselman.
Despite giving up eight goals to Minnesota last week, in which she had little chance against a team that was on a roll, she has an .899 save percentage in four games since returning from holiday break.
Lesteberg didn’t play her in the team’s first game of 2003, a 4-3 win over Quinnipiac, to give her a little extra rest after she was involved in a vehicle accident shortly after the team returned from break. In her first game back, she stopped 34 of 36 shots in a 2-1 loss to the Gophers.
This past weekend, she stopped 54-of-56 shots in two games against Ohio State, including 32 saves in Sunday’s 2-1 win.
“She’s played really well,” Lesteberg said. “She’s been in a zone and she’s seeing the puck well. The defense has been letting her see the shots but she’s doing a good job of facing the shooters and making saves.
“We were looking for someone to step up among our three goalies and we were looking for some to play well in a sequence of games. Laura has stepped up and seized the opportunity.”
Gone but not forgotten
The game may be over, but many on the Minnesota bench may not forget Friday’s 6-3 loss to No. 4 Dartmouth.
“We were not ready to play when the puck was dropped and it cost us,” Minnesota head coach Laura Halldorson said. “We tried to rally, but it wasn’t enough.”
However, it wasn’t because of the score that the Gophers may not forget the game. With four seconds left in the game, Dartmouth head coach Judy Oberting called a timeout.
“It was something our team needed to realize this is what we can do,” Oberting told USCHO correspondent David De Remer after the game. “We hadn’t done this all year. We could not let that moment pass.”
The Big Green, under Oberting’s guidance, has won a number of important games in the past and will likely have more games like this in their future. Regardless of what the intention of calling the timeout was, it still showed up the Gophers.
Somewhere, I’m sure, Terrell Owens may have applauded the gesture. But not many others felt the same way.
WCHA “HOUSE”HOLD HINTS
Bemidji State, which led the nation with eight ties last season, are tied for the national lead this season with six ties, matching the total of No. 10 Providence … With a goal and an assist in Saturday’s 4-0 win, Minnesota senior defenseman Winny Brodt scored her first points against New Hampshire, nearly five years after leaving Durham to return to her home state … The Wildcats, who Brodt has played three previous games against, were the only team on the Gophers’ schedule this season which she had not recorded a point against prior to this season … Minnesota, which did not have an off weekend between Oct. 4 and Dec. 8, are idle this weekend after playing just four games after a 33-day layoff … Minnesota State’s six-game unbeaten streak is a school record and ranks as the third-longest active streak in Division I … With their series split at Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin is 4-4-0 all-time at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center … The Badgers have yet to play a game this season with every player on the roster available.
WCHA AWARDS (Dec. 16)
Offensive Player of the Week–Amanda Osborn, Jr., F, Minnesota State
Defensive Player of the Week–Laura Gieselman, Sr., G, St. Cloud State
Rookie of the Week–Krissy Wendell, Fr., F, Minnesota
No. 5 New Hampshire at No. 6 Wisconsin (Friday-Saturday)
New Hampshire won the teams’ only previous meetings, 2-0 and 3-0, Nov. 16-17 in Durham … Both head coaches, Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson and the Wildcats’ Brian McCloskey, are in their first seasons behind their respective benches … Both were assistant coaches with their schools’ men’s programs last season … Badger senior Jackie MacMillan and UNH senior Jen Huggon are the only Division I goalie who have played every minutes for their respective teams … MacMillan has played in 107 of the first 126 games in Wisconsin history … She has started 39 consecutive games since Jan. 6, 2002 … Huggon has played in 114 of New Hampshire’s 128 games the last four seasons and has started 54 consecutive games dating back to Nov. 7, 2001.
St. Cloud State at Bemidji State (Friday-Saturday)
St. Cloud State holds a 9-7-3 lead in the all-time series … The Huskies are 3-2-3 at the John Glas Fieldhouse … SCSU has given up three or fewer goals in six of its last seven games … All six of the Huskies’ remaining two-game series are Friday-Saturday affairs … SCSU senior goalie Laura Gieselman will be making her 100th appearance in goal for the Huskies this weekend … The Beavers are trying to end a seven-game winless streak … Three of those games have been ties and one was a one-goal loss … Six of the seven games have been at home, where they are just 1-3-5 this season … BSU has scored just eight goals during that time … Despite a 4-7-2 record, Beaver junior goalie Anik Cote ranks fourth in the top 20 nationally in goals against average (15th, 2.31) and save percentage (17th, .912).
No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth at Minnesota State (Saturday-Sunday)
UMD is 15-0-0 against Minnesota State … The Bulldogs have outscored MSU 106-14 in those 15 games … UMD has scored 10 or more goals four times this season … Bulldog junior forward Jenny Potter’s next goal will be the 100th of her collegiate career … Senior forward Hanne Sikio is just five points shy of 200 for her career … MSU junior foward Amanda Osborn’s 10 goals, 10 assists and 20 points are more than any MSU over the last three seasons … The Mavericks have allowed just 10 goals during their six-game unbeaten streak … MSU’s seven wins this season are more than their total of the last two seasons combined … Prior to this season, the Mavericks had won just seven times in their last 82 games.
No. 9 Mercyhurst at Ohio State (Saturday)
Ohio State at Findlay (Sunday)
Mercyhurst and Ohio State are meeting for the first time this weekend … The Buckeyes are 6-2-0 against Findlay and have won four straight games, including both Ohio Cup match ups … OSU won both meetings last year by 1-0 scores … The Buckeyes have outshot their opponent in 18 of 22 games this season … Ohio State is 1-9-1 when allowing three or more goals this season and 6-2-1 when scoring three or more goals … The Lakers are 6-2-0 versus WCHA opponents this season … They have the nation’s second-longest unbeaten streak at 10 games … Mercyhurst has allowed just 10 goals in those 10 games and have allowed more than one goal just twice during that time … The Lakers have won nine consecutive games and are 29-for-31 on the penalty kill during that time … Eleven Mercyhurst players have scored at least 10 points this season … Findlay is 8-0-0 when leading after two periods this season and just 1-12-1 when tied or trailing after 40 minutes … Sophomore forward Heidi Tallqvist’s 12 goals represent nearly one-fourth of the team’s 49 goals on the season … Freshman goalie Jessica Moffat and senior goalie Erin Blair have split time nearly exactly evenly, with Moffat having played one second more than Blair.