Rolling, Rolling, Rolling
Some thoughts this week, while trying to picture actor Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks.
Time Will Tell
Time will tell whether not having Zach Parise for its first series against Colorado College hurt North Dakota’s offense.
Time will tell whether having Mark Stuart would have prevented the Tigers from losing that two-goal lead on the Saturday night in Grand Forks.
Luckily for everyone involved, that time is now.
The convenient explanation for a weekend of 4-4 ties on Jan. 3 and 4 was that each team was significantly impacted by the World Junior Championships. North Dakota had three players there — Parise and defensemen Matt Greene and Matt Jones — while CC had two — Stuart and forward Brett Sterling.
This time around, the teams appear to be as close to full strength as can be expected at this point in the season.
But that has no one convinced, still, that either team has a leg up on the other. CC is four points up at the top of the standings, but UND has two games in hand.
Each team has its top-line scoring dynamo — the Sioux’s Brandon Bochenski has 28 goals while Sejna has 27 — and each has a qualified playmaker up front — Noah Clarke has 33 assists; Parise has 27.
And now that UND is moving toward having its goaltending situation in order (more on that later), the teams are comparable in goal.
They’re not mirror images, but there’s enough of a similarity to make one think those 4-4 ties told the story about the race between the teams: It’s a dead heat.
Sioux coach Dean Blais said what he’ll take into this weekend from the teams’ earlier meeting is the memory of watching CC start the game with rockets on their skates.
“I just sat back and thought, ‘Geez, sooner or later we’re going to get the puck,'” he said. “For the first seven, eight minutes, they were moving and we were chasing. Nothing that we were doing wrong, it’s just that they were moving the puck so well. I thought on an Olympic-sized rink they’d be able to do that; they did it on this (NHL-sized) rink.”
There’s another issue: Will 15 extra feet on the sides and deeper corners work to CC’s advantage? The Tigers went into the Sioux’s building and played well on the smaller sheet. Can UND return the favor?
Alas, time will tell.
It’s mired in seventh place in the WCHA, but Denver still has high hopes from coach George Gwozdecky.
The Pioneers are at .500 in the league (6-6-4) and are fighting merely for home-ice in the playoffs instead of the league championship, like many thought they would. That’s no reason to give up the fight, however.
“I’ve got great confidence in our team. I think there’s great things ahead of us,” Gwozdecky said this week. “We’ve got character players and great leaders who have been through tough times before and have excelled. We’re going to move forward and work hard with high expectations of good things to come. I feel there are great things to come.”
That may happen, but first the Pioneers will have to break out of the underachieving funk they’ve been in for the last 10 games. Starting with a sweep by CC on Dec. 6 and 7, DU is 3-5-2.
Even more telling: In any game in that 10-game stretch, if the Pioneers allowed a goal, they either tied or lost. That may be a coincidence, but it’s a lot of weight to put on goaltenders, even those as talented as Wade Dubielewicz and Adam Berkhoel.
Gwozdecky revealed this week that he’s planning on shaking things up with the goaltending rotation. When the rotation has been in full swing, Dubielewicz has gotten the start in the first game of the series.
That could change this week. Gwozdecky said on Tuesday that Berkhoel was tentatively slotted as the starter on Friday against Wisconsin, with Dubielewicz to get the start on Saturday.
Gwozdecky said he wants to give each of his goaltenders something different than what they’ve experienced over most of the last season and a half.
“The only thing we’d like to be able to do is change up the rotation a little bit,” he said, “so that they don’t get used to playing on the same night of a weekend all of the time.”
He added that there’s been no in-depth research into which goalie plays best on Friday or Saturday. It’s a gut feeling.
“[It’s] not scientific at all,” Gwozdecky said. “I wish I could claim that we did a lot of studying in the statistics and things like that, but no. Basically, we were staying with the same rotation and it seemed to be working well until Wade got an injury. Then when he came back healthy again, we went back to the same rotation.”
For the Pioneers, the same as usual isn’t as good a thing this season as it was the last.
Cutting Power at Home
Minnesota’s power play is two-faced, but Gophers coach Don Lucia said he has no good explanation for why his team converts on 14.6 percent of its chances at home but 27.6 percent of them on the road.
It averages out to 22 percent overall, which is sixth in the WCHA.
One possible explanation, Lucia said, was that the Gophers’ power play was hot early in the season, and at that point they played six of their first nine games on the road.
In those first six road games, the Gophers scored 12 power-play goals.
Recently, the Gophers have found PPGs tough to come by at home, which has skewed the results. In their last six home games, they have only four goals on the man advantage.
The return of captain Grant Potulny to the lineup — he played better than expected after being out since October, Lucia said — could help the Minnesota power play. He had an assist on Tyler Hirsch’s 5-on-4 goal last Saturday.
Minnesota State-Mankato apparently doesn’t buy into the “Hockey is a 60-minute game” cliche.
By the look of things, the Mavs are ready for 65 every night.
They’re unbeaten in their last 11 games (6-0-5), and seven of their last nine games have gone to overtime. Their seven league ties has equaled the WCHA record, and their nine overall ties matches the NCAA record.
One can’t argue much with the results, however. They’re still in third place in the WCHA.
He’s Still Greene
North Dakota defenseman Matt Greene took what, in effect, was a 15-minute penalty last Saturday night.
The freshman was whistled for holding the stick with five minutes gone in the third period of a 3-0 victory over Alaska-Anchorage, but Blais was so displeased with the youngster that he made him sit on the bench and watch the rest of the game when his penalty was over.
“He’s agile, he can really move on the ice. He knows his defensive responsibilities,” Blais said. “His problem is he has to play disciplined all the time. If there’s a player on our team that tends to be undisciplined once in a while, it’s Matt Greene. But he’s learning.”
That penalty in Anchorage wouldn’t have evoked such a response from Blais if not for another one that was still in the coach’s mind. At Minnesota on Jan. 11, Greene got called for slashing with the Sioux down 3-2 midway through the third period.
Gino Guyer scored on the ensuing power play, and UND was “out of the game,” Blais said. The Gophers won 6-3.
The Sioux are starting to expect a higher maturity level from Greene, who consistently is among their top four defensemen.
“It’s getting down to that,” Blais said. “Andy Schneider and David Hale, two rugged defensemen, had their learning time and Matt’s going through that right now. But I would rather have a defenseman that’s real aggressive that you can pull the reins back a little bit than having to put the [heart] in him. That’s the case with Matt.”
Don’t Forget Them
It may get overshadowed because of North Dakota-CC this weekend, but the series between Minnesota State-Mankato and Minnesota-Duluth has quite a bit of weight attached to it, too.
And who would have imagined that at the start of the season?
For Mankato, every game from now on becomes crucial in the PairWise Rankings. The Mavs are 14th, meaning they’d be the last team in the NCAA tournament if the WCHA, Hockey East, CCHA and ECAC all provide automatic qualifiers that are ranked in the top 13 in the Pairwise.
With Selection Sunday still seven weeks away, Mankato’s fortunes could rise and fall plenty before it’s time to consider the PairWise for real.
UMD isn’t listed in the PairWise because its RPI is below .500. The Bulldogs could change that this weekend. Setting themselves up for a home series in the first round of the playoffs appears to be the goal, and beating the teams ahead of you in the standings is the quickest way to make a run.
There’s still time for the Badgers to pull it together this season, coach Mike Eaves said.
Responding at his weekly news conference to a question on whether he still thinks Wisconsin will do that, he said: “Absolutely. Without that, I wouldn’t come to work every morning fired up and ready to go.
“It’s our goal. It’s what we have said from the beginning and it’s what you work for. In some form or fashion, we’ll be playing what we think of as our best hockey by March.”
A Little Improvement, Please
Blais was waiting for one of his goaltenders to claim the No. 1 spot, and he said Jake Brandt has done just that.
Brandt’s recent improvement has led him to be favored over Josh Siembida for the starting job.
“You look at our team, and at times we don’t give up a lot of shots, but our goaltending was the real question mark,” Blais said. “Both Josh and Jake were around 84 to 86 save percentage. You’re not going to win championships with that. Now, all of a sudden, he’s up over 90 [percent, in conference play].
“That was the only spot that was questioned. We obviously can score goals, we haven’t been giving up much defensively, it’s just the goaltending that was inconsistent for a while. We’ve only lost two games. If it can just get a little bit better every week, I think it’ll be good enough to hold us in there.”
On the Shelf
“I cannot remember when we’ve been hit with as many injuries,” he said. “I know everybody goes through this; this isn’t an excuse. But this is one of those unusual years where rarely have we been able to field a healthy team.”
Greg Barber, the senior forward who’s fifth on the team in scoring, likely will be a game-time decision this weekend against Wisconsin. He missed DU’s last series against Mankato with a shoulder injury. Gwozdecky is confident, however, Barber will be ready to play next weekend at Minnesota-Duluth at the least.
In Other Words
Alaska-Anchorage is nearing completion of the staggered suspensions for its athletes involved in a NCAA violation involving textbook scholarship money. Defenseman Matt Shasby will finish his sentence on Friday, while blueliner Lee Green will start his three-game hiatus on Saturday. … He’s got a long way to go to catch Sejna, but Michigan Tech’s Chris Durno has a career-high six-game point streak. … CC’s nation-leading 47 power-play goals this season is 11 more than the Tigers had in the entire 2001-02 season. …
St. Cloud State freshman Joe Jensen has continued his scoring ways since making a name for himself with a hat trick against Minnesota for his first goals of his collegiate career. He scored Nos. 6 and 7 last Friday against UMD. … Seawolves coach John Hill was so upset with his team after last Friday’s game that he walked back to the team’s hotel through a Houghton, Mich., snowstorm. … UMD hasn’t been above .500 this late in the season since 1997, when it finished sixth in the WCHA and lost a first-round series at Denver. …
Players of the week are CC’s Sejna on offense, his teammate Tom Preissing on defense and Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner as the top rookie. … Mankato went unbeaten in 12 games in the 1990-91 season. Its opponents in that stretch? Wisconsin-River Falls, Bemidji State, Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Gustavus Adolphus, St. Thomas, Wisconsin-Superior and St. Scholastica.