Some thoughts this week, while cursing the fortune that puts us in bloody Green Bay, Wis., on a weekend where there’s the Winter Carnival, a Minnesota-Wisconsin series and a bunch of other key WCHA meetings going on. Argh!
Run to the Finish
Four weeks from Saturday, we’ll finally know the identities of the two teams who, despite being in the running, won’t host a first-round playoff series.
Given the current state of the league, it’s not likely to happen before then.
With that in mind, here’s a look at who’s hot, who’s not and who’s hanging around in the WCHA’s stretch run.
Minnesota State-Mankato: The Mavericks are unbeaten in 13 games and are no longer surprising anyone.
Colorado College: A loss to Minnesota likely will be only a bump en route to the MacNaughton Cup.
Michigan Tech: Yeah, that Michigan Tech. The Huskies are 4-2 in their last six, four of them against ranked opponents.
Alaska-Anchorage: Twenty-seven games without a win. Need we say more?
Wisconsin: A sweep of the Seawolves doesn’t count for getting out of the “not” category.
Denver: Just seven points to show for its last eight WCHA games. Tough road ahead, too.
St. Cloud State: An erratic team since claiming three points in a series against Minnesota. The Huskies have split their last three league series, two of them against teams they’re battling for home-ice spots.
Who’s Hanging Around
That leaves this category for the teams that are neither hot nor cold … or maybe a little of both.
North Dakota: The Sioux have been hot and cold in the same game recently, as evidenced by a 3-0 lead against CC that turned into a 5-3 loss. They’re 4-4 in their last eight.
Minnesota: It’s the system that worked last year, right? Get by for most of the season, then go on a run in the playoffs? If that’s the case, though, it’s time for the Gophers to pick it up.
Minnesota-Duluth: The Bulldogs have a mean Ross Perot impression going in their on-again-off-again campaign for a home-ice spot.
Still a Problem
North Dakota’s loss to Michigan Tech? Didn’t happen.
At least that’s the line of thinking Dean Blais hopes the Sioux will take. Better to just move on and not dwell on it, he said.
That goes double with the road-dominated last four weekends they face.
“It was one of those games where no one really played well, and that happens,” Blais said. “You have to recover because it’s not going to get any easier. We have two home games and six on the road in our next eight games. You don’t have time at this time of the year to adjust a whole lot or panic or anything else. You just have to carry on and hopefully get better in the next month.”
You may recall that, a couple weeks ago, Blais indicated he thought the shaky situation in the Sioux goal was getting better. A couple weeks later, things aren’t so certain.
Jake Brandt was the No. 1 goalie going into the series at CC two weeks ago. After he allowed five unanswered goals in a 5-3 loss in the first game of that series, Josh Siembida played in a 4-1 loss in Game 2.
Last weekend, Siembida earned his first collegiate shutout in making just 16 saves on Friday, and started Saturday’s game before being replaced after allowing four goals on 20 shots in just over two periods.
Not having a consistently solid goalie wouldn’t be so much of a concern if everything else didn’t appear to be in order. But the plight of the goalies remains the big on-ice concern for the Sioux.
Because of the approaching playoff season, however, there’s really nothing the UND coaches can do with the goaltenders other than work with them in practice and hope things get better.
“You have to just let it work its way out,” Blais said. “Hopefully, someone will step forward.”
Every day that goes by without that happening makes Blais a little more nervous, though.
“The way the league is, we can’t afford any games where bad goaltending costs you,” he said. “You can cover up now and then, but when 25, 30 shots are fired at you — not a lot of rubber — and four, five goals go in, that puts pressure on everyone. We’ve given up sometimes only 15, 20 shots and have given up two, three goals. Come on, you know? That’s not good goaltending.
“At times, you just have to play in spite of it. I didn’t think Adam Hauser was all that talented for Minnesota, and they still won a national championship. We have in the past, too, where we thought our goaltending was just OK and have won. And other years, goaltending has won it for us, with Karl Goehring or Eddie Belfour.”
Brandt has the better statistics of the two main Sioux goaltenders. He’s 9-2-2 with a 2.48 goals against average but only an .895 save percentage. Siembida, meanwhile, leads the league with an .800 winning percentage (12-3), but has a 3.17 GAA and a .852 save percentage.
Blais said he’s not big on statistics deciding who he’ll start in goal. But he said Brandt has played well in most of his recent starts, and likely will start Friday at Denver.
Calling on Colin
An essential factor in the recent run of good form for Michigan Tech has been the scoring punch of sophomore winger Colin Murphy. That’s not a big surprise, considering he’s the Huskies’ leading scorer, but a number of multiple-point games finally have led to team success.
He scored twice in last Saturday’s win over UND, and had a goal and two assists in a win over St. Cloud State on Jan. 31 and two assists in a win over Anchorage on Jan. 25.
He has eight multiple-point games this season.
“Since Christmas, we’ve been playing real good,” Murphy told USCHO’s Patrick C. Miller last weekend. “We had a rough start to the season. We’re just sticking to the coach’s system and it’s been working for us.”
The Standings Watch
Seven WCHA teams have eight games left in their league schedule, while two have six remaining and Alaska-Anchorage — perhaps mercifully — has only four left.
It’s unlikely one weekend will make or break a team, but stranger things have happened.
“It’s so close,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said of the race for the middle positions in the league standings that is encompassing more than half of the league. “One good weekend and you can vault up; one bad weekend and you vault back down. Two weeks ago, after Duluth got swept, everybody probably thought they’re not going to get home ice. Now, all of a sudden, they sweep Denver and it looks like a real possibility.”
Here’s a rundown of some of the highlights left in the schedule:
And the Tigers have a fan in Lucia for the rest of the regular season. He’d be just fine with CC knocking off St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato and Denver, three teams in the pack with Minnesota vying for spots two through seven.
With Mankato off last weekend, coach Troy Jutting gave his players a reprieve from practice altogether last Tuesday and Thursday. The team held captains’ practices the rest of the week.
It was a good time for the Mavericks, who take a 13-game unbeaten streak into this weekend’s series at Alaska-Anchorage, to sit back and clear their heads for the stretch run.
“It’s hard when you’re on a streak, but mentally, I think it was a good time for us,” Jutting said. “We’ve had a lot of tough games over the last month and a half, so I think it was a good time for us to get a little break and relax mentally more than anything.”
Loud and Clear
In an era of fragile psyches, coaches can’t use the whip to get the attention of their teams too frequently. But a well-timed wake-up call does the trick every once in a while.
Such was the case last weekend for the Gophers. After turning the puck over 40 times in a 6-2 loss at Colorado College on Friday, they were forced to watch their mistakes again on Saturday.
Lucia had some words for the players, too, not all of them very kind, according to reports. The charge Lucia sent through the locker room got the desired effect, and the Gophers won Saturday’s game 3-2.
“I was just disappointed that we didn’t give ourself a chance to win,” Lucia said of Friday’s game. “Would we have won the game had we played well? I don’t know. But I know we didn’t give ourself a chance because we turned the puck over so much. [CC is] a team that thrives on transition and turnovers. That’s what killed us on Friday night.
“That’s what I was disappointed in, and we did read them the riot act and they responded. We played much tighter and much smarter.”
Saturday wasn’t an especially pleasant day for the handful of Gophers players who had to go through the meeting with Lucia early in the day, then suffered from a bout of food poisoning late that night. Lucia said five players got sick Saturday night and had to miss Monday’s practice.
But staying right in the middle of the ever-changing pack made the trip something of a success for Minnesota.
“Considering everything we’ve been through this year, with the injuries, we’re sitting OK,” Lucia said. “Now, it’s just how we close. We can still finish in second place or we can finish in seventh place. That’s why every weekend, every game is so important now.”
That starts with the Border Battle against Wisconsin this weekend. In the last few years, the teams’ fortunes rarely have coincided. When Minnesota has been near the top of the standings, the Badgers have slipped, and vice versa.
That might alter the way the rivalry is viewed.
“If you asked our guys in the rivalry factor where they’d be, I don’t know if Wisconsin would be No. 1 at this stage,” Lucia said. “I think rivalries tend to come and go. I’ve always maintained when you play a team in big games, you develop more of a sense of a rivalry because you keep seeing them in those important games.”
Lucia added: “But it’s still Wisconsin.”
On the Shelf
But the Sioux won’t push Hale’s return, looking to the future. “The bottom line is the playoffs because we feel it’s so close all the way through that if you’re healthy, it’s a big part of it in the last two to three weeks,” Blais said. “Hopefully, our sickness and injuries are over with by then.”
Also, UND expects forward Brian Canady back from a torn medial collateral ligament this weekend, a quick recovery considering the team feared Canady might be out for the season. “He just gives us some more character,” Blais said. “And when you’re playing on the road, you need character. … Brian, he hasn’t had the greatest of years, he’s been hurt. But when he plays, he plays hard. He’s kind of an inspiration to everyone else.”
In Other Words
The Badger Hockey Showdown, whose title sponsor did not renew its contract, is moving from Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, site of the 2006 Frozen Four, to the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., for next season, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. … Remember me? Bulldogs senior goalie Rob Anderson stopped 33 of 34 shots last Saturday to get a win over Denver. It was his first league start since Oct. 26 and first league win of the season. Isaac Reichmuth took the No. 1 spot from him early this season. … The Seawolves managed only two shots on goal in the second period at Wisconsin last Saturday. It was a season low. …
Last Friday’s 6-5 loss to UMD was Denver’s first when scoring five or more goals since Jan. 14, 2000 (a 7-6 overtime loss to Minnesota). … Players of the week were Colorado College’s Brett Sterling on offense, Wisconsin’s Bernd Bruckler on defense and the Badgers’ Nick Licari as the top rookie. … CC’s Peter Sejna extended his point-scoring streak to 31 games last weekend. … Tigers defenseman Tom Preissing set the record for goals in a season by a CC defenseman last weekend, scoring his 19th. Doug Lidster (1979-80) and Rob Doyle (1985-86) previously held the record. …
Snapping home streaks: North Dakota’s 18-game home unbeaten streak ended last Saturday, the same day CC’s 13-game home winning streak ended. UND was one away from tying the school record. … This is the first time in Sioux hockey history that three goaltenders have each recorded at least one shutout in the same season. Brandt has four, while Siembida and Marc Ranfranz each have one.