This Week in the WCHA: Feb. 20, 2003

Six Is a Stretch

Some thoughts this week, while finally being convinced six WCHA teams won’t make the NCAA tournament:

  • Wisconsin’s Alex Leavitt came forward with his side of the story this week, claiming Badgers coach Mike Eaves grabbed and pushed him in an altercation earlier this season at the team’s hotel. Eaves has been reprimanded by the school. We’ll have to watch the next days and weeks to see what, if any, ripples this causes around Madison.
  • How confident is Alaska-Anchorage that Colorado College will win the MacNaughton Cup? The Seawolves, locked into 10th — last — place in the WCHA, already have their airplane tickets for a trip to Colorado Springs.
  • Last Saturday’s two goals were the first of the season for Minnesota’s Barry Tallackson. It’s scary for the Gophers that the sophomore hasn’t produced more, but it’s scarier for opponents if he starts now.
  • Some of you wouldn’t mind seeing home teams wear dark jerseys next season, but the majority seems to have the opinion that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • And finally, seeing five WCHA teams in the 16-team national tournament field wouldn’t be a stretch, but it appears seeing six would. It’s highly unlikely a team that doesn’t make the WCHA Final Five would have a high enough PairWise Ranking to make the field, unless there are some big surprises in the first round. But there’s no need to revisit 1994, is there, Tigers fans?

    The Joy of Brose

    Don Brose has a hard time hiding the joy he’s feeling in watching Troy Jutting’s Minnesota State-Mankato team do so well this season.

    Brose, who retired as the Mavericks’ coach in 2000, after leading them for 30 years — including their first in the WCHA — is thrilled to see Mankato ranked among the top schools in the country.

    “I’m excited for Troy. Troy played for me four years and was my assistant coach for 10 years,” Brose said. “I’m so happy for Troy, I’m so happy for the program because this puts Mankato on the map again.”

    Brose took the Mavericks to the WCHA Final Five in their first season of full league membership. They’re poised to make another run at it this season, sitting in second place with three weekends left.

    “I think they’re a really, really exciting team to watch,” said Brose, who’ll be present for alumni weekend in Mankato this weekend. “They’ve got a good nucleus of three seniors who are really good leaders, but the rest of them are kids who have really stepped up.

    “They’re fast, they’ve got a couple of real snipers in [Shane] Joseph and [Grant] Stevenson. Goaltending’s been good. They’re just fun to watch.”

    Brose has kept himself busy since his retirement from coaching by doing what he’s waited a long time to do — hunt.

    He’s been duck, pheasant and goose hunting in North Dakota and South Dakota.

    “That was one of the reasons I got out [of coaching] when I did — I wanted to be able to hunt,” he said. “I hadn’t fired my guns in 23 years and I wanted to be able to get out hunting. I’ve done that a lot lately.”

    The Circus Is In Town

    “Hockey hankies,” T-shirts and a pregame concert. Oh yeah, some hockey, too.

    Minnesota State-Mankato is going all out to make the atmosphere at this weekend’s games against North Dakota something memorable. The school is distributing more than 5,000 “hankies” before Friday’s game at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center, and 900 shirts to go along with a concert before Saturday’s game.

    It might be more memorable if the Mavericks add onto their 15-game unbeaten streak.

    North Dakota’s reaction to all this? Bring it on.

    “That’s all good and fine, but we’re used to those things everywhere we go,” said Sioux coach Dean Blais, who did mention, however, that those plans have made their way onto the bulletin board in the UND locker room.

    “It’s not going to be anything unusual or extra emotional for us. Sometimes that works against you and you can’t do your normal routines with a band playing before the game. Sometimes, it’s a distraction for the team.”

    The Mavericks need points this weekend. While most teams have six league games left, Mankato has only four — these two against UND and next weekend at Colorado College. The promotions won’t be a distraction, coach Troy Jutting said.

    If that unbeaten string ends now, the Mavericks still could slide as low as seventh place in the final standings.

    “With the two recent wins over Alaska-Anchorage, we have put ourselves in a position where there is little doubt that we are skating the most important series in school history,” Mankato athletics director Kevin Buisman said in a statement released by the school.

    “There is a lot on the line in terms of the postseason, with home ice and seeding positions up for grabs. All eyes in the WCHA and throughout college hockey will be focused on what happens right here in Mankato this weekend, and it’s our time to shine.”

    The Time Was Now

    The next two weeks were going to be St. Cloud State’s ground on which to make a run at solidifying a top-five spot in the standings. Knee injuries to two key players now have the Huskies hoping they can merely survive.

    Defenseman Jeff Finger had arthroscopic surgery this week to repair a torn meniscus in a knee. Last Saturday, forwards Ryan Malone, one of the team’s leading scorers, and Joe Jensen, who’s been in form since Christmas, suffered knee injuries. Jensen should play this weekend, but Malone likely will be out the next four games.

    With dates against Wisconsin on the road this weekend and at home against Anchorage the next, the Huskies, who enter the weekend tied with Denver for sixth place, have a golden opportunity at eight points. But without those key players, it’ll be a little more difficult because their depth will be stretched.

    After the Badgers and the Seawolves, the Huskies close the regular season with a home-and-home series against Minnesota that could be vital in playoff positioning. They hope to have Finger and Malone back by then.

    “You can’t make up for good players,” Huskies coach Craig Dahl said. “Good players win games. It’s tough to take those guys out of the lineup.”

    And don’t think wins at Wisconsin are a sure thing for St. Cloud, either. In its last four games at the Kohl Center, it’s 1-2-1.

    “You go and you play as hard as you can and do the best you can,” Dahl said. “Hopefully, you can still win. If you can’t, you can’t — there’s not much you can do about it.”

    With go-to players out of the lineup, the Huskies will turn to the next group to make an impact.

    Dahl said they’ll rely more on Jon Cullen and Joe Motzko, while hoping Peter Szabo can turn it up. There may be wholesale changes to the line combinations as well, Dahl said.

    Not Running Yet

    Last season, Minnesota started its run toward a national championship with a strong February. The Gophers may be doing it again this season with a different cast, but coach Don Lucia wouldn’t say that just yet.

    The Gophers were 6-2 in February last season, starting a drive that would see them lose only once in March and take the NCAA title in April. Today, they’re 4-1 in the second month of the calendar year. The common thread is that a loss in both seasons came against Colorado College.

    Lucia isn’t so sure this is a run his team is on. As far as he’s concerned, his team is fixed at a consistent level.

    “There’s too many more difficult games for us before I say we’ve made a February run,” said Lucia, the owner of a contract extension agreed to this week. “Since Thanksgiving, we’ve only lost three games. So we’re just kind of hanging around.

    “Now, it’s important for us to try to close the next six games and do well. As well as we’ve done as of late, we could still finish in second or seventh. That’s what’s so incredible this year within our league. This is my 10th year in the league, and I’ve never seen it so tightly bunched with six teams like it is this year.”

    There may not be much the Gophers have to turn up in the next few weeks as the playoffs near. Their approach seems to be working fine for now.

    “Sometimes you are what you are,” Lucia said. “I think the next three weekends will go a long way in determining whether we have cranked it up or not. Look who we’re playing: We go up to Duluth, which will be very difficult; then we come back with Denver; then St. Cloud home and home. The six games that we have are all against teams that are all in the same boat.”

    The Gophers piled up 13 goals last weekend against a woeful Wisconsin team. But they did so without the benefit of a goal from Thomas Vanek or Troy Riddle, the team’s top two goalscorers — the only ones, in fact, who are in double digits in goals.

    Tallackson, who scored 13 goals as a freshman last season, finally broke through for his first two in game No. 18 of an injury-plagued sophomore season.

    “He got off to a slow start, then he got hurt — he separated his shoulder — then he was gone at the World Juniors. So he’s had such a disjointed season that he couldn’t get that first goal,” Lucia said. “I think the longer it went, the more it affected him. We just tried to keep him concentrated on playing hard, and he had played much better the last couple weekends. He’s too talented to not get that first goal. I’m hoping now that he can have a good run here.”

    No Time Off

    At this time last season, Denver’s practices were running about 45 minutes and focusing on tweaking minor things. It helped that the Pioneers were at the head of the WCHA pack and not in the middle of it.

    Coach George Gwozdecky might rather have his team conserving energy in practice, but he can’t afford it right now. Too much to be done, too little time.

    That’s not just considering the standings. Denver has work to do to get a home-ice spot, but that work is in areas most teams have solidified by this time.

    “Last year at this time … we were really designing our practices to work on some little things in our game. Our game was pretty much set, our team was pretty much set, our lineup was pretty much set,” Gwozdecky said. “We’re in a completely different position now. We’re still struggling to get everybody back to health. It seems like on a game-to-game basis, our lineup continues to change because of health issues and also performance issues. There are certain things in our game that haven’t fully developed yet.”

    The Pioneers continue to win with defense … when they win. Of the six victories they have since Dec. 27, three of them were shutouts. In the other three, they allowed one goal each time.

    Contrast that with the four DU losses in that time — they allowed five, four, six and three goals in those games. Denver also has a pair of 3-3 ties.

    It indicates there’s work to be done on evening out the Pioneers’ game.

    “Our biggest concern is tomorrow, whether that’s practice or that’s a game,” Gwozdecky said. “We still have work to do on our game. We worked extremely hard last week in practice, and perhaps at this time of the season it’s probably not the thing players or coaches would like to do. … In a sense, maybe we were rolling the dice a little bit because I wasn’t sure whether we would have much left for the weekend series.”

    They saw a 3-1 lead slip away before tying the Sioux last Friday, but defenseman Aaron MacKenzie came through with a winning goal with two seconds left Saturday night.

    “I was really happy for the team because they worked hard for it and we haven’t got a lot of bounces in our favor recently,” Gwozdecky said. “Perhaps that was the bounce-meter balancing itself out.”

    That Bad Taste

    John Hill envisions a day a couple years down the road when the group of freshmen and sophomores on this year’s tortured Alaska-Anchorage team will be able to draw on the experiences they gained in their first years at the school to right themselves.

    By the time the freshmen are juniors, the Seawolves coach said, he wants them to take a loss, remember the feeling they had in the 2002-03 season and turn things around.

    That’s what he hopes will have been learned from being left to fend for themselves in the real hockey world.

    “These kids really have had no one to lean on. They’ve gotten no production from the upperclassmen,” Hill said. “I think it’ll make them realize they leaned on each other when they were down and they stuck it out together. And I think that’s only going to make that class stronger.

    “I think two years from now, they’ll look back on this, and, as trying a time as this has been, I think they’ll say it helped them. You develop a mindset because it’s something you don’t want to experience again. I think the next time you lose a couple games, they’re going to get hungry and start speaking out, planting their feet and making a stand.”

    The negatives with this year’s UAA team have been well-publicized — from the now 29-game winless streak to suspensions for misuse of textbook scholarship money. There are positives, too, in Hill’s mind:

  • The Seawolves are the least-penalized team in the WCHA at 13.4 minutes per game. That shows Hill that his team can be aggressive and disciplined at the same time, a good sign “especially when you consider frustration would have been easy to set in,” he said.
  • The penalty kill is fifth in the league (80 percent) and the power play is seventh (18.7 percent). “When you think about a team that hasn’t won since Oct. 11, you would think those numbers would be a lot more dismal than they are,” Hill said.
  • Their stats aren’t great, but junior goalies Kevin Reiter and Chris King have set themselves up for a good senior season, Hill said.
  • They may have found their power-play quarterback for the next three seasons in defenseman Matt Hanson. He has five power-play goals this season.
  • Ales Parez and Curtis Glencross have starred as freshman forwards. They’re the team’s leading scorers at 26 and 20 points, respectively.
  • And Hill is encouraged that his team will add Chris Fournier, a forward who’s sitting out this season after transferring from North Dakota, to infuse some needed offense next season.

    See? It could be worse.

    A Safe Distance From the Panic Button

    The North Dakota report with three weeks left in the regular season: Still no panic and only mild disappointment.

    That’s the word from Blais, even though his team is 1-4-1 in the last three weeks after losing last Saturday’s game to Denver in the final seconds of regulation.

    Instead of vying for the league championship, the Sioux now are looking to get back to form before the playoffs start. There’s time to pull it back together, but they have to do it soon.

    “We’re still fine. There’s no time for panic,” Blais said. “The big thing is with this time of year is being healthy and not playing bad. It’s different if you’re playing bad, but we’re playing really well. You’re going to win some of those and lose some.

    “Luckily, we’ve been in these situations before where you don’t panic. You just keep on playing as hard as you can.”

    Add It Up

    The math just about adds up at Minnesota-Duluth, but that doesn’t get the whole picture.

    Twenty-one players have scored goals for the Bulldogs. Ten of them are sophomores. Sophomores have produced half of the team’s goals this season (52 of 104).

    So there’s nothing special about that on its face. But the Bulldogs’ success this season can be traced to each of their components carrying its weight. That’s exactly what the sophomore class is doing.

    It’s been a learning process with them, UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. They learn, they get better and they produce more goals.

    That’s been the case with the Bulldogs. Sophomores hold spots six through 10 on the team’s scoring list, with Luke Stauffacher leading that group at 11 goals and 16 points. He’s third in the league with five game-winning goals.

    But that group also includes T.J. Caig and Marco Peluso, both of whom are actually in their first seasons playing with the Bulldogs.

    Being in the right situation apparently has been a key for all of them.

    “You hope that you’re putting them in that type of atmosphere to get better,” Sandelin said. “Certainly, there have been some surprises. I think Nick Anderson has made huge strides as a player. He’s gotten some confidence and has had a pretty solid year for us. I wasn’t expecting Luke to score 11 goals, but he’s chipped in and he’s probably not done yet.”

    UMD’s recruiting classes over the next two years won’t be big, making it a strong possibility the Bulldogs will be able to take this season’s improvement and build upon it.

    A Change Won’t Do You Good

    Most fans have been outspoken in either their dislike or disinterest in the plan to have WCHA teams wear dark jerseys at home next season.

    A sampling of comments:

    “I don’t think the league should mandate any of it.”

    “I think wearing dark jerseys at home is ridiculous and should not be the rule for next year or ever.”

    “In the NCAA tourney, you can tell which team has the higher seed because they’re wearing white. There’s something cool about that.”

    “This must be a marketing thing to raise more money on jersey sales.”

    “I’m all for having teams pull out a ‘third’ jersey from time to time, but let’s stay put with the traditional light colors at home, dark on the road.”

    “Who is paying attention to the color of their team’s jersey, anyway? All I want is for the puck to go into the opposing team’s net. Has college hockey become boring so that we need a change to the jerseys? No way! If you want to see the dark jerseys, check out your team on the road!”

    And from a fan whose rooting interest and frustration is evident: “Should they change the uniform color? Only if it makes the Badgers play better.”

    On the Shelf

  • At North Dakota, David Hale skated for about an hour on Tuesday, but wasn’t feeling very well on Wednesday. The forward has lost 16 pounds and missed three weeks with flu-like symptoms. He’ll rest and undergo more tests, Blais said. Hale is scheduled to go to Mankato with the team this weekend, but Blais seems leery of putting him on the ice.
  • At Wisconsin, forward Adam Burish was cleared to resume skating this week. He’s been out since mid-January with a broken collarbone. The team hopes to have him back by the last weekend of the regular season or the first round of the playoffs.

    In Other Words

    In another twist to the North Dakota goaltending saga, Marc Ranfranz likely will get the start in goal on Friday at Mankato, Blais said. Ranfranz stopped 26 of 28 shots last Saturday at Denver. … Colorado College was the first team to clinch a home-ice spot for the playoffs, doing so last weekend. Alaska-Anchorage, meanwhile, clinched last place and Wisconsin is guaranteed to be on the road for the first round. … Peter Sejna’s CC-record point-scoring streak ended last Friday night at 31 games. …

    Players of the week were CC’s Brett Sterling on offense, Denver’s MacKenzie and St. Cloud’s Jake Moreland sharing the defensive honors, and UMD’s Tim “Buster” Stapleton as the top rookie. … Michigan Tech captain Brett Engelhardt broke a seven-game goalless string by scoring last Saturday night. In the stretch where he didn’t have a goal, the Huskies were 4-3. …