This Week in the WCHA: March 6, 2003


Some thoughts this week, while preparing to make the switch from tiebreaker comparisons to PairWise comparisons:

  • This column is brought to you by the word “refocus.” As in what Minnesota State-Mankato did after last Friday’s humbling loss at Colorado College, and as in what the Tigers are trying to do now.
  • League goaltending hasn’t been stellar this season, but there were 55 goals scored in five games last Saturday night. The second-to-last week of the regular season is not the time for defense to go out the window.
  • Count on it: After winning the MacNaughton Cup, the champion is bound to lose its next game against a league team. It’s happened three years in a row — to Colorado College this season, Denver last season and North Dakota in the first game of the playoffs in 2001. In 2000, Wisconsin lost two games after winning the Cup.
  • And finally, all those who will be relieved to not have to talk about tiebreakers after this weekend, raise your hand.

    WCHA Math

    OK, last weekend. Last chance for WCHA teams to move up or move down.

    Well, except for Colorado College and Alaska-Anchorage. The Tigers, this season’s MacNaughton Cup champions, will finish first and host the Seawolves, who will finish last.

    And it looks like the playoffs are set for Wisconsin and Michigan Tech, which will finish eighth and ninth, respectively, unless Tech sweeps Duluth on the road and Wisconsin gets swept by North Dakota.

    Otherwise, there’s a good chance the standings will look a lot different by Sunday.

    Minnesota State-Mankato will take second place unless Minnesota claims three or more points in its home-and-home series against St. Cloud State. The Gophers have the tiebreaker over the Mavericks, although it takes a while to get there — it’s the third procedure, the fewest goals allowed in the four-game series between the teams, that decides it.

    At worst, the Mavericks will finish third, a situation that would allow them to avoid the Thursday night play-in game at the Final Five if they win a first-round playoff series against Michigan Tech or Wisconsin.

    Minnesota would lose a tiebreaker with Minnesota-Duluth for third place on the second procedure, most conference wins, since the teams would tie only if the Gophers lose two and the Bulldogs win two.

    The logjam in places four through seven represents the biggest mess the league has with two games remaining. Of Minnesota-Duluth (in fourth place going into the weekend with 30 points), North Dakota (fifth, 29), Denver (tied sixth, 28) and St. Cloud State (tied sixth, 28), two will have home ice for the first round.

    North Dakota is at Wisconsin, while Denver plays a home-and-home series with CC.

    UMD probably has the best chance to clinch a top-five spot — it’s 6-1-1 in its last eight games while Michigan Tech has lost six in a row. Denver and St. Cloud State each has to play a team in the top four in the PairWise Rankings.

    The Bulldogs own tiebreakers over North Dakota (1-0-1 this season) and Denver (3-1). North Dakota wins the tiebreaker with St. Cloud State (3-1), while Denver trumps North Dakota (1-0-1). St. Cloud owns the tiebreaker over Denver (2-1-1).

    UMD and St. Cloud tied the season series at 2-2 and could end up with the same number of conference wins, so the tiebreaker could come down to the fewest goals allowed in the series. The Bulldogs allowed nine; the Huskies 11.

    Defense, Anyone?

    Every team has one of those days on defense every once in a while. But an entire league?

    It was offensive Saturday last weekend in the WCHA, and it was particularly offensive for the goaltenders.

    Seven of the 10 teams allowed five or more goals. There were 55 goals scored, an average of 11 per game.

    Cheers to Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota, who held each other to three goals in a tie, and St. Cloud State, which shut out Alaska-Anchorage — although, is that really an accomplishment these days?

    We knew Minnesota State-Mankato could get into shootouts with the best of them — see a 7-6 win over St. Cloud State earlier this season — but a 9-6 win at Colorado College?

    We knew Denver was struggling, but seven Minnesota goals on Wade Dubielewicz in just over 46 minutes?

    We knew … well, we didn’t know anything of what to expect from Wisconsin, so the Badgers beat Michigan Tech 9-5.

    “Especially at the end of the season, when it’s supposed to be this playoff type of hockey, I think it’s a total aberration,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “It is kind of comical in a sense.”

    A little comical, sure, but there won’t be too many coaches getting big laughs over it.

    Tough to Crack

    How tough is it to get noticed as a freshman in the WCHA this season? Tim Stapleton leads fourth-place Minnesota-Duluth in scoring, yet he might not even make the league’s all-rookie team.

    Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek and North Dakota’s Zach Parise are locks for the rookie team — and likely are battling for the freshman of the year award — leaving a handful of others as choices for the third forward on the team.

    Voters will have to consider Stapleton alongside CC’s Brett Sterling, with CC’s Marty Sertich and Michigan Tech’s Chris Connor also in the mix.

    But Stapleton — known in some circles as “Buster” — helped his cause last weekend. He scored the winning goal at North Dakota on Sunday, breaking a 2-2 tie with 2:01 left. On Saturday, he scored the tying goal early in the third period of a 3-3 draw.

    Sterling was named the national rookie of the month by the Ice Hockey Collegiate Commissioners’ Association this week. The race goes on.

    “It’d be a nice honor for him because I think he deserves it,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said of Stapleton. “Any time you can come in as a freshman and lead your team in scoring, you should be considered one of the top rookies in the league.”

    Stapleton has 34 points (10 goals, 24 assists), tied for 16th in the league among all players and third among freshmen.

    He has a goal in each of his last three games, but hasn’t had more than a single goal in any game this season. He recorded four points in a 5-3 win over Michigan Tech on Feb. 15.

    “For a freshman to come in and be a team’s leading scorer, … I think it tells you about the ability he has,” Sandelin said. “He’s been very consistent from start to finish. I’ve seen signs of it, but I still think he could take it to another level. I think we’re going to see that, hopefully, down the road — maybe this year but certainly in his upcoming three years. He has the ability to be one of the top forwards in the WCHA down the road.”

    The Good Loss

    We’ve found the case where losing in the second-to-last weekend of the regular season is acceptable. Minnesota State-Mankato’s Troy Jutting will be happy to explain.

    You see, Jutting is of the belief that his Mavericks needed a bit of a shake-up before delving into the postseason. They went 17 games without a loss before last Friday’s 8-1 thrashing at the hands of CC.

    “I think a loss was good for us, as dumb as that might sound coming from a coach,” Jutting said. “I think after not having lost in 17 games, I think a loss may have refocused us again a little bit. I don’t think we were arrogant or felt like, ‘We’ll go win.’ I think it was just a case where we’d gone to the rink so many nights and come out without losing that maybe it gave us a chance to refocus a little.

    “We were on a 17-game streak, and that means to go through Omaha and the first round, even to get to the Final Five, we would have had to have gone 23 games. I don’t know if that’s always good to go into a playoff situation where you haven’t lost in quite a while.”

    This weekend’s nonconference series with Nebraska-Omaha has national tournament implications for Mankato, which was 10th in the PairWise Rankings before this weekend’s action.

    The Battle of the Mavericks won’t provide the opportunity for the suddenly coveted bonus points, but Mankato is a few points clear of the danger zone for selection to the NCAA tournament, and needs to stay there as it enters the playoffs.

    Human nature means Mankato will keep a watch on the PairWise, but it can’t afford to get too wrapped up in it, Jutting said.

    “I think it’s only natural you look and see where you’re at, because sometimes you need to make decisions based on that,” he said. “But I think the kids are doing a very good job of looking forward to the next game and not looking past that.”

    Cutting Back

    The Thursday games played by Minnesota State-Mankato, Colorado College and Denver this week were welcome in the locker rooms.

    By this time, with over five months of practice in the books, one fewer day of drills is a bonus for the players.

    “Anything that brings a game their way is good for them,” Jutting said.

    Forget About It

    The best thing for Colorado College to do now that it’s clinched the MacNaughton Cup is to put the trophy in a closet and forget about it for a few months.

    The big, silver cup won’t do the Tigers any good for the rest of the season. Some might say the cup has been an NCAA curse for its winners in recent years — see North Dakota in 1998 and 1999, Wisconsin in 2000 and Denver last season.

    Owens said this weekend’s series against rival Denver will help the Tigers get away from the championship as much as last Saturday’s third-period collapse against Mankato.

    It was time to get everyone on the same page.

    “In the long run or the big picture, it probably helps us more than if we slop out an 8-7 win,” Owens said of the loss to the Mavericks, in which the Tigers allowed five third-period goals. “It definitely has things we’re going to work on. Obviously, we’re playing our big rival Denver, but I think it does help refocus everybody.”

    Denver, meanwhile, has some work of its own to do. The Pioneers led 3-0 after two periods and wound up in a tie with Minnesota last Friday, and led 4-1 in the second period and lost 8-5 to the Gophers on Saturday.

    They must find a way to protect a lead, even when faced with the pressure applied by that offenses like those from Minnesota and Colorado College. Otherwise, this down season quickly will end in disaster.

    The Saga’s End … Maybe

    Alex Leavitt is finished with the Wisconsin team, and it doesn’t sound like it was by his choice.

    Leavitt, who recently came forward with accusations that first-year Badgers coach Mike Eaves was physically and verbally abusive toward him, didn’t make the trip to Houghton, Mich., with the team last Thursday after a meeting with Eaves and associate athletic director Cheryl Marra, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

    “I’m very upset,” Leavitt told the newspaper. “I wanted to finish out the rest of the season with the team.”

    In the meeting, Leavitt told the newspaper, he learned he would not play the rest of the season but would have a scholarship as long as he stayed in school.

    Bouncing Back

    With Saturday senior night at Minnesota-Duluth, senior Rob Anderson likely will get the start in goal.

    That Anderson probably would have been called upon even without the day’s festivities speaks to his resurgence in the last month.

    In two of the last three weeks, Anderson has been given the starting nod over Isaac Reichmuth in the second game of the series, and has won them all. He made 35 saves in last Sunday’s win over North Dakota; 26 saves in the 5-4 overtime win over Minnesota on Feb. 22; and 33 saves in a 3-1 win over Denver on Feb. 8.

    “It’s a good situation for us,” Sandelin said of what has been something of a rotation in the last month. “I thought they both played very well. I thought they both saw the puck as well as they’ve seen the puck all year. Hopefully, that continues.”

    That shows the return to form Anderson has experienced in the last few weeks. He lost the starting job to Reichmuth early in the season and has seen playing time only sporadically this season. But he’s 3-2-2 with a 2.70 goals against average and a .911 save percentage.

    The Bulldogs go into this weekend’s series with Michigan Tech needing only one win to clinch a home-ice spot for next weekend’s first round of the playoffs.

    “Yes, we have put ourselves in a good spot to get a top-five spot,” Sandelin said, “but we also have to make sure we show up and play like we can, otherwise we won’t get that.”

    Eyeing the Exit

    There have been hintings in this direction before, but Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill flat-out said last weekend that some of his players who are eligible to play next season won’t be back.

    After the Seawolves’ 31st straight game without a victory, the second-year coach told the St. Cloud Times there would be some players who will continue to be part of the program and some who won’t.

    “Being honest, I think our guys are just counting down the games,” Hill told the newspaper. “We’re not going to quit, but I don’t see us getting [a win] before the end of the season.”

    If the Seawolves do manage to summon the effort that would provide a victory, they’re still in the running to accomplish one of their goals. The Alaska Airlines Governor’s Cup series with Alaska-Fairbanks, tied at 1, concludes this weekend.

    Hill said early this season that one of the team’s goals was to win the Governor’s Cup back from the Nanooks. Never say never.

    On the Shelf

  • At St. Cloud State, forward and captain Ryan Malone should play this weekend after missing two series with a knee injury. Defenseman Jeff Finger, also suffering from a knee injury, is doubtful.
  • At Minnesota State-Mankato, Grant Stevenson missed last Saturday’s game with an injured shoulder. His status for this weekend is unknown.

    In Other Words

    Unless he’s caught by teammate Noah Clarke, CC’s Peter Sejna will win the WCHA scoring title. He has 51 points, eight ahead of fourth-place Clarke. Mankato’s Shane Joseph and Grant Stevenson are second and third, respectively, with 48 and 44 points. … St. Cloud State defenseman Tim Conboy has served two parts of a three-game suspension levied by the team for a violation of school policy. The incident in question “is a matter of someone who has not consumed alcohol providing safe transportation for his friends,” according to a release issued to the St. Cloud Times by Conboy and his father, Tim Conboy Sr. …

    The reason the Denver-CC series is Thursday-Friday: The Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference is holding its men’s basketball tournament at the Colorado Springs World Arena on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. CC agreed to move its home game from Saturday to Thursday and Denver signed off on it. … Michigan Tech’s Colin Murphy, Frank Werner and John Scott were suspended for last Friday’s game for a violation of team rules. …

    Players of the week were Colorado College’s Noah Clarke as the top forward, St. Cloud State’s Derek Eastman as the top defenseman and Wisconsin forward Ryan MacMurchy as the top rookie. … The Michigan Tech hockey Web site is featuring a poll asking readers which Huskies player they would most like to go on a date with. As of noon CST on Thursday, captain Brett Engelhardt was in the lead. …

    Who said a tie doesn’t help? Mankato is guaranteed its best finish in its brief league history, despite having the same number of conference wins — 15 — as in the 1999-2000 season, when it finished fourth and advanced to the Final Five. It had only three ties and 33 points that season; this year, seven ties have added up to 37 points. … North Dakota’s Jason Notermann cracked the 100-point mark for North Dakota with a goal last Saturday. … Tom Preissing became the first CC defenseman to score 20 goals in a season with a goal against Mankato last Friday. He’s the fifth defenseman in WCHA history to do so. … Alaska-Anchorage’s Chris King didn’t deserve to lose after stopping 44 of 46 shots against St. Cloud State last Friday. But with the Seawolves, what do you expect?