Some thoughts this week, while wondering why people think curling isn’t a sport:
Come Back Down
Scott Sandelin was ready to knock his Minnesota-Duluth players back to Earth on Monday.
The Bulldogs completed a weekend sweep at Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena last weekend, an accomplishment that may, somewhere down the road, be viewed as a watershed moment in Sandelin’s tenure — when the Bulldogs went from one-year wonders to annual contenders.
But that’s lofty talk, and anyone with that opinion going into Monday’s practice probably wasn’t thinking the same way afterward.
Sandelin’s method to avoid a letdown this weekend against Alaska-Anchorage? “You get back to work on Monday and work the [expletive] out of them,” he joked.
If nothing else, last weekend’s road sweep of the Gophers put the stamp on the change in mentality that has taken place in the Bulldogs’ locker room since Sandelin took over in 2000.
In February 2001 — near the end of Sandelin’s first season — the Bulldogs beat Minnesota in overtime in the first game of a series in Duluth. And Sandelin said he could tell by the way his players celebrated that victory they wouldn’t win the next night. They were happy enough with beating the Gophers once.
Sure enough, Minnesota blanked UMD 4-0 the next night.
Now, the Bulldogs are better at keeping things in perspective, Sandelin said, and not getting overexuberant.
“We’ve talked about it. It’s one weekend,” Sandelin said. “It’s the first two [league] games of the year. Obviously, sweeps on the road in this league are rare, no matter who you’re playing. To play a good team and get four points is certainly hopefully something you can build on.
“You always worry about some type of letdown, but with our guys right now … the expectations have changed here over the last few years. Not to be conceited — I’m not trying to sound that way — but I think our guys go in thinking they can win every game, just like everybody else.”
Although the Bulldogs took some lumps in their first three games — going winless in games vs. North Dakota, Boston College and Michigan State — Sandelin still considers that stretch a great experience for his team, something that allowed them to take the steps to start the WCHA season on a great note.
“I think no question it helped,” Sandelin said. “Just because of who you’re playing. When you play those types of teams, it gives you an opportunity to see where you are and what areas you need to work on. I still think we’ve got a lot of areas to work on.”
And that point was probably made Monday and in subsequent practices this week.
The first month of the season is when teams get a grasp of what they’ll have to work with — and on — over the course of the season. Minnesota and Denver, who square off at Mariucci Arena this weekend, have had similar openings to the season but different results.
And their coaches have different views on how a choppy beginning has impacted their teams.
Gophers coach Don Lucia, whose team took a week off from practice after its first weekend of the season, has taken its lumps early, struggling to a 1-3 record. The broken start may not be the cause, but it hasn’t helped in preparing the Gophers for the WCHA season.
“We just have to get through this period and try to keep getting better,” Lucia said. “I wish we would have had some exhibition games early in the season, especially with the new guys playing on defense. It would have helped.”
George Gwozdecky’s Pioneers had a pair of exhibition games to break up the schedule early. But for games that count, Denver has had a weekend off after each of its first two series of the season — the exhibition games came a week after the Lefty McFadden tournament and DU had last weekend off after sweeping Northeastern.
It’s not a surprise considering his team is 4-0, but Gwozdecky has a better view of the on-off start.
“It seems to me that we’ve been able to play, then evaluate that performance, work on certain things, play again — and get six games in prior to the most important part of our season beginning,” said Gwozdecky, whose team has a home-and-home series with Colorado College next weekend, followed by a trip to Alaska-Anchorage and a home series against North Dakota.
“I wasn’t sure going into it how it was going to work, especially playing as early as we did. Up to this point, I’ve been pleased with the progress we’ve made and I’m glad that we scheduled it the way we did because it seems to have worked out, up to this point anyway.”
Last week in this space, we mentioned how Denver’s Kevin Ulanski, with nine points in four games, appeared to be gunning for the national scoring title.
With Ulanski and the Pioneers off last weekend, Chris Conner of Michigan Tech must have decided it was his turn.
Conner, a sophomore, scored five goals last weekend at St. Cloud State to move into the national lead with nine goals and a 2.75 points-per-game average.
He registered his second hat trick of the season last Saturday night. It’s the first time in Tech hockey history that a player has put up two hat tricks in the first four games.
Meanwhile, Conner’s teammate Colin Murphy is second in the nation in points per game with 2.5.
Two players with 10-plus points. Not bad for four games in.
With Yale and North Dakota meeting up this weekend in Grand Forks, it’s a good time to remember to let cooler heads prevail.
You may remember that last season, the teams combined for 160 penalty minutes in a game at Yale. Four players from each team got game disqualification penalties resulting from a fight in the second period that almost spilled over into the press box.
North Dakota radio announcer Tim Hennessy said he was challenged to a fight by a fan a few rows in front of the press box at Ingalls Rink. Fortunately for decorum, nothing materialized.
Counting the Minutes
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves voiced some frustration last weekend with a string of major penalties that doesn’t cast an especially favorable impression upon his team.
A Badgers player has been called for a major penalty in three straight games. The first two were checking-from-behind majors that also carried game misconduct penalties.
Last Saturday, freshman defenseman Ryan Suter, the No. 7 pick in last June’s NHL entry draft, was called for a major slashing penalty when he took a swipe at a Quinnipiac player’s head.
“Concern is still there,” Eaves said. “Our young kids are such competitive people. Ryan Suter, he was in a battle all night, and he’s going to get picked on all year because of his status within the hockey world. They’re going to test him.”
Eaves then relayed what he told Suter.
“I said to him in the locker room, you’ve got to learn to take people’s numbers and wait for a time and chance when the play’s going on. Because I tell you what: If we’re playing against a team that’s got a dynamite power play, we’re in big trouble.”
The Badgers were 25th in the nation in penalty minutes last season, averaging 16.4 per game. Early this season, they’re 12th in the country at 19.5 minutes per game.
A key to Colorado College’s WCHA championship run last season was its lack of long-term injuries.
New season, new challenges. Brett Sterling, a 27-goal scorer as a freshman last season, had surgery on Monday to repair a dislocated bone in his right hand. He’ll be able to get back on his skates almost right away, but it’ll probably be four to six weeks before he can return to games.
With forwards Brandon Polich out for at least another month with a lacerated spleen and Nick Tsiantar having left school, the Tigers are down to 13 healthy forwards for a good chunk of time. And senior Colin Stuart will be playing with two broken ribs.
“The positive is you get a chance to play some other guys who would have probably had to wait half a season to get their opportunity,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “And they get a chance right away. And some of them have done pretty well, so we haven’t been that discouraged.”
The opportunities to fill a larger role, Owens said, will go to freshman Scott Thauwald and sophomore Trevor Frischmon.
But the injuries have hit CC even before its opening WCHA series, which is this weekend against Minnesota State. The next four weeks of the Tigers’ schedule includes the series against the Mavericks, a home-and-home series with Denver, a weekend off and a two-game set at Wisconsin.
The most pressing issue with Sterling out may be the Tigers’ power play. Last season, Sterling was a rock when CC was a man up, scoring 14 of his 27 goals in those situations. So far this season, Aaron Slattengren and Joey Crabb each have two power-play goals.
“I’m not sure we’re going to have it resolved by the time this game starts Friday,” Owens said. “This is going to be something that’s going to be a little bit of a work in progress.”
It wasn’t exactly an overnight transition, but Caig went from a slow start to national honors in a hurry.
Caig, who wasn’t impressing the Bulldogs coaching staff in the opening weeks of the season, scored three goals last weekend, including the overtime winner on Friday night and the second-period winner a night later.
He had only one goal in the first three games of the season.
Sandelin said he noticed some more jump from Caig in practice last week.
“He didn’t really have a great start. He wasn’t much of a factor in the first three games,” Sandelin said. “I came back from recruiting and got back to practice last week and I saw him on Tuesday and I’m like, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen that out of him all year.’ I’m not surprised he had a good weekend because of the way his practices were.”
Heads invariably turn when the two-time defending national champion starts the season 1-3. Maybe bigger than that was the ending of a 91-game streak without consecutive losses.
Asked whether he was surprised by his team’s slow start, Lucia said yes and no. The no probably is because he knew his young defensemen and goaltenders would be tested early in the season.
But the cause for surprise can be that the Gophers forwards have provided only five even-strength goals in the first four games of the season. Thomas Vanek, Andy Sertich, Barry Tallackson, Garrett Smaagaard and Danny Irmen have one each.
There might be a larger issue for Minnesota to deal with, however.
“I’m not sure we have started the year with the hunger that we need,” Lucia said. “I think we’ve lost to teams that have been hungrier in the games. I think that’s an issue.”
If early returns can be trusted, the trend of goaltending being the strength at Denver doesn’t appear to be stopping this season.
Senior Adam Berkhoel has allowed a total of four goals in three full games. Freshman Glenn Fisher allowed three goals in his first action, two weeks ago at Northeastern. He did allow two goals on 10 shots in the third period of the Pioneers’ 6-3 victory, but it was a victory Fisher can build on.
“We were very confident that both goaltenders were going to be of great quality,” Gwozdecky said, “and give us a chance to win no matter who played.”
It’s something Denver is used to after three seasons of the Berkhoel-Wade Dubielewicz tandem. That’s the kind of rotation the Pioneers want to build with Berkhoel and Fisher this season.
But early in the season, Berkhoel will be the key.
“With his experience, what he has developed as a player and as a goaltender, I think the sky’s the limit for him,” Gwozdecky said. “I think he’s doing a great job not only for himself, but in mentoring Glenn Fisher. Glenn Fisher is a very talented goaltender, and I think once Glenn gets a few more games under his belt, I think you’re going to see the kind of rotation that we’ve had previously with Wade and Adam giving us the kind of success that we hoped this rotation would.”
Making the Team
Six WCHA players were among the 16 named to the preliminary U.S. roster for the World Junior Championships to be held in Finland in December and January.
Four of them were defensemen: Colorado College’s Mark Stuart, Denver’s Matt Carle and Wisconsin’s Jeff Likens and Suter.
North Dakota’s Zach Parise and CC’s Sterling were the forwards named.
The final six players on the roster will be announced on Dec. 2. The team is being coached by Wisconsin’s Eaves, who is bringing along John Hynes, a UW assistant, to be an assistant on the USA team.
In Other Words
WCHA players of the week were Michigan Tech’s Conner on offense, Minnesota-Duluth’s Reichmuth on defense and Colorado College goaltender Matt Zaba as the top rookie. … Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard is expected to be out two to four weeks with a leg injury. … Minnesota State goaltender Jon Volp had to be helped off the ice late in last Saturday’s 2-2 tie with Bemidji State after being run into the goalpost. He told the Mankato Free Press that the slight concussion he suffered wasn’t enough to keep him from practicing or playing. … Michigan Tech will debut new white jerseys against Vermont on Friday. …
St. Cloud State sophomore Billy Hengen picked a fine time to get his first two goals of his collegiate career. He scored twice, including the go-ahead goal late in the third period, in St. Cloud’s 6-5 win over Michigan Tech last Saturday. … Freshman goalie Bryce Luker played both games for Michigan Tech at St. Cloud State last weekend. He made 47 saves on Friday in earning a 3-3 tie. … Minnesota State got a win and a tie against Bemidji last weekend despite being outshot by wide margins in both games. The Beavers held a 37-24 shots advantage on Friday and outshot the Mavericks 43-26 on Saturday.