This Week in the WCHA: Nov. 6, 2003

Let’s Talk Offense

Some thoughts this week, while pondering the matchup of a North Dakota offense fresh off a 10-goal performance against a Minnesota defense without its two best players:

  • Let’s see: A battle for first place in the WCHA not having to do with either the North Dakota-Minnesota series or the Colorado College-Denver series. Interesting. Yes, it’s Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State that’ll battle for the early rights to the top spot in the league this weekend at the DECC.
  • Colorado College athletic director Joel Nielsen is leaving Colorado Springs for the AD job at South Dakota. Nielsen had been helping to lead the fight against the NCAA legislation that would strip CC and other Division III schools with Division I programs of the ability to award athletic scholarships. The transition is expected to take place before the end of the month, so it’s a tough time to shake things up in a campaign that got a jolt just last week.
  • Maybe having two of the top scoring players in the country right in their back yard will be the spark that gets more fans back in the seats at Michigan Tech.
  • Last week, we mentioned that Minnesota State has only one third-period goal this season. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has only one first-period goal to its credit but has managed to claw back to a 3-3 record.
  • And finally, the top UND line of Zach Parise, Brandon Bochenski and Brady Murray combined for 17 points in two games against Yale last weekend. Shootout, anyone?

    Double Talk

    Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it’s intentional, but St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl this week sounded a lot like Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin did about a month ago.

    Before his Bulldogs embarked on a season-opening stretch that would eventually see them losing to North Dakota and Michigan State while tying Boston College, Sandelin remarked that, no matter the outcome, those games would be good for his team.

    So this week, in advance of a trip to Duluth to play the Bulldogs in a battle for first place — more on that later — Dahl took a similar approach.

    “All of this is really good,” Dahl said, “because it’ll give us a dose of confidence or, ‘This is what we’ve got to work on, boys.'”

    Maybe it’s just a good time to model yourself after the Bulldogs. They’re on a four-game winning streak that has them at 4-2-1 on the season — more importantly, 4-0 in the WCHA — going into this weekend’s series at the DECC. Junior Lessard claimed the second straight national offensive player of the week award for the Bulldogs after recording five goals and two assists in last weekend’s sweep of Alaska-Anchorage.

    There were enough signs before the season that suggested the Bulldogs could be in the thick of the WCHA race at this (admittedly early) point in the season, but St. Cloud’s involvement in such a battle wasn’t much of a thought. Certainly not to Dahl at least.

    But the Huskies have a 3-0-1 record, although all four games have been at home. Dahl said he gets the sense his team is a bit nervous about its first road trip of the season, just like he may have been nervous about his team before the season.

    “I just looked at our team this year, and pretty much habitually playing 12 freshmen and sophomores and rotating three goaltenders, I figured the beginning of the season’s going to be a little bit of a feeling-out period,” Dahl said. “Certainly, I would have been very happy with four of eight points in the league from two series. I can’t believe we got seven of eight. That’s astounding to me.”

    The Bulldogs were responsible for ending the Huskies’ WCHA playoff run last season, thumping St. Cloud 7-3 in the deciding Game 3 of a first-round series. Dahl, however, said revenge isn’t a factor this weekend.

    “I think our players just are really trying to worry about playing this year as well as we can and as smart as we can,” Dahl said. “That sounds like coachspeak, but I haven’t heard a word about last year from them.”

    Pick Your Poison

    Which is scarier: That a North Dakota team that scored 18 goals last weekend is playing a injury-scarred Minnesota defense this weekend, or that the Sioux could score 18 goals last weekend without the help of a power-play goal?

    UND, in fact, has not scored a goal with the man advantage yet this season, going 0-for-26. That’s the worst opening run on the power play in coach Dean Blais’ 10 seasons as the Sioux’s head coach.

    Makes you wonder how many goals North Dakota would be scoring if the power play was working. It’s already leading WCHA teams with an average of 5.6 goals per game, but just two power-play goals in the first five games would put that average at six goals.

    “You’d think if you scored 18 goals, you’d have three or four that were on the power play,” Blais said. “But we had our opportunities.”

    While noting that plenty of odd things have happened to prevent the Sioux from scoring on the power play, Blais said his team needs to shoot more.

    That shouldn’t really be a problem when considering the top UND power play unit consists of Parise, Bochenski, Murray, Andy Schneider and David Lundbohm. That group has 11 goals this season.

    “It’s not like we’ve got freshmen out there that are just learning the system and everything else,” Blais said. “The guys that are out there have played a lot of power play in their lives and just have to figure out a way to put it in the net. They know what they’re supposed to do; they just haven’t executed very well at times.”

    Minnesota is wounded on defense, where Keith Ballard is out with a leg injury and Chris Harrington was hurt in a collision with Thomas Vanek in his own end last weekend.

    But Blais said he’s not concerned with what that may do to the matchup. Rather, he’s telling his players to focus on what they can control.

    The Great Divide

    The rankings — No. 6 for Colorado College, No. 7 for Denver — and the records — 5-0-1 for the Tigers, 5-1 for the Pioneers — might make you think the teams that will play in the opening weekend of the Gold Pan series are that close in many categories.

    That might not be the case.

    CC is being held together with duct tape and who knows what else because of a rash of injuries to its forwards. It appears Denver has been able to avoid the serious injury bug.

    Denver has seen the more serious test of the two, coming out of Mariucci Arena last weekend with a split. CC got its toughest test in a series at Clarkson two weeks ago, getting a win and a tie.

    The teams have had similar experiences of good goaltending — CC’s Curtis McElhinney allowed one goal in two games last weekend against Minnesota State; Denver’s Adam Berkhoel rebounded from a shaky game last Friday to post a win on Saturday.

    But this could be the weekend that separates these teams. CC was picked for the higher finish, based mostly on its regular-season championship a year ago, but that is being threatened by a depleted lineup. Denver has been on the rise despite being picked for fifth by the coaches.

    These teams meet again in the last series of the regular season, March 4 and 5. One has to wonder whether the appearances will be so similar then.

    Other Things to Think About

    Some things have a way of making you forget you just got swept in a WCHA series.

    Minnesota State’s Cole Bassett was hospitalized in Colorado Springs on Saturday night after going into the boards headfirst in the first period of a 3-1 loss to Colorado College. He stayed on the ice for several minutes while being attended to by trainers, the Mankato Free Press reported.

    He left the ice on his skates, with assistance from teammates, but went to a hospital on a backboard.

    Bassett watched practice from outside the rink on Monday and is doubtful for this weekend’s series against Alaska-Anchorage, coach Troy Jutting told the newspaper.

    Pink, It’s Not Even a Question

    The psychological experiment that is the pink locker room just might have worked on Alaska-Anchorage last weekend.

    The visitors locker room at the DECC has long been painted pink in an effort to soothe the opponent to the point where they’re too relaxed to play.

    An analysis on contends that if your favorite color is pink — or, we suppose, are exposed to a lot of that color, “gently, you offer love, attention and nurturing to those in distress.”

    Maybe UAA was just too nurturing of Minnesota-Duluth.

    After the Seawolves were swept by the Bulldogs by scores of 8-1 and 5-1, coach John Hill threw open the doors of the locker room.

    “Come into the pink palace,” Hill told the Anchorage Daily News. “It worked on us this weekend. It got us in that relaxed atmosphere.”

    The Seawolves practiced in Minneapolis this week before moving on to a series at Minnesota State. No word on increased paint sales in Mankato this week.

    No Surprises Here

    Don’t count Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell among those surprised to see the Huskies’ Colin Murphy and Chris Conner leading the nation in scoring early this season.

    We’ll say that again. The new Tech coach doesn’t look at the NCAA scoring leaders, see two of his players tied for first and say, “How ’bout that?”

    Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t.

    Maybe he expected the breakout start Murphy and Conner, along with rookie Taggart Desmet, the third member of the line, have forged.

    “I had high expectations for those three,” Russell said, “and I don’t expect them to tail off in any way, shape or form.”

    Recent form could be the biggest reason most didn’t expect it from the Huskies this season. Last season, they were eighth among WCHA teams, averaging 2.87 goals per game. So far this season, Russell’s first in Houghton, they’ve racked up 4.5 goals a game.

    That’s clearly due to the Desmet line, which has accounted for 39 of the Huskies’ 69 points and 21 of their 27 goals this season. Russell said part of their success can be traced to the diversity of their playing styles.

  • Conner is a speedster with a knack for hitting the net. He leads the nation with 11 goals and 1.83 goals per game, is part of a four-way tie for the national points-per-game lead with 2.50 (his 15 points also leads the nation) and has an eight-game point-scoring streak going into this weekend’s home series with Wisconsin.
  • Murphy’s poise with the puck gets him scoring opportunities. He’s tied with Conner for the points lead, is fourth in goals per game at 1.33 (eight goals) and has an 11-game point streak.
  • Desmet, the center, helps put it all together. After sitting out last season because of prior major junior involvement, he has emerged as the nation’s rookie scoring leader (nine points, 1.80 per game) thanks to his vision and ability to create plays.

    “I think Taggart has really been a good fit with those guys,” Russell said. “They all compete hard. They’re playing both ends of the rink. We showed a clip the other day of Colin Murphy backchecking. He’s getting it done at both ends of the rink.

    “Chris day in, day out, just battles and wants to get better. He’s out on the ice — I have to kick those guys off the ice, say that’s enough. They’re great to work with. They’re a threat every time they get out onto the ice.”

    He’s My Brother

    Mark Heatley, a freshman walk-on at Wisconsin and the brother of former Badgers star Dany Heatley, got his first playing time two weeks ago against Quinnipiac. He got it by his hard work in practice and his tenacity.

    But he was happy to share it.

    Heatley, who had modest recruiting interest until an injury sidelined him last season in juniors, said he was playing for his brother, who was injured in a September car crash that led to the death of Atlanta Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder.

    “I think about it all the time. I think about my brother,” Mark Heatley said. “I guess I use it as motivation, just to work hard for him. Getting in the lineup, it gives him a chance to watch me play on TV and take his mind off stuff, and I think he really likes that.

    “I’m playing for him and my family.”

    (Not) Rating the Goalies

    St. Cloud State has allowed an average of just over 20 shots on goal in its last four games. Good for the Huskies defense. Bad for evaluating goaltenders.

    The Huskies are trying out three goaltenders early this season, but Dahl conceded it has been tough to get reads on Jason Montgomery, Adam Coole and Tim Boron because of the low amount of shots they’ve seen.

    Boron faced only 12 shots in three-plus periods against Princeton last Friday. Montgomery saw only 15 shots the next night. Both allowed one goal.

    Dahl credits a defense that has been able to capably rotate eight players into the mix so far this season for the low shots total. But with Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota on the docket the next two weekends, the goalies’ challenges may be soon in arriving.

    “I think these next two series are going to separate the men from the boys back there,” Dahl said. “Because I guarantee you we’ll probably see more than 15 shots on those four nights. I’m looking forward to playing in these games. I’m looking forward to it because it’ll tell us a little bit more about what we need to improve.”

    He Said It

    Denver goaltender Berkhoel, a Woodbury, Minn., native, after allowing three goals to Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek over the weekend but still escaping Mariucci Arena with a victory last Saturday:

    “Vanek made me look stupid twice this weekend, but after four years of trying, I finally got a win here.”


    Yes, that was former Wisconsin defenseman Mark Osiecki standing in front of Brett Favre on the sidelines at the Metrodome last Sunday night. The coach of the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League was carrying cords on the sidelines for the Green Bay Packers.

    In Other Words

    WCHA players of the week were Minnesota-Duluth’s Lessard on offense, Colorado College’s Curtis McElhinney on defense and North Dakota’s Murray as the top rookie. … North Dakota’s Bochenski reached the 100-point plateau last weekend. The junior has 103 career points for the Sioux. … Opponents are outshooting Alaska-Anchorage on average 40-26 this season, and the Seawolves have been outshot in five of six games. … Wisconsin has won 13 of its last 14 games against Michigan Tech. The only loss in that span, which dates to the 1999-2000 season, was a 1-0 Tech victory in Madison in November 2001. …

    Three goals last weekend helped CC’s Joey Crabb reach five goals for the season. He had four a year ago. … The crowd of 9,946 that watched last Friday’s UND-Yale game was a Ralph Engelstad Arena low. … Colorado College won all four games against Denver last season and has a four-game winning streak in the Gold Pan series. … Minnesota State has been outscored 6-1 in the third period this season. Last year, the Mavericks won the third-period battle 62-50.