This Week in the WCHA: Nov. 13, 2003

The Proving Ground

Some thoughts this week, while coming up with excuses why we picked St. Cloud State for eighth place this season:

  • Black safety nets are now installed above the Plexiglas behind the goals at the Kohl Center. It’ll be interesting to hear how people high up in the 300 level like trying to see the other end of the ice through not only a net, but the suspended horizontal piping that holds it up.
  • Through 22 WCHA games so far this season, only one has ended in a tie (4.5 percent). That pace is down quite a bit from last year, when 26 of the 140 WCHA games ended in ties (18.6 percent). 36 percent of the games have been decided by one goal or less, so it’s not for a lack of close games. Maybe this is the season when winning two points takes more of an emphasis than not losing the sure one point.
  • The preliminary report of the Division III legislative review committee of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association recommends the full Division III body oppose the elimination of the waiver that allows Colorado College and other D-III schools who play at the Division I level of the right to award athletic scholarships. It’s about time someone wised up.
  • Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner was named the player of the month for October by the Hockey Commissioners’ Association. And thanks to the group for the name change from the cumbersome Ice Hockey Collegiate Commissioners Association.
  • And finally: Hey, some things surprise everyone. St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl had no complaints when his team was picked for eighth by the WCHA coaches, too. Now the Huskies are in first place and get a chance to prove they belong there with a series at North Dakota this weekend.

    Talking Down

    In the wake of losses that put them at 2-5 and 2-6 early this season, Minnesota players started hurling negatives at themselves.

    “There are guys in the locker room who either don’t have heart, or they’re not playing hard,” captain Grant Potulny told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis after Friday’s 7-3 loss to North Dakota. “To be [2-5] is absolutely ridiculous.”

    Sophomore Tyler Hirsch, to the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “Right now, we don’t have any heart.”

    Sophomore Gino Guyer, to the Star Tribune on Saturday: “We didn’t compete as hard as we could for 60 minutes. We haven’t done that all year. We need some kind of spark.”

    Gophers coach Don Lucia, who didn’t say a word to his team after Friday’s loss, refused to buy into the “no heart” talk.

    “I think they’re frustrated,” he said. “I don’t question our players’ hearts. They’ve won two national titles. So that’s not an issue with me. I can go back to a couple things: We’ve got new goaltenders we’re breaking in; all of a sudden, your top two [defensemen] get hurt. They’re not excuses, it’s the reality.

    “And I do believe there was, to start the year, a little bit of a hangover. Why is Tampa Bay 4-5 [in the NFL]? It’s a little bit of human nature. And I also believe we started with a very difficult schedule. So I think it’s been a combination.

    “I don’t point the finger at one area. It’s not our goaltending, it’s not our [defense], it’s not our forwards — it’s a little bit of all of it. We have to coach better and our forwards have to play a little bit harder than what they’ve played. I think they think they’ve played hard, but I don’t think they’ve scored like they’re capable of scoring.”

    Lucia also said he wouldn’t do much to alter the way his team approaches things.

    “We didn’t come out and skate our guys on Monday or anything like that,” Lucia said. “We came out and practiced, tried to get better. I’ve been at this thing too long. I’m not going to change our approach.”

    Shooting Themselves in the Foot

    Getting 41 shots on goal and scoring only once last Saturday night against Alaska-Anchorage only magnified the scoring problems this season for Minnesota State.

    The Mavericks have a 6.5 percent shooting efficiency this season, the lowest among WCHA teams. They’re last in scoring, a half a goal per game behind Anchorage, which ranks ninth.

    All this while Mankato’s defense is third in the league in goals allowed per game. All this somewhat puzzles Mavs coach Troy Jutting because he sees his team giving effort and getting chances but getting no rewards.

    Shane Joseph, the highly touted senior who had 29 goals and 65 points last season, has only four goals and five points through eight games.

    “Shane’s only got four goals, but it’s not for a lack of opportunities and it’s not for a lack of work,” Jutting said. “They’re all working pretty hard at it. I don’t care who you play in this league, if you get 41 shots on net, you’ve had a pretty good night. The quality of those shots were pretty good as well. I don’t fault the kids at all — I don’t fault their effort, I don’t fault their desire, it’s just not happening. It’s kind of tough because I know it’s starting to drain on them mentally.”

    The frustrating part for the Mavs is that, with goalscoring, there’s not much Jutting or his staff can do, especially because the chances have been there. All they can do is hope the scoring funk goes away before it becomes an epidemic.

    “We’re getting shots. Forty-one shots and one goal is not going to cut it,” Jutting said. “We’ve got to find a way to score some goals. And it’s a tough thing because with goalscoring, it’s not something you can really coach. Most of it becomes a mental thing with the kids. If they’ve struggled with it, it becomes one of those things where kids start to put pressure on themselves and then I think it gets worse.

    “We’re just at a stage where we’ve got to figure out a way to break through a little bit that way. I think if we can, then it’ll get a lot better. But until you score some, you don’t have the confidence you need to score. I think the problem complicates itself.”

    Wisconsin broke out with 14 goals last weekend against Michigan Tech, and the Mavericks have to be hoping for a similar kind of performance this weekend at home against the Huskies.

    Meanwhile, the Mankato defense has held up remarkably well considering it’s playing three freshmen every night. The Mavs are allowing only 2.5 goals per game.

    “As it turns out, that’s been very good,” Jutting said.

    Getting Defensive

    In a normal situation, you’d look at this weekend’s St. Cloud State-North Dakota series and come to the conclusion that the Huskies’ league-best penalty kill should play a big role.

    Not so fast. Because the Sioux have struggled to finish the job on the power play this season (they scored their first three PPGs last weekend but still rank last in the WCHA at 8.1 percent), that aspect of the game may not be a factor at all.

    North Dakota’s offense, which is averaging 5.71 goals per game, will be enough for the Huskies to try to stop.

    “We know it’s going to be a tough weekend, trying to contain those forwards,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said. “We just can’t make any mistakes defensively, that’s for sure.”

    Not Good Enough

    Jamie Russell got a look at some of the shortcomings of his Michigan Tech team last weekend, then got a look at the results.

    Wisconsin exploited a number of weaknesses to run out to a 6-0 lead on Friday. A night later, the Badgers pulled away in the third period to earn a sweep at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.

    “In terms of systems and assignments, we did most of the things right most of the time,” Russell said. “In this league, that’s not good enough. You’ve got to be thorough for 60 minutes and you can’t blow an assignment on a faceoff, you can’t get beat on a backcheck.”

    The Huskies’ line of Conner, Colin Murphy and Taggart Desmet went scoreless for the first time this season on Saturday. It also was the first time the Huskies have been swept this season.

    “There are some positives to take from the weekend, but bottom line, we didn’t get any points,” Russell said. “We’ve got to win some games on the road now.”

    Keeping Their Heads

    Wisconsin players appear to be taking a mature approach to their rivalry games against Minnesota at the Kohl Center this weekend.

    Considering Minnesota’s recent dominance in the series (the Gophers have won 10 of the last 12 meetings), it might be time for a new way of looking at things for the Badgers.

    UW players acknowledged the rivalry this week, but then went on to talk about how big a couple victories would be in the WCHA race.

    “It is a big rivalry, but at the same time you know you want to win some games,” UW forward Nick Licari said. “We are on a four-game winning streak right now and we want to do whatever it takes to keep that going, it doesn’t matter who we play.”

    Representatives of the Minnesota side, especially Lucia, have appeared to have a cool reaction to rivalry questions in recent years, and maybe that’s why the Gophers have been the more successful team. An argument can be made that if you focus too much on the rivalry, you lose sight of the games themselves.

    Badgers senior Rene Bourque talked about how much he wanted to beat the Gophers, then came back with a levelheaded statement: “We can’t let that get in the way of the things we want to do.”

    Needed Rest

    Colorado College coach Scott Owens said his team will use this bye week to recharge its batteries.

    Good timing. Between bumps and bruises and all-out injuries, the Tigers could use a break right now.

    Senior captain Colin Stuart is the latest addition to the injury list. He’ll be out until at least mid-December with a separated shoulder suffered in a home loss to Denver last Friday. The other key injuries: Brett Sterling, whose broken thumb likely will keep him out until Thanksgiving; and Brandon Polich, whose lacerated spleen won’t allow him to return before January.

    Defenseman Jesse Stokke played in a forward position last Saturday night just to give the Tigers 12 players on offense. “We’ve been doing a little bit with patchwork,” Owens said, “but we’re hanging in there.”

    Owens noted that the 4-1 victory over Denver last Saturday, sealed with three third-period goals to break a 1-1 tie, was an important step for his team.

    “It was big for us because it’s our natural rival, first of all,” Owens said. “They had beaten us in our building in front of 7,700 people and it wasn’t pretty. So it was huge for our young team’s development to come back the next day and to win in their building. From that standpoint, building the team and confidence and young guys learning, it was very, very valuable.

    “I don’t know if we’re a fourth-place team or a seventh-place team. I don’t know where we’re at. But every point is going to be important.”

    Sad Note

    St. Cloud State played last weekend’s series at Minnesota-Duluth with a heavy heart after attending the funeral of the wife of their longtime goalie coach, Bill Frantti.

    Frantti’s wife Kathy died on Nov. 1. Many Huskies players went to the funeral last Wednesday.

    “Bill’s a great guy,” Dahl said. “He’s in his 70s and he’s like a grandfather figure to a lot of the players. … Anytime you lose somebody within the family, it’s important to show support and respect.”

    When It Rains …

    For the second straight year, a Potulny has suffered a long-term injury for Minnesota. Last season, Grant went out in the first game with a fractured ankle and ligament damage.

    Now, younger brother Ryan is expected to miss four months after surgery Friday to repair damage to the lateral collateral ligament in his left knee. He was injured in last Friday’s game but still played on Saturday. An MRI on Monday showed the damage and, on Tuesday, doctors determined surgery was necessary.

    The school said Ryan Potulny is eligible for a medical hardship waiver to regain a season of eligibility. There’s a chance he could be ready for the WCHA playoffs if he can stay on the four-month projection, but Lucia said it’s doubtful Potulny would be back this season.

    “We’re going to do what’s best for him,” Lucia said, “not what’s best for us.”

    Lucia added: “Ryan was starting to play real well for us. He was on the power play, and that’s the one facet that has been going pretty decent for us this year.”

    Potulny is tied for seventh among rookies with five points, all on assists.

    Turnabout is Fair Play

    Adam Coole said Scott Sandelin grabbed his arm after last weekend’s series at the DECC and told him he was proud of him.

    It was quite a comeback for the St. Cloud State goaltender. Coole, a Duluth native who was released by Sandelin, the Minnesota-Duluth coach, before joining the Huskies, earned a two-game sweep of the Bulldogs.

    “It’s not payback because he never once mentioned anything about Duluth,” Dahl said. “I think his whole thing was he wanted to prove to himself that he could play at the Division I level. He went into a very high pressure situation playing up there on Friday night because it is his old hometown and it’s his old team. I figured it was going to be tough on him emotionally, but I figured if he could play well in a big game — not necessarily even thinking win — with that much pressure, that would give him a lot of confidence and help build his morale for down the road. He did an excellent job. He handled himself with class.”

    Coole is 4-0 with a 2.18 goals against average and a .936 save percentage. He leads the league in save percentage, is tied for the most wins and has the second-best goals against average. Not bad for someone who was 5-22-4 coming into this season.

    The Breakout

    Once Brandon Bochenski broke his scoring drought against Minnesota, points came pouring in for the North Dakota forward.

    Bochenski got his first goal in 10 games against the Gophers on a redirection off his shin pad, one of his five points in a victory over Minnesota last Friday. He had two goals, three assists and a pretty good feeling.

    “I think I’ve had some of the most unusual goals ever,” Bochenski told the Grand Forks Herald. “And that was my first goal in 10 games against them, so it broke a lot of things — luckily not my leg.”

    It also ended the Sioux’s run without a power-play goal. North Dakota started the season scoreless on its first 27 attempts.

    Moving On

    Wisconsin assistant coach John Hynes is leaving the Badgers after this weekend’s series with Minnesota to become the head coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

    It’s Hynes’ third stint with the NTDP — he was a graduate assistant there and worked under Mike Eaves before both left for Wisconsin before the 2002-03 season.

    And it puts the Badgers in a bind. Eaves said the school would post an opening for two weeks and see what kind of response it gets. Considering it’s a ways into the season, he’s not sure what to expect and said it’s possible the Badgers will go through the rest of the season with only one full-time assistant, associate head coach Troy Ward.

    “I think the timing of this job was a little bit tough, in the middle of the season,” said Hynes, 28. “But Mike and I talked quite extensively, just as far as the opportunity and my history with that program. One of the things that is important to me is that it’s not just a junior program or another team; it is the national program.”

    Houghton Says Hello

    Leftover notes from a trip to Houghton last weekend:

  • He’s 6-foot-7 without the skates, so with blades on, Michigan Tech’s John Scott has to duck to get through doorways at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena. Have to admit, too, it was a little odd seeing the defenseman barreling in on a breakaway and maybe odder to see him score on it.
  • Gotta love the Tech pep band, but why is it that when they sing the theme from “The Muppet Show,” the line you can hear the clearest is: “Why do we always come here?/I guess we’ll never know/It’s like a kind of torture to have to watch the show.” And we wonder what Rolf has to say about that — the Huskies’ Rolf Ulvin, that is.

    In Other Words

    WCHA weekly award winners were North Dakota’s Bochenski on offense, St. Cloud State’s Coole on defense and Wisconsin’s Jake Dowell as the top rookie. … Alaska-Anchorage finally can move on with its program now that the streaks are over. The Seawolves ended a 35-game winless streak at the start of the season, and last Saturday they ended a 31-game skid in league games — on the road, no less. They had lost 19 straight road league games. … Denver’s Connor James moved into 49th place in the schoool’s scoring books at 117 points. It’ll be a stretch to reach the top 10, however — he needs 53 more points this season. … Minnesota-Duluth and Bemidji State will be playing Saturday’s game for ownership of Babe the Blue Ox, a 10-pound brass trophy. And it’s not likely anyone in the UMD camp needs reminding of the 3-2 loss to the Beavers last season. … Five Wisconsin players scored their first collegiate goals last weekend against Tech, including senior defenseman Jon Krall, who did so in career game No. 96. “I kind of shocked myself when I took the shot,” Krall said. … This weekend’s games with St. Cloud State end North Dakota’s nine-game, season-opening homestand.