Long Time Coming
Some thoughts this week, while trying to figure out the last time Wisconsin beat Michigan and Michigan State in the same season, let alone the same weekend:
So what do WCHA coaches want for Christmas? With a few weeks left before teams break for the holidays, we polled a few league coaches to see what they would like to see their team accomplish in that time.
Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill sees series against Minnesota and Colorado College before the break, a tough way to end the first half even at full strength. But the Seawolves are going to be without Ales Parez and may have lost leading scorer Chris Fournier to a back injury suffered in the weight room on Monday.
“I think that as a coaching staff we were very anxious about this series at the beginning of the year, healthy,” Hill said. “And now we’re not going to be healthy. I think for me, I just want to see a consistent — when I say consistent, I want 120 minutes of hockey where we are focused, we’re intense and we battle. And we’ll live with the results.
“For me, that will mean that the mental preparation and the preparing during the week with practice is starting to pay off. We have a young team and as a coaching staff you start to think, ‘I think we’re finally getting over that hump.’ But then you have what we had last Friday [a 5-1 loss to St. Cloud State], which was a debacle, and you go, ‘My God, we just took a major step back.'”
At Minnesota, an awful start to the season has doused hopes for the regular-season title, so the Gophers have a more modest immediate goal, coach Don Lucia said.
He wants his team to be over .500 by the break. Minnesota has won four straight games to climb back to 6-7-1.
Up the road in St. Cloud, Huskies coach Craig Dahl sees his team in a position not many expected: first place. So with that target and facing a series at Colorado College this weekend and a home set against Denver to close the first half, Dahl said keeping up is the focus.
“By any measuring stick so far, our guys have done more than we could have expected them to do,” Dahl said. “We’ve got four games here before [the break] and obviously playing another team that everybody thought could contend for the title like CC, it’s a big series for us if we want to be a top-three team in the league.”
Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell has seen his team allow more goals than any other WCHA squad this season, so that’s an obvious area in need of improvement.
“We need to be better in our own end,” Russell said. “We’ve given up quite a lot in terms of goals against, and our goaltending has been really good. As a team, we have to play better team defense in front of them.”
And at Denver, coach George Gwozdecky said it’s imperative for his team to go into the break on a bit of a roll after crashing to Earth two weeks ago against North Dakota. The Pioneers claimed victories last weekend against Findlay and Air Force, allowing only one goal in the process.
“I think the series against North Dakota exposed some of the areas we needed to work on,” Gwozdecky said. “Up until that point, we were rolling pretty good. … I think last weekend we took a good first step back.”
A WCHA coach mentioned after playing Alaska-Anchorage earlier this season that it appears Hill is at least having more fun coaching his team this season, even if the wins aren’t yet coming.
That’s true, Hill said. That doesn’t mean he can yet figure out his team, though.
The Seawolves had 12 shots on goal for the whole of their 5-1 loss to St. Cloud State last Friday. The next night, they had 11 shots in the first period and battled to a 2-2 tie. It’s that disparity that has Hill searching for answers.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Hill said. “I guess if you could bottle it up, you could make a lot of money. I don’t know what it is. All I know is, as a coaching staff, Saturday before the game we weren’t sure what we were going to get. And we were very pleased on Saturday. We gave up the lead with four minutes left, but we worked hard and we responded, and that’s what you’re looking for, especially when you have such a young team.”
Hill said it’s easier to get messages through to this year’s team because he recruited the majority of the players. That makes it easier, as well, to enjoy coaching.
“I think the reason is our kids are very passionate and they practice with a purpose,” Hill said. “We just feel like we’ve improved our speed and skill level, and therefore practices themselves, the execution is better. Anytime your execution is good in practice, I think you’re going to enjoy it.”
Wisconsin players say their 10-game unbeaten streak has given them confidence and comfort. Inflated egos? Coach Mike Eaves isn’t letting that happen.
Eaves stopped practice at least once this week to get his players back on task.
“When you have such high confidence, everybody thinks they’re a little bit ahead of their game right now,” Badgers goaltender Bernd Bruckler said. “Obviously, coach Eaves is doing his job in telling us that we have to keep going and keep coming back down and stay level and not get too high and too low, and we’ll be fine.”
The Badgers credit the streak, in which they are 7-0-3, to a sense of comfort with the coaching staff that wasn’t there last season.
“Everything’s just clicking right now,” defenseman Tom Gilbert said. “We’re playing great defensively, Bernd’s playing really good. It just seems that we’ve got a lot more confidence than we had last year, especially the last 10 games. It just feels like any team we go against we can beat, and that’s a huge impact on how we play the games.”
There’s little doubt Minnesota has been a better team since defenseman Keith Ballard returned from injury. But when Ballard was ejected for a hit from behind late in the second period last Saturday at Michigan, the rest of the Gophers’ defense responded with a solid effort.
Lucia singled out P.J. Atherton and Jake Taylor as having good showings, especially in the critical 5-on-3 disadvantage that followed Ballard’s penalty.
It’s part of a resurgence that Lucia said actually started the weekend of the Wisconsin series, when the Gophers twice held 3-1 leads but got only one point.
“We played very well but we just didn’t get rewarded,” Lucia said. “But our effort was there — for the first time really this year I felt we had a consistent effort for two games. And I think it’s carried over the last three weeks.”
Another issue that has turned around for the Gophers is their third-period play. In a five-game winless streak last month, they didn’t score a single goal in the third period. In the four victories since, they’re averaging two goals in each third period, including Andy Sertich’s go-ahead goal against the Wolverines.
“We were generating the shots, we just weren’t scoring,” Lucia said. “It wasn’t like all of a sudden we got in the third period and our shot totals went drastically down. … We just couldn’t get the next goal to put a team away.”
Change in Focus
As with most Alaska-Anchorage players, the end of last season was a confusing time for Dallas Steward. How did it happen that the Seawolves went 35 games without a victory? Where did it go wrong?
But Steward, in his exit interview with Hill, had more personal worries. Where would he be in a year?
Hill then asked Steward a pointed question: Are you going to be alive in a year?
“I guess my point is you’re worrying about something you can’t control in the future,” Hill said. “If you continue to do that, you’re not going to enjoy the present. I hope that it sank in a little bit, and I think Dallas is just enjoying each day.”
Steward was going to have to take on a new role in a revamped Seawolves offense after scoring just two goals last season, but he has increased his goal production this season and is one of UAA’s more consistent scorers. His total of five goals ranks second on the team.
“I’m glad he’s getting some results because he’s a kid that is very sensitive and really took it hard last year, what happened,” Hill said. “As a coach, you want to see your kids happy, and I know that Dallas is. And for that, I’m very, very thankful.
“I hope he knows his place, and there have been times when I’ve been a little hard on Dallas, but you have to be hard on your players, especially when you’re trying to change a losing culture. I just really think Dallas has embraced being a senior, being an assistant captain and truly that cliche of leading by example. I think Dallas knows that’s the best way for him to lead.”
Back in Action
St. Cloud State goaltender Adam Coole returned from a groin injury and played both games last weekend against Alaska-Anchorage.
Dahl said Coole has reported the recovery from the injury is progressing, but with goalies, groin injuries can tend to be nagging issues. It has been hard to keep Coole out of action, though.
“He’s such a hard worker that he doesn’t take any days off,” Dahl said. “Sometimes I think it’s better for him to take a few days off, but he doesn’t really like to do it. He works hard. He’s a very competitive kid.”
Wisconsin filled its vacant assistant coach position by hiring Mark LeRose for the rest of the season. LeRose, a former USA Hockey coach-in-chief for Colorado who worked with Badgers coach Mike Eaves and associate head coach Troy Ward with the Pittsburgh Penguins, left a job as a stockbroker in Aspen, Colo., to join the Badgers.
He takes over for John Hynes, who left last month to become the head coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program.
LeRose was out of hockey coaching by choice this season.
“I always said if the right opportunity arose in hockey, I would jump at it,” said LeRose, 33. “And it doesn’t get any better than this. Because here you have an unbelievable tradition with Badger hockey, in addition to that there are two guys I respect and have enjoyed working with before.”
The position ends on April 30 and Wisconsin will conduct another search at that point.
“It’s an interim position, and I knew that coming into it,” LeRose said. “I recognize that there are plenty of guys who would love to have this job, ex-Badgers who would love to have this job. And I totally get that. So if it’s just for five months, that’s OK.”
Lucia has taken steps to prevent Minnesota from reaching empty in the gas tank.
The Gophers’ series at Alaska-Anchorage this weekend is their fourth road trip in the last five weekends. That could add to the traditional strain of the trek to Alaska.
Last week, Lucia gave his players Tuesday off. This week’s practice schedule was toned down to again give the players a breather.
“We’re just trying to stay fresh and trying to get through the weekend,” Lucia said. “Great, we won two games this weekend, but we’re still 3-6-1 in the league.”
On the Other Hand
On the other side of that is Michigan Tech, which had last weekend off before playing two series and breaking for the holidays.
Russell relayed a story to his players about how a friend who is coaching in the ECHL is going through a stretch of five games in six nights in five different cities.
“I said, we’re coming off a break where we haven’t played a game in two weeks,” Russell said. “You guys should be so excited, have so much jump in your legs, have so much energy where we’re so anxious to hit somebody on another team instead of pounding your teammates all the time. We need to come out with excitement and energy and enthusiasm.”
In Other Words
Colorado College assistant coach Norm Bazin remains in critical condition after a car accident on Nov. 20. … League players of the week were Minnesota-Duluth’s Lessard on offense; Denver goalie Adam Berkhoel on defense; and Minnesota goalie Kellen Briggs as the top rookie. … North Dakota goaltender Nate Ziegelmann is expected to get his first significant playing time of the season when the Sioux host the U.S. Under-18 Team on Friday. … CC goalie Matt Zaba is 4-0-2 in his freshman season, including 2-0-2 since becoming the starter pro tempore while Curtis McElhinney has mononucleosis. … The Latvian club team that will play three games against WCHA teams arrives in Minneapolis on Sunday. HC Riga 2000 plays Wisconsin on Tuesday, Minnesota on Thursday, Dec. 11 and Minnesota-Duluth on Monday, Dec. 15.