This Week in the WCHA: Dec. 11, 2003

Who’s Leading the Cheers?

Some thoughts this week, while still trying to find a Latvian-English dictionary to figure out what those HC Riga 2000 fans were chanting at the Kohl Center on Tuesday.

  • Contender or pretender? That’s what we’ll find out about Minnesota-Duluth this weekend. The Bulldogs travel to face North Dakota, a team they played tough earlier this season and one that represents the biggest challenge on a lot of schedules.
  • Wisconsin looks to tie the school record for most games without a loss this weekend against Minnesota State. The Badgers are unbeaten in 12 games, but in most of those, they’ve been the underdog. Careful with the Mavericks, then.
  • The best news of the week: Colorado College assistant coach Norm Bazin has been upgraded to satisfactory condition in a Spokane, Wash., hospital in his recovery from injuries suffered in a car accident last month while on a recruiting trip.
  • And finally, “Let’s go red!” just has a hard time standing up to “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, Latvia!” doesn’t it?

    Counting Backward

    Not convinced St. Cloud State is a first-place team? The Huskies aren’t, at least when you turn the WCHA standings into rankings by points lost this season.

    Here’s that order, with some thoughts on the first half:

    1. North Dakota, 2 points lost: Just rolling along, waiting for the 20 straight WCHA games in the second half. Twelve of them are on the road, however.

    2. St. Cloud State, 6: Kudos on a fine first half by a team expected to be closer to the bottom than the top.

    2. Minnesota-Duluth, 6: Just 2-3-2 outside the conference, which might hurt again on Selection Sunday.

    2. Colorado College, 6: If CC can do this well with all the adversity, imagine how it might be doing without it.

    5. Wisconsin, 8: The third-toughest schedule in the country would have sunk most teams coming off a 13-23-4 season.

    6. Minnesota State, 11: See, Mavericks fans? All is not yet lost, despite a stunning shortage of offense.

    7. Denver, 12: A promising start has turned south in WCHA games. Still, the Pioneers have a winning record overall and are in the top 10 in the RPI.

    8. Alaska-Anchorage, 14: On the bright side, the Seawolves have managed at least one point from each of the last four weekends.

    9. Minnesota, 15: Who saw this coming? The Gophers are outscoring opponents 43-41 in WCHA games, which makes it tough to digest that they’re 4-7-1.

    10. Michigan Tech, 16: The road doesn’t get easier in the second half. Michigan State and Michigan or BC in the GLI, then at Wisconsin, home against North Dakota, at Minnesota-Duluth, home versus Colorado College and St. Cloud State.

    Not Playing Like Freshmen

    The demands on a college freshman always seem so high. That first year in college provides challenges many have never faced.

    It’s the same in the world of college hockey, but in recent years, the demands on freshmen in the WCHA have soared.

    Of course, it’s their own fault. If they weren’t so talented, the expectations wouldn’t be so high. But some league coaches have noticed a shift in the past couple years from the freshman year being a time to feel your way into the team to the first season being a time to shine.

    North Dakota’s Zach Parise is the poster boy for the new way of things, but he has been followed this season by a group of talented newcomers who are quickly making names for themselves.

    It starts again at UND, where Brady Murray has become a key part of the Sioux’s top line. Drew Stafford scored a pair of winning goals early in the season. And goaltender Jordan Parise is 5-0.

    “I’m surprised by the way the freshmen have come in and done so well and been a big contributor to our offense,” North Dakota coach Dean Blais said. “Usually as a freshman, you’re in and out of the lineup at times or not contributing. They’re not only playing, they’re contributing a lot.”

    Wisconsin has been revitalized by talented freshmen, including defenseman Ryan Suter and speedy forward Robbie Earl, who leads all WCHA rookies with six goals.

    Colorado College recently had to turn to freshman Matt Zaba as its starting goaltender, and he responded by going 3-1-2 with solid stats.

    “It’s hard to explain,” CC coach Scott Owens said when asked why freshmen seem to be getting along so well. “It’s hard to pinpoint that exactly. I think part of it is just our league has a lot of good young players every year and get the chance to showcase it. They’re usually pretty good.”

    That may be true, but some departures at the other end of the class structure have helped give young players their chances, Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting argues.

    “I think part of it is there’s a lot more kids leaving early,” said Jutting, who has watched Mavericks forward David Backes score eight points in his first 12 games. “Obviously, David has added a big impact for us as a freshman, but if Tim Jackman and Grant Stevenson were here, I don’t know that he would have that same impact. And I think it’s the same way around the league.”

    Part of the explanation has to go back to recruiting, as well. Players coming into a program can see opportunities to make themselves into great players.

    “Recruiting-wise, you don’t promise them they’re going to play,” Blais said. “But they look at an opportunity to play, and it’s there — when every freshman that you recruit has played in every game. You can’t hide them because they look at games played and they look at goals and assists and everything else. They can tell.”

    Still, it’s nearly impossible to build a top-caliber team with freshmen dominating the game.

    “Even with the contributions of freshmen, you look at North Dakota, who’s right now arguably the best team in the country. Brady Murray is playing very well for them, but I don’t think Brady Murray would be doing what he’s doing without Zach Parise and [Brandon] Bochenski,” Jutting said. “I still think it’s a league that if you’re going to win the league or be in those top couple of spots, you’re going to have to do it with your older kids.”

    Filling In Nicely

    Could Colorado College have asked for more out of Zaba?

    When all-American goaltender Curtis McElhinney was sidelined for four weeks because of mononucleosis, Zaba, a freshman who had played only two games this season, was put into the role of keeping things together in McElhinney’s absence.

    He has done better than that. In the six games since jumping into the No. 1 spot, Zaba has allowed a total of eight goals, with one shutout to his credit and two other games where he has allowed only one goal. In fact, among his eight games so far this season, he hasn’t allowed more than two goals in any of them.

    His performance and the situation made him an easy choice for the rookie of the month award for November by the Hockey Commissioners’ Association. He stopped 111 of 118 shots in five games in November for a save percentage of .941.

    “He had those two games, one at Clarkson and one at Denver, very important games when he really looked good and looked strong,” Owens said. “So he had a little bit of a feeling. Then when Curtis went down with mono, he had no choice, just had to throw him in. And he has really handled it well, not only the way he has played but just the way he has handled it. He’s very poised and composed for a freshman.”

    McElhinney has been cleared to travel to Alaska-Anchorage this weekend, but Owens said he likely will be only an emergency replacement.

    Net Results

    What held North Dakota back last season? Common answer: goaltending.

    What was likely to keep the Sioux from dominating the WCHA this season? Common answer: goaltending.

    With their performance so far this season, UND’s goalies are taking those common answers and throwing them in the garbage. Jake Brandt and Jordan Parise have answered the critics well so far this season.

    Brandt is second in the WCHA with a 1.72 goals against average. (Yes, 1.72 is only good enough for second when there’s a guy named Matt Zaba at Colorado College.)

    Parise doesn’t have stellar numbers, but he’s 5-0 as a freshman, with wins over Minnesota-Duluth, Boston College, Yale, Minnesota and Denver.

    The challenge the rest of the way for the UND goaltenders will be to stay consistent, something which couldn’t be said of the group last season.

    Of the three goalies who played more than a period last season, none had a save percentage over .900, the magic mark that coaches like to see. Brandt led the Sioux at .895 but found himself in a rotation with Josh Siembida and Marc Ranfranz that never got settled.

    “He was pretty good last year, but there were a lot of good goaltenders in the league last year that overshadowed a pretty good year by Jake,” Blais said. “He played real well in the playoffs last year and got us down to the Final Five. He had a respectable year and had a pretty good summer, worked hard and everything. It’s paying off for him.”

    His Take

    Here’s Jutting, speaking on his team’s first half:

    “We haven’t played all that poorly, to be honest with you. We played very well defensively early in the season, for the first 10 games. You look around, most teams have played right about 16 games and we’ve played 12. The first 10 games, we played very well defensively and then the one weekend at Duluth we didn’t get the goaltending we’d gotten the first 10 games, which is going to happen at times. And we didn’t play as well defensively but played a lot better offensively. I thought the last 30 minutes of the Duluth game were by far the best hockey that we’ve played all year.

    “We’re playing better but, obviously we need to play better, we still have to get better yet. Because we have so many new faces this year, we’ve tried to stress, ‘Continue to get better.’ And if we do that, things will take care of themselves. I don’t think it’s any one area. We just need to overall keep getting better.

    “We haven’t been beaten up and blown out of any games. We’re just falling a goal or two short. Some of that has to do with all the new kids and some of that has to do with that we’ve got to get better in certain areas.”

    Promising News

    Bazin was moved out of intensive care when he was upgraded to satisfactory condition in a Spokane, Wash., hospital last Sunday.

    “That’s definitely a nice step in the right direction,” Colorado College coach Scott Owens said. “I think he’s still got a lot of hurdles ahead of him yet, but it’s definitely nice to get that news.”

    The CC coaching staff has had more than just the emotions of the situation to deal with. Owens said the staff has pulled together in Bazin’s absence to get the job done.

    Owens and assistant Joe Bonnett have been concentrating on recruiting matters from Colorado Springs. Volunteer assistant Terry Kleisinger is working with the team three days a week instead of his usual two.

    “We’re just kind of going to wait and go through this whole thing. It has tightened us up a little bit,” Owens said. “Joe and I are out with some of the recruiting, but we really haven’t been out on the road, we’ve been doing more phone work and putting in a few more hours.”

    One of the more impressive performances by the Tigers this season has been their response to the string of bad news to hit the team. They’ve had to deal with not only Bazin’s situation, but also injuries to captain Colin Stuart and leading scorer Brett Sterling and an illness with starting goaltender McElhinney.

    The Tigers have been highly ranked all season, even though Owens hasn’t always believed the ranking and said he doesn’t yet know how good his team really is. But the way they have managed to scrape out points even in the toughest situations is a point in their favor.

    “I think I’ve been happiest with the team’s will and desire to win,” Owens said. “This bad news came one piece a week. It wasn’t all in one day. And I think resiliency might be a good word for it because it’s dealing with that over a four- or five-week period. … It has always been spread out, and they’ve been pretty resilient on that and kept a pretty even keel from that perspective. I think it speaks well of our team.”

    Chip In

    In a related note, Alaska-Anchorage hopes to collect $10,000 in donations for Bazin at Friday night’s game, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

    Nice to Hear You

    One of ways college hockey could be more exciting: If fans were as passionate about the game as those that supported HC Riga 2000 in its exhibition game against Wisconsin on Tuesday.

    The group of Riga supporters out-voiced the Wisconsin fans for most of the game, bursting into cheers every time their team got across the blue line. They waved and danced in the aisles with Latvian flags.

    Their chants were much like those heard in European soccer stadiums (although we swear at one point they were chanting “Drago! Drago!” like in Rocky IV).

    Makes one want to see what games are like back in Riga.

    Last Call

    The Wisconsin-Denver series last weekend was the last league series for WCHA referee Mike Schmitt, who’s calling it quits after working the Subway Holiday Classic at North Dakota later this month.

    WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd said he’s not planning to add a referee to take Schmitt’s place.

    Schmitt refereed the 1998 and 2001 NCAA championship games.

    In other officiating news this week, the WCHA and Hockey East have agreed to trade referees for a weekend series for the fourth year in a row. Hockey East will send Tim Benedetto to take charge of the Bowling Green-Minnesota-Duluth series on Jan. 2 and 3. WCHA ref Jon Campion will go east for the New Hampshire-Yale game on Jan. 3 and the Maine-Dartmouth game on Jan. 4.

    Getting Noticed

    Here’s what happens when you’ve got a 12-game unbeaten streak going on:

    “We’ll be out to eat and people come up and say, ‘Way to go, keep it going,'” said Wisconsin sophomore forward Adam Burish, a Madison native. “It’s special for all the guys. It makes the guys smile.”

    The streak is two games shy of the program record of 14, set in the 1981-82 season.

    Playing For the Cup

    The Ramada Cup is on the line this weekend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan complete their four-game season series.

    The teams split the non-conference games earlier this season, meaning whoever prevails this weekend gets the cup, given to the winner of the season series between the rivals.

    If the teams split this weekend’s home-and-home series or play to two ties, they’ll go to a five-player shootout. This season is the first time the cup has been awarded since 1995-96, when Northern Michigan won it with a 3-2 shootout victory.

    We Want Pinky!

    The one regret we have about Riga 2000’s tour of the WCHA: The team didn’t bring along its mascot.

    And you can’t make up better stories than the one about Bobcat Pinky, the odd-looking, orange and blue creature detailed in a team booklet:

    “Bobcat Pinky became the mascot & heart of the hockey team ‘Riga 2000’ with a new home — ‘Siemens Ice hall.’ Nickname ‘Pinky’ has arise from the name of the ice hall location called Pinki. His charm and warmth has won fans’ favors though leaving the hard work to players on hockey ground during games. His primary tasks are: first to step on the hockey ground and check the quality of ice and cheer fans up for supporting current game. Pinky presents surprise gifts to the most active fans during the breaks between three parts of game.

    “Pinky’s best quality is great smile, even in games with hard ending. He is good looking, single (still), non-smoker and doesn’t use alcohol but Pinky loves ice cream a lot. To make game more interesting and to establish the friendship with enemies for him is like a joke — quick and easy. If you want to become Pinky’s friend, prepare the huge portion of ice cream! Pinky is cool.”

    In Other Words

    WCHA players of the week were Alaska-Anchorage’s John Hopson on offense, Wisconsin’s Bernd Bruckler on defense and Minnesota-Duluth goalie Josh Johnson as the top rookie. … Peter Sejna, who won the Hobey Baker Award last season at Colorado College, has been named the male college athlete of the year by the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. … Denver has struggled at home in league play this season, going 0-4-1 and scoring just eight goals in those five games. … Four of the top seven teams in this week’s poll are from the WCHA. North Dakota is No. 1, Colorado College is No. 4, St. Cloud State is No. 6 and Wisconsin is No. 7. … Chris Fournier is expected back in Alaska-Anchorage’s lineup this weekend. He missed last weekend’s series with Minnesota with a nerve injury. … With a 4-0 victory over Michigan Tech last Saturday, Minnesota-Duluth’s Johnson became the first Bulldogs freshman to record a league shutout since Brant Nicklin blanked Wisconsin in 1996.

    Final Thought

    Pinky is cool.