This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 1, 2004

All Is Quiet On New Year’s Day

Happy New Year. Some thoughts this week, while wondering why the good stuff always happens on weeks when we don’t have columns.

  • There are 10 weekends left in the WCHA regular season. Let the standings shuffling begin.
  • Wisconsin defenseman Dan Boeser is one of 14 nominees for the Humanitarian Award, which will be presented in Boston on April 9. The finalists will be named on Jan. 8. Boeser, who beat cancer to return to the team before last season, probably is wondering what all the fuss is about.
  • Of the 10 WCHA teams, eight have overall records at .500 or better. Welcome to the mix, Alaska-Anchorage. And welcome back, Minnesota.
  • Seen the PairWise Rankings? In short, if the season ended today, seven WCHA teams would be in position to earn at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Yes, seven.
  • And finally, plenty happened while we were gone but you’ll get no argument in saying the most important bit of news was that Colorado College assistant coach Norm Bazin was transferred from a Spokane, Wash., hospital to one closer to home.

    Looking Back

    We try to make this more of a preview as a review, but there were some things that happened during our break that just need to be mentioned. So, in case you missed them, here are the big events:

    Friday, Dec. 12: The Night the Lights Went Out in Madison

    Wisconsin’s Nick Licari, roughly 5-foot-8, happened to be wrestling with Minnesota State’s Nate Metcalf, roughly 6-foot-4, in a corner of the rink when the lights went out. Luckily for Licari, it wasn’t his lights that went out but those in the Kohl Center, sending the building into a few seconds of complete darkness before emergency lights came on.

    When the lights didn’t come back on after about 15 minutes, the game was suspended and completed a night later, immediately before the second game of the series. Wisconsin won both games and, therefore, earned four points in about three hours.

    The time of the first game: 24 hours, 7 minutes. Not that anyone was counting, though.

    Saturday, Dec. 13: Long Time Coming

    Alaska-Anchorage hadn’t completed a sweep since February 2000, when the Seawolves knocked off Colorado College at Sullivan Arena. So it was fitting, then, that Anchorage would break that streak against the then-No. 4 Tigers. And it was a heck of a way to go into an almost-month-long break, the 3-1 victory backstopped by 40 Kevin Reiter saves.

    The Seawolves claimed a 5-2 victory in the first game of the series, then Justin Bourne broke a 1-1 tie in the third period to finish the sweep.

    Monday, Dec. 15: The WCHA Loses a Friend

    Keith Magnuson, a former all-American at Denver and a NHL player and coach, was killed in a car accident in Toronto. One of the WCHA’s top 50 players of its first 50 years, Magnuson was long a friend of the WCHA and college hockey.

    “This is a tremendously sad day for all of us,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “We were all very, very proud to call Keith a WCHA alum and he was one of the most outspoken proponents of college hockey we’ve ever had.”

    Saturday, Dec. 20: Comeback/Collapse For the Ages

    On one side, you have a tremendous comeback brought on by an odd occurrence. On the other side, you have a complete collapse that leaves you just shaking your head.

    Minnesota State scored seven straight goals to erase a 7-1 deficit and beat Denver 8-7 at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center. Just to go over that again: Denver, up 7-1 in the second period, lost a six-goal lead and the game.

    The odd part about it for the Mavericks — if it can get more odd than overcoming such a deficit — is that three of the goals in the rally came on the power play. After Denver’s Matt Laatsch got a major penalty for checking from behind, the Mavericks scored power-play goals in 39 seconds, this despite being just 1-for-57 on the power play in WCHA games to that point.

    Shane Joseph had two of those power-play goals, and he added the winner 4:09 from the end to cap one of the most improbable turnarounds in recent memory. And it came with third-string goalie Chris Clark in the game. The third goalie the Mavs played that night, Clark stopped all 13 shots he faced in the final 32:07.

    Sunday, Dec. 21: Just Like April

    Just like in Buffalo last April, Minnesota beat New Hampshire for a title. Only this time, it was 4-2, not 5-1, and the Dodge Holiday Classic crown, not the NCAA one.

    The larger significance for the Gophers may have been that they did what coach Don Lucia hoped: got above .500 before the holiday break. They start the second half at 9-8-1, above .500 for the first time this season.

    Sunday, Dec. 28: More champions

    North Dakota, Denver and St. Cloud State joined Minnesota as holiday tournament champions from the WCHA. North Dakota won the Subway Holiday Classic, Denver won the Denver Cup and St. Cloud State won the inaugural Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Pot in Providence, R.I.

    Wisconsin lost to Ferris State in the championship game of the Badger Hockey Showdown, and Michigan Tech lost to Michigan in the third-place game at the Great Lakes Invitational.

    A Schedule All Can Accept

    Complaints about the disparity in the number of league games played around the WCHA have not gone unheard. Neither have complaints about players missing WCHA games to represent their country in the World Junior Championship.

    League officials had a conference call with coaches on Tuesday to discuss how to handle changes in way the schedule is made. McLeod, who puts together the schedule with assistant commissioner of operations Carol LaBelle, said the WCHA is considering changes that would cover both of the aforementioned concerns.

    A larger plan would have weekends be designated for league games or for non-conference games. That’s in the early stages because such a plan would need the help of the other conferences as well. But that idea would help eliminate concerns about teams playing many more league games early in the season than others.

    The request to avoid scheduling WCHA games during the World Juniors, however, is running into a few roadblocks and may not be able to be fulfilled next season, when the tournament takes place in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn.

    “It definitely is something that we want to try to accomplish in the long run,” McLeod said. “It’s obviously very questionable whether we can do that next year. We’re trying to, but it takes cooperation from non-conference people and we have building problems when we move to other dates.

    “It’s not an easy thing, and having done a lot of that myself, the scheduling is frustrating because all it takes is one thing that won’t work and you’ve got to go back to square one. People seem to think there’s easy answers to it, and there’s not.”

    Searching for Home

    Part of St. Cloud State’s home-ice advantage disappeared in its last appearance at the National Hockey Center. Losses to Denver were the first two the Huskies had suffered at home this season after going 6-0-2 to start the season.

    So they’re looking to gain some of that back to start the second half. Easier said than done against North Dakota. We’d point out that the Sioux are perfect on the road this season, but that would only mean they’re 2-0 — not exactly a time-tested mark.

    “Everybody wants to have a home-ice advantage,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said. “Realistically, over the years, we’ve done very well at home. But I don’t think we’re playing an average team here. We’re playing a team that’s No. 1 in the country and has lost one game [in league play]. They’re very, very good. We’re going to have our hands full, there’s no question. I don’t care who they’re missing out of their lineup. … they’ll be tough.”

    The Huskies, and the rest of the league for that matter, are at a point in the season when, if they’re serious about staying near the top of the standings, getting points every weekend is a must.

    “What you look at is the number of losses that you have in the league,” said Dahl, whose team has four losses. “That pretty much tells you who’s in control of their own destiny. And certainly when you look at our standings right now, with North Dakota only having one loss, they’re basically in control of their destiny, even though they’ve got to play a whole lot of conference games. And after that, you’ve got Wisconsin with two, but they’ve got four ties, and everybody else is just bunched in there. So really, it’s a mad race for, right now, two through the rest.”

    Tough Weekend

    Maybe a short break was the best thing that could have happened to Denver after the Meltdown in Mankato. The Pioneers didn’t have a whole lot of time to collectively mope about the six-goal lead lost.

    The team took a few days off for Christmas and got back together only last Friday, a day before the Denver Cup. The Pioneers then claimed a 3-2 win over Niagara and a 6-3 victory over Nebraska-Omaha to win their tournament and shake off some of the bad memories.

    “There wasn’t a whole lot of time to analyze with the team what happened,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “Basically, we say, ‘Hey, we’re going to move on.’ Obviously, there’s certain things that we need to improve on, but we’re just going to move on.”

    That loss to the Mavericks wasn’t the only sour note from the series. In Game 1, Pioneers defenseman Jussi Halme took a puck to the chin while he was trying to block a shot. His legs spun around before the shot arrived, leaving the underside of his chin in the open, where the one-in-a-million shot hit him just under the bottom of the facemask.

    Gwozdecky said Halme, whose jaw is wired shut, may get the OK to resume practicing sometime in the next week.

    “We’ve got to be very careful, obviously, that we don’t reaggravate anything,” Gwozdecky said, “but we’re hoping that within the next month he’ll be back on the ice and hopefully playing for us.”

    Hey, Mom, I’m On ‘SportsCenter’

    We all know about the shortage of college hockey coverage on a national scale, so when it happens, we have to celebrate it.

    Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner had the No. 3 play of the day on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” last Saturday after his eye-popping goal against Michigan State.

    He got the puck at center ice, got into the zone, stopped to shed a defenseman at the top of the circle, cut to the net and wristed a shot high into the net.

    End of the Road

    Wisconsin played last weekend without goaltender Bernd Bruckler, who was suspended for two games for an undisclosed violation of team rules. While that didn’t cost the Badgers directly because backup Brian Elliott played well at the Badger Hockey Showdown, it was just one of three suspensions handed down before the tournament.

    Badgers wingers Robbie Earl and Brent Gibson were suspended one game each after both failed to get back to town in time for practices Thursday and Friday.

    That provided the most severe test of Wisconsin’s depth this season. Three players and coach Mike Eaves are at the World Junior Championship.

    By the championship game Sunday night, the energy that was a trademark during the Badgers’ 15-game unbeaten streak wasn’t there and that run ended with a loss to Ferris State. The Badgers did manage to set the school record for the longest stretch of games without a loss with the 8-1 semifinal victory over Union.

    Besting Two

    Before last weekend, St. Cloud State hadn’t scored more than two goals in a game since the first game of a series against Alaska-Anchorage on Nov. 28. And that was the only game in a 10-game stretch that the Huskies cracked the two-goal mark.

    So when St. Cloud put up matching six-goal outings to win the Coffee Pot last weekend, Dahl was pleased, needless to say.

    “I didn’t feel that we were playing that poorly,” Dahl said of a three-game losing skid that preceded the tournament. “I felt that we played OK against Denver, but we were still struggling to score. So it was kind of nice to see us put 12 goals in the net. I thought that our guys did a good job of rallying up to the atmosphere.”

    It was the first holiday tournament for a Dahl-coached Huskies team, and the coach said he was happy that his team got to play in something that resembled an NCAA tournament atmosphere before the real deal.

    Calling Consistency

    Minnesota-Duluth has put itself in a decent position to have a good finish in the WCHA. To finish the job, however, the Bulldogs need to have a more consistent second half.

    They’re a game above .500 overall and have had a four-game winning streak, but they also have gone through a three-game losing streak and won just one of four games in December.

    One of the hallmarks of any team’s campaign to finish in the top three of the WCHA is to get points every weekend. In the first half, the Bulldogs missed out on getting points on two weekends, against St. Cloud State and North Dakota.

    Already with five losses this season, the Bulldogs are in a position where they probably can’t afford to get swept many more times this season and have hopes for a high finish.

    Going for Gold

    It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Zach Parise is leading the World Junior Championship in scoring.

    With 11 points through four games, the North Dakota sophomore is on top of the scoring charts and has led the Americans to a perfect record in pool play and the semifinals. They’ll play either Russia or host Finland at 8 a.m. EST Saturday.

    All nine players from the WCHA had at least one point in pool play.

    Colorado College forward Brett Sterling had three goals, while Denver defenseman Matt Carle and North Dakota forward Brady Murray had one goal each.

    CC defenseman Mark Stuart and Wisconsin forward Jake Dowell each had two assists. Wisconsin defensemen Jeff Likens and Ryan Suter and Sioux forward Drew Stafford each had one assist.

    In Other Words

    League players of the week were Denver’s Connor James on offense, St. Cloud State’s Adam Coole on defense and North Dakota’s Chris Porter as the top rookie. … Colorado College could get some good injury news for a change this weekend, when Colin Stuart and Brandon Polich could return to action. … Alaska-Anchorage is 5-2-1 at Sullivan Arena this season and has outscored opponents 7-1 in the third period in its last three games there. … The 12 shots Minnesota allowed against Princeton in the first round of the Dodge Holiday Classic was a season low. …

    St. Cloud State defenseman Ryan LaMere injured his back against Harvard last Saturday and is questionable for this weekend’s series against North Dakota. … With 10 weeks left in the regular season, North Dakota is the only WCHA team that has 20 league games remaining. … It was a family affair in the Great Lakes Invitational third-place game. Michigan Tech’s Lars Helminen and Frank Werner played against brothers Dwight Helminen and Eric Werner. … Minnesota State’s Shane Joseph has 17 points in his last nine games.