This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 8, 2004

Red, White and Canada Blew It

Some thoughts this week, while pondering how far this gold medal can take American hockey in the next few years:

  • There’s no rest for the weary. Nine players returned to WCHA teams with World Junior Championship gold medals around their necks this week, ready to go for the last nine weeks of the league season.
  • So Wisconsin and St. Cloud State are sharing the WCHA lead, eh? Wouldn’t believe it if we didn’t see it with our own eyes.
  • Word is, Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell is breaking up the combination of Chris Conner, Colin Murphy and Taggart Desmet for Friday’s game at Wisconsin. The line has a combined six points in the last four games. Maybe it is time for a change, but the rest of the Huskies have to do something to help the cause, too.
  • The hockey world is finally waking up to the talent of Zach Parise. Where’ve you been? And there are some other pretty darn good players at U.S. colleges, too.
  • Monday’s the day for the vote by the NCAA Division III membership on whether to strip D-III schools playing up at the D-I level of the ability to award athletic scholarships. We’re not sure if college hockey could stand a third major jolt in the span of a week. The Findlay and Vermont events shook up the game enough for one week.
  • Yes, that is Alaska-Anchorage you see at No. 15 in the PairWise. Stop rubbing your eyes.
  • And finally, U.S. and Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves is right when he says one of the biggest beneficiary of the gold medal is the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. The NTDP has its naysayers, but it produced 15 of the 22 players and the coaching staff, which is quite a statement in its favor.

    National Pride

    Eaves was asked about the gold-medal winning goal in the World Juniors last Monday, the one that went in after Canadian goalie Marc-Andre Fleury hit his own defenseman with a clearing pass.

    “Goalscorer’s goal,” he said with a chuckle. “Can’t teach that.”

    Eaves, who said he was “emotionally spent” on a conference call from Finland a couple of hours after the landmark victory, called it his greatest coaching achievement. And why not? Some people were willing to compare this to the Miracle on Ice, something Eaves thought was too much of a stretch.

    “Hockey in America was still at an infancy age [in 1980],” Eaves said. “That was a spark, to win that, that really put some energy behind hockey. And I think winning the World Cup in ’96, that was another statement that jeez, we’ve got some pretty good players in the United States.

    “I think it’s just another boost in the arm for U.S. hockey. It’s a boost in the arm, certainly, for the National Team Development Program because it gives it validity. This is what it was meant to do, make us competitive at the best level, for this tournament, and extend that. It gives that program credibility. It’s not perfect, it needs to be tweaked a little bit, but it certainly helps that program.”

    Ten WCHA players bring back an experience that is almost immeasurable.

    “I don’t even know how to explain it,” Wisconsin defenseman Ryan Suter said. “Playing against the guys we played against was unbelievable. You’re playing against some NHL guys and you’re playing with some NHL guys. Probably 70 to 80 percent of the guys there are going to be playing in the NHL. It’s just an unbelievable experience. Everything’s so fast and you have to be so crisp and sharp. It’s really indescribable.”

    Back Home

    As part of his long road to recovery from a terrifying car accident, Colorado College assistant coach Norm Bazin returned home last Friday.

    Before that happened, the CC players and coaches had a chance to visit Bazin at the Colorado Springs-area hospital to which he was transferred after leaving a Spokane, Wash., medical center on Dec. 17.

    “It was very positive and uplifting, and Norm seemed to be doing very well,” CC assistant coach Joe Bonnett told The Gazette of Colorado Springs.

    Two Out

    It was enough to give John Hill the worst back pain of his life.

    OK, so maybe the news that assistant captain John Hopson was quitting the team and Matt Hanson was academically ineligible wasn’t what kept the Alaska-Anchorage coach in bed with a bad back. But it’s a blow to a team that had a decent first half.

    Hopson, who was seventh on the team with seven points from 15 games, told the Seawolves’ coaches that he wasn’t happy with his ice time, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

    Hanson, a defenseman who had two assists in 15 games, can return to the team at the start of next season if his grades improve.

    The losses leave the Seawolves with only 13 forwards and six defensemen.

    Hill, meanwhile, was laid up this week with back pain, but made the team’s flight to Grand Forks, N.D., where it will play North Dakota this weekend.

    Tough Road

    The upcoming stretch that faces Minnesota is littered with challenges to the Gophers’ hopes of getting into a home-ice spot for the league playoffs.

    It starts with a trip to Colorado College this weekend. The Tigers are 9-2 at home this season.

    But in the three weeks after this series, the Gophers go to Minnesota State and then host North Dakota and Wisconsin on consecutive weekends.

    The Gophers are four points behind Denver, which currently holds fifth place but has played two more games than Minnesota. Theoretically, the Gophers could find themselves in fifth place at the end of this weekend, but the work to undo the damage of the first half still would be far from done.

    Back at Full Strength

    Colorado College is expected to have its full lineup available this weekend against Minnesota — an uncommon occurrence for the Tigers this season.

    Goaltender Curtis McElhinney is back from mononucleosis, while Colin Stuart and Brandon Polich returned from injuries last weekend. This weekend, the Tigers should have Mark Stuart and Brett Sterling back from the U.S. junior team.

    “Getting it all together and jelling together, that’ll be the next thing,” CC coach Scott Owens said, “but for right now it’s just nice to have the bodies.”

    It’s a good time for it to happen. The next three weeks feature home series with Minnesota and Wisconsin sandwiched around a trip to Minnesota-Duluth.

    CC is tied for sixth place with 10 points, but is tied with Michigan Tech with the fewest WCHA games, 10.

    “I think the next three weeks are big for us to get points,” Owens said. “Although I will say this: I think you’re going to see a different year this year. I think points are going to be harder to get for everybody, except maybe the top team. You might have a lower point total for home ice.”

    In their run for one of the top spots, the Tigers should be bolstered by the return of Colin Stuart from a separated shoulder. Stuart was still the team’s leader even while he was out injured, but having his physical presence on the ice adds another dimension to CC’s game up front.

    “He’s a big forward that goes to the net and can score. We just kind of missed that,” Owens said. “It just strengthens us in a couple of different ways. Obviously, to have him in the locker room is an added bonus.”

    But while there unquestionably will be spots for the other players to return to, the same can’t necessarily be said for McElhinney. Freshman Matt Zaba emerged as a true talent after McElhinney was sidelined in November.

    Owens said he might split McElhinney and Zaba for a while to see which goaltender is better equipped for the stretch run.

    “They’re both very good goaltenders, they both have very good numbers,” Owens said. “Curtis has been out a couple months, so we’ve got to get him back in the mix because he’s a proven good goaltender. Including the first round of the playoffs, we play 10 straight weeks of WCHA teams, and I really like having that luxury of having them both.”

    Step Back

    Minnesota State is in the odd position of taking its midseason break two weeks after Christmas. But after going 0-3-1 in the four games that preceded the week off, the Mavericks might be in need of a breather now.

    Mavericks coach Troy Jutting said this week is for the players to relax before gearing back up for the stretch run. The Mavs are tied for eighth place in the WCHA and are 4-12-4 overall. Eight of their last 14 league games are on the road.

    Last weekend’s series against Wisconsin was an indicator of some of the problems Minnesota State has had this season, most notably inconsistency between the pipes.

    Kyle Nixon made 35 saves as the Mavs rallied for a 3-3 tie on Friday, but he allowed four goals in the first two periods of a 6-2 loss on Saturday before being replaced by Jon Volp at the start of the third period.

    “The problem is we’re not stopping pucks that we need to stop. And it’s a huge deflator,” Jutting said. “They get a couple of huge saves in the first period, and that’s a momentum builder. It swings the tide a lot, especially for a team that’s kind of teetering and struggling a little. You need those things to go well for you if you’re going be successful and to get started on a run. We had gone three games in the league without a loss (1-0-2), and it would have been nice to try to finish that off before the break.”

    Ready to Roll Again?

    The members of the U.S. junior team that returned from Finland this week played seven games in 14 days, counting an exhibition game, while they were overseas.

    Now they’re being expected to get off a plane, get back to practice and contribute to their collegiate teams this weekend. Realistically, how much can be expected from these players?

    They may not be in peak physical condition after all the traveling, but it’s hard to imagine any of the players wouldn’t want to play this weekend.

    And if they follow the example of Massachusetts’ Stephen Werner, everything should be fine. Werner had barely gotten off the airplane on Wednesday when he had two assists in UMass’ 2-1 victory at Boston University.

    Wisconsin’s players and Eaves got back to Madison late Tuesday night and got only a few hours sleep that night. Yet all were at practice on Wednesday.

    “It’s all part of it,” Suter said. “I think we’re handling it pretty well and we’ll be ready to go this weekend.”

    For Colorado College, the importance of having Sterling and Mark Stuart in the lineup is magnified.

    “We struggle so much scoring that Brett doesn’t have a choice,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “And without Mark, we saw a big hole this past weekend. We’ll just get them back in the mix. It’s not like this is the first round of the playoffs this weekend. It’s just the start of a long stretch for us.”

    The Final Numbers

    To capture the attention of the hockey world at the World Junior Championship, Parise must have been performing well beyond anyone’s expectations, right?

    In reality, he was just doing what he has for a year-and-a-half at North Dakota.

    Parise, a Sioux sophomore, led the Americans with 11 points in six games and was named the tournament’s best forward and MVP. In 52 games in his college career, he has 77 points.

    “He’s the best player in the world at his age (19), I think,” Sioux and U.S. teammate Brady Murray told the Grand Forks Herald.

    All nine members of the WCHA contingent on Team USA had at least a point in the tournament. Colorado College’s Sterling had three goals, while teammate and USA captain Mark Stuart had two assists. From Wisconsin, Suter and Jake Dowell each had two assists, while Jeff Likens had one assist. North Dakota’s Brady Murray had two goals, while Sioux teammate Drew Stafford had two assists. Denver’s Matt Carle had one goal.

    Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek had three goals and an assist for Austria, which finished ninth in the 10-team tournament and was relegated.

    Making a Connection

    A few weeks back, Minnesota State took some time after practice to play a game against a group of area youth players, an event that has been shown on the Mankato cable system.

    We’re not sure how many teams take time out to do things like this, but it’s a great way to connect with the community — even though the Mavericks seem to have no problem with that already.

    And Kurtis Kisio certainly deserved the playful ribbing he got from his teammates after spraying the Junior Mavericks goaltender during a shootout.

    Lighter Side

    On Eaves’ return to Madison this week, longtime UW volunteer assistant coach Bill Howard had a few friendly words for the head coach, Eaves said:

    “Hey, Eaver, we’re in first place now. Don’t mess it up.”

    Howard maintains, however, that hello, welcome back and nice going came before that greeting.

    In Other Words

    League players of the week were Minnesota-Duluth’s Luke Stauffacher on offense, North Dakota’s Matt Jones on defense and Wisconsin’s Ross Carlson as the top rookie. … Stauffacher’s five-goal weekend against Bowling Green included both game-winners. He had four goals for the season before the non-conference series. … Wisconsin appears set for a new look on two forward lines with the return of Dowell. He’ll center a line between Rene Bourque and Ryan MacMurchy, the team’s two leading scorers who have gone three games without a point. Andrew Joudrey moves between Robbie Earl and Carlson. … Denver goalie Adam Berkhoel passed Wade Dubielewicz for second on the Pioneers’ career shutouts list with his ninth last Friday. Gerry Powers, who played for Denver from 1966 to 1969, had 13 shutouts. …

    North Dakota freshman goalie Jordan Parise had an eight-game winning streak snapped with a tie at St. Cloud State last Friday. He still is undefeated (8-0-1) with the Sioux. … Wisconsin associate head coach Troy Ward was 2-1-1 behind the bench while Eaves was away. Last weekend, the Badgers tied a school record with their 12th straight WCHA game without a loss. … Minnesota-Duluth’s Marco Peluso will miss the next two games after being disqualified from last Saturday’s game for punching. It’s the second DQ of the season for Peluso, which carries an automatic two-game suspension. Another DQ and he’s out for the year. … St. Cloud State’s Matt Hendricks missed last Saturday’s game against North Dakota with a bruised foot, but should be able to return for next weekend’s series at Alaska-Anchorage.