This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 15, 2004

The Right Time

Some thoughts this week, while pondering whether Kellen Briggs and Minnesota are ready to make a run at the WCHA’s top three:

  • With Proposition 65-1 approved by the NCAA Division III membership on Monday, Colorado College and seven other D-III schools with a team playing at the Division I level are ensured of the ability to award scholarships. In the words of the schools, if nothing’s wrong, why fix it?
  • Even if you have no other reason to see Michigan Tech, go see Chris Conner play. He usually makes it worth it.
  • Just when it looked like there was no stopping North Dakota’s Brandon Bochenski, Alaska-Anchorage held him off the scoresheet in a 2-2 tie. Still, scoring four goals, as Bochenski did last Friday, is an accomplishment that merits attention.
  • Congrats again to Wisconsin senior defenseman Dan Boeser, who is one of five finalists for the Hockey Humanitarian Award, to be awarded on April 9 in Boston. Boeser organized trips to visit sick children in a Madison hospital after meeting some of them while himself undergoing treatment for follicular B-cell lymphoma in the summer of 2002.
  • We’d advise to expect North Dakota to be in first place after the weekend, but don’t sell Michigan Tech short. Sure looked like Wisconsin did.
  • Birthday wishes go out to Colorado College assistant coach Norm Bazin, who turns 33 on Sunday. He spoke to the media this week for the first time since his Nov. 20 car accident. “It’s one of life’s twists,” Bazin told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. “I tell people, don’t feel sorry for me for a second, because I’m one of the more fortunate ones to get a second chance.”
  • And finally, we’ll likely know about the Gophers’ chances soon. After this weekend’s series at Minnesota State, the Gophers host North Dakota and Wisconsin. It appears to be coming together at the right time.

    The Spark

    Remember December 2002? Everyone wanted to know how North Dakota would do without Zach Parise in its lineup. More specifically, there were questions as to whether Bochenski would be able to carry on without his linemate.

    Bochenski answered that with 10 points in the four games Parise missed while at the World Juniors. With Parise and two teammates gone to the World Juniors again this season, the same question was tossed out, but with much more confidence that Bochenski was going to be just fine.

    He had only seven points in the four games — only, right? — this time around, but he made his claim to the Sioux being his team last weekend, when he racked up four goals on five shots in a 6-2 victory over Alaska-Anchorage on Friday.

    Bochenski is parked at the top of the WCHA scoring list with 33 points from 19 games, an average of 1.74 points per game. That’s nearly a half-point per game better than any other WCHA player (Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner and Colin Murphy average 1.3 points per game).

    And yet the greater statement to Bochenski’s worth as a scorer to the Sioux may have been last Saturday’s game, when he was held without a point and North Dakota had to scrap for a 2-2 tie.

    Bochenski, a junior, has been held without a point in only four games this season. The Sioux are 2-1-1 in those games, but they have been some of the closest games the nation’s top-ranked team has played this season.

    Considering the depth of talent North Dakota has, it’s not fair to put all the team’s success on Bochenski, but it appears he’s at least the difference between the Sioux winning close and winning big.

    Back to Form

    Minnesota had two main problems at the start of the season: Injuries to defensemen Keith Ballard and Chris Harrington made the Gophers’ back line vulnerable; and the Gophers’ goaltenders had a slow start.

    So now, with Harrington and Ballard back from the injuries and in good form, the defense is coming around. Briggs is making it appear that the goaltending situation is doing the same.

    Briggs earned a pair of important victories at Colorado College last weekend. He stopped 47 of 48 shots in two games as Minnesota stretched its unbeaten streak to six games (4-0-2).

    Minnesota coach Don Lucia said Briggs, a freshman, has established himself as the Gophers’ No. 1 goaltender, ahead of junior Justin Johnson.

    “He’s played a lot of good games. He’s got a 90 save percentage now,” Lucia said of Briggs, who has allowed 43 goals on 430 shots this season. “I think people looked at our goaltending the first month as not being very strong. But at the same time, in his previous eight starts, he had a .911 save percentage. So his save percentage is kind of where it needs to be.”

    Briggs is 3-0-2 in his last five decisions. Last weekend’s victories came in front of his hometown crowd.

    “It wasn’t just the goalie. It was a team thing,” Briggs told the Star Tribune after Saturday’s game. “This was huge for us.”

    One More Down

    A breakdown in communication may be to blame for center Brent Hill’s departure from St. Cloud State.

    Hill, a freshman who had three goals and five points in 19 games for St. Cloud, left the Huskies to join Regina in the major junior Western Hockey League.

    He told the Regina (Saskatchewan) Leader Post he didn’t see eye-to-eye with coach Craig Dahl and didn’t think school was the best thing for him.

    You may remember that last June, the Huskies lost forwards Jonathan Lehun after one season and Brian Schuster after two.

    Streaking Schwabe

    In his first two seasons at Minnesota-Duluth combined, Evan Schwabe put up 24 points. So having 26 points for his junior season by the second weekend in January can be considered a great accomplishment.

    But it’s the way that the center has made it to 26 points this season that is worthy of note.

    Schwabe is riding an 11-game point streak as the Bulldogs prepare to host Colorado College this weekend. He has scored one point in each of the last five games, and before that he had two points in four straight games.

    All together, he has 17 of his 26 points in the last 11 games and has been a driving force for UMD, which has won four straight games.

    Schwabe has the Bulldogs’ longest scoring streak since Nate Anderson had at least a point in 13 straight games in the 2000-01 season.

    Show Stopper

    If you don’t know who Conner is by now, we’re sorry for not providing more details in the past.

    The performance he put on against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in the third period last Saturday was a big seller to anyone who has a vote for the WCHA first team at the end of the season.

    Conner had a pair of tiebreaking goals, one of them shorthanded, and put the Huskies on his back on the way to a 3-2 upset victory over the Badgers.

    Huskies coach Jamie Russell told his players, fresh off a frustrating 4-2 loss a night earlier, not to be denied in Game 2.

    “Conner heard that. He hasn’t been denied all year,” Russell said. “He’s, I think, the most exciting player in college hockey. He’s instant offense, strong on the puck, responsible defensively. He plays a ton of minutes. He’s just one of the best in the country.”

    The shorthanded goal was his team record-tying fifth of the season. But it was his winner, which came with just 7:48 left in the game, that was a testament to his scoring ability.

    He had plenty of poise on his 17th goal of the season, collecting a rebound at the right of the net and waiting until he had the puck settled and a good shot at the net before roofing it.

    Conner comes off as downright humble when asked whether he’s one of the best players in the country.

    “It’s nice to be recognized a little bit,” he said. “but we’ve got a great team.”

    On the List

    Nine WCHA players made the list of the NHL Central Scouting Service’s mid-term rankings this week. North Dakota’s Drew Stafford, who has six goals and 16 points in his freshman season, leads the pack at No. 9 among North American skaters.

    St. Cloud State defenseman Casey Borer is ranked No. 35. Then there’s a group of four Wisconsin players: Forward Jake Dowell at No. 58; forward Robbie Earl at No. 81; defenseman Jeff Likens at No. 151; and forward Mark Heatley at No. 177.

    Colorado College forward Scott Thauwald is No. 185 and Minnesota-Duluth forward Bryan McGregor is No. 208. Michigan Tech goalie Bryce Luker is No. 30 among North American goalies.

    The rankings are for players eligible for the 2004 NHL entry draft.

    No Joy

    As far as John Hill is concerned, moral victories have no place at Alaska-Anchorage.

    Instead of just being happy to leave Engelstad Arena with a point after a tie last weekend, the Seawolves coach was upset with losing a lead. Sure, he was happy with the point, which has them now only two points out of a tie for a top-five spot. But there was a victory waiting to be finished off before North Dakota rallied to tie.

    “I guess more than anything, the statements that I think I made are a reflection of the way the kids feel,” Hill said. “Moral victories aren’t what we’re looking for. We’re looking to win, we’re looking to get points every weekend, whether you’re at home or on the road.”

    The road record has been the stumbling block this season for the Seawolves. They’re 5-2-1 at home, but only 2-6-2 away from Sullivan Arena.

    “We’ve shown this year that we’re a good hockey team at Sullivan Arena,” Hill said. “We’re starting to go out on the road and get some points. But I didn’t want anyone to think we were full of glee because we managed to tie North Dakota on Saturday. Yeah, this is a different team, and I let people know early this year that last year was over and this is a different group of kids.”

    Anything Left?

    Four WCHA teams had players return from the World Junior Championship in time for last weekend’s games. It may just be a coincidence, but those teams didn’t have great weekends.

    Colorado College and Denver both lost a pair of games, while Wisconsin split against Michigan Tech and North Dakota had to rally for a tie with Alaska-Anchorage that gave them three points.

    Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, who led the gold medal-winning U.S. team in Finland, admitted this week to being slightly off his game during last weekend’s WCHA series.

    “I’ll be real honest: I had no patience on Friday and Saturday,” Eaves said. “I was not the coach that I need to be or I want to be. It wasn’t on purpose, but I wasn’t the coach that I’m used to being, and it may have affected our team. And it’s just a byproduct of being gone for three weeks and being just totally immersed in something that was draining 100 percent and trying to come back.”

    Those who played both games last weekend and all seven games for Team USA played in nine games in 19 days. Eaves was drained, but then he added this for context:

    “I know the way I feel. Can you imagine how the players felt?”

    That’s No Help

    No one has ever said that instant replay would be an instant cure-all for the WCHA. But the stalled idea of equipping league rinks to provide referees with another look at disputed goals wouldn’t even have helped Michigan Tech last Friday.

    With under four minutes to play, the Huskies appeared to have a goal that would have brought them all the way back from a 3-0 deficit to force a tie. The goal judge flipped on the red light after the puck bounced off Wisconsin goalie Bernd Bruckler, caromed off Badgers defenseman Tom Gilbert and landed near the goal line. But referee Pete Friesma made no signal other than that he would have to consult with the goal judge. After doing so, he ruled there was no goal.

    But the reason video replay would be of little help is that it appeared there was no good camera angle to determine whether the puck went completely over the goal line, the issue that led to the goal being disallowed.

    Instant replay has its use, but if it ever comes to pass in the WCHA, it can’t be taken for granted, either.

    It’s What You Hear

    Michigan Tech’s players may have misheard a quote, but it was a significant part of their drive to gain a split at Wisconsin last weekend.

    After the Badgers were flat in the final two periods against the Huskies on Friday, Wisconsin defenseman Tom Gilbert said the series seemed like “an easy bye” the way the team played in the second and third periods.

    That statement seems true — that the Badgers played the final 40 minutes like they were the only players on the ice. But the Huskies took exception to the “easy bye” statement anyway.

    “For them to say it was a bye weekend gets us fired up and ready to play,” Conner said. “We showed them that we’re not a pushover.”

    Climbing the Mountain

    Ask Hill where his Alaska-Anchorage team sits in the PairWise Rankings, and he’ll tell you he has no clue.

    Why? “The reason I’m not aware,” he said, “is I know there’s so much hockey to play.”

    Very true, but with 10 weeks to go before Selection Sunday, the Seawolves are staying within striking distance, ranking tied for 14th in the PairWise despite having a record under .500 (7-8-3). They’re in a decent position because of a high Ratings Percentage Index figure from a tough schedule.

    “I’m happy for our players, and I think what it does is that they know we’re kind of close as a hockey program, that we’re hanging in there,” Hill said. “But they also know that you have to keep winning on the weekends. What it does do is, you show up to practice on Monday and you have their attention.”

    The Seawolves host St. Cloud State this weekend. When Anchorage played at St. Cloud earlier this season, it was unlucky to only get a tie out of the weekend. They were humbled 5-1 on Friday but held a 2-1 lead in the third period on Saturday before the Huskies got the equalizer.

    “Since that series, I can honestly say that we’ve been a team that has practiced with a purpose and with passion,” Hill said. “The guys will be aware of it [the PairWise] and it keeps them motivated. And it’s good because a year ago right now we were at the beginning of our book debacle and probably about as low as you could be. We’re climbing the mountain together, and we’re making progress.”

    Hey, We Know You

    Yes, that’s former Wisconsin forward and current fuzzy-slipper empire magnate Rick Enrico on the cast of “Bachelorette 2” on ABC.

    We hear that Enrico, who’s the president and chief executive officer of online slipper company Happy Feet USA, has an inside track on Meredith’s heart after bringing her a pair of his fuzzy slippers.

    Enrico, a native of Edina, Minn., scored 66 points and earned four letters at Wisconsin from 1994 to 1998.

    In Other Words

    League players of the week were North Dakota’s Bochenski and Michigan Tech’s Conner as the top forwards, Minnesota-Duluth’s Isaac Reichmuth on defense and Minnesota’s Briggs as the top rookie. … Colorado College was swept at home last weekend for the first time since Nov. 10-11, 2000, against St. Cloud State. … Seven is Denver’s number: It’s the Pioneers’ place in the PairWise Rankings and the number of league home games they have played this season without a victory (0-6-1). …

    Michigan Tech is planning a return to the Resch Center in Green Bay, Wis., where the Huskies will host Notre Dame next season. The school is hosting a 2006 regional at the arena. … Minnesota State’s David Backes has a seven-game point streak and has 13 points in his last 10 games. … St. Cloud State has history in its favor against Alaska-Anchorage. The Huskies haven’t lost to the Seawolves since Feb. 8, 1997, a stretch of 20 games. … Michigan Tech is in the middle of a stretch where it plays 11 straight games against ranked teams.