This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 22, 2004

Let the Games Begin

Some thoughts this week, while finally preparing for a week when all 10 WCHA teams are playing conference games:

  • Poor Blizzard, the St. Cloud State mascot. Run into one drunken fan and you lose your head.
  • If Minnesota happens to sweep North Dakota this weekend, are the Gophers a contender for the league title? It would be a long shot, but they would be in the thick of the race for a top-three spot.
  • How tough is this league? Eight WCHA teams are represented in the first 17 spots in the PairWise Rankings.
  • With everyone having played either 14, 16 or 18 league games, the standings are finally starting to shape up in a more realistic fashion. With the exception of the final two spots, the points-lost category ranks the same way as the points-gained column.
  • And finally, this is only the second time this season there are five league series in a weekend. Those tend to be the most telling weekends because everyone is moving up or down the standings. Can Minnesota make another big jump?

    D Before O

    Most will credit North Dakota’s offense for the nation’s longest unbeaten streak, which sits at 13 games going into this weekend’s spotlight series against Minnesota at Mariucci Arena.

    And why not? The Sioux are averaging five goals per game over that stretch.

    But Sioux coach Dean Blais is quick to credit his defense for playing a sound game. In that same span, the UND defense allowed an average of only 2.15 goals per game, which has helped bring the Sioux up to third in the WCHA in scoring defense.

    In a time when three players were gone to the World Junior Championship and North Dakota showed stretches of vulnerability, the defense held everything together, Blais said.

    “We found a way to win and found a way to be successful without [Zach Parise, Brady Murray and Drew Stafford],” Blais said. “I think it’s mainly our sound defensive play.”

    The sound that is heard the most from the Sioux defense is a thud. As in, the noise made when one of the big UND defensemen runs over an attacking opponent.

    Of the six defensemen who play regularly for North Dakota, three are 6-foot-2 or taller. Matt Smaby is 6-5, Matt Greene is 6-3 and Nick Fuher is 6-2. Anyone who remembers the 6-foot-4 Mike Commodore from the Sioux lineup a few years back knows that being tall is being a North Dakota defenseman.

    (There’s the puzzling question of how 5-foot-8 Robbie Bina fits into the equation, but that’s a topic for another day.)

    “We’ve got a big, solid corps of defensemen, and it’s tough to get around them,” Blais said. “In practice at times, we’re doing 3-on-2s and we have trouble entering the zone.”

    Greene gets much of the attention because of his skill, but also because of a nasty streak. Blais took him out of the lineup last Saturday at Michigan Tech “because he took three penalties and he made mental mistakes that led to two goals,” a night earlier, Blais said.

    “I think he’s come a long way. I still think he’s got a ways to go.”

    Greene led the league with 135 penalty minutes last season, but the sophomore has only 32 this season.

    “A junior like Mike Commodore turned into a leader, and Matt Greene is our leader but he has to do it in a positive way,” Blais said. “That leadership can go negative for you if you don’t handle it the right way and channel it the right way. I’m not worried about the way he can play; he does a lot of positive things for us. But he’s got to learn that three penalties aren’t allowed and you’ve got to be mentally focused every game.”

    The Breakout

    Two weeks ago at Colorado College, Minnesota’s defense and goaltending came into focus. Last weekend at Minnesota State, the Gophers’ offense got up to speed.

    Good timing on both. They’ll be put to the test this weekend against North Dakota.

    The offense broke out in a big way against the Mavericks, scoring 16 goals, including 10 last Saturday. Six different players scored on Friday, while Thomas Vanek added a hat trick for a weekend total of four goals.

    Putting Vanek on a line with center Jake Fleming and right winger Danny Irmen appeared to create a spark from that group, while Matt Koalska had a number of good chances, especially on Friday.

    Those chances could be hard to come by against a bigger North Dakota defense this weekend, but playing on the larger ice may give the Gophers a bit of an advantage there.

    Losing a Grip?

    Five goals in the last four games, all losses. Eight goals in the last six league games, all losses.

    Maybe this is what Scott Owens was worried about before the season. A shortage of scoring has derailed Colorado College in recent weeks, and the Tigers are in danger of missing out on a lot of things.

    The most immediate concern is their place in the WCHA standings, currently eighth. But the overall concern is for their national tournament prospects. The Tigers were tied for 16th in the PairWise this week, meaning they’re going to have to start collecting wins to make the NCAAs.

    Here’s the reminder that the West Regional is in Colorado Springs this season, and that home teams usually do well in regionals.

    “We’re kind of playing ourselves out of a top-five spot, but we’re in it for the long haul,” Owens said. “I think our youthfulness is finally starting to show. We were able to dodge some bullets the first half of the year. Thirteen out of 19 kids are freshmen or sophomores, and we don’t have a lot of scoring confidence right now. … We’re just going week to week and trying to get better, but it’s a little bit of a struggle on offense.”

    This isn’t the Tigers team that led the nation in goals scored last season, but this team doesn’t have Peter Sejna, Noah Clarke or Tom Preissing, either. This kind of down trend is new for everybody.

    “The upperclassmen have won 84 games in the last 3 years, and it’s a new experience,” Owens said. “The new guys are just trying to figure it all out. It’s kind of a fine line between pushing them and working them and trying to keep them positive at the same time. The majority of our problems stem from a lack of offensive production. And with that, sometimes you start to grip a little bit.”

    The Tigers just hope they don’t lose their grip on the season.

    Rolling Along

    Starting 4-0 in the WCHA this season was good and bad for Minnesota-Duluth.

    Good for the obvious reasons. Bad because when the Bulldogs lost a pair of home games to St. Cloud State in league games five and six, it was like a bubble burst.

    “We lost a little bit of that momentum,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “Then we had some injuries and what I would consider probably not great goaltending, not great team defense. We played good at times, we played not so good at times. … We just had some ups and downs. We didn’t play bad.”

    Those ups and downs continued throughout the first half of the season, but the Bulldogs have started the second half with a 6-0 run that has them in second place in the league.

    Since the calendar flipped to 2004, UMD goaltender Isaac Reichmuth is 6-0 with a 2.00 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.

    “You look at our first half, I don’t think we had all of our key guys either in the lineup or playing well,” Sandelin said, mentioning specifically the loss of senior defenseman Beau Geisler to an arm injury. “Now, I think some of those guys are playing better. I’ll start right in goaltending — Isaac. I think of [T.J.] Caig, I think of Nick Anderson, some guys that we were counting on. And the other guys that had good first halves are continuing that. Hopefully, that’s a good sign.”

    And the Bulldogs again are getting larger-than-expected contributions from some players other than the big scorers like Junior Lessard and Evan Schwabe. Luke Stauffacher, for one, has 10 goals and 22 points this season.

    The coach wasn’t expecting that from the junior assistant captain. “He just finds a way,” Sandelin said.

    Battle For Sixth

    George Gwozdecky is aware that his Denver team hasn’t won in seven home WCHA games this season (0-6-1). He also knows his team is tied for sixth place, one out of a home-ice spot.

    So the pressure is on to win, but not only at home.

    “We know that whether it’s home wins or road wins, we need to start accumulating more for us to get ourselves in position,” Gwozdecky said. “Right now, we’re not in a position to host in the first round of the playoffs. And I think that’s right now our top priority. In order to do that, we’re going to have to start winning a few more games. We understand that, we know that and that’s our mission starting Friday night.”

    This weekend’s series with Alaska-Anchorage at Magness Arena is, in fact, a battle for sixth place in the WCHA. The Pioneers and Seawolves are tied for sixth with 12 league games remaining apiece. UAA pulled into a tie with a 6-3 home victory over St. Cloud State last Saturday.

    And if just playing anyone in the WCHA this season wasn’t motivation enough for Denver, that it needs this series to stay ahead of the Seawolves should be more.

    “I think at this point at our season, not only we but everybody else in this league understands that and is motivated by the fact that this league is so damn competitive this year,” Gwozdecky said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it’s a big series. If they don’t realize that, probably a good realization is the fact that we’re playing a team that’s tied with us right now.”

    Good, But Bad

    From the all-things-considered department, St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl’s take on whether he’s happy with the way his team’s season has gone:

    “If you start the year out and say you’d be four in the PairWise in the middle of January and tied for third in the league,” Dahl said, “I guess I’d have to say, yeah, we’re happy.”

    The Huskies have won only one of their last four games, but they’re still 3-2-1 since the holiday break.

    And the dreaded injury bug hit St. Cloud hard in Anchorage last weekend. Forward Mike Doyle separated a shoulder and will be out for four weeks, Dahl said. Defensemen Matt Gens (broken bone in shoulder) and T.J. McElroy (Grade-1 concussion) also were hurt against the Seawolves.

    Doyle is the team’s leading scorer with 17 points, and losing Gens and McElroy would severely limit St. Cloud’s defensive depth.

    “We’ve got the stretch drive coming into view,” Dahl said, “and hopefully we don’t get any more injuries and we can stay healthy and then get these guys back in due time.”

    Taking No Chances

    Who knows if Norm Bazin was in mind, but when Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves got word of icy road conditions, he decided to call it a night.

    Eaves and Badgers assistant coach Mark LeRose were returning to Madison from Chicago late last Friday night when they got a call alerting them to bad weather ahead. An ice storm had stopped the Notre Dame team bus about 45 miles outside Madison.

    You may remember that Bazin, a Colorado College assistant coach, was seriously injured in an automobile accident north of Spokane, Wash., in snowy conditions. He spent over two weeks in critical condition and was in two hospitals before being released earlier this month to convalesce at home.

    Eaves and LeRose pulled off the road and got a hotel room.

    “Every coach you talk to has had a story like what happened this past weekend with ice storms,” Eaves said. “It’s about making good decisions, how far you push it. I think the older you get, the more you realize you don’t mess with Mother Nature. She’s a formidable opponent, and you’re not going to win. You have to make smart decisions.

    “I think what happened to Norm just highlighted, unfortunately in a negative way, that we have to make good decisions. To try to go over the bearing and get to another game to see another kid might not be worth it if the weather conditions aren’t right.”

    Fab Frosh

    Here’s Blais, talking about his freshmen, with assorted comments mixed in:

    “We still have a lot of freshmen in the lineup, but they haven’t played like freshmen.” Very true. Twenty-four points, like Brady Murray has in 17 games, is unfreshmanlike, at least from the non-Parise standard.

    “They’ve come in and assumed roles on the top lines and on the power play and penalty kill. Brady Murray has played with Zach Parise most of the year, and Chris Porter’s on our second line, and Stafford has been up and down with the top line. Matt Smaby on defense has played every game.” Freshmen are being asked to do more and more in the WCHA, but this year’s UND freshmen do appear to be the real deal.

    “And Jordan Parise has probably played better than all of them. He’s been a pleasant surprise.” Wait, did Blais just say Jordan Parise has played better than Murray, Stafford and the rest of the freshmen? We realize Parise is 9-0-2 this season, but can this be true? Blais sees a lot more of this team, so we’ll have to defer to that judgment.

    “So we really haven’t had a freshman that’s just been OK. They’ve all really excelled.” All fine and dandy in January. March will be the true test.


    Senior forward Cole Bassett is leaving Minnesota State for personal reasons, the school announced this week.

    Bassett had five goals in 18 games this season and had 73 points in his collegiate career.

    What’d Blizzard Do to You?

    Ryan H. Hazzard, 18, faces charges of consuming alcohol as a minor, disorderly conduct and giving false information to police, the St. Cloud Times reported.

    He’s lucky to have avoided a cruelty to animals charge, too.

    Hazzard allegedly knocked the head off Blizzard’s costume during the North Dakota-St. Cloud State game at the National Hockey Center on Jan. 3. This came after police separated him from a shouting match with another fan, the newspaper reported.

    Hazzard was arrested for being verbally abusive to officers. A breath test had his blood-alcohol level at 0.12, and his ID said he was 18, not 22 like he told police.

    The interesting thing is that the North Dakota online student directory lists a Ryan H. Hazzard as a criminal justice studies major. Now that’s studying.

    View to a Kill

    A shortage in scoring appears to be the biggest issue plaguing a Wisconsin team that is 2-3-2 in the seven games after a 15-game unbeaten streak. But also up there is a sudden rise in power-play goals allowed.

    The Badgers have given up five goals in 15 times shorthanded in the last four games, a dismal 67 percent success rate on the penalty kill that has taken the season rate down to 84 percent. That ranks sixth in the league.

    Opponents scored at least one power-play goal in each of the last four games, the longest stretch of the season. Michigan Tech scored once with a man advantage in each game two weeks ago, and Notre Dame scored twice last Saturday and once on Sunday. Both teams are in the middle of the pack in their league when it comes to power-play efficiency.

    The turn in fortunes is drastic when put up against the 12 games that preceded the bad stretch. The Badgers allowed only four goals in that whole span, which included 61 times shorthanded.

    Not Common

    This weekend marks only the second time this season there are five league series scheduled. The first was Nov. 7-8, the first time Minnesota and North Dakota got together this season.

    And it’ll only happen two more times: Feb. 20-21 and Feb. 27-28.

    In Other Words

    League players of the week were North Dakota’s Zach Parise and Minnesota’s Vanek on offense, Minnesota-Duluth’s Reichmuth on defense and Minnesota goaltender Kellen Briggs as the top rookie. … Five WCHA players are among the nation’s top 10 in points per game. Brandon Bochenski’s 1.76 points-per-game average trails only Alabama-Huntsville’s Jared Ross. Zach Parise is fourth at 1.47, Murray is tied for fifth at 1.41, Vanek is ninth at 1.36 and Lessard is 10th at 1.32. … Colorado College forward Tyler Liebel is expected to miss four to six weeks with a knee injury. … Alaska-Anchorage hasn’t been swept at Sullivan Arena this season. The Seawolves are 6-3-1 at home. …

    Michigan Tech junior defenseman Brad Sullivan played at forward for the first time since the midget level last Saturday against North Dakota. … Minnesota’s Briggs broke Adam Hauser’s record for shutouts by a freshman with his fourth blanking of the season last Friday at Minnesota State. … Alaska-Anchorage’s victory over St. Cloud State last Saturday broke a 21-game winless streak against the Huskies that dated to Feb. 8, 1997. … A sweep at the hands of Minnesota last weekend was Minnesota State’s first at home since the 2001-02 season. … It tends to happen in shutouts: The scoring streaks of three Mavericks players ended last Friday. David Backes had a seven-game streak, Shane Joseph had a six-game run and Jake Brenk saw a modest two-game streak end.