This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 29, 2004

The Official Cause

Some thoughts this week, while trying to stay afloat in the rising river of complaints about WCHA refereeing:

  • North Dakota and Minnesota took turns ending the other’s unbeaten streak last weekend, leaving Minnesota-Duluth with the nation’s longest, eight games. And look who’s tied for first place, too. But don’t get too used to it, Bulldogs. A bye week likely will mean the end of that position.
  • More than slightly off topic: We want to put a person on Mars, but why can’t anyone develop a windshield wiper that won’t leave that streak right in the line of sight?
  • In the first 53:11 last Saturday night, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State combined for 13 goals. So then the defenses decide to shut it down? Where were ya?
  • There are four WCHA series this week. In two of them, the teams are separated by four points. In another, the sides are six points apart. Only in the Denver-North Dakota series (an 11-point spread) is there not a chance for catching up or coming close.
  • And finally, bashing the officials surely ranks right behind cheering for your team and cheering against your team’s rival, but recently it seems everyone’s joining the hit parade. We tend to give officials the benefit of the doubt because it’s a thankless job, but with the league so tight this season, one call either way can change an awful lot.

    Share of the Blame

    It’s been asked before, but with all the rage among coaches and fans recently, it bears repeating: Why, oh why, would anyone choose to be a referee in the WCHA?

    (Needless editorial comment alert: Some would twist around that question to read, Why, oh, why, would the WCHA choose these as referees? But we digress.)

    Example A: Furious that a penalty called on his team led to an overtime goal for Denver last Friday, Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill yelled at referee Randy Schmidt on the ice, then in the parking lot, according to the Anchorage Daily News. “I can’t say what I want,” Hill told the paper, “because I’ll get fined [by the league].”

    Example B: Upset that a tying goal was waved off in the last minute of a loss to Minnesota last Saturday, North Dakota forward Zach Parise teed off on the call that was made. Parise was ruled to have played the puck with a high stick before teammate Brady Murray put it in.

    Throw those in with beverages raining down on officials as they leave the ice, as happened at one WCHA rink recently, and you’ve got what could be considered a downright hostile environment.

    WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd hears a lot of complaints, and he knows why.

    “Every call that our officials make is so crucial that a wrong call or a call that a coach sees and he doesn’t think is the right call, it costs points, it costs a lot of anxiety,” Shepherd said.

    In Hill’s case, Shepherd talked to the Seawolves coach after Friday’s game, then again Saturday to go over what happened.

    “I just think that everything’s getting so tight that it’s tough,” Shepherd said. “This time of year always is a tough time for officials because of the severity of the games, and every call is so damn crucial that it can cost a team a point.

    “Who do they blame? They blame the referee. That’s their out. We as officials have to put up with it. Do I get upset? Sure, I get upset. But I’m not going to go overboard unless somebody would attack an official or something like that.”

    Shepherd said the officials get upset when the criticism comes. “I just say, ‘Hey, we’ve just got to let it go, guys, and we’ve got to work through it and go on.'”

    Tempers have risen in recent weekend in respect to officiating, but communication can help matters.

    “The coaches in our league are, I think, fantastic,” he said. “Do they get shook up? Yes. Do they get critical? Yes. But we can all work through it, I think, and that’s the most important thing.”

    What a Relief

    The joy was evident when Colorado College took the lead on Wisconsin in the third period last Saturday. The way the Tigers celebrated was more suited to a playoff goal than one in January.

    But it was the release of a lot of weight with a 3-1 victory over the Badgers. The Tigers had lost five straight overall and seven in a row in the WCHA before last Saturday.

    “It’s a relief, it’s feeling good about yourself,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “It’s a feeling they haven’t felt in a long time despite playing well. And it was a nice reward for the boys.”

    The Tigers’ scoring problems didn’t magically disappear, but they were able to eke out a victory thanks to the power play. They scored four times on the power play over the weekend — twice in each game — after scoring only once on the man advantage in the four games that preceded the Wisconsin series.

    The other goal came from the fourth line, meaning a talented bunch of scorers didn’t hit on anything at even strength.

    But that didn’t seem to matter to the Tigers, who were getting ready for a series at Michigan Tech this weekend just minutes after the one with Wisconsin ended.

    “We’re not planning on looking back on anything that’s happened in the past,” CC goaltender Curtis McElhinney said. “We’re looking forward. And we’re looking forward to the week against Tech already.”

    Owens seemed a little concerned that the Huskies have been able to score goals while his team hasn’t.

    “It’s going to be a battle for us up there,” he said. “At least we won’t be gripping the stick quite as hard.”

    “It’s a tough road trip to make, it’s definitely a long one,” said McElhinney, who will join his teammates in flying to Green Bay, Wis., and then riding the rest of the way to Houghton on a bus. “And they’re always a good team in their home rink. It’ll be a good weekend for us.”

    Turning Point?

    Alaska-Anchorage players might just have a game to remember now, after many they’d like to forget.

    Down 3-1 after two periods last Saturday night at Denver, the Seawolves rallied with four goals in the third period to claim a split with a 5-3 victory.

    In the way it happened, it might go down as a landmark victory if the Seawolves make something out of this season.

    Goals by Curtis Glencross and Vladimir Novak brought Anchorage even, then Nick Lowe scored his first two collegiate goals — the second into an empty net — to provide a satisfying victory.

    “With 20 minutes left, we’re down 3-1, and I think our players really realized that we could pull something out here because [goaltender] Kevin [Reiter] kept us in the game,” Hill said. “Then, at that point, I think they dug deep and they talked about what had happened the night before and trying to atone for it and get something back and salvage the weekend.”

    The Pioneers won in overtime on Friday, scoring on a power play.

    “We really stepped it up a notch,” Hill said. “Our guys probably played as well in the third period as we’ve played all year. I wish we could have played that way the whole game, but we didn’t. But at crunch time, when we needed to, they did.”

    It was such a special victory for a team that didn’t win any of these kinds of games last season and, in fact, won only once overall, that forward Dallas Steward took a little extra time in his uniform in the locker room to savor it.

    “I’ve never won here. I’m loving it,” Steward told the Anchorage Daily News. “I just hope this is our turning point, that we say, ‘Hey, we play like this, there’s nothing that can stop us.'”

    Disruptive Injury

    Grant Potulny is out for a while, but he’ll still be around.

    The Minnesota captain is expected to be out until early March with a shoulder injury suffered last Saturday. The Gophers may miss his power-play contribution, but because he’ll be around the team, his leadership will still be there.

    “The good thing is we play a lot of home games now,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “So he’s going to be around this weekend. We won’t have him when we’re in Duluth. Who knows if he’ll be ready to play by the time we play Denver the last weekend in February. We’ll just know more three, four weeks down the line. He’ll be around, but obviously it’s a void during the game and on the bench. Somebody else is going to have to step in and continue to play well.”

    Potulny’s injury comes at a particularly inopportune time because the Gophers forwards appeared to be settling into a stable lineup. Potulny had been playing on a line with Gino Guyer and Tyler Hirsch, but now new combinations must be formed.

    “We had some good things going with our lines, and it has disrupted that again,” Lucia said. “That’s the one thing I’m disappointed in. You start to set things and get some combinations, and now we have to revamp our lines again to compensate for the loss of Grant.”

    But Potulny has come back strong from injuries before. Last season, he missed 22 games with a fractured ankle and ligament damage, but returned to score 23 points in the last 22 games of the season.

    Finding Ways

    It might not last, but this is the latest Minnesota-Duluth has led the WCHA since the 1992-93 season.

    That year, the Bulldogs won the MacNaughton Cup and fell one game short of a trip to the Frozen Four.

    “To be at the top of the league, a pretty good league, is an accomplishment,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin told Kevin Pates of the Duluth News Tribune. “We’re playing pretty good hockey, and finding ways to win, and we’d like to stay right near the top.”

    Take Two Points and Call Me in the Morning

    And you thought the season alone was enough of a headache for Troy Jutting?

    The Minnesota State coach had to get four stitches to close a cut on the back of his head after he was hit by a puck during Friday morning’s skatearound.

    The whirlwind of last weekend’s games couldn’t have helped the pain, but a victory on Saturday probably worked as well as the aspirin did.


    What does 400 wins mean to Lucia?

    “I’ve stayed ahead of the posse.”

    Lucia earned his 400th career victory against North Dakota last Saturday, a day after the Sioux’s Dean Blais earned No. 250 against the Gophers.

    “I think if you talk to most coaches, you worry about the upcoming game,” Lucia said. “I’ve had some awfully good players and some great assistant coaches that have made me look good. And I’ve been doing it a long time. I was fortunate that I got a [head coaching] job at a very young age, in my late 20s.”

    Getting Back

    McElhinney knew Wisconsin’s Rene Bourque was about to come out of the penalty box. The Colorado College goaltender saw coming the breakaway that the Badgers’ leading scorer was about to have in the second period last Saturday, with the game tied at 1.

    And he had in his mind a moment from two seasons ago. As a freshman, McElhinney was beaten for the winning goal in a shootout that determined third place at the Badger Hockey Showdown. The scorer? Rene Bourque. The shot? Low, stick side.

    “I had a pretty good idea where he was going,” McElhinney said of his stop on Bourque this time around, on a shot to the same spot.

    That stop was the turning point that led to CC’s 3-1 victory over the Badgers.

    “I know Rene all right, so it was nice to make that save on him,” McElhinney said. “He went there in the shootout, but that time it went in. This time, I wasn’t going to let it go in.”

    As much as the victory was a big step for the Tigers, it was a strong statement for McElhinney, too. In his last start, he allowed four first-period goals before being lifted.

    He had a talk with Owens last Thursday and found out Matt Zaba would start the first game of the series.

    “He understood in our conversation, and I figured he’d be ready,” Owens said. “If he could see an opening for him to get on a roll, I thought he would seize it. And he did. Without that goaltending, we wouldn’t have been able to win that game.”

    Net Effects

    Hill knows there’s an extremely fine line between success and failure with his Alaska-Anchorage team.

    But his goalies have given the Seawolves a chance in many games this season, and he sounds thankful.

    Reiter kept the Seawolves alive last Saturday, stopping 35 of 38 shots in the first two periods combined and all 12 he faced in the third period. Chris King was the unlucky loser a night earlier, stopping 37 of 39 shots but allowing an overtime goal.

    “I know this: We go into every game knowing they’re going to do their job and that they’re going to give us a chance to hang in there, even if we’re a little sluggish or a little slow to get going,” Hill said of his goalies. “We have a young team. We’re fighting consistency. I think we’re getting better, but then we’ll take a little step back. But those guys have always been there to be the saving grace.

    “Without a doubt, they’re our two co-MVPs for the season. We would not be in the position we’re in without the efforts and the play of those two. They deserve most of the credit. And I certainly don’t want to take anything away from our guys because they have worked hard. And I think, based on where we were a year ago at this time, it’s pretty damn remarkable. But Kevin and Chris deserve most of the credit.”

    Hill said he envisions playing King on Fridays and Reiter on Saturdays for the rest of the season. And yes, it’s safe to talk about the rest of the season in positive terms in Anchorage — a far cry from last season.

    The Seawolves are still tied with Denver for sixth place and still hold a decent ranking in the PairWise. They were 13th going into the weekend.

    That makes for some interesting series involving UAA, including this weekend’s against Minnesota State at Sullivan Arena.

    “It’s going to be that way for the rest of the year, and that’s what’s exciting and fun,” Hill said. “Because you’re playing for something and the games mean something. At this time last year, our guys were probably counting down the days.”

    The Hole Truth

    It was within the realm of possibility that the WCHA could have had two games in one season suspended and held over for a day.

    Wisconsin’s game with Minnesota State at the Kohl Center on Dec. 12 was interrupted by a power outage and resumed the next day. Then last Friday, a 5-foot chunk out of the ice stopped Minnesota’s game with North Dakota at Mariucci Arena.

    Lucia said postponing the game was a possibility, but the ice crew got the area back in playing shape using water, some fire extinguishers and a mat over the spot to keep it cool.

    “It’s just one of those fluke things,” Lucia said. “I’ve been coaching 20 years and I’ve never seen a game held up that long. But it was so big of an area that we couldn’t take the risk of a guy going in there and tearing up his knee.”

    No Surprise

    Was it really any surprise Minnesota ended North Dakota’s unbeaten streak at 14 games last Saturday? The Gophers also ended the Sioux’s school-record 16-game unbeaten streak last season.

    In fact, North Dakota hasn’t swept Minnesota in Minneapolis since 1980.

    Meanwhile, Minnesota’s eight-game unbeaten streak ended last Friday.

    In Other Words

    League players of the week were St. Cloud State’s Billy Hengen on offense, Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Bruckler on defense and Minnesota State’s Travis Morin as the top rookie. … Minnesota State forward Chad Clower, playing in only his second and third games of the season after shoulder surgery, had three goals and five points last weekend. … Last Saturday, Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner became the third player nationally to reach 20 goals for the season. … CC sophomore Marty Sertich figured into the 12th game-winning goal of his collegiate career last Saturday, scoring the winner against Wisconsin. He has two GWGs this season and has assisted on two more. …

    Wisconsin earned its 100th victory over Colorado College last Friday. CC is the first team the Badgers have beaten 100 times. … Michigan Tech’s Colin Murphy is listed as questionable for the series against Colorado College after missing last Saturday’s game with an injury. He’s second on Tech’s scoring list with 27 points. … With three points last weekend, Conner James has moved into a tie for 25th on Denver’s career scoring list. He has 141 points in 148 games. …

    Minnesota State has allowed a horrendous 30 goals in the last four games. … Michigan Tech plays eight of its next 10 games at home. … North Dakota goaltender Jordan Parise lost his first collegiate game last Saturday after starting the season 9-0-2. … St. Cloud’s Hengen has seven points in his last three games and nine points in his last five games. … Wisconsin’s Bourque scored his 50th career goal last Friday, becoming the first Badgers player to do so since Dany Heatley. The catch: Heatley did it in two seasons. And welcome back.