Don’t Pick Us!
Some thoughts this week, while wondering how we can help your team — perhaps by going against them in the picks:
The two teams at the top of the race for the MacNaughton Cup are worlds apart when it comes to the strength of their remaining schedules.
By the numbers, North Dakota has the easiest road of any WCHA team in the last four weeks of regular-season play, while Minnesota-Duluth has the toughest schedule left. The Sioux and the Bulldogs are tied for first place with 29 points.
The strength-of-schedule formula used to put UMD and North Dakota at opposite ends takes the average of the RPI figure for the team’s opponents. The Bulldogs play Minnesota (No. 4 in the RPI), Colorado College (No. 17), North Dakota (No. 1) and Wisconsin (No. 7) in the final four weeks before the playoffs, and their opponents have an average RPI of .5706, which would rank sixth in the current RPI standings.
The Sioux play Colorado College, Minnesota State (No. 41), UMD (No. 6) and Michigan Tech (No. 43). Those teams combine for an RPI of .5085, a rating that would be 26th of 58 teams in the standings.
The Tigers, meanwhile, have the second-toughest remaining schedule among league teams, with series against the Sioux, the Bulldogs, St. Cloud State and Denver. All four of their remaining opponents are in the top 11 in the RPI.
The rest of the league shakes out like this in terms of the statistical toughness of their remaining schedule, with all games included: third, Minnesota, .5706; fourth, Michigan Tech, .5426; fifth, Wisconsin, .5425; sixth, St. Cloud State, .5364; seventh, Minnesota State, .5273; eighth, Alaska-Anchorage, .5268; ninth, Denver, .5131.
A few weeks back, Minnesota coach Don Lucia mentioned that if he had to vote for the WCHA’s most valuable player at that time, he would select Brückler.
Last weekend, Brückler showed everyone why.
After allowing three goals in the first period Friday night against North Dakota, he allowed only two goals the rest of the weekend, making 58 saves in that span, to lead the Badgers to a noteworthy sweep of the nation’s former No. 1 team.
“He’s been a big part of our formula all year,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said, “in terms of us getting [wins].”
It seems that even when he isn’t being the star of the game, he’s at least keeping the Badgers in it. All season, Brückler has been hailed as the Badgers’ backbone, and he’s probably the single biggest reason Wisconsin has been in the top five for the majority of the season.
But the junior is quick to turn all the attention back toward his team, with good reason. Last season, the Badgers allowed an average of 30.95 shots on goal per game. That figure is down this season, although a recent stretch of allowing 30 or more shots in five of the last six games has the season average at 28.5.
“Our systems and our improvement from last year has just been a huge part in my own success and my own growth as a goaltender,” Brückler said. “I have gotten more help than I have in my first two years.”
After a rough start, Brückler has settled into a consistent pattern. The pressure was on at the start of the season when he was the only experienced goaltender on the roster, but he has fed off the opportunity to play most of the minutes.
“The ups and downs are certainly there, but very much different than in the past, where they were bigger ups and bigger downs,” he said. “I’ve kept it a lot more level, and I think also playing a lot of games has helped me do that. I’ve just adapted to knowing what I have to do during the week to get myself ready for a couple games on the weekend.”
It remains to be seen what sweeping North Dakota will do for the Badgers, who have this weekend off. It could send Wisconsin on its way to a top-three finish or give the Badgers a dangerous case of overconfidence.
“The way North Dakota has played all season, it certainly is all right that people are surprised at us beating them twice,” Bruckler said. “This is the first time they’ve been swept [this season], so good for our team. We took another step and we’re really going toward the direction that we can be a championship team.”
Settle It on the Ice
Minnesota-Duluth is 9-0-1 in its last 10 games. Minnesota is 9-1 in its last 10 games. So let’s throw them on a rink and have them decide who’s the hotter team.
It just so happens that will go down this weekend at the DECC, where the Bulldogs are looking to further their run toward the MacNaughton Cup and the Gophers may be looking for some revenge.
Earlier this season, the Bulldogs ended Minnesota’s streak of games without consecutive losses at 91 by sweeping the Gophers at Mariucci Arena. It was early, but it may have been the weekend that the Bulldogs showed the rest of the WCHA that they were going to be a significant force in the league this season.
Other than a pair of weekend sweeps (against St. Cloud State and at North Dakota), UMD has done little to get away from that statement.
Now, the Bulldogs are faced with the challenge of stopping a Minnesota offense that is averaging 3.9 goals per game in their last 10 outings. If their defense doesn’t do it, maybe they’ll be able to win a shootout. UMD is averaging 4.7 goals per game in the same period.
Those potent offenses will put the focus on the goaltenders, UMD’s Isaac Reichmuth and Minnesota’s Kellen Briggs. Reichmuth was the freshman surprise in goal last season; Briggs is sharing that title with CC’s Matt Zaba this season.
Reichmuth got the better of the Gophers earlier this season, when the Bulldogs claimed a 4-3 victory courtesy a T.J. Caig overtime goal and sealed the sweep with a 4-2 win.
Return of the Doubters
North Dakota’s Brady Murray was quick to turn the attention away from the Sioux’s goaltenders last Saturday night.
Parise allowed three second-period goals to allow Wisconsin to take a 3-1 lead, and Brandt gave up another doozy early in the third when he swept an attempted clearing pass right onto Wisconsin forward Rene Bourque’s stick.
So when Murray, who scored both of UND’s goals in Saturday’s 5-2 loss, was asked if he felt let down by the goaltenders, the freshman said: “No, not at all.
“We’re just frustrated. This was one of our best games of the year.”
Friday’s game was nowhere near the Sioux’s best. After they ran out to a 3-0 lead after one period, they appeared to let up and Wisconsin took advantage.
Brandt’s first miscue of the weekend drew the ire of coach Dean Blais after the game. Brandt came out to push a puck forward with the Sioux on the power play. He fired the puck to center ice, where it deflected off a stick and got to Wisconsin’s Andrew Joudrey. Joudrey moved in and put a shot on a retreating Brandt; it hit the goaltender and got past him.
Blais understandably was upset that his goalie was out making a dangerous play with the puck with a 3-1 lead in the third period. Now, many are waiting to see how the pair of gaffes will impact the Sioux’s goaltending the rest of the way.
Last season, the area between the pipes was perceived as the weak spot that limited how far North Dakota went. Brandt and Parise had quieted those critics so far this season, but the doubters are back.
Here’s the part of Minnesota-Duluth’s success this season that will mean a lot to the bean counters.
The Bulldogs’ final four regular-season home games are projected to be sellouts at the DECC, which would leave the average attendance this season for UMD home games at 4,743. That’s 761 more than last season’s average.
See For Yourself
It would be pointless to try to describe Earl’s game-winning goal for Wisconsin last Friday, so take a look on the Wisconsin Web site. If you have Windows Media, here’s the direct link.
No Time Off
After this weekend, the next time a WCHA team has a weekend off, it’ll be because they lost in the first round of the league playoffs.
Wisconsin holds the last off weekend of the season for a WCHA team. Starting next week, all 10 teams will be in action the rest of the way.
It was an eventful weekend for Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner, and the second event may keep him out this weekend.
Conner claimed his team-record seventh shorthanded goal of the season last Friday. He leads the nation in shorthanded scores, and is three behind the NCAA season record set by Michigan’s John Madden.
But Saturday, he was clipped with a skate in the front of his neck, causing a gash that required 14 stitches to close. The school is listing him as questionable for this weekend’s series at Alaska-Anchorage.
Tim Boron’s best save of the weekend might have come when he got into last Friday night’s game against Michigan Tech.
Boron, a St. Cloud State freshman goaltender, got into the series when starter Adam Coole was knocked out after being run into early in the first period on Friday. What could have quickly gone bad for St. Cloud was smoothed over by Boron, who stopped 46 of the 48 shots he saw in the series.
Boron improved to 3-2-1 this season and has a 2.29 goals against average and .901 save percentage.
The Big Three
How’s this for obvious statements? Thomas Vanek, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the WCHA’s top three NHL-affiliated prospects.
Now, The Hockey News has the three WCHA stars included in its list of the top 10 NHL-affiliated prospects.
Minnesota’s Vanek, a Buffalo Sabres pick, is No. 4. North Dakota’s Parise, a pick of the New Jersey Devils, is No. 5. And Wisconsin’s Suter, who was selected by the Nashville Predators, is No. 6.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod and former Minnesota State coach Don Brose were named as recipients of awards from the American Hockey Coaches Association last week.
McLeod is the 2004 winner of the Jim Fullerton Award, presented to an individual who “loves the purity of the sport,” according to the AHCA.
Brose is the winner of the John MacInnes Award, which goes to someone who furthers amateur hockey and youth programs. Brose was instrumental in getting the Mavericks to the Division I level and into the WCHA.
In Other Words
WCHA weekly award winners were Colorado College’s Marty Sertich on offense, St. Cloud State’s Boron and Wisconsin’s Brückler on defense and Wisconsin’s Earl as the top rookie. … The sweep by Colorado College last weekend was just the second of the season for Alaska-Anchorage. … Minnesota-Duluth’s next victory at the DECC will be its 400th in the building. The Bulldogs are 399-300-36 at the DECC since starting to play there in the 1966-67 season. … Minnesota State has lost 111 man games due to injury, according to figures put together by the school’s athletic communications office. …
CSTV will feature WCHA games in its Friday night game of the week for the next two weeks. This week, it’s Colorado College at North Dakota; next week, it’s Minnesota-Duluth at CC. … CC is averaging 40.4 shots on goal in its last five games, a stretch in which the Tigers are 4-1. … Denver and Minnesota State get together this weekend for the first time since the Pioneers lost a 7-1 lead and lost 8-7 in Mankato on Dec. 20. … Jon Volp made a season-high 45 saves for Minnesota State in a 2-2 tie with Minnesota-Duluth last Saturday. …
The WCHA has a .699 winning percentage and 50-19-9 record in non-conference games. Last season, league teams had a combined .656 winning percentage and 57-27-8 record. … North Dakota lost its No. 1 ranking to Boston College, but it managed to hold onto the top spot in the PairWise Rankings. … Minnesota has a 14-0 record when its goaltenders save 90 percent or more of the shots. … St. Cloud State’s Raduns scored his first two collegiate goals last Friday during Winter Carnival at Michigan Tech, then added another goal a night later. … Earl’s hat trick last Friday was Wisconsin’s first since one by Dany Heatley in 2000.