Seven for Five
Some thoughts this week, while welcoming two teams back to the race for a home-ice spot:
Battle for Third
With three weeks to go in the regular season, Wisconsin and St. Cloud State each could finish as high as first place or as low as seventh. The teams go into a series at the Kohl Center tied for third place in the WCHA, knowing how important third place can be.
The difference between third and fourth in the WCHA is huge. At the Final Five, the fourth-highest remaining seed has to face No. 5 in the Thursday night play-in game. No team has ever won the playoff title after playing in that Thursday night game.
With the upper hand on third place on the line this weekend, that’s somewhere in the Badgers’ minds but not on coach Mike Eaves’ list of things to address.
“I don’t think we need to go there,” Eaves said. “I think that in the big picture of things, the kids understand what’s at stake. Our job is to keep them focused on the next task at hand.”
Both teams have 27 points from 22 WCHA games, but the Huskies have the first two tiebreakers. The first is head-to-head record — St. Cloud beat the Badgers 2-1 and 3-1 — and the second is most conference wins — the Huskies have 12; the Badgers have 11.
“This is the biggest series we’ve had yet,” Wisconsin forward A.J. Degenhardt said. “We’re tied with them right now, and if we could take four points from them this weekend, that would be huge and give us a really good chance of getting third in the league.”
St. Cloud State, meanwhile, has seen its offensive production increase since the winter break, and the Huskies are winning because of it.
Since Dec. 27, St. Cloud has a scoring average of 4.42 goals per game and is 8-3-1. Before that, it scored an average of 2.56 goals per game and was 10-6-2.
In four of the last five series of the first half, the Huskies could manage only three goals on a weekend.
“Our scoring, particularly in the first half of the year, was not really something we could rely on,” St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl said. “And now since then, our scoring has come along quite well.”
The 8-3-1 record since the break “does wonders for the confidence, to say nothing of the points,” Dahl said. “It’s important that your players feel like they’re playing pretty well.”
Colorado College’s slow-starting offense is showing signs of coming around as the season winds down.
In their first 14 WCHA games this season, the Tigers averaged 2.14 goals per game. That stretch concluded with a four-game stretch in which they had scored five goals total.
In the eight games since, CC is averaging 3.38 goals per game, and that extra goal per game has helped it climb back in the race for home ice.
“We’re slowly starting to score a little bit more, like maybe 0.3 or 0.5 of a goal a game,” CC coach Scott Owens said, referring to the team’s overall scoring average. “I just think we have to get that up to 0.75 more a game than we had been before Christmas. We’re healthy now. We seem to be getting on the same page a little bit more. It’s just the continuity, I think, is starting to come through. But for us, it’s just going to be a matter of goalscoring.”
(We’d like to note here that there appeared to be a knocking sound when Owens mentioned that his team is healthy, just for the superstitious.)
It may seem a bit odd to be talking about fractions of goals, but when the difference in goals for and goals against for the Tigers over 22 conference games is one goal, you can see how important it is to get any extra offense.
After being held to two goals by North Dakota last Friday, the Tigers busted loose for four and a crucial victory the next night. CC is at a point where it needs to get points, and scoring goals will be critical.
If the Tigers hadn’t claimed two points in Grand Forks last weekend, things wouldn’t be looking so good. But because they did, they’re back up to No. 15 in the PairWise and are still in the hunt for a home spot in the playoffs.
“Yeah, it did give us energy,” Owens said. “I don’t want to dwell on the negative side of that because we weren’t necessarily going in there thinking we were going to steal a game up there. We went up there thinking we just wanted to keep playing better. … It gave us a little bump in the PairWise, it keeps us in sixth place. More importantly, it just makes us feel better about ourselves as a team. A relatively young club going into a tough environment finding a way to get a win. And it kind of puts us back in the thick of things, at least bubble-wise.”
There they were, looking at a scoreboard that unbelievably showed a pair of sevens yet again. The Denver Pioneers were at a crossroads in their season.
Earlier in the season when Minnesota State rallied to tie them at 7, the Mavericks then got the next goal and the win. That was the first game in a stretch where Denver lost five out of seven league contests.
So when it happened again last Saturday, it was clear that if the Pioneers wanted to keep alive their hopes for a upper-level spot in the WCHA, they needed to get the next goal and take the game back.
It was Gabe Gauthier who answered the call to right the ship for the Pioneers, scoring with 1:10 remaining to put them ahead.
“At that point, our season may be defined by that last three minutes, as to which way it’s going to go,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “Credit our team and our players, we made the play and they made the play to give us the lead and to win. There’s no question that mentally it was a big test and a big challenge that we were pleased the team passed.”
An inspired third-period performance by Shane Joseph had the Mavericks in the game. His second goal of the period tied the game at 7.
“For a certain portion of that third period, you started to sense Mankato doing a terrific job — they played really well,” Gwozdecky said. “They’re a team that does not give up, and they seem to play their best when their backs are against the wall. They’ve been that kind of team all year long.”
Unfortunately for Mankato, it has been in that situation far too often.
Denver, meanwhile, got an important pair of points that kept them in a sixth-place tie with Colorado College. With series against Minnesota and Colorado College awaiting after this weekend’s trip to Michigan Tech, the Pioneers may have their fate in their hands.
“With six games to go, at least we put ourselves in a position to challenge for it,” Gwozdecky said.
That’s something that may not have been able to be said without the sweep of the Mavericks. But the mental test that Denver passed late Saturday night might provide a spark.
“Physically, we’re in the best health we’ve been in in a long time, so I think we’re prepared that way,” Gwozdecky said. “Emotionally, mentally — I think this past weekend, with being able to get four points from a team that has really been a challenge for us was important for us, and put ourselves in a position to challenge for that fifth and final [home] playoff spot, along with other teams.”
Back to Form
Looking for one reason Minnesota-Duluth has put together a 12-game unbeaten streak, including a sweep of rival Minnesota last weekend?
There are plenty of reasons, but standing out is the play of goaltender Isaac Reichmuth, who has shaken off a bad stretch to return to form.
Reichmuth is 11-0-1 with a 1.74 goals against average and a .935 save percentage in the unbeaten streak.
The odd thing isn’t that Michigan Tech’s Conner scored his eighth shorthanded goal of the season last Saturday. It’s that he missed on another shorthanded breakaway later in the same game. When Conner has chances like that, he usually buries them.
Conner gets so many shorthanded goals because he’s the one pressuring the players at the point. He plays at the top of the penalty kill and therefore has the opportunity to step up on an opponent when he sees a mistake.
“He’s got great anticipation. He really pounces when a puck’s bobbled,” Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell said. “And he’s got such great breakaway speed that they make even the slightest error, he’s gone and you’re not going to catch him. And he’s got the ability to finish.
“In our system, too, in our forecheck, he’s in a good spot. He anticipates well. Jon Pittis, who has worked with him most of the year on the penalty kill, steers things toward Chris. He gets a little jump on somebody and you’re not going to catch him.”
The national record for shorthanded goals in a season is 10, by Michigan’s John Madden.
St. Cloud State freshman Tim Boron is making the most of his chance at being the starting goalie.
Boron replaced an injured Adam Coole three weeks ago at Michigan Tech and has gone 4-0 since. More impressively, he has a 1.53 goals against average and .944 save percentage in that time.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve had three pretty decent goalies, and one has always managed to step up and play pretty well,” Dahl said. “And that’s really a big key. At this time of the year, particularly, goaltending becomes paramount.”
Boron is expected to make both starts at Wisconsin this weekend, making him the third St. Cloud goalie to face the Badgers this season. Coole, who earned a victory over Wisconsin in October. will miss the trip to attend his grandmother’s funeral. Jason Montgomery will be Boron’s backup.
Consider that when John Hill made the following statement last Saturday, the Alaska-Anchorage coach had just seen his team swept by Michigan Tech in an embarrassing fashion.
“Right now, to me, this may be the low point of my involvement with the team,” Hill told the Anchorage Daily News.
But also consider that Hill directed a team last year that endured a 35-game winless streak, and you can tell how much the pair of losses hurt the Seawolves.
It’s another sign of the wholly competitive nature of the WCHA that even at the bottom of the standings there’s a lot of potential for position changes.
Michigan Tech’s road sweep of Alaska-Anchorage last weekend put the Huskies two points behind ninth-place Minnesota State and five points back of the eighth-place Seawolves. While the Mavs and the Seawolves each only have four conference games left, Tech has six and a chance to catch up.
“We’re desperate for points and we need to play with a sense of desperation and a sense of urgency,” Russell said. “The way the schedule works out, we’ve got four of our last six at home, so we’re in a good position. But we need to take care of business.”
That’s certainly what the Huskies did last Saturday. In running out to an 8-0 lead midway through the game, they got goals from seven different players (Taggart Desmet had two, and John Hartman later became the eighth MTU player to score in the game).
The Tech coaches challenged their players before the game.
“You need to be the first to loose pucks, you need to win all the battles, you need to do all the little things and compete harder than you’ve competed all year,” Russell said he told his team. “And the guys certainly did that and came flying out of the gates.”
In Other Words
League players of the week were Denver defenseman Ryan Caldwell on offense, Minnesota-Duluth’s Reichmuth on defense and Denver’s Matt Carle and Michigan Tech’s Desmet as the top rookies. … Alaska-Anchorage’s Curtis Glencross and St. Cloud State’s Peter Szabo each will have to sit out Friday night after disqualification penalties last Saturday. Glencross’ was for butt-ending, Szabo’s for spearing. … Minnesota slipped out of the national lead in power-play percentage after being held scoreless on 10 tries by Minnesota-Duluth. The new national leader? The Bulldogs, who were 6-for-10 with the power play and now have converted on 26.6 percent of their attempts for the season. …
Michigan Tech has won six straight games against Alaska-Anchorage, and the nine goals the Huskies scored last Saturday was the most they ever put up against the Seawolves. … The 16 goals Denver scored against Minnesota State last weekend were the most in a series since February 1990. … After allowing four or more goals only five times in its first 25 games, North Dakota has been hit with four or more goals against in three of its last four games. … St. Cloud State defenseman Matt Gens is out for this weekend after reinjuring his shoulder last weekend. … Alaska-Anchorage actually had a season-high 43 shots on goal in its 9-4 loss to Michigan Tech last Saturday.