It’ll All Work Out
Some thoughts this week, while realizing that when we thought we had some things figured out, the nature of the WCHA came back to prove us wrong.
• How’s this for a situation? The top three teams and the bottom three teams in the standings are decided — not where they’ll finish, but that they’ll be in those groups. That middle pack of four? It’s all up for grabs this weekend, with those four teams playing each other.
• We know better than to just hand the MacNaughton Cup to North Dakota right now. Don’t we? Actually, it wouldn’t be handing it to the Sioux, anyway. They reached out and emphatically grabbed it from Minnesota-Duluth last weekend.
• Slightly off topic: Labatt Blue now is the official beer of USA Hockey. Molson is a supporter of Canadian hockey. There’s a war a-brewin’ here.
• Has Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Brückler helped his WCHA Player of the year chances by allowing only one goal over the last three games? The ballots are due Saturday, so that likely will be the last thing Brückler left for voters to consider. But the wording could hurt the junior — some voters could be swayed because the award is for the league’s top player, not the one who’s most valuable to his team.
• A reminder that Colorado College won the WCHA regular-season title last season before we say this: The Tigers’ sweep of St. Cloud State last weekend was their first on the road in more than two years. And so the on-again, off-again CC candidacy for the top five and for an NCAA tournament spot is now back on.
• Perms? Minnesota players got perms?
• And finally, will the surprises ever stop in this league? We could see CC beating St. Cloud once on the road last weekend, but a road sweep? And Minnesota — a team that hadn’t been swept in two seasons entering the year, has had it happen four times this season thanks to Denver last weekend.
What a Finish
From the comfortable position atop the mess that is the WCHA standings with one weekend left to play, North Dakota coach Dean Blais was able to look at what awaits the middle pack of teams in the standings and offer this assessment:
“You couldn’t have written a better script at the start of the year,” he said, “and have it come true.”
He was, of course, referring to the fact that there are four teams competing for two remaining home-ice spots for the playoffs and those four teams square off this weekend. Minnesota hosts St. Cloud State, while Denver and Colorado College play a home-and-home series.
Just to recap: St. Cloud State is in fourth place with 28 points; Denver and Minnesota are tied for fifth with 27 points; and Colorado College still has a shot with 24 points.
The Huskies clinch a home-ice spot with two points this weekend. Depending on what happens in the Denver-Colorado College series, the Gophers may need three points to top St. Cloud on the tiebreaker.
The Pioneers just need to stay even with or ahead of Minnesota, except by being swept. The Tigers must sweep Denver and have Minnesota sweep St. Cloud or the other way around to get the final home-ice spot.
And for the record, here’s what we know about the tiebreakers, knowing that the Minnesota-St. Cloud and CC-Denver tiebreakers will be decided this weekend: Denver wins tiebreakers over Minnesota and St. Cloud; Minnesota wins over Colorado College; CC wins over St. Cloud; and St. Cloud doesn’t have a tiebreaker advantage.
But here’s to ties hopefully being broken on the ice, not on paper.
“It’s all coming down to the wire,” Blais said, “and I guess that’s the way it should be.”
Said Denver coach George Gwozdecky: “There’s four teams battling for the last two playoff home positions, and it’s going to be a heck of a battle this weekend amongst those four teams, that’s for sure.”
Where It Stands
While noting that no WCHA team has locked up its position, here’s the possible range of playoff seeds for each WCHA team:
North Dakota, 1-2; Minnesota-Duluth, 1-3; Wisconsin, 2-3; St. Cloud State, 4-6; Denver, 4-7; Minnesota, 4-7; Colorado College, 5-7; Alaska-Anchorage, 8-9; Minnesota State, 9-10; Michigan Tech, 8 or 10.
On the Injured List
Things hadn’t been going especially well for Minnesota recently, and then the Gophers got the news this week that their coach probably wouldn’t be skating with them for the rest of the season and wouldn’t be behind the bench in a critical series this weekend.
Don Lucia had surgery on Tuesday to fuse some cervical vertebrae to relieve numbness in his right arm and hand, the school said. He wanted to delay the surgery until after the season, but Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel said Wednesday that Lucia had been in a lot of pain for the last 10 to 12 days.
Lucia will be forced to watch this weekend’s series with St. Cloud State from the Mariucci Arena press box. Guentzel and fellow assistant Bob Motzko will run the team during the series, although as of Wednesday afternoon, no concrete plan was in place of who would be in what role.
“He will be off his feet for a while and probably can’t practice the rest of the year, but will have to just observe and do his deal from there,” Guentzel said of Lucia, who was scheduled to return home on Wednesday.
Back On Top
This is one of those seasons where being the top seed in the WCHA playoffs may not get you a whole lot in terms of advantages over being second or third. Playing a tired team in the Final Five is one, sure, but that has helped exactly one team win the Broadmoor Trophy out of the No. 1 spot in the last six seasons.
But for North Dakota, winning the MacNaughton Cup is the important thing. Minnesota-Duluth could sweep Wisconsin in Madison, but the Sioux would still claim the Cup outright with three points at home against Michigan Tech this weekend.
Being the champion of an exceptionally strong league would be a nice feather in North Dakota’s cap, Blais said.
“It’s huge because of the level of teams in the WCHA,” Blais said. “When you look at the top 15 teams and there’s seven listed, that’s incredible. CC’s on the bubble and they came into Grand Forks and beat us 4-1. That’s a pretty good hockey team that went down and dismantled St. Cloud last week. It’s going to be a battle, even through the playoffs. There’s going to be upsets, I would think, this year because four, five, six and seven are all so close.”
The Sioux got back in the top position with a hard-earned road sweep of the previous leader, Minnesota-Duluth.
“It was fun going in there because for the first time all year, we were the underdog,” Blais said. “And then 13 straight weeks we were No. 1 in the country and everyone was gunning for us, and then all of a sudden Duluth wins 14 straight games (actually, it was 14 games without a loss), they’re No. 1 in the league, going to win it at home, they have the MacNaughton Cup over there with [commissioner] Bruce McLeod ready to present it, and our guys just looked forward to the challenge and played great.”
As well as the Sioux have played all season? Considering the circumstances, Blais thinks so.
But he said his team realizes there’s still work to do against Michigan Tech to put away the title.
“We’re not overenthusiastic, we’re not tight,” Blais said. “But we’re not cocky. Last week was huge, but this is another week. Duluth’s in the past.”
Plenty To Do
Just because Denver swept Minnesota last weekend doesn’t mean it’s all set when it comes to the playoffs. Not by a long shot with this weekend’s rivalry series against Colorado College sure to provide as much of a challenge.
“We knew going into last weekend that we control our own destiny, and we continue to do so,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “But it doesn’t get any easier. The satisfaction of being able to accomplish what your goal was last weekend can be quickly forgotten if we’re not able to have the kind of success we want this weekend. It doesn’t get any easier, that’s for sure — not only for us, but for a lot of teams in this league.”
What has made things a little easier overall for the Pioneers is a tightening of the defense.
There have been a few notable exceptions — seven goals allowed to Minnesota State, six to Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota and five to Alaska-Anchorage — but the Denver defense has done well in the second half of the season.
The Pioneers have had two shutouts and have allowed only one goal five times since the start of January.
“Part of the reason — and I want to stress part of the reason — that we have been playing better and having more success is that we don’t have any of our regulars out due to injury,” Gwozdecky said. “All of our regulars have been able to play in games now. It doesn’t mean our regulars are healthy enough to practice during the week, but we’ve been able to get everybody into the lineup that has been a regular for us, and it’s been a factor for us.
“I think also we went through a period back in January where a number of our forwards were really struggling to finish around the net. Connor James was one of them. Obviously, Connor had three big goals against Minnesota this past weekend. He was 25 percent of our production. That has been a factor as well.
“But when you’ve got your regulars in your lineup, when you’ve got Matt Laatsch and Matt Carle and Ryan Caldwell healthy and playing a regular shift on the blue line, it really helps the continuity of how we play and allows us to be more effective.”
Neither Minnesota nor St. Cloud State wants to back into the playoffs, but both have stumbled down the stretch.
Their series at Mariucci Arena this weekend may put one team in the top five and the other in the bottom five, but one team will have to shake out of a funk to do that.
St. Cloud State is winless in its last four games (0-3-1), while Minnesota is 2-4 in its last six. Not exactly the way to solidify a upper-level spot.
“They’re a point ahead of us, and they’re in the same boat as we are, coming off some losses,” Guentzel said. “They want to try to get their thing straightened out, as we do. They’re a point ahead of us, so we know that we have to win and get three points to go ahead of them. They know they have to win one game to stay ahead of us.
“It’s pretty black and white, and we’re just going to have to go out and play. We just need to worry about playing our game and getting back to doing the little things that make us ultimately successful at the end of the night and the end of the weekend.”
For Minnesota, a gut check may be in order. Everyone knows the talent is still there, but there have been questions about the hunger.
“We played great hockey in January,” Guentzel said of a month in which the Gophers were 7-1-2. “We went to Duluth and they’ve had a great season and they’re a good team, and they were on a roll. Then we came home and won two games. Then we went to Denver, and their undefeated streak is fairly lengthy right now, too. So we lost four games against teams who have been playing very, very well. So our confidence is probably not as high as it was three, four weeks ago, but this team still has the inner confidence that it knows what it takes to be successful at the end of the year.
“I don’t think that’s something that they’ll be able to take away from us, no matter how many losses we’ve had. We still know that we’ve had past success. We just have to figure out what we have to do to get back to playing hard, playing successful. At that point, we can develop our own consistency.”
For all we know, the second-place battle between Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin will be a couple of shootouts.
Not likely, right? About as likely as the top two offenses in the nation getting together last weekend and combining for eight goals?
Anyway, the Bulldogs figure to have quite a defensive battle on their hands this weekend in Madison. The Badgers have the league’s top defense, allowing an average of only 2.15 goals per league game thanks to Brückler and Co., while UMD’s defense isn’t too shabby, either, with Isaac Reichmuth and a solid group of defensemen.
“There’s no question I think goaltending and defensive play is going to be very prominent,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “I think you’ve got two of the best goalies in the league in Isaac and Brückler. They’re a team that doesn’t give up a lot, so they make it very tough for you to score goals. It’s one of those things where if things aren’t going in, you can’t get frustrated. You’ve got to be patient. We’re not going to change a lot — we’re going to hopefully keep doing what we’ve been doing and get opportunities.”
Meanwhile, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said he’s happy to be going into the playoffs with a tough final weekend.
“I just assume have it this way just because of the fact that it gets us into the mental frame of mind that we need to be in going into the playoffs,” Eaves said. “All of these series have had that for us, starting with North Dakota and leading right up to this. It just keeps us going. We’re on the same page. Our players don’t change their thinking. They come in prepared the same way and they are playing a team that is very good. That’s just going to get us better. We’re still such a young team that every time we play, it’s going to make us better.”
This is the first time the teams will meet this season, but, if everything holds true, it won’t be the last.
Unless UMD manages to sneak past North Dakota for first place, the Bulldogs and the Badgers will finish in second and third place, setting up a potential semifinal meeting at the Final Five in two weeks.
The only way Wisconsin can leapfrog the Bulldogs for second place is by sweeping them.
One Up, One Down
Alaska-Anchorage slipped at the end in its drive for a top-five spot, losing its last eight WCHA games. But the Seawolves still finished 11 points better than last season.
Minnesota State won its last league regular-season game, but the Mavericks slipped 21 points from their finish last season and from third to ninth or 10th place.
And one event last Friday at Michigan Tech pretty much summed up the season for the Mavs. With Mankato down 4-2 in the third period, Dana Sorensen was called for charging, then proceeded to earn 30 more minutes in penalties and a night off on Saturday.
He got a 10-minute misconduct for some words exchanged with referee Marco Hunt. After slamming the penalty-box door a couple times, he got a game misconduct. On his way off the ice, he broke his stick over the Plexiglas and got a game disqualification, which also kept him out for Saturday’s game.
Using His Head
Here’s to Denver’s James for being creative.
He sealed a 6-3 victory over Minnesota last Saturday with a somewhat-empty-net goal. Somewhat because Minnesota goaltender Justin Johnson was between James and the goal, but was halfway out of the zone because he was trying to get off the ice for an extra attacker.
James, seeing that he had the goalie out of the net, flipped the puck over Johnson’s head and into the net as the goalie made a desperate, over-the-head swipe at it with his stick.
“Connor’s play, I really had to check it out on video before I believed it,” Gwozdecky said. “But he has always been able to do things for us over his four years and sometimes you say, ‘How did he do that?'”
For the Cup
With the Alaska Airlines Governor’s Cup on the line this weekend in Anchorage, let’s flash back to the first time the Seawolves and the Nanooks met this season — a weekend in which UAA was this close to putting a stranglehold on the trophy.
After the Seawolves took a 1-0 advantage in the four-game season series, they held a 3-2 lead with less than a minute remaining in Game 2. But Fairbanks scored three times in the final 28 seconds to win 5-3 and even the series.
If the teams split again, a shootout will determine the winner of the trophy.
A week ago, we asked you to pick the WCHA’s most valuable player and to give us a reason why. The varied responses indicate there is no one dominant player in the league this season.
Maybe it was a trick question. The WCHA doesn’t give away an MVP award; it honors the player of the year. And yes, the different wordings probably create different votes.
There were more cases made for Wisconsin’s Brückler than for any other player. Here’s a sampling of some of the responses:
“Playing on a very young team, Brückler has been the backbone all season long. His presence between the pipes has allowed Wisconsin’s corps of young defenders to play their game, knowing that if they do make a mistake, he is there to bail them out … and he has bailed them out time and time again. I know there are a lot of great shift players in the WCHA, but Brückler has been on the ice for every minute of every game for the Badgers in WCHA play and his stats speak for themselves. He is the reason the Badgers have turned things around as fast as they have in Madison.”
“Although Wisconsin has had many additions this season that have contributed to the success, Brückler’s consistent play should not be overlooked. His numbers are not as strong as a league MVP might require, but they are tops in the conference and Brückler has played every WCHA game. He has only allowed more than three goals twice in conference play (four both times and one was a blowout win) en route to a 14-6-6 record.”
“I think the case is clear — Chris Conner of Michigan Tech is clearly the WCHA MVP. Not only is Conner one of the best forwards in the entire country, he is clearly the class of the Huskies, as that is to say about the once-great program. Conner’s goals, and his efforts even when not scoring, have kept Michigan Tech from being the abomination they were during Tim Watters’ last full year. If you doubt Conner’s value to the program, just imagine how bad Tech would be without him.”
“Keith Ballard. Have you seen him play? Honestly.”
“It would be an injustice to the league if Junior Lessard isn’t crowned the MVP. Not only is he a threat on the ice, he’s the leader of the team. The statistics show he is the top scorer in the league, and he is the leader of the best power play. He works harder than any player on the ice at any time. He might not be a flashy player, but he gets the job done. He should also get a piece of the credit for turning the Duluth hockey team around the last year and a half.”
“I would have to say it would be Isaac Reichmuth. … Arguably the best goaltender in the WCHA, and the record he has put up should speak for itself.”
“Looking at the league scoring statistics, Brandon Bochenski and Junior Lessard are just above Zach Parise. But if you look at all aspects of the game, Parise should clearly win the Player of the Year award in the WCHA this season. You really need to watch him play live to appreciate everything he does on the ice, whether it’s part of the play or away from the puck. I believe that he is the best two-way player in the league — hands down!”
In Other Words
WCHA players of the week were Colorado College’s Brett Sterling on offense, North Dakota’s Jake Brandt on defense and Denver’s Matt Carle as the top rookie. … With two power-play goals last Friday, Wisconsin freshman Robbie Earl took the team lead in goals at 14. Rene Bourque and Ryan MacMurchy tied him a night later. … Michigan Tech’s Brett Engelhardt had four goals last weekend against Minnesota State and also captured his 100th point for the Huskies. He’s the 58th Tech player to reach the century mark. … Colorado College defenseman Mark Stuart has a point in a career-high six games. …
In Denver’s seven-game unbeaten streak, goaltender Adam Berkhoel has a 2.09 goals against average and a .928 save percentage. … Minnesota’s Kellen Briggs was pulled from both games at Denver last weekend. On Friday, he allowed three goals on the first six shots. A day later, he stopped only two of the four shots he faced. … Minnesota-Duluth’s six-game road unbeaten streak is its longest in 19 seasons. … The Bulldogs have lost only 10 games this season. Half have been to North Dakota. … Goalies playing against St. Cloud State in the last four games have a .961 save percentage.