This Week in the WCHA: March 11, 2004

Calling All Upsets

Some thoughts this week, while pondering whether we’ll see any upsets this weekend after all.

• Three of those series last weekend were so good, we’ll do them again this weekend.

• Paging St. Cloud State. The bus to the NCAA tournament is leaving. The Huskies had a ticket. Anyone see where they went?

• Is this a case for coach of the year honors? Wisconsin’s Mike Eaves saw his team improve five spots and 17 points over last season. Only two teams — Rensselaer and Colgate — nationally moved up more spots from last season to this one than the Badgers. One would think the award will come down to Eaves and Minnesota-Duluth’s Scott Sandelin, and Sandelin won the head-to-head battle last weekend.

• Colorado College has to go on the road for the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. Maybe going to Denver, however, is making the best of a bad situation. CC is 8-2 all-time at Magness Arena. Either that win total hits 10 this weekend or the Tigers’ season is done.

• On the other hand, things aren’t so bright for St. Cloud State if you believe in history repeating itself. Minnesota has never lost a playoff game at the new Mariucci Arena. How big was that win last Saturday for the Gophers, then? If the Huskies had won, the series would have been in St. Cloud.

• Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner won Phase 2 of the fan vote for the Hobey Baker Award, but the real test comes next Wednesday, when the 10 finalists are revealed.

• News came Wednesday that the Wisconsin band won’t make the trip to the Final Five next week if the Badgers advance. It won’t be at this week’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, either. The reason? Bad conduct on the way back from the Big Ten women’s hoops tourney last week. There’s something you don’t see every day.

• And finally, all the talk a while back was that it seemed almost sure there was going to be at least one upset — meaning a road team winning a series — in the first round. Doesn’t seem so sure now, does it? It has happened only six times in the nine seasons since 10th-seeded Michigan Tech’s landmark victory over top-seeded Colorado College, and three of them came in the 1996 playoffs. So what do you have, Huskies (squared), Tigers, Seawolves and Mavericks?

New Season, Same Mentality

The common perception is that the regular season ends and everything changes.

The reality of the WCHA this season is that many teams have been playing playoff-type games for a month, only without the stakes being as high as the playoffs.

Take Denver for example. Not too long ago, the Pioneers were out of the top five and looking like they would be traveling for the playoffs. Nine-game unbeaten streaks have a way of taking care of that.

They’ve had to be at the top of their game for a while, so it has been a playoff mind-set.

“I don’t think the approach will be any different at all,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “We’ve had to gear up our game to be in playoff mode for the last month because of the position we found ourselves in in January. But try as you might to be in that playoff mode, there’s always the knowledge during the season that you’re going to play next week.

“In the playoffs, you know very well that if you don’t win you’re not going to be playing next week. So I think that’s the big difference — or maybe the only difference — in what our approach has been.”

Even eighth-place Alaska-Anchorage doesn’t have much of a jump to make.

The Seawolves’ series with rival Alaska-Fairbanks last weekend brought out the emotion and the intensity that normally is associated with the postseason.

“Had we been playing a WCHA team, knowing that we were in eighth place and it wasn’t going to matter — it’s hard to know what the mind-set of young guys is,” Seawolves coach John Hill said. “But for us last weekend, it was our Governor’s Cup trophy, the games were in Anchorage and it was real emotional. Our guys were down on Monday (UAA lost the trophy in a shootout), but they seem to have lifted and picked each other up and they seem to be in good spirits.”

That emotional state likely carries around the league. Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth have been involved in a frantic chase for a high spot in the WCHA, concluding with a sometimes-nasty series last weekend. The Denver-Colorado College and Minnesota-St. Cloud State series last weekend got the intensity going from the rivalries.

Here’s a look at this weekend’s first-round matchups:

No. 10 Michigan Tech at No. 1 North Dakota

The season series: North Dakota won 4-0.

In statistics fitting the matchup between the league’s top team and its bottom one, the Sioux overwhelm the Huskies in all categories.

All but one, that is. In the 28-game WCHA regular season, UND was third in the league in power play (21.3 percent), while Tech was fourth (20.0 percent).

So if the Huskies have any chance of making some noise in this series, it’s likely going to be because of their power play.

Three of the six goals Tech scored against the Sioux this season were on the power play. Both of the goals the Huskies scored in twin 5-1 losses last weekend in Grand Forks came while playing a man up.

Otherwise, it’s all Sioux. They had the league’s top scoring offense; Tech was 10th. They had the top scoring defense; Tech was ninth. They had the best penalty kill; Tech was last.

“We need to play almost a near-perfect game to beat these guys,” Michigan Tech captain Brett Engelhardt told USCHO’s Patrick C. Miller after last Saturday’s game. “We haven’t put up the goals against them that we should be.”

The Huskies can’t change the disparity in the season statistics, but one thing they’ll have to remedy is the gap in shots on goal. North Dakota’s advantage in the four games it played against the Huskies was 10.75 shots on goal per game.

No. 9 Minnesota State at No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth

The season series: Minnesota-Duluth won 3-0-1.

Minnesota-Duluth was nowhere near dire straits last weekend. But after Friday’s 2-2 tie with Wisconsin, the Bulldogs were in a minor slump.

“We were 0-2-1 and we needed to end the year on a win,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said.

A solid-top-to-bottom effort did just that. Junior Lessard had a pair of goals and backup goaltender Josh Johnson came within 32.8 seconds of a shutout in a 4-1 victory.

“The guys went out there and played a great game,” Sandelin said. “Junior had two goals, key guys came through, we got good goaltending, the penalty kill did a great job. We played a solid game for 60 minutes, and that’s a great way to end the year.”

Better yet, it’s a great way to go into the playoffs.

Minnesota State knows the feeling. The Mavericks swept Nebraska-Omaha in a home-and-home nonconference series last week to capture their first three-game winning streak of the season. It’s also their first unbeaten streak of longer than two games.

“I think we’re as high as we’ve been on that roller coaster all year,” Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting told USCHO’s Dusty Sedars last Saturday. “It’s nice to get our first three-game winning streak of the season.”

Of course, the rollercoaster could come down just as quick as it climbed. This season has been a big fall for the team that tied for second place and made its first Division I NCAA tournament appearance last season.

The Mavericks have been a decent scoring team but have been plagued by injuries to their defense and haven’t found consistent goaltending. There’s a chance they’ll be able to keep up with the Bulldogs this weekend in the scoring column, but the battle between the pipes figures to swing decisively to Isaac Reichmuth and UMD.

No. 8 Alaska-Anchorage at No. 3 Wisconsin

The season series: Wisconsin won 2-0.

Alaska-Anchorage scored one goal in two games against the Badgers two weeks ago in Anchorage, thanks largely to the goaltending of Wisconsin’s Bernd Brückler.

So now Seawolves coach John Hill wants to see more offense from his team. He has identified scoring at least three goals a game as the key to beating the Badgers. He knows that won’t be easy against the team that tied with North Dakota for the best defense in the WCHA, allowing 2.21 goals per game.

“We as a team and as a coaching staff feel that both [goalies] Chris King and Kevin Reiter will give us a chance to win each night,” Hill said. “So now it’s up to us to score three goals. In saying that, we’re going to have to take chances and maybe activate our defensemen and have them play with the thought process that any time they see an opening, go and try to help us offensively because it’s hard to score goals against Wisconsin.”

And it’s going to be key for UAA, which is 0-22 all-time in the WCHA playoffs, to score early.

“I think our players feel this is a good matchup for us,” Hill said. “We’ve got pretty good team speed, but the one thing about Wisconsin is they’re strong and they do a real good job in the defensive zone. For us, if we don’t score early in the game, a lot of times it’s like you can feel our bench get deflated.”

Wisconsin, which enters the playoffs on the heels of one of its worst games of the season, likely will have to make its playoff run the same way it played in the regular season — defensively. The Badgers have been opportunistic on offense when they have been successful this season. But Brückler is the key.

He won the league’s goaltending battle with a 2.11 goals against average and a .928 save percentage, and played the first 27 conference games before yielding to Brian Elliott for the regular-season finale.

A central goal Eaves had for his team at the start of the season was to make the Final Five, but now expectations are higher.

“I don’t want to set the bar at any level because they may go past any expectations we set, so I don’t want to limit them,” Eaves said. “I think the one thing that has been fun about watching this group grow is the fact that they keep forging themselves into a good team and where they will continue to grow. Let’s not put a lid on that. Let’s let them go where they take us.”

No. 7 Colorado College at No. 4 Denver

The season series: Denver won 3-1.

With Denver knowing it was headed for a home playoff series and Colorado College knowing it was going on the road, the teams played last Friday’s regular-season finale like an old-time rivalry game.

They combined for 42 penalties and 87 penalty minutes, including a major crosschecking call on Denver’s Matt Carle. Denver got the win and the Gold Pan, the trophy for the winner of the season series between the teams.

“It was rough, it was tough, it was emotional,” Gwozdecky said, “and at times players, I think, let their emotions get away from them.”

But don’t expect that this weekend.

“I know a lot of people were saying, ‘Wow, this is unusual,'” Gwozdecky said. “I think this weekend is going to be much more similar to the way both teams play against each other because of what’s at stake. Both teams are good teams, both teams have great discipline. I know both teams are going to be looking at moving on, and the only way you can move on, especially in the playoffs, is if you really minimize the amount of plays that aren’t going to help your team.

“That means the self-discipline, the restraint and the understanding that taking a bad penalty might cost you. You’re going to take penalties, but taking the bad penalties usually are the difference in the playoffs, whether it’s a short or long series.”

Both teams know what to expect from the other, so the teams were probably ready to start this series last Saturday. Colorado College will treat this like a normal road trip despite the fact the school is only an hour away from Denver.

“It’s basically a matter of dropping the puck and playing,” CC coach Scott Owens said.

It certainly is in the minds of the Tigers that if they don’t win this series, their season is done. They started the week in a tie for 16th in the PairWise Rankings.

“The fact that if you lose, you’re done might affect it a little bit because there’s nothing after this weekend for us if we don’t win,” Owens said. “Last weekend, the stakes were high too, but we knew we’d be playing in the playoffs.”

If last weekend’s series is any indication, special teams figure to be the thing to watch this weekend. Denver was 3-for-14 on the power play, while the Tigers were 0-for-9. Because CC tends to play so many close games, that might be the difference.

No. 6 St. Cloud State at No. 5 Minnesota

The season series: Minnesota won 2-0.

The Huskies find themselves in a situation similar to Colorado College. Lose and go home. For good.

What a turnaround from a few weeks ago, when St. Cloud State was battling for third place with Wisconsin. It has been all downhill since a series with the Badgers three weeks ago left the Huskies with only one point and a tenuous hold on fourth place.

Since then, the Huskies are 0-4 and slipped to fifth and then sixth place. More importantly in a NCAA sense, they dropped to 15th in the PairWise and may not be as fortunate as last year if they lose again in the first round. Last season, St. Cloud lost to Minnesota-Duluth in three games but still got a spot in the NCAAs.

“Both teams know what’s on the line and all that type of thing,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said. “For us, based on our last couple of weekends, we have to win these games to have a chance to go to the NCAAs. I think everybody knows what the scoop is.”

The Huskies haven’t won in their last six games, their longest stretch since an eight-game skid in the 1995-96 season.

To break that, they’re going to have to get better goaltending. St. Cloud has allowed seven goals twice in its last four games. Last weekend, Tim Boron gave up seven on Friday and Adam Coole allowed four on Saturday.

Dahl said he’s going with Coole for the first game this weekend.

“I think the key to the series is, can we get better goaltending?” Dahl said. “And if we do — the shots both nights [last weekend] were within one or two of each other — it should be a pretty good series.”

The Gophers picked things up nicely last weekend after being swept by Denver in their previous series. Now the challenge is to stabilize.

Minnesota has alternated sweeps and being swept in the last five weekends, with offensive shortcomings being one of the biggest reasons for the losses. If the Gophers can get their high-level offense running consistently, they’ll be a force in the playoffs.

Tough Loss

Connor James’ collegiate career might be over.

The Denver senior forward who is second on the team in scoring broke his right fibula against Colorado College last Friday. Word has it there’s a chance James could be ready to play if the Pioneers make it to the Frozen Four, which is less than a month away.

The Pioneers’ plan is to move Jon Foster to James’ spot with Greg Keith and Kevin Ulanski.

“We’re not expecting Jon Foster to do what Connor James did for us,” Gwozdecky said. “But we’ve had challenges all year long with injuries. We’ve met many of these challenges, and this is just another challenge that this team is going to take head-on. I’m very confident that our team will look forward to this challenge of not only playing CC but playing without Connor. Our players will be able to do their best, what they’re capable of, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Leaving, Returning

Minnesota junior forward Garrett Smaagaard is out for the season with an injured right knee that requires surgery. Smaagaard was hurt on Feb. 27.

It’s another bit of bad luck for Smaagaard, who missed his entire senior hockey season at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School after suffering a knee injury in the state championship football game that season.

Ryan Potulny, meanwhile, decided to return to the Gophers last Saturday and forgo a medical redshirt for the season.

Potulny, the younger brother of Gophers captain Grant Potulny, suffered a knee injury at North Dakota on Nov. 8 — the team’s eighth game of the season — and wasn’t expected to return this season.

But when he came back, he made an immediate impact, scoring the winning goal in last Saturday’s 4-2 victory over St. Cloud State.

In Other Words

WCHA players of the week were North Dakota’s David Lundbohm and Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek on offense, Denver’s Adam Berkhoel on defense and North Dakota’s Chris Porter as the top rookie. … Wisconsin’s Brückler was the national player of the month for February and Denver’s Carle was the rookie of the month, as named by CSTV and the Hockey Commissioners’ Association. … Minnesota-Duluth’s Lessard and North Dakota’s Brandon Bochenski shared the WCHA scoring title with 39 points. Lessard had 19 goals; Bochenski had 16. … The percentage of WCHA games that were decided by one goal or less slipped to 36 percent this season from 44 percent last season. …

North Dakota’s WCHA regular-season championship was the school’s 13th since the league was formed in 1951. … Former Michigan Tech coach Bob Mancini, currently a scout for the Edmonton Oilers, has been named the general manager for the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit. … The Colorado Avalanche traded away the rights to WCHA defensemen Keith Ballard of Minnesota and Tom Gilbert of Wisconsin this week. … Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks tied their season series 2-2, so the battle for the Governor’s Cup went to a shootout, which the Nanooks won.