This Week in the WCHA: Oct. 28, 2004

Better than Bro?

Some thoughts this week, while still wondering how Minnesota would have been different last season by having Ryan Potulny all year:

• You knew it wouldn’t take long for instant replay to get used, but what are the odds that the first reversal would be for St. Cloud State having a skate in the crease? Again. Like 2002 all over again.

• All you can hope for after losing to a rival is a response. Minnesota got that and then some against North Dakota with a 6-0 victory last Saturday.

• Minnesota-Duluth is No. 1 for the first time in 15 years, but watch out for that jinx. The Bulldogs are the fourth team to occupy that spot in as many polls this season.

• Is there any team that gets new uniforms more often than Michigan Tech?

• Why do we love North Dakota-Boston College games? Certainly not because it gives us fond memories of Providence or Albany. It’s power against power, and the kind of thing college hockey needs to showcase.

• And finally, since Potulny returned to the Gophers from missing 29 games with a knee injury last season, he has 13 goals and 18 points in 12 games. The sophomore has seven goals in five games this year. We might be seeing the early stages of a big-time WCHA star here.

Crease Commotion

St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl went on record before the season as saying he was for the use of instant replay on a trial basis this season in the WCHA, but he added that he was disappointed that the crease rule wasn’t changed.

As it stands in the NCAA rule book, a goal is disallowed if a player’s skate is in the crease, unless the puck is in the paint ahead of time. That used to be the rule in the NHL, too, until the pro league changed it so that there must be interference with the goaltender for there to be a crease violation.

“I think it’s wrong,” Dahl said of the NCAA’s crease rule. “I think it should be, plain and simply, if the referee feels the goaltender wasn’t interfered with, it should stand.”

Dahl said that before the season and well before his team lost a goal last weekend at Denver because of the referee finding a skate in the crease on a replay.

In last Friday’s 5-2 loss at Denver, the Huskies’ Dave Iannazzo redirected a shot past goaltender Glenn Fisher to cut the Pioneers’ lead to 3-2. But on replay, referee Derek Shepherd ruled Iannazzo’s skate was in the crease, and the goal was waved off.

Skates in the crease have a way of ruining St. Cloud rallies, don’t they? In the 2002 NCAA tournament, the Huskies had a tying goal waved off against Michigan when it was ruled Peter Szabo had a skate in the crease, even though he wasn’t in on the play. That would have made the game 3-3, but the Wolverines went on to win it 4-2.

Counting on Conner

In a 25-goal campaign a year ago, Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner had two stretches where he didn’t have a goal in five games. Already this season, he’s approaching that duration again.

Conner, the runner-up to Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Brückler as the coaches’ pick for the WCHA preseason player of the year honor, has no goals and just three assists in four games.

Is it just a coincidence that Michigan Tech is 0-4? Maybe, but it’s curious.

So it’s clear just how much the junior forward means to the Huskies, and it doesn’t just include what he does on the ice.

Call it the Chris Conner factor. He doesn’t appear to be one to talk about himself, but what you get from talking to him is that the preseason talk doesn’t faze him.

“I really don’t pay attention to much of it,” Conner said before last weekend’s series at Wisconsin. “It’s before the season even starts. I just go out there and work hard and do what I can do to help the team win.”

One of the big things Conner does for the Huskies is set a standard.

“The younger players can look at him and how hard he works and his work ethic on and off the ice,” Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell said. “He never takes a day off, he’s tremendous in the weight room. When we do our fitness testing at the start of the year, he’s first or second in every single category. And our younger players look at the success he’s had on the ice, and there’s a direct correlation, and they understand the commitment it takes 12 months of the year. It’s demanding, and he has set the bar very high for them to follow.”

Said Conner: “I’m an upperclassman this year, and I’m sure some of the underclassmen look up to the upperclassmen and look at our work ethic. We’ve got to work just as hard off the ice as we do on the ice to be successful.”

The Huskies’ younger players also get the benefit of having Conner take the spotlight so they can grow at their own pace.

Russell said he thinks Conner has handled that extra attention well.

“The university is pleased with that because we’re a small school in a relatively small market, and we want to be a national school of choice,” Russell said. “Chris Conner brings a lot of national attention to the university, not just the hockey program. I’m sure the administration likes that.”

What Conner would like is a home-ice spot in the playoffs, something the Huskies haven’t had since 1993. They’re off to an slow start going into this weekend’s home series against Alaska-Anchorage, but Conner is confident they can turn things around.

“This is a big year for us,” he said. “I definitely feel that we can have home ice this year in the playoffs. The league’s pretty young this year, and I have no question in my mind or in anybody else’s mind that we can take home ice this year.”

Wheel of Goaltenders

With six players averaging at least a point per game, Minnesota-Duluth’s offense has been the driving force behind the Bulldogs’ 5-0-1 start.

But the impact a goaltender rotation has had early might help UMD sustain its performance all season.

Isaac Reichmuth and Josh Johnson have split the starts this season, with Johnson 3-0 and Reichmuth 2-0-1.

It was in the Bulldogs’ plans to get Johnson some starts early, but with it working so well there’s no reason to change things. So they won’t, coach Scott Sandelin said.

“Isaac has had a lot of confidence for the last two years, and Josh has gained confidence,” Sandelin said. “Neither one of them is disappointed in their play, and I think it has been good competition for both of them, too, so that one doesn’t get comfortable. I look at last year how we started. Maybe we should have done the same thing.”

The Bulldogs were 4-5-1 after 10 games last season before winning 18 of their next 23 games. Reichmuth started all of those first 10 games before Johnson finally got a chance.

Johnson ended up 5-4 last season with a 2.39 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. His three victories this season extended his winning streak to five games, and the time on the ice has helped his growth curve.

It also could help the Bulldogs goaltenders avoid a burnout down the stretch.

“I think it has helped both of them,” Sandelin said. “I think Josh did mature a lot last year. Obviously, it’s a good situation to have with both of them playing well. They’ve been a big reason why we haven’t lost yet.”

Potentially Inflammatory

Maybe it’s better now that Minnesota and North Dakota don’t play again this regular season, after this statement from Gophers coach Don Lucia, to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis:

“Isn’t it funny that whenever there is a fight North Dakota is one of the teams involved?”

Minnesota’s Mike Vannelli and North Dakota’s Rory McMahon got game disqualification penalties for a brawl at the end of the second period of the Gophers’ 6-0 victory in Grand Forks last Saturday. Each will be out for his team’s first game this weekend.

Slip of the Tongue

Wisconsin will self-report a secondary violation of NCAA recruiting rules after Badgers coach Mike Eaves slipped by mentioning the name of a prospect at his weekly news conference on Monday.

In responding to a question about keeping the best Wisconsin-born players in the state for college, Eaves mentioned top recruit Phil Kessel by name. He immediately caught his error, but by then it was too late.

Coaches are not allowed to comment to the media about recruits, only to confirm their recruitment of a player.

Steve Waterfield, Wisconsin’s assistant athletic director for compliance, said it was a violation because Eaves was not answering a direct question on whether a player was being recruited.

The school will file a report with the Big Ten Conference and an associate athletic director will clarify the rules with Eaves. Waterfield said that should be the end of the case.

Kessel is scheduled to make an official visit — his first — to Wisconsin on Thursday and Friday.

Hitting the Brakes

Things were rolling along so well for Alaska-Anchorage. Two victories and a tie in three games, an upset of Minnesota to win the title at their tournament and a significant goal checked off the list for the second year in a row.

Then the Seawolves met a brick wall.

Last Saturday’s 6-0 loss to Alaska-Fairbanks wasn’t just a big loss, it was the biggest in the 123-game history of the series between the state rivals.

It also knocked the Seawolves off course for a stranglehold on the Governor’s Cup series with the Nanooks and derailed, at least momentarily, what was shaping up as a pretty good October.

“As coach pointed out, a lot of things were going unnoticed because we were winning, and those mistakes were made again tonight,” Seawolves forward Justin Bourne told the Anchorage Daily News after last weekend’s series. “All the flaws were exposed. … No one’s panicking. But it’s a big regroup for Monday. We’ve got to get the ship back on course.”

UAA now approaches the part of the schedule where it may be just a little tougher to get up for games. In their first two weekends, they were playing to make a dent in two of their now familiar three season goals — win their tournament, win the Governor’s Cup and get to the Final Five.

It was after the first four games last season that the Seawolves ran into trouble, winning only one of their next nine games.

Mavericks Shakeup

Minnesota State dressed only 16 skaters — two short of the maximum — for Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Minnesota-Duluth. According to the Duluth News Tribune, Mavericks coach Troy Jutting was unhappy with some penalties taken by his players in an 8-3 loss the night before.

And why not? Winger Rob Rankin was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a misconduct and center Christian Toll took a double-minor roughing penalty early in the first period, then a hitting-after-the-whistle call early in the second period. The latter led to the go-ahead score.

Backup Bonus

He had to make only 31 saves combined to do it, but Wisconsin backup goaltender Brian Elliott has two shutouts in two games this season. His most recent was a 3-0 blanking of Michigan Tech last Saturday.

Elliott made just 13 stops — including just one in the third period — to keep his spotless goals against average for the season.

“The mentality I go into every game with is just nothing goes past me,” Elliott said. “If one does, then nothing else gets past me. Obviously, when you play a team like Tech, there’s not too many shots — it’s a hard game to play. It shows that our defense is playing great, blocking a lot of shots. I think of it as a team shutout rather than my shutout.”

Test of Time

The biggest test for Minnesota’s Potulny might be time.

Because of his knee injury last season, the forward didn’t have to go through all the battles of the long WCHA season. He was fresh at the end of the season, which came out in his impressive performance.

It’ll be interesting to see how he holds up over an entire season. The start has been stellar: at least a point in all five games, a national-high seven goals and WCHA-leading totals of four power-play goals and two game-winning goals.

Playing from Behind

Minnesota-Duluth has played from behind in four of its first six games, and Sandelin has a message for his team.

“I keep reminding our guys, you’re not going to get away with that much in this league,” he said.

They have so far. They are 3-0-1 in the games in which they have allowed the first goal.

“There hasn’t been a sense of panic on the bench,” Sandelin said. “I think our guys have kept moving forward with it.”

Gone Fisch-ing

Congratulations are in order to Dave Fischer, Michigan Tech’s assistant athletic director for communications and marketing, on being named the director of media and public relations for USA Hockey. He’ll start his new job in Colorado Springs next month.

But we’ll miss “Fisch” around the WCHA for his wisdom and humor. After all, who else would think to include on a line chart under Tyler Shelast’s name: “Without the T, then backwards … you can count on him.”

In Other Words

• League players of the week were Minnesota-Duluth’s Marco Peluso on offense, Denver’s Matt Carle on defense and Wisconsin’s Joe Pavelski as the top rookie.

• Full-tournament packages for the Final Five will go on sale through Ticketmaster on Nov. 15, while renewals are due by Nov. 22. Single-game tickets will go on sale March 7.

• Denver forward Jon Foster has six goals in his first five games this season, one goal behind Potulny for the national lead.

• How’s this for going home: Potulny and Danny Irmen — the two North Dakotans on Minnesota’s roster — combined for five goals and two assists in the series at UND last weekend.

• Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill will undergo back surgery on Dec. 14, the Anchorage Daily News reported. That’s three days after the Seawolves’ last game before winter break.

• Wisconsin put up double figures in goals on each of the first two weekends this season. The last time the Badgers had back-to-back series with at least 10 goals each was in the 1991-92 season.

• Colorado College made a big splash on the power play last weekend, going 7-for-17.

• St. Cloud State did not, going 0-for-17 with the power play last weekend at Denver.

• Minnesota-Duluth won’t host another league series until Dec. 10-11, the start of an eight-game WCHA homestand.

• David Backes spared Minnesota State a bit of humiliation when he scored the Mavericks’ first power-play goal of the season. It remains the only one for Mankato, which is 1-for-30 (3.3 percent) this season.

• Alaska-Anchorage’s on-campus practice rink will be closed through March to replace the cooling system, meaning the Seawolves will have to continue practicing elsewhere.

• Minnesota puts its 11-game home winning streak on the line this weekend when it hosts Minnesota State.