This Week in the WCHA: Nov. 11, 2004

Some thoughts this week, while wondering what happened to the mini-donuts at Mariucci Arena:

• Penalty shot or no? There are arguments both ways on last Friday’s game-winning goal by Danny Irmen on a penalty shot, but a larger issue is this: If the referee is behind the play and an assistant referee is keeping up with the action and is lined up with where the trip is called, wouldn’t everyone be better served by the ref checking with the AR?

• Which was more shocking: Vermont getting a win and a tie at Minnesota-Duluth two weeks ago or Alaska-Anchorage sweeping the Bulldogs last weekend? We’ll take the former.

• Now, if Minnesota State could consistently get the kind of defensive performances that helped the Mavericks earn back-to-back 4-0 victories over Bemidji State last weekend, they’d be just fine. We said “if.”

• You hear about these stories all the time. Someone’s told it’ll be a long time before they can play again because of an injury or illness, but they still have the guts to put in the effort to come back. Still, it takes something special to be able to do that, and that’s why Matt Laatsch’s story is heartwarming.

• And finally, is it a Gophers game at Mariucci without mini-donuts? Apparently so, because the local team’s winning streak there has hit 15.

Panning for Gold

In a roundabout way, Colorado College helped Denver win the national championship.

(Pause here for the renewed gnashing of teeth from Tigers fans.)

When CC knocked Denver out of the WCHA playoffs with a sweep at Magness Arena last season, it kept the Tigers’ NCAA hopes alive and gave the Pioneers a week to collect themselves. With that time to rest, Denver went on a run that saw it lifting the trophy a few weeks later.

But now we’re back to rivalry time. And the Pioneers surely remember the embarrassment of being run out of their own building last March.

“Anytime you lose to your rival, no matter what time of the season, it hurts,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “There’s wounds that eventually heal, but I don’t know if they heal all the way. It was very difficult to accept what we did, or what we did not do, and what CC was able to do right on our home ice last year. There’s no question that winning the national championship was great for us, but that’s over and done with and everybody looks back now at renewing the rivalry.

“The last time we played them, it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. Obviously, it was a great blessing for us because it allowed us to heal. I honestly don’t think that I’d be talking about winning the national championship if we had to play the following weekend. It was a blessing, but at that time it was not a fun thing to go through.”

This season, the Tigers are the higher-ranked team, at No. 4. The Pioneers are No. 11. The teams are closely matched in scoring (Denver is third in the WCHA with 3.86 goals per game; CC is fourth at 3.83) but the Tigers have had the advantage on defense early.

Thanks to a great start by the goaltending tandem of Curtis McElhinney and Matt Zaba, CC leads the league in defense, allowing only 1.83 goals per game.

As is the case in many rivalries, the Pioneers won’t be surprised by anything when the teams get together for the 250th time Friday night.

“Our guys are very aware and remember what happened last year,” Gwozdecky said.

More Rivals

Wisconsin just got done playing one rival, and now has to face another.

So where does North Dakota rank as a rival compared to the Gophers? For Wisconsin, pretty close.

“I think it’s right up there,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “You take a look at history: I don’t remember the last time we had a bench-clearing brawl with Minnesota, but I think everybody remembers the last time we had one with North Dakota.”

The most notorious melee with North Dakota came in the infamous water-bottle game of 1982, when, as legend has it, Wisconsin’s John Newberry triggered an all-out fracas when he soaked North Dakota’s Cary Eades in a game at the Dane County Coliseum.

Times have changed and arenas have changed, but the rivalry is still on, thanks to some good games between the teams in recent years.

“For us, it ranks right up there,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “It’s been a heated rivalry, but also I think among our fans, it’s a real fun rivalry. You look back historically at the number of big games these two programs have played in against each other. And even if you shorten it and look over the last few years, some of the intense games that have been played between the two teams, that just adds to what traditionally is a great rivalry.”

In 1982, Wisconsin thrashed North Dakota in Grand Forks to win the WCHA playoff title, but the Sioux got the greater prize, beating the Badgers for the national championship. But more recent games have kept the tradition going. Who’ll forget Robbie Earl’s hat trick, bringing the Badgers back from a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3 in overtime last season?

The Gopher Perspective

After five weekends last season, Minnesota — with all its stars in tow — was 2-7-1 and frustrated. Now, with five weekends down this season, the supposedly starless Gophers are 7-2 as they reach a bye week.

Why, Chris Harrington?

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” the junior defenseman said after the Gophers completed a sweep of Minnesota last weekend. “No. 1, I think we’re more experienced in the important areas — goaltending, special teams and our forwards. And a little bit of our [defense]. Not really as much on defense, but the younger guys are playing like they’re veterans.

“I think that’s another huge thing, that you throw any of the six out there at any time and you know that good things are going to happen. That’s huge confidence for our forwards, knowing that we have six pretty good [defensemen] back there. They’re going to be able to make a play and get it to our forwards. Any time you get it to our forwards, they have an opportunity to score a goal.

“Another difference between this year and last year is work ethic. It’s pretty relentless out there, banging bodies and making plays. Maybe we’re not going to wear down their [defensemen] in the first two periods, but come the third period if we keep hitting them, they’re going to wear down and the next thing you know, they’re going to make a backhand pass up the middle and it’s going to turn into a goal for us.

“That’s probably the biggest difference, just our work ethic. We’re working like dogs right now. And we’ve got enough young guys who don’t know what the heck’s going on, so they’re just going after it 100 miles an hour.”

Last One In

Alaska-Anchorage is ranked for the first time since 1992, and some apparently think the Seawolves deserve to be slotted higher than No. 15.

If all 40 poll voters put UAA down at No. 15 on their ballots, the Seawolves would have earned 40 points. In this week’s poll, they have 51 points, meaning UAA’s entry into the poll is more than just the courtesy vote for sweeping Minnesota-Duluth last weekend.

The Seawolves may be new to this whole being-ranked thing, but they’ve already got the lingo down.

“That’s like a nice little thing to tell the family and friends, but there’s a long road ahead,” UAA forward Justin Bourne told the Anchorage Daily News.

The Seawolves made their entry after claiming the first sweep of the Bulldogs in program history. Not only that, on Saturday they became the first team to shut out UMD since North Dakota did to win a WCHA playoff series in 2001. That’s a span of 137 games.

Nathan Lawson can take credit for that. The freshman goaltender stopped all 37 shots, but not without help from teammates who were still going down to block shots in the final minute of the game, with the outcome decided.

Alaska-Anchorage has a three-game winning streak going, but that’ll mean little if the Seawolves can’t continue the winning ways. They go to Mankato this weekend to play Minnesota State in a series that, for UAA, could show whether they’ll finally be a contender for a home-ice spot in the WCHA playoffs.

Time to Regroup

Think there’s some blood boiling inside the Minnesota-Duluth dressing room in this bye week?

The Bulldogs are 0-3-1 in their last four games after last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Alaska-Anchorage. Even worse, UMD is averaging 1.5 goals per game and is 1-for-27 on the power play in that span.

Calling it Quits

Minnesota State junior forward Chad Clower, whose collegiate career has been slowed by shoulder injuries, is calling it quits on his playing career with the Mavericks.

In 31 career games, Clower had six goals and 22 points.

Reality Checked

Denver coach Gwozdecky suggested that his team may have thought too highly of itself before its series at Wisconsin two weeks ago. Not anymore.

The Pioneers were coming off a sweep of St. Cloud State by 5-2 and 6-1 scores the week before, but were outplayed in the third period of the Friday night game against the Badgers.

“We had a number of our veteran players who I think were fooled into thinking we were so much better than we really were because of the previous weekend,” Gwozdecky said. “When you have a number of players who aren’t mentally and emotionally prepared to play a game, you’re going to struggle.”

With that lesson learned, the Pioneers go about a pair of weekends vital to their WCHA hopes. With the home-and-home series against Colorado College this weekend and a home series next weekend against a Minnesota team that’s on a five-game winning streak, Denver will get a good look at where it’s at in the league.

Selected to Defend

Three WCHA players and one former league player were among the 12 players named to the preliminary roster for the U.S. team at the World Junior Championship.

Wisconsin defenseman Jeff Likens and forward Jake Dowell, and North Dakota forward Drew Stafford will return to defend the gold medals they won last season. Former Wisconsin defenseman Ryan Suter is scheduled to join them, pending approval by the Nashville Predators.

There most likely will be more WCHA players included on the final roster, which is due out in early December. Eaves, who coached the team last year, said Minnesota’s Irmen and Ryan Potulny are players to watch.

“They were both candidates for the World Junior team last year,” Eaves said. “They were right on the edge of coming. They’ll be big players for that team this year.”

Building Blocks

Hakstol considers the last few weeks to have been a good learning experience for his North Dakota team.

The Sioux have won only one of their last five games — a 2-1 victory over Colorado College last Saturday. Losses to Minnesota, Boston College and CC in that span have given UND a starting point from which to build.

“We’ve had one or two nights where we’ve been off our game a little bit, but other than that we’ve had pretty good efforts and our team has gotten better every weekend,” Hakstol said. “Our performance level over the last three or four games has been pretty good. I think it’s a good indication of how well you have to play and how hard you have to play to win in the WCHA, this last weekend.”

The Sioux broke a four-game winless skid (0-3-1) when Stafford scored his third goal of the season (all have been game-winners) in the third period last Saturday.

Freshman goaltender Phillippe Lamoureux improved to 2-0-1 by stopping 28 of 29 shots, 10 of them on six CC power plays. His good performances early have put three faces in the UND goaltending picture. Jordan Parise has seen action in six games, while Jake Brandt has appeared in two.

“Really, there’s no change,” Hakstol said. “We’ve always felt that we’ve had three choices. We knew Phil was a top-quality goaltender, and that’s the type of play that we’ve expected out of him. He has certainly lived up to that. We’re in a situation where we still have a highly competitive situation in goal.”

Hakstol added that Lamoureux will continue to earn playing time as long as he plays well. As of Wednesday, however, the coach wasn’t ready to name the starter for Friday’s game at Wisconsin.

Penalty Shot Revisited

Irmen just didn’t want to mess up in front of a big crowd.

Sent out to take a penalty shot after he was tripped up by Wisconsin’s Andrew Joudrey on a breakaway last Friday, the Minnesota sophomore calmly broke a 2-2 tie and sent the Gophers to their 14th straight home win.

“I was relieved,” Irmen said. “I didn’t want to let down 11,000 people.”

The Badgers, however, were angry that referee Derek Shepherd awarded the penalty shot instead of a minor. Replays showed Joudrey, who swung his stick at the puck and took out Irmen’s legs, was just about even with Irmen but coming from a different angle. While tripping is tripping no matter whether a player makes contact with the puck, a player must be on a clear breakaway to be awarded a penalty shot.

“I sure hope he [Shepherd] watches the video and is able to look me in the eye tomorrow and tell me what he saw,” Eaves said last Friday. “His verbiage to me was he was clearly in [behind the defense], and from where I was standing it certainly didn’t seem that way.”

Eaves was asked a few days later whether he got a satisfactory response from Shepherd.

“He looked at it, and he thought, in his opinion, it was a good call,” Eaves said. “I disagreed and moved forward. There’s nothing we can do.”

In Other Words

• League players of the week were Minnesota’s Irmen on offense, Colorado College’s Richard Petiot on defense and Alaska-Anchorage’s Lawson as the top rookie.

• Colorado College’s Brett Sterling has at least one goal in each of the Tigers’ six games so far this season.

• Minnesota State’s David Backes continues to impress. The sophomore has a six-game goal-scoring streak in hand.

• Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner and Colin Murphy both have four-game point streaks going into this weekend’s series at St. Cloud State.

• Denver forward Jeff Drummond has four goals and nine points in his last four games.

• Minnesota-Duluth played with just six healthy defensemen on the roster last weekend. Tim Hambly has been out with a back injury, and Ryan Geris joined him on the sidelines last weekend. But Tyler Brosz made his season debut after recovering from shoulder surgery.

• Congrats to Minnesota State assistant coach Eric Means and his wife Leah, who recently welcomed a baby boy named Logan into their family.