This Week in the WCHA: Nov. 25, 2004

Some thoughts this week, while pondering who will win the battle over tryptophan Friday night:

• The struggles continue for Minnesota-Duluth. Not only did the Bulldogs lose to Brown last Saturday, they lost on a goal with 0.1 seconds left in the game. UMD has just one victory from its last six games, but the bright side is that it is in no worse shape in the WCHA than any other team. With a challenging schedule before the break, however, things are going to have to take a turn for the better quickly.

• The teams look at the College Hockey Showcase individually, leaving us to look at it as a conference battle. Minnesota and Wisconsin won all four games against Michigan and Michigan State for the first time last season — on the road, no less. With the Wolverines, Badgers and Gophers ranked 1-2-3 in the country, think there’ll be some good games this weekend?

• There seems to be some symmetry to the first 12 games of the season for Minnesota State. After rallying for a season-opening tie against North Dakota, the Mavericks lost five straight. They then won five straight before rallying for a tie with Alabama-Huntsville last Saturday. Odd way to get to .500.

• North Dakota has finally hit the two-thirds pole of a daunting first-half schedule. The Sioux are the only WCHA team that plays 12 straight weekends before the winter break, counting exhibitions. UND started with an exhibition game on the first day of practice, Oct. 2, and goes non-stop until another exhibition game against the U.S. World Junior team on Dec. 19. Those two weeks off in the second half of the schedule surely will be welcome, however.

• You know you’re desensitized to the WCHA’s strength when someone mentions that the league has three of the top five teams in the poll and you treat it as just another weekly happening.

• At No. 2, Wisconsin has its highest national ranking in four seasons. But it’s curious that the Badgers are ranked ahead of No. 3 Minnesota just over two weeks removed from being swept by the Gophers.

• A bit punishing, having to play a night after Thanksgiving dinner? Not for the Atkins-conscious, apparently. It might be all the carbs you’re pounding down at the table that make you slow down for a day afterward. That Friday morning skate had better be pretty energizing.

It’s a Real Showcase

Trust Wisconsin’s Ryan MacMurchy on the College Hockey Showcase.

“These are the fun ones,” the Badgers junior forward said. “It’s a big-time rivalry, two Big Ten programs going at it. It’s always fun that way.”

Michigan State coach Rick Comley pointed out that it’s usually a little more fun when you’re having a good season. The other three teams would know, with Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota occupying spots one through three, respectively, in the poll.

This season, it’s the CCHA teams that are pursuing their WCHA counterparts after, for the first time in the 11 years of the event, the WCHA won all four games last season.

The Showcase is a big-time event again, and it should show in the games this weekend.

“If you’re an athlete and a player, you like to play against good programs,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “That’s why Wisconsin, ourselves, you try to schedule good programs. We’re playing Michigan and Michigan State, we’re playing [Boston University] out there.

“You try to play other top programs across the country and get in these big games because it’s good for your players to be in these types of environments. It’s good for your players to play against top-end players because when you play against other top teams in the country, you find out your team’s weaknesses and areas you can be exploited and what you need to work on.”

The Gophers get the Wolverines first, while the Badgers host the Spartans on Friday night. On Saturday, the CCHA teams trade spots.

Even though there’s not points or a trophy on the line, the teams are still playing for something.

“There’s less pressure on your players when you’re playing out-of-league games,” Lucia said, “You’re not playing for points, you’re playing for pride. In this case, when you’re playing other Big Ten schools, it means a lot and it has usually meant a lot come seeding time in the NCAA tournament. Although if we’re fortunate enough to get there, it’s not as big a deal this year because we know where we’re going to be playing at the end if we’re in the NCAAs because we host.”

The Gophers will get to play at Mariucci Arena if they make the NCAA tournament. The Badgers used the road victories over Michigan and Michigan State to their advantage in the PairWise Rankings at the end of last season.

“Last year it helped us when we beat those out-of-conference teams, and that’s our main thing,” MacMurchy said. “We have a main goal in mind — the NCAA tournament — and we know these games are huge for seeding. We know it’s important. We’re not looking at it as, ‘It’s out of conference, a bye week’ or anything like that. We’re going to be really psyched up.”

Eight-Game Gut Check

Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin understands the significance of the next four weekends to his team’s long-term health.

With St. Cloud State, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Denver on the schedule before the Bulldogs break for the holidays, UMD has to get back to good form quickly to make a run at the top of the standings.

The Bulldogs are 1-4-1 in their last six games, but the bright side is that four of those games were non-conference matchups. With two losses in the WCHA, the Bulldogs are no worse off than any other team, a fact that Sandelin said he hasn’t had to mention to his team to get their confidence back up.

“I think they’re smart enough to figure that out,” he said. “With this next eight games, I think it’s important to hopefully put ourselves in a better position. But that’s going to be extremely difficult against who we’re playing, whether we’re at home or on the road. But I think it’s going to be good for us because we’re going to find out really what kind of team we are in the next eight games.”

UMD scored 29 goals in the first six games of the season, but scored just 13 goals over the next six, which is the same span as the 1-4-1 slump.

“We’ve moved some lines around, and we will continue to do that to find what works,” Sandelin said. “I think the biggest thing is we have to get back to competing harder and working harder each shift. I think when we do that, we’re OK. If we don’t, we’re not very good.”

In the previous three seasons, the Bulldogs were a combined 21-25-7 before the winter break. They were 9-8-2 at the break last season before turning things on in the second half.

“We haven’t been a real great first-half team the last three years,” Sandelin said. “But you’ve still got to have some urgency here in the next month because you can either put yourself in a better position or you can hurt yourself by not winning some games. So it’s important to get points every weekend the next four weeks.”

Winning Despite Losses

The majority of the WCHA has played more than a quarter of the league schedule, and already some divisions are starting to form.

Viewing the league standings in terms of how many points a team has lost, Minnesota, Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth are at the top with four points each. Wisconsin and Denver are tied for fourth with six points lost each.

St. Cloud State leads the bottom half with eight, just ahead of North Dakota’s nine. Alaska-Anchorage has lost 10 points, while Minnesota State has dropped 11. Michigan Tech is mired in last with 18.

There’s a notion going around that the team that wins this season’s race for the MacNaughton Cup will have done so with more lost points than in the past. In the last three seasons, the champ has lost 13 points along the way. Since the league went to a 28-game schedule in 1997, the highest total of lost points for a regular-season champion was 14 by North Dakota in 2001.

That could be challenged this year as contending teams continue to knock off each other.

Second Opinion

Saturday night, Michigan and Wisconsin will take part in the 10th meeting between the teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the poll since it started in October 1997.

The bad news for Badgers fans: The No. 2 team is 2-4-3, including 1-3-3 when it hosts. But the second-ranked team is 2-0-1 in the last three meetings, the most recent of which was a 3-2 overtime victory for No. 2 New Hampshire over Boston College on Nov. 19, 2002.

The Badgers were involved in one of the first nine matchups, defeating BC 3-2 in Chestnut Hill on Oct. 27, 2000.

Wisconsin players reacted with caution upon learning of their high ranking on Monday, mostly because they have to play Michigan State on Friday. They were able to take some measure of pride in being noticed.

“It’s nice to know that people are respecting what we’ve done, but we can’t take any steps back,” junior forward Nick Licari said. “It’s only steps forward from here.”

The Badgers have won four straight after a three-game losing streak and are alone in first place in the WCHA.

“It’s another step for us in the growth process,” Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Bruckler said of the ranking. “The young kids are going to be like, ‘Wow, we’re No. 2 in the country.’ Us older guys, we’re excited and we recognize that people saw that we’ve been doing some good things as of late. But we have to just keep going in the right direction.”

Special Teams Switch

There was no switch flipped to give Minnesota State its six-game unbeaten streak, coach Troy Jutting insists.

He thought the Mavericks played well in an 0-5-1 stretch that included games against North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota. They outshot the opponent in four of those six games, but tallied only 11 goals.

“I really felt like we were playing pretty well, just not getting the results that you need to get,” Jutting said. “But then we started scoring some goals, a few more than we have been scoring, and we’re winning those hockey games. The biggest thing is our power play started scoring. We were creating a lot of opportunities early on, and when you’re getting the number of shots that we have been getting, we were getting our opportunities on the power play but we just weren’t scoring. We started scoring on the power play and then started doing a better job of killing off penalties as well. I think the special teams, it’s no coincidence that those have picked up as our record has gone, too.”

In the first six games, the Mavericks’ power play was 3-for-43 (7.0 percent) and the penalty kill was 31-for-41 (75.6 percent). In the last six games, the power play is 10-for-39 (25.6 percent) and the penalty kill is 42-for-46 (91.3 percent).

While the quality of opponent has dipped in from the first six games to the last six games, the Mavericks’ run provides a bit of confidence as they take this week off.

But the confidence never dipped too much, Jutting said.

“That was one thing I was really pleased with, that I don’t think we ever really lost our confidence,” he said. “The only thing we struggled with confidence-wise was we started questioning ourselves when we were getting good scoring opportunities. But I don’t think the kids ever questioned whether they could be successful. We did play three very good hockey teams very close early on, and I think they realized if we’d score a few goals here we’d be fine.”

Comforts of Home

When Minnesota had to make a run last season, it started at home.

The Gophers were just four games over .500 after they lost to North Dakota at Mariucci Arena on Jan. 23. Since then, they’re 22-8 overall and, more importantly, 15-0 in their home building.

“I think it goes to last January, the last time we lost at home,” said Lucia, whose team won its last 11 games at home last season and has won its first four games there this season. “We were under the gun because we started out so poorly last year. That was one of our goals, to try to close it out at home.

“I think as [with] any players and any team, you’re more comfortable at home. [Goaltender] Kellen [Briggs], last year especially, played much better at home than he did on the road. His numbers were quite a bit different. Now, he’s more comfortable home or away than what he was a year ago.”

In Other Words

• League players of the week were Wisconsin’s Robbie Earl on offense, Colorado College’s Weston Tardy on defense and Tigers forward Scott McCulloch as the top rookie.

• Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Ryan Geris’ hockey career is over after the sophomore was told to quit by a doctor, the Duluth News Tribune reported. Geris has suffered from post-concussive symptoms, the paper said.

• It was a night of hat tricks around the WCHA last Friday. Wisconsin’s Earl collected his second collegiate three-goal game against Alaska-Anchorage, while Colorado College’s McCulloch recorded his first.

• In last Friday’s Michigan Tech-Colorado College game, there were only four penalties called. In case you’re wondering, there have been two WCHA games with no penalties called — North Dakota vs. Colorado College in 1982 and Alaska-Anchorage vs. the Sioux in 1997.

• Colorado College goaltender Curtis McElhinney is second nationally with a .956 save percentage and third in the country with a 1.39 goals against average.

• Even though his Seawolves are in a four-game losing streak, Martin Stuchlik has a point in five straight games.

• After scoring 26 goals in a four-game stretch, St. Cloud State managed just two goals last weekend at North Dakota.

• After scoring only 10 goals in the third period of its first nine games, Denver scored seven third-period goals against Minnesota last weekend.

• Michigan Tech completed a five-game road stretch 0-5.

• CC goes into this weekend’s games against Massachusetts and Boston University with a 12-game unbeaten streak against teams from outside the WCHA.

• Minnesota has played 34 periods this season and has shut out its opponent in 17 of them.

• Here’s a nice holiday drive for you: On its way to Michigan Tech, North Dakota stopped overnight Wednesday in Superior, Wis.

• Minnesota-Duluth senior Tyler Brosz, in just his third game of the season, tied a career high with four points (two goals, two assists) against Brown last Friday. He missed the start of the season with a shoulder injury.