Some thoughts this week, while getting closer to penciling in Minnesota for a Frozen Four spot:
• A warning to the Gophers as they take their No. 1 ranking to No. 3 Colorado College this weekend: The team in the top spot in the USCHO.com poll is just 4-6-4 this season. Not that Minnesota needs much more of a warning than the strength of the team it’s playing this week.
• We’ll probably get an indication this weekend whether Minnesota-Duluth stopped the bleeding with an important victory over St. Cloud State last Saturday. When the Bulldogs play Wisconsin, it’ll be two teams with high hopes that could be momentarily crushed by a pair of losses.
• With all the offensive power in the WCHA, it’s curious that the league has only one team in the top 10 nationally in power play. That team? Michigan Tech.
• Minnesota State announced this week it was moving its Jan. 14 home game against Minnesota to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Talk about giving up the home-ice advantage.
• Talking trivia: Name the only three WCHA teams who haven’t allowed a shorthanded goal this season. Answer below.
• And finally, with Minnesota guaranteed to play in the regional at Mariucci Arena if it makes the NCAA tournament, the Gophers are as good a pick as any right now to be in Columbus in April. You don’t win 17 in a row at home by just being lucky.
Rumble in the Rockies
This weekend’s series at the World Arena in Colorado Springs isn’t just No. 1 vs. No. 3. When Minnesota meets Colorado College, it’s a battle of two of the top three offenses in the country and two of the top six defenses in the nation.
So what takes precedence? Offense, with starring roles played by Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen, Brett Sterling and Marty Sertich? Or defense, with Kellen Briggs, Chris Harrington, Curtis McElhinney and Mark Stuart in the spotlight?
“We’d like to think defense is more important,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “I think our numbers are a little bit skewed because of some of the competition we’ve played. However, I think the goaltending and the defense is going to be pretty important.”
After all, defense wins championships, right?
“In the long term, that’s going to help you get to where you want to get,” Owens said. “I think, overall, the defense bears out as being more important.”
The Tigers are third in the country in scoring defense, while Minnesota is sixth. Minnesota’s Harrington is coming off one of his best weekends of the season. Colorado College’s Stuart is a strong leader who can take a good deal of the credit for the Tigers’ defensive prowess.
But this series might fall to the goaltenders.
Just like last Saturday, when Wisconsin’s Bernd Brückler and Michigan’s Al Montoya faced off in a goalie battle, Minnesota’s Briggs and CC’s McElhinney are expected to play big roles this weekend.
Briggs, a Colorado Springs native, earned two victories and a shutout in his return home last season. He’s the reigning league defensive player of the week — for the third time this season — and stopped 46 of 47 shots against Michigan and Michigan State last weekend.
McElhinney is 7-0 this season after playing both games of a series for the first time this season last weekend. His 1.57 goals against average is fourth in the country and his .946 save percentage is second nationally.
Owens said he’ll start McElhinney on Friday, with no guarantee he’ll be Saturday’s starter. The senior started both games last weekend because he saw only 22 shots last Friday and Owens wanted to see how he’d fare on back-to-back nights.
Expect a battle Friday night, at least.
“If last year’s any indication, Minnesota came in here with not nearly as strong a team but they got great goaltending from Briggs,” Owens said. “He battled and competed. Aside from the fact that it’s Colorado Springs, he’s just having a really good year. We’re expecting a good battle that way. I don’t know if it’s the level of two preseason players of the year going at it like Montoya and Brückler, but it’ll be good.”
In a Different League
There has long been a perception that there are differences in officiating between conferences around college hockey. But is it simply because of human nature — that two people, or in this case referees, occasionally will see things differently — or directives to call things differently?
Score one point for the latter last weekend.
Some eyebrows were raised when Michigan State coach Rick Comley, fresh off a 4-0 victory at Wisconsin, relayed to reporters some of referee Todd Anderson’s pregame instructions to the Spartans.
“He warned us what he was going to call, and he warned us that they call it different than our league,” Comley said.
Comley referred to quicker whistles in scrums along the boards from a WCHA ref than from a CCHA ref.
Just something to keep in mind, especially as March approaches.
The WCHA and Hockey East announced this week they will exchange referees for a fifth consecutive season, perhaps with hopes of bridging some of those gaps.
WCHA ref Bill Mason will head east this week to work Friday’s Clarkson-New Hampshire game and Saturday’s game between Clarkson and Massachusetts-Lowell. Hockey East ref Jeff Bunyon will be in charge of a Dec. 17-18 series between Canisius and North Dakota.
“This program provides coaches and players a chance to see how other leagues operate,” WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd said in a statement. “That has proven very beneficial at national tournament time.”
Speaking of officiating, you may have noticed two weeks ago that, in a Friday night game, Michigan Tech and Colorado College were called for a grand total of four penalties — two hooking calls, a boarding call and a holding call.
The system must be broken, right? The grand plan to crack down on obstruction, holding and hooking was gone by November, right?
Shepherd prefers to see it as adaptation. The way he looks at it, players have figured out what’s going to be called and stopped doing it.
The Tech-CC game was an extreme, perhaps just as some of the early games where there were 25 penalties were at the other end.
“The holding along the boards I think is gone,” Shepherd said. “I think what you’re seeing now is the normal stuff — slashing, high sticking and stuff like that. I think the obstruction itself through the center ice, you still get a little bit of it, the holding, the hooking, but it wasn’t like in the beginning. I don’t know if scoring is going up, but penalties are going down because the kids have adapted. But the officials are not going to stop.”
There is a case to be made, however, that officials, too, have adapted. The rules emphasis changed the way they called games for many years, so it’s natural that they would take some time to adjust, too.
“Everybody starts to get a better feel, and I think the players start to do a better job as well,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “I think it’s a combination of maybe they’re letting a little bit more go, maybe the referees are more comfortable with what they’re calling and the players are adjusting a little bit, too.”
When this season started, no one knew how long it was going to take for players to be able to adjust their games to match the new enforcement. Shepherd, for one, isn’t surprised it hasn’t taken that long, saying it’s an image thing.
“I think a lot of the onus was put on the coaches to tell their players, ‘Let’s play the game the way it’s supposed to be played,'” Shepherd said. “Because they would lose the players. The players would say, ‘We don’t want to go here because all you’re doing is playing shorthanded and we don’t want to do that.'”
The Gritty Side
Looking for a model of the way he wants his team to play, St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl turned to North Dakota of a few years back. Or maybe even his team of a few years back.
“They had people going to the net hard,” Dahl said. “There’s only one way you can get ‘er done unless you’re supremely talented. A couple years ago when we had those teams, we had guys who would pay the price. [Mark] Hartigan wasn’t a soft kid.”
Building that is an ongoing process, but Dahl said he’s encouraged by the progress he has seen from his players since the start of the season.
And one of the pleasant surprises is Peter Szabo’s willingness to get his nose dirty. Szabo has a point in eight of the Huskies’ last 10 games, and while three goals and 10 points for the season isn’t too stunning, it’s a good start after a disappointing five-goal, 17-point junior season.
“He’s a very serious young man,” Dahl said. “He’s almost too serious at times when it comes to hockey. He really wants to do well and he knows what our situation is so he tries to apply himself each night to try to put some points on the board for us. He sees the ice really well. At times, he likes playing the perimeter, but this year he’s tried to avoid that. He’s tried to get in there in the bloody nose alley and get something done. He’s been a lot better about that.”
The Huskies will take any scoring they can get, judging from the fine line they walk between winning and losing. When their offense is productive, they win; when it isn’t, they lose. It has been that simple thus far.
In seven wins, the Huskies have scored 35 goals, an average of five per game. In six losses, they have a total of eight goals, an average of 1.33 per game.
“We’re making progress,” Dahl said. “We’re not going to be worldbeaters. Our upperclassmen aren’t the blue, blue-chippers. They’re just mucking and grinding. When they score, we win.”
St. Cloud will have to go without one of those upperclassmen until at least the Winter break. Junior Billy Hengen, who’s tied for the team scoring lead with 14 points, suffered a dislocated thumb last Friday. He had surgery on Monday, Dahl said, and likely will be out until the Huskies return from break in Florida.
On the other side of the injury turntable, the Huskies will get back goaltender Tim Boron from a broken thumb this week. He’s slated to start Friday night against Minnesota State.
The ability to stay fresh through a long first half to the season is a credit to North Dakota’s leadership, coach Dave Hakstol says.
The Sioux have played at least one game every weekend since the opening of practice, and they’ve got three more weekends of hockey to play before they get a break.
“All the way along, I’ve been happy with the reaction of our guys,” Hakstol said. “The character that we talk about in our locker room I think has been a real key factor in getting us through a tough schedule and some injury difficulties. But at the same time, as a team we’ve gotten better for all of this.”
The injuries Hakstol spoke of have multiplied. Forward Brady Murray continues to be out with a knee injury, and the Sioux lost two more forwards last weekend: Drew Stafford to an upper body injury and Erik Fabian with a reaggravation of a shoulder injury. Fabian is expected to be out one to three weeks, while Stafford is day to day, the Grand Forks Herald reported.
Now would be a good time to give those injuries a chance to heal, but that’s not in the cards for the Sioux, who have two off weekends in the second half instead.
“With injuries, it shortens your lineup and one of the benefits of having a week off is to heal up some of the minor bumps, bruises and injuries that you have,” Hakstol said. “But that’s not a luxury that we have. We’ve had guys that have stepped up when the opportunity has been there, if the opportunity has been created by an injury they’ve stepped up and done a pretty good job. There’s been no excuses made inside the locker room.”
Since Wisconsin swept UND, the Sioux have reeled off four straight wins to move to the top of the WCHA standings (they’ve played two more league games than second-place Wisconsin and four more than third-place Minnesota).
“With the travel and the strength of the schedule, it’s been a little bit of a grind,” Hakstol said of the first half. “But I’ll be honest with you: Our guys, they’re not tired. They’re mentally fresh. I think our guys are having fun. You play two games a weekend, it’s not like we’re playing four games a week or anything like that. …
“It’s nice when you have some success, you can lighten up practices early in the week and the guys can have some fun. We’ve had some bumps in the road and we’ve had some good success at other times, and all the way through our guys are mentally fresh, they’re having fun playing and I think that speaks directly to the leadership in the locker room.”
Sight For Sore Eyes
The sight of Eric Walsky in a game uniform will be a welcome one to an Alaska-Anchorage team that will be down two forwards on Friday night before even considering injuries.
With Brett Arcand-Kootenay serving his two-game, team-ordered suspension from an undisclosed incident on a road trip three weeks ago and Ales Parez sitting out Friday’s game because of a game disqualification penalty in the Seawolves’ last game, UAA will start this weekend’s series at North Dakota without two of its top seven scorers.
The Seawolves, who are on a season-long four-game losing streak, will look to Walsky to play this weekend for the first time this season. The freshman forward suffered an ankle injury in the team’s first official practice in October.
It remains to be seen what kind of role Walsky will play in his first game action since last season in the USHL.
“I like to put more pressure on myself,” Walsky told the Anchorage Daily News. “When I have expectations, I think I play better. I’m hoping to play well and fit in right away.”
UAA, which has lost 43 man games to injury this season, remains without three players — forwards Peter Cartwright (shoulder) and Shea Hamilton (wrist) and defenseman Matt Hanson (ankle).
Passing the Torch
In selecting and coaching the United States team for the World Junior Championship, Scott Sandelin doesn’t have one advantage his predecessor, Mike Eaves, did.
Eaves’ last job before joining Wisconsin was leading the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. In that role, he coached many of the players who won the Americans’ first gold medal in the WJC last season.
In that way, Sandelin, the Minnesota-Duluth coach, surely had to do a lot more research into the players he’s considering for the team. The final roster is expected to be released on Tuesday.
Eaves said this week that Sandelin has consulted with him since taking over the U.S. job from Dean Blais last summer.
“We just shared ideas,” Eaves said. “He wanted to know about how we selected the team, maybe some specifics about style of play of certain teams that he wasn’t familiar with. … We continue to talk every couple of weeks, just touching base. He’s got his hands full. It’s a lot of work.”
The tournament runs Dec. 25-Jan. 4 in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn. Exhibitions start Dec. 19, with North Dakota playing the U.S. team.
The Americans are scheduled to report on Dec. 16, meaning team members, including Sandelin, will miss their college games that weekend. The Bulldogs are scheduled to host Denver on Dec. 17 and 18.
St. Cloud State has home-and-home series scheduled for the next two weekends — quite the opposite of how the Huskies’ season started. They had flights on three of their first four weekends of the season, so staying near home in the last few weeks of the first half is especially appreciated.
Dahl is a proponent of the home-and-home series, but the WCHA doesn’t schedule them for him. So he takes it upon himself to make arrangements with Lucia and Minnesota State’s Troy Jutting. The Huskies have a pair scheduled against the Mavericks this weekend before playing Minnesota next weekend.
“I think it’s a waste of money to go stay in a hotel and spend all that money on food and stuff when it’s a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride” like it is to Mankato, Dahl said. “I think our players would rather stay in their own beds and be around the familiarity of their own apartments or dorms. [And] if I was a home fan, I’d like to see a team early in the year and late in the year. The ability to do that is a good thing.”
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Colorado College’s Sertich on offense, Minnesota’s Briggs and North Dakota blueliner Nick Fuher on defense and Gophers defenseman Alex Goligoski as the top rookie.
• Briggs also was selected the USCHO/ITECH defensive player of the week after allowing only one goal last weekend in the College Hockey Showcase. He made 23 saves in a 5-1 win over Michigan, then stopped all 24 shots he faced in a 5-0 victory over Michigan State. The shutout moves him one away from leader Adam Hauser on the Gophers’ career shutout list. Hauser had eight in four seasons.
• Colorado College forward Scott McCulloch might be out for the season with a dislocated shoulder suffered last Friday, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reported. Also, senior defenseman Richard Petiot is out for six weeks with a torn groin muscle.
• This is one of only three weekends this season with five WCHA series being played. The others are Jan. 7-9 and Feb. 4-5.
• A WCHA team has held the top spot in the USCHO.com poll 98 times since it was started in October 1997 — that’s 173 polls total. Minnesota earned its 11th No. 1 spot this week, far behind the leader, North Dakota at 56.
• With Neil Petruic (ankle) and Ryan Swanson (knee) injured, Minnesota-Duluth had only five healthy defensemen last weekend. The Bulldogs moved winger Josh Miskovich to the blue line. Petruic is expected back this weekend at Wisconsin.
• Wisconsin’s 8-2 home record is its best since fashioning the same mark in the 1999-2000 season, the last time the Badgers won the MacNaugton Cup.
• Denver has scored five or more goals in six of its last 10 games, a big reason why the Pioneers have shot up to second nationally in scoring at 4.08 goals per game.
• Wins over Boston University and Massachusetts last weekend improved Colorado College’s record against non-WCHA teams to 34-3-2 since the start of the 2000-01 season.
• After this weekend’s series against Denver, Michigan Tech won’t play at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena again until Jan. 28. In that time, they’ll play games in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Detroit; Denver; Green Bay, Wis.; and Minneapolis.
• North Dakota and Michigan Tech will be halfway through the 28-game WCHA schedule after this weekend.
• Minnesota-Duluth’s Evan Schwabe recorded his 100th career point last Saturday, becoming the 48th player to join UMD’s century club. Teammate Tim Stapleton is five points away from joining him as a junior.
• Colorado College scored 18 seconds into the first period and with 19 seconds left in the first period against UMass last Friday.
• Trivia answer: Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota haven’t allowed a shorthanded goal this season. The Bulldogs have scored five shorthanded goals, while the Gophers have four and the Sioux have one.