Some thoughts this week, while pondering where in the WCHA the selection of players for the World Junior Championship will be felt the most:
• How long did it take Minnesota to turn last Saturday’s close games against Colorado College into a laugher? Put it this way: If you stepped out to make some popcorn with about five minutes left in the third period and the Gophers leading 3-2, you may have gotten back to the TV to find Minnesota leading 7-2.
• Whereas nine players from the WCHA were on the U.S. roster for the World Junior Championship last season, there are only six on this year’s roster. The temptation to ask why is tempered by the reality that a WCHA coach made the selections.
• Why isn’t Wisconsin the No. 1 team in the polls this week? Two reasons: It’s tough to put the Badgers ahead of Minnesota, which swept Wisconsin not too long ago; and while the Badgers swept Minnesota-Duluth last weekend, the victories weren’t exactly convincing.
• Just when you thought Alaska-Anchorage is spiraling downward, goaltender Nathan Lawson came up with a huge game and 38 saves last Saturday to knock off North Dakota.
• Chris Conner, Taggart Desmet and Colin Murphy were back together, at least temporarily, for Michigan Tech. In times of trouble, go with what works.
• Talking trivia: Two WCHA teams feature eight players in double digits in points. Name those teams. Answer below.
• And finally, Minnesota and Wisconsin both will give up two players for the WJC, but the Gophers will lose two defensemen from a pool of seven who have played this season. Plus, the Gophers play four games while the players will be gone; the Badgers have just two games scheduled.
While it doesn’t come close to Michigan’s contribution of five players to Team USA for the World Juniors, Minnesota and Wisconsin each will lose two players during the tournament.
Gophers defensemen Nate Hagemo and Alex Goligoski will join Wisconsin forward Jake Dowell, Badgers defenseman Jeff Likens, North Dakota forward Drew Stafford and St. Cloud State defenseman Casey Borer on the U.S. roster. Dowell, Likens and Stafford were on last year’s team as well.
Former Wisconsin defenseman Ryan Suter will make his third WJC appearance, while 17-year-old Phil Kessel, the most highly coveted recruit of the season will make his first and be the youngest member of the team.
North Dakota recruit Brian Lee was one of the surprises on the 22-player roster revealed Tuesday.
Here are U.S. coach Scott Sandelin’s brief comments on the players who will leave their WCHA teams this season:
On Likens: “[He’s a] steady defender, gives us some offensive ability on the power play if needed. But just leadership and veteran experience.”
On Dowell: “A very good two-way centerman, certainly a very good faceoff guy.”
On Stafford: “A very gifted offensive player. Brings size and certainly a lot of ability. A guy that we’re going to count on offensively to provide some spark up front.”
On Borer: “A very steady defenseman. Brings some size. Will be counted on to play a lot of minutes for us.”
On Goligoski: “He has had a tremendous year at Minnesota. You will notice him as far as the poise he has with the puck. Very good puck-moving defenseman that can add a lot to our defensive corps and also power-play situations.”
On Hagemo: “Very gritty, competitive kid that is not, size-wise, 6-foot-2, but he makes up for size with competitiveness.”
Wisconsin’s Robbie Earl was disappointed at not making the U.S. squad for the WJC, but he vows to make the best of the situation.
Earl, the WCHA’s leading scorer in conference games, was passed by for the second straight season.
“I’ve been consistent all year. I’m not going to let this affect that,” said Earl, a former National Team Development Program player who leads the Badgers with nine goals and 21 points. “I know a lot of people are [saying], ‘What’s Robbie Earl going to do?’ But I’m just going to stay consistent, enjoy my Christmas break but come back even that much harder.
“I’ve had a great first half so far — it’s not yet over — but I just want to continue to go further than I was this first part of the season and see what happens then.”
Badgers coach Mike Eaves, who didn’t select Earl when he was the junior team’s coach last season, said after last weekend’s series against Minnesota-Duluth that he thought Earl had earned a spot this time around.
“It’s his willingness to do things to help win the game,” Eaves said in reference to the growth in Earl’s game since last season. “He has the athleticism and the natural physical gifts to get them done, but he did some nice things.”
Now, Earl will try to focus his energy on helping the first-place Badgers win the WCHA.
“I play my best when I’m on the edge, when I’m trying to prove something for some reason,” Earl said. “This’ll be interesting. It’s never really been a goal for me to play for the junior team, but a goal for me is to do well at UW and be a leading scorer in the nation. All those other things are so much more important to me and my teammates. Winning the WCHA, that’s so much more important to me than the World Junior team. But the World Junior team, to me, would have been just a bonus. It’s not an end-all, be-all.”
Looking for Change
Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell made some drastic lineup changes in an effort to shake his team out of its doldrums last Saturday, but the Huskies still lost their ninth straight game. He changed all four forward lines and all three defensive pairings to try to get a spark.
Russell put Conner, Desmet and Murphy together on the same line for the first time this season and they provided a goal and four assists in a 4-2 loss to Denver in the second game of the series.
“I don’t think anybody in the program was real happy with the way we played [last Friday],” Russell told the Daily Mining Gazette of Houghton. “I thought there was a need to make some changes and there are some guys that are upset that they are not in the lineup, but they will get an opportunity to prove me wrong. The same way [goaltender] Cam Ellsworth did when I was pretty critical of his play.”
One of the casualties among the players left out of the lineup was senior defenseman Clay Wilson, who had played in 113 of the Huskies’ last 114 games. He was on the ice for three of Denver’s five goals in a 5-1 victory over the Huskies last Friday.
Ellsworth, meanwhile, has made four straight starts for the Huskies and has finished three of those games. The senior made 85 saves on 94 Denver shots last weekend.
If it seems like over a year and a half since Minnesota has played at St. Cloud State, that’s because it has been.
Because the Gophers didn’t play at St. Cloud last season, it has been 21 months since Minnesota made the trip to the National Hockey Center. The teams open a home-and-home series in St. Cloud this weekend before playing in Minneapolis on Saturday.
Of course, then, how long has it been since the Huskies beat the Gophers in St. Cloud? How about 45 months? The last St. Cloud State victory over Minnesota was on March 3, 2001, a 5-2 win in which Duvie Westcott scored twice and Tyler Arnason had three points.
Overall, the Gophers have won seven of the last 10 games against the Huskies, with two ties. They won four straight games, two in the playoffs, over the Huskies at Mariucci Arena last March.
Managing Risks, Getting Rewards
There are a couple of ways in which Colorado College junior forward Aaron Slattengren is easily noticeable on the ice.
For one, he can fly. He’s speedy, works hard and has the puck a lot, Tigers coach Scott Owens said.
Then again …
“Sometimes if he hangs onto it too long and he’ll turn it over, then you notice it that way, too,” Owens said.
The CC coach considers Slattengren a high-risk, high-reward player, but accepts that because his team has a number of others who are just steady players.
Slattengren ranks fifth on the Tigers’ scoring chart with 10 points, but he has at least a point in seven of the 12 games in which he has played. That has been a welcome addition to the CC offense, which for a while was based almost exclusively on Brett Sterling and Marty Sertich.
“He’s got the speed, quickness and skill to make things happen offensively,” Owens said of Slattengren. “The only time he gets in trouble is when he tries to do a little too much himself. But he’s very versatile, he can play a lot of minutes, he’s got energy and he’s got skill. He’s playing on penalty kill, he’s playing power play and a regular shift. He’s a guy you can double shift. He’s been important for us in that sense because we can utilize him in a lot of different areas.”
Slattengren, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound center, missed the first game of the Tigers’ series against Denver four weeks ago, but then went on a five-game point-scoring streak in which he scored his only three goals of the season. He was held scoreless against Minnesota last weekend.
Tough to Catch Up
It’s impossible to tell whether Minnesota-Duluth is going to be cursing a lost two points here or there, but as the lost points continue to mount for the Bulldogs, the situation is getting increasingly pressing.
UMD is 2-7-1 in the 10 games since it became the No. 1 team in the nation and has fallen to 5-5 in the league.
“The thing that concerns us is we’ve seen it before where we’ve struggled to start or got behind and it’s hard to play catch-up,” UMD senior Luke Stauffacher said. “You look back in February or March, going, ‘Man, what about those two points back there?’ It’s hard to catch up to teams in February and March, when everybody’s scrambling for points. It’s a bit of a tailspin and we’re trying to get out of it as quick as we can so it doesn’t hurt us in the future.”
The Bulldogs do have some experience in playing from behind, however. After 16 games this season, they’re 7-7-2. At the same point last season, they were 8-6-2.
Stauffacher is one of a number of individuals struggling to score for the Bulldogs. After scoring 17 goals and 35 points last season, he has just two goals and five points in 16 games this season.
“I haven’t been scoring much and I haven’t played as well as I should be,” Stauffacher said. “It’s a struggle because it’s my last year and they expect me to play at a higher level. Right now, it just seems like I’m not getting the bounces here and there. It’s something that hopefully can turn around. The thing I can look at is last year, I didn’t have a lot of points in the first half and I did well the second half.”
Stauffacher isn’t alone. T.J. Caig, who scored 12 goals last season, claimed his first of this season last weekend.
As a team, the scoring has fallen off in the Bulldogs’ recent slide. They scored a total of 26 goals in their first six games, but have scored just 22 over the past 10 games.
“We’ve got guys that scored last year that aren’t scoring,” Stauffacher said. “We’re not even doing what we did last year when, really, we need to be doing more. I think that’s a big difference for us.”
One of the interesting notes on Minnesota State’s 6-6-2 record involves sophomore forward Travis Morin.
When Morin has at least one point, as he has in seven of the last eight games, the Mavericks are 6-0-1. When he doesn’t get on the scoresheet, they’re 0-6-1.
You’d think the Mavericks would have that kind of record with David Backes, the team’s big scorer. But Morin and Backes have teamed with linemate Brock Becker to get Minnesota State’s offense on some kind of a roll lately.
The Mavericks have scored four or more goals in six of their last eight games.
“He’s obviously a critical component offensively, especially,” Mavericks coach Troy Jutting said of Morin. “Him and David Backes have done a great job. We’re starting to get some production from other kids. Brock Becker’s game is picking up and we’re starting to see some production from Brock. Rob Rankin is another kid we’re starting to get some production from. We need those other kids to pitch in, but a kid like Travis has got to score for us to be successful.”
Minnesota State got a crucial victory against St. Cloud State last Saturday night thanks to a goal from Morin, but Becker’s third-period score broke a 3-3 tie to give the Mavericks a 4-3 victory.
That victory was essential because St. Cloud State claimed a 4-2 victory over the Mavs a night before. In that game, Jutting said, his team was beaten by Huskies goaltender Tim Boron, who made 32 saves, but the Mavericks allowed a couple of soft goals.
“It was very critical for us to come back on Saturday night and play well,” Jutting said. “And not only play well, but we had to win.”
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Denver’s Gabe Gauthier on offense, Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Brückler on defense and Alaska-Anchorage’s Lawson as the top rookie.
• Minnesota’s Ryan Potulny was selected the national player of the month for November by the Hockey Commissioners’ Association. Potulny, a sophomore, had seven goals and an assist in six games last month. But last weekend, he had his career-long point streak end at 13 games.
• Brückler is 6-0 with a 1.37 goals against average and .945 save percentage in his last seven games.
• Alaska-Anchorage defenseman Spence Gilchrist scored three points against North Dakota last weekend, including the winning goal last Saturday. It was his first goal of the season.
• Denver, which moved up to first in the nation in scoring offense at 4.13 goals per game, is 10-1 this season when scoring four or more goals.
• Eleven of the 23 career goals scored by Wisconsin’s Earl have come in the third period or overtime. He had the winner early in the third period last Saturday against Minnesota-Duluth.
• The six winning goals Minnesota State has accumulated this season have come from six different players: Backes, Morin, Becker, Ryan Carter, Austin Sutter and Jon Dubel.
• Minnesota-Duluth is just 1-4 in one-goal games this season after losing a pair of them at Wisconsin last weekend.
• North Dakota’s Brady Murray returned from a knee injury last weekend and had an assist in each game against Alaska-Anchorage.
• Wisconsin’s Adam Burish has a goal in each of his last three games. Two of them have been winners.
• Spotted at last Friday’s St. Cloud State-Minnesota State game in Mankato: baseball Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.
• Minnesota’s “Skate With the Gophers” event is scheduled for 1-4 p.m. CST Sunday at Mariucci Arena. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for children, and ice time must be reserved in advance by calling (612) 624-8080.
• Minnesota State is holding a “Teddy Bear Toss” promotion at Friday’s game against Wisconsin. Anyone who brings a teddy bear or stuffed animal to donate for distribution to children at Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital during the holiday season will receive a free ticket to a future Mavericks game, excluding the Minnesota series.
• Trivia answer: Denver and Wisconsin each have eight players with at least 10 points this season.