Some thoughts this week, while finally realizing why Minnesota State is so high in the RPI:
• We’re not sure what to make of Michigan Tech’s trip to Thunder Bay, Ont., this weekend to play a pair of games against Lakehead University, but here’s to Lakehead’s unique nickname: the Thunderwolves. Or at least we thought it was unique until we found that Colorado State-Pueblo also uses the same name.
• The perception that there haven’t been that many highlights from Wisconsin’s first half goes directly to the higher expectations of this season’s team. But 13 wins is 13 wins.
• The uproar following Minnesota State’s decision to move its Jan. 14 home game against Minnesota to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul continues. From the MSU athletics department’s viewpoint, it’s tough to pass up six figures. From the viewpoint of downtown Mankato businesses, it’s tough to lose a game night.
• This isn’t exactly what we had in mind when circling this weekend’s series between Denver and Minnesota-Duluth.
• Talking trivia: What was the last season Minnesota did not play a regular-season game at Minnesota-Duluth? Answer below.
• And finally, the Mavericks are 11th in the country in RPI, coming soon on USCHO.com. This is a good team, folks, and one capable of making a move down the stretch.
Denver and Minnesota-Duluth square off this weekend for the first time since last season’s national semifinal, but the first half of this season has shown that neither team is quite the same.
The Bulldogs have struggled to stay at .500 both overall and in the league in the past few weeks, a far cry from the preseason polls and selections that had them atop the WCHA.
With the Pioneers, however, things have gone the other way, according to coach George Gwozdecky. He said that, in many areas, this season’s team is ahead of last season’s national champions at the same point of the season.
Through eight weekends last season, the Pioneers were 9-5-2; now, they’re 10-5. That’s not an incredible swing, but that’s not what Gwozdecky has in mind, either.
“We haven’t had to deal with some of the challenges that we had to deal with last year, including injuries,” Gwozdecky said. “In some of the areas on the ice, we’re ahead of pace. I like the way our team has developed. We’re probably, in identity, a little bit different than we have been in the past. I think the experience that our returning players went through last year has been invaluable for their understanding and their confidence.
“I think the freshmen have done a real good job of contributing in their areas of responsibility. I think our goaltending, which was a big question mark going into the season, has continued to gain confidence and gain in their overall game based upon every time they’ve suited up. I like our team right now.”
What’s not to like? The Pioneers, who rallied for a 5-3 victory over UMD last April, are getting a good balance of scoring, with decent-if-not-spectacular goaltending from Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino. Their five losses this season all came to nationally ranked teams.
The area of Denver’s game that hasn’t been up to last season’s pace is the special teams. The power play is down from 18.8 percent to 14.7 percent, while the penalty kill is down from 85.7 percent to 83.3 percent.
But Gwozdecky said things are starting to come around for his team in those areas. He noted that the power play was “almost nonexistent” in the first month of the season, but has gotten better since.
“The last month and a half, it’s started to be a real factor in games for us,” he said. “But of those guys that graduated [after last season], I think five of the six played on the power play last year. We’ve had to make some adjustments with not only the patterns that we run but the personnel that we have in each of the power-play groups. There’s no question that we’ve seen better results as we’ve continued to work on it and practice it. It’s become a factor for us, a very positive factor.”
Denver is one of three teams with only three conference losses (Minnesota and Colorado College are the others), so this weekend’s series in Duluth figures to be one of the telling signs of the Pioneers’ conference title aspirations.
The Bulldogs need points to end the first half on a good note, but they don’t need to do anything to make sure Denver notices them.
“They have our utmost respect for the talent they have in their lineup,” Gwozdecky said. “They’re a team that probably has as big a bull’s-eye on their chest as we do on ours, because of the great team they had last year and the group they have returning from last year’s team. Whatever happens this weekend by either team, I don’t think there’ll be any major adjustments or the idea of going back to the drawing board. It’s another WCHA series.”
As a native of Thief River Falls, Minn., and a resident of the town of about 8,000, Tom Goddard can appreciate what having part of the World Junior Championship in town means.
As the rink manager of the town’s Ralph Engelstad Arena and the site manager for the tournament, he knows exactly how much work has been done to make sure the event goes off smoothly.
“Everybody’s made some sacrifices to make things happen for everybody,” Goddard said. “For me to pick up the phone and call somebody and say, hey, I need some help with this, it’s, ‘OK, tell me what you need and when you want it done.’ That’s the neat part about a small town.”
Goddard, a former WCHA referee, said the preparation at his rink has been “like getting ready for the dance.”
The Thief River Falls version of Ralph Engelstad Arena will host two exhibitions and 10 pool play games during the tournament’s run. Five teams — Slovakia, Russia, Sweden, Germany and Finland — are being headquartered in Thief River Falls.
“The community is excited and the volunteers are excited,” Goddard said. “They’ve put in countless hours of preparation.
“Our rink, when people walk in here, they go, ‘This is a high school rink?'” he said of the 4,500-seat facility. “There’s colleges that would love to have this. So we’re extremely fortunate. I always think I’m the luckiest guy in town to get to work here.”
Goddard hung up his whistle two seasons ago to become the new rink’s manager. He joked that coaches were clapping when he decided to leave the WCHA, but he said he misses a lot about the game.
“I miss being on the ice, I miss people in the rink, I miss the coaches, believe it or not,” Goddard said. “I miss the competition. When you’ve done something for 17 years, it gets in your blood. I always took a lot of pride in what we did. It wasn’t an easy job, and when you’re the targets that we are you develop a lot of close friendships with other referees. You help each other out. Those things are really hard. I just miss being involved in college hockey.”
He’ll have enough good hockey to keep him occupied for the next couple of weeks.
It appears that the days of Minnesota not making the trip to St. Cloud or Mankato once every four seasons are numbered.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that, starting in the next few seasons, when his team has only two games a season against the Huskies or the Mavericks, that series will be played in a home-and-home format.
Minnesota-Duluth was also considered for the rotation, but Lucia told the paper Duluth was too far from Minneapolis for a home-and-home series.
The WCHA’s unbalanced, 28-game schedule is based on a system in which a team does not play two opponents at home and two others on the road each season.
Unsolicited comments from players tend to carry the most weight. So when Wisconsin captain Adam Burish offered the following words about Minnesota State without prompting, it showed the respect that’s being earned by the Mavericks:
“Give them credit, that team plays so hard,” Burish said after the Badgers had to hold on for a victory last Saturday to claim a series split. “They’re going to surprise a lot of people this year, I guarantee that, with how hard they play and the team speed they have.”
When the Mavericks get their speed going through the neutral zone, they’re tough to stop. David Backes showed that when he sped across the blue line, got around a fallen defenseman and picked the far corner with a wrist shot to win last Friday’s game in overtime.
The Badgers were able to regroup to go into their two-week break off a victory. They’ve played four straight one-goal games and are 3-1 in them.
“This weekend was a bit of a struggle for some guys, myself included,” said Burish, who was on the ice for five of the six goals Minnesota State scored over the weekend. “But we got through it. At our team meeting [before Saturday’s game], we said this is the biggest game of the year. You want to feel good going into break. It was two points we need to have on the road. Great teams don’t get swept.”
While Minnesota State closes out its first half looking to get above .500 overall at Colorado College, the Badgers will spend the break as the WCHA’s first-place team. So they’ll start the second half as the target.
“If you’re not there, you’re not doing something right,” Burish said. “If you’re there, you’re doing something good. Guys have to understand, and we will continue to remind guys that every weekend you’ve got to show up to play.
“Mankato’s not in the top four or five in the league, but they’re going to come out and they’re going to battle you and they’re going to want to knock you off. After they won, they sounded like they won a championship over there. They were loud, they were screaming, their music was turned up. That burned a hole in our hearts.”
Freshman defenseman Jake Obermeyer is leaving Michigan Tech and returning to the Tri-City Storm of the USHL.
“I don’t think Jake wasn’t successful at the college level, just not happy,” Tri-City coach Bliss Littler said in a statement.
Obermeyer played in 11 of the Huskies’ 16 games this season and had a goal and an assist. He didn’t play in three of Tech’s last six games.
Out of Action
Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin will miss this weekend’s series against Denver because he had to report to training camp for the World Junior Championship in Grand Forks on Thursday.
Assistant coach Steve Rohlik will lead the Bulldogs this weekend.
North Dakota forward Drew Stafford will miss the Sioux’s nonconference series against Canisius for the camp.
Get Well Soon
Belated best wishes are in order for Denver sports information director Erich Bacher, who has been hospitalized following an appendectomy.
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Minnesota State’s Backes on offense, St. Cloud State goaltender Tim Boron on defense and Colorado College’s Jimmy Kilpatrick as the top rookie.
• As of Dec. 6, 15 former WCHA players were spending their locked-out time playing in Europe.
• Colorado College’s victory over Alaska-Anchorage last Friday snapped a four-game losing streak at Sullivan Arena for the Tigers. UAA swept CC at home in 2001-02 and 2003-04.
• Minnesota’s Ryan Potulny leads the nation with 17 goals. Nine of them have come on the power play.
• Evan Schwabe’s game-winning goal with 32 seconds left in regulation last Saturday against North Dakota was his second game-winner of the season. He’s the only Minnesota-Duluth player with more than one.
• Trivia answer: The Gophers didn’t play in Duluth last in the 1964-65 season.