Some thoughts this week, while wondering whether last Friday’s game at the Xcel Energy Center is what people hope to see from college hockey:
• Consider this, Minnesota-Duluth fans: As bad as your team has looked at times this season, it’s only one point out of a home-ice spot for the playoffs in the points-lost category. That seems to be a suitable goal for the rest of the regular season, but with the schedule lined up like it is, there would have to be a pretty big turnaround.
• With a pair of victories over Alaska-Anchorage last weekend, Wisconsin reached 14 league wins, the same number it had last season. Seems like we can finally put to rest the Badgers of two seasons ago.
• Michigan Tech has put together three straight solid outings since the Great Lakes Invitational, with the most recent a 6-2 victory over Notre Dame on Tuesday in Green Bay, Wis. We’re reserving judgment, however, until we get the results of this weekend’s series at Minnesota.
• Colorado College became the first Division I team to reach 20 wins this season. We would have like to have seen the preseason odds on that.
• Talking trivia: St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth combined for 33 penalties in the third period of last Saturday’s game, a Huskies record for combined penalties in a period. Against which team was the previous record set? Answer below.
• And finally, the 9-6 score makes it seem like the Gophers’ victory would have been an exciting game to watch. Some of us, however, like a little defense mixed in.
Behind the 8-Ball
There are plenty of questions about how the WCHA will shake out the rest of the way. You want answers? Fall asleep and wake up seven weeks from now and we’ll start to have them.
But there’s one way to go about this. Let’s consult the USCHO magic 8-ball for the answers to some of those pressing questions.
Will Wisconsin win the MacNaughton Cup? The answer: My Sources Say No.
The Badgers have five league series left and all are against the other teams in the top six in the conference, with three of them on the road. That matchup with Colorado College at the Kohl Center on Feb. 18 and 19 stands out. We can say this with some certainty, however: If the Badgers do win the league title, they’ll deserve it.
Will the teams currently in the top five in the standings stay there? The answer: Most Likely.
The best chance for a change might be if Minnesota-Duluth can overtake North Dakota. But considering the Bulldogs have road series remaining against Colorado College, Minnesota and Denver, that seems to be a longshot.
Will the WCHA get five teams in the NCAA tournament again? The answer: Outlook Good.
Five league teams are in the top 14 in the PairWise Rankings, and considering first-place Wisconsin is the lowest ranked of them, it seems likely five will stay in tournament positions.
Will two WCHA teams make the Frozen Four again? The answer: Don’t Count on It.
While the WCHA and Hockey East have had the run of things in recent seasons, there’s enough parity in the game this season that it won’t be surprising to see a CCHA or ECAC team in the mix.
Will a WCHA team win the national championship this season? The answer: Better Not Tell You Now.
There’s a handful of qualified teams in the league, but it only takes one poorly timed loss.
Will a WCHA player win the Hobey Baker Award? The answer: Outlook Good.
Marty Sertich. Ryan Potulny. Brett Sterling. Gotta like those chances.
Will Colorado College be able to get through the season without an injury to one of its major players derailing things? The answer: Signs Point to Yes.
Knocking on wood optional here for Tigers fans. CC has already had its share of injuries, including season-enders for forwards Scott McCulloch and Scott Thauwald. Maybe that covers the seemingly required number of injuries to CC players each season.
Will North Dakota find its offense before the end of the season? The answer: Reply Hazy.
It’s puzzling why that offensive talent hasn’t produced yet, but it’s a funk that might end up continuing the rest of the way.
Is Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner shaping up to be the most over-hyped player in the WCHA this season? The answer: Yes.
Conner was pegged by many as the favorite to be the WCHA’s MVP after scoring 25 goals and 39 points last season. This year, he has only nine goals and 16 points and isn’t even close to MVP talk. That’s disappointing when you consider that Conner is one of the most talented scorers around.
Does Colorado College have to pick a goaltender to be its full-time starter down the stretch? The answer: My Reply is No.
At some point, Scott Owens may have to decide whether to abandon the Curtis McElhinney-Matt Zaba rotation, say for a championship game in the Final Five, NCAA regionals or the Frozen Four. Until then, why mess with a good thing?
Will there be some surprises as the regular season winds up? The answer: You May Rely On It.
It wouldn’t be the WCHA if there weren’t a few twists and turns to keep us on our toes every once in a while.
Creating a Buzz
Every so often, Minnesota will get a performance out of Danny Irmen like last Friday’s. Irmen scored his first collegiate hat trick and added an assist in a 9-6 victory over Minnesota State.
But more often, the Gophers will get a solid performance from the sophomore and a work ethic that has helped him exceed his coach’s expectations for the season.
Irmen leads Minnesota in plus-minus at plus-16, indicating his prowess not only on offense but in his own end of the ice, too.
“He’s a really good all-around player,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “He plays so hard and he plays at both ends of the rink. He’s very good defensively and he’s having a breakout season as a sophomore. Some of that is because he had to play behind some people last year that gobbled up some minutes.”
Now, Irmen is getting his chance all over the ice. He’s on the power play and penalty kill and would be one of the first sent out in a 4-on-4 situation because of his dedication to defense.
“He’s one of those four, five, six forwards that we needed to have a great year for us this year,” Lucia said. “He certainly exceeded my expectations in what he’d be able to do so far this year. He’s such a relentless worker every day and he keeps improving.”
Irmen has three multiple-goal games — the first two coming against Wisconsin and Colorado College — and trails only linemate Ryan Potulny with 17 goals and 30 points.
Success Without Power
Look at the WCHA power play statistics and you appreciate how productive Denver has been offensively this season.
The Pioneers, who lead the WCHA in scoring offense at 4.05 goals per game, are eighth in the league in power play at 16.1 percent. Only 23 of their 85 goals have come on the man advantage, but coach George Gwozdecky notes that the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“Our first month, maybe even our first six weeks, our power play was very, very ineffective,” Gwozdecky said. “I would say since then it’s been much better and we’ve been able to rely upon it a lot more. I think that number is maybe a little bit misleading.
“At the same point, it’s still not at a point where it generates as many goals as some of the other teams in our conference. Yet we have been able to create a lot of scoring chances and goals off of even-strength plays, which has become a strength of our team.”
The top of the Pioneers’ scoring chart is evidence of that. The top seven scorers are separated by four points, with Gabe Gauthier leading at 22 points and Luke Fulghum and Peter Stastny tied for six with 18.
“That bodes well for us and makes us a little bit more challenging team to play against because we don’t have one guy or one line you can really key on and hope to shut them down and hopefully shut down our offense,” Gwozdecky said. “We’ve really had some very good balance. We’ve had three lines that have been able to contribute to our offensive output.”
That at least starts to tell the story.
Negative to Positive
From the outside, it looks like another pair of losses for Alaska-Anchorage. A closer look reveals two different performances, one that shows why the Seawolves are languishing in seventh place and another that shows why they could make a run down the stretch.
The Seawolves were utterly flat in a 6-1 loss at Wisconsin last Friday, then turned things around and were tied with the Badgers in the third period before falling 3-2 Saturday.
Friday’s game was the worst game the Seawolves have played all season, coach John Hill said, while the Seawolves played about as well as they can play a night later, Hill said.
“I told our guys that if I was an NHL scout at the game [Friday] night, I would have thought that the Seawolves have no coaching, and I take that personally,” Hill said. “We were that bad. But we were a whole lot better [Saturday].”
A embarrassing video session Saturday morning may have done the trick.
“I just think our guys individually and as a group made a commitment to being better positionally,” Hill said. “It’s easy to stress it when you play against a team like Wisconsin because you can use them as an example when you’re doing video. We did it leading into the series and we did it again [Saturday] morning with our guys. There was no negativity. We knew we were bad [Friday], we showed the guys and I think they made a commitment. Unfortunately, the same guys are deficient in the defensive zone, and it showed tonight with the goals that were scored.”
Minnesota appears poised to go with a goaltender rotation for a few weeks to give starter Kellen Briggs a bit of a breather.
After Briggs allowed six goals on 37 shots last Friday and backup Justin Johnson stopped 39 of 40 shots a night later, Lucia said this weekend’s series against Michigan Tech might be a good opportunity to split his goaltenders again.
“Maybe [Briggs] needs a rest right now, so maybe we’ll only play him one game a weekend for a while here,” Lucia said. “The most important thing is he’s rested and ready to go when March rolls around.”
Briggs is in the top four in the three goalkeeping stats — goals against average (2.21, third), save percentage (.920, fourth) and winning percentage (.739, fourth) — for all games.
Minnesota State’s Brock Becker suffered a broken foot in last Friday’s loss to Minnesota, a game in which he scored a pair of goals.
It’s unknown how long Becker, who’s fifth on the team with 12 points from seven goals and five assists, will be sidelined.
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Minnesota’s Irmen on offense, Colorado College’s Zaba on defense and North Dakota goaltender Phillippe Lamoureux as the top rookie.
• CC’s Sertich reached the 40-point mark last Friday, but saw his point-scoring streak end at 16 games when he didn’t get on the scoresheet Saturday.
• Of the 33 penalties whistled on St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth in the third period last Saturday, 25 were assessed in the final 69 seconds. Conveniently, none of the penalties was a game disqualification.
• Alaska-Anchorage junior Ales Parez has gone 12 games without a point.
• CC’s Zaba is 5-0-1 with a 1.81 goals against average and .936 save percentage in his last six starts.
• Of the five goals Minnesota-Duluth scored last Saturday in a 5-1 win over St. Cloud that broke a five-game winless streak, three were on the power play and one was shorthanded. Junior Justin Williams scored the shorthanded goal, giving him his first point in 19 games, breaking the longest drought of his collegiate career.
• From the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink department: In 24 games, Minnesota-Duluth has used 50 forward line combinations and 15 defensive pairings.
• Minnesota State lost all four games to Minnesota this regular season, only the second time that has happened against a league team since the Mavericks joined the WCHA in 1999. The Mavericks lost all four games to St. Cloud State in the 2001-02 season.
• Colorado College has scored two goals within a minute five times this season, including last Friday’s 2-1 win over North Dakota.
• With the exception of the 1-0 victory over Michigan Tech on Jan. 8, Denver has scored four or more goals in each of its victories this season.
• North Dakota’s last five losses have each been by one goal.
• St. Cloud State’s victory at Minnesota-Duluth last Friday broke a seven-game winless streak.
• Trivia answer: Minnesota-Duluth, which combined with St. Cloud State for 30 penalties in a period on Dec. 9, 1994.