Some thoughts this week, while trying to make sense of what happened around the WCHA last weekend:
• Are we going to regret what we wrote about Chris Conner last week? Signs point to yes.
• Out of all of the craziness last weekend, the biggest winner when it comes to the race for the MacNaughton Cup was Wisconsin, which won a pair of non-conference games and then found itself still in first place and with the best league winning percentage Sunday morning.
• Think Denver goaltender Peter Mannino is playing with some confidence right now? Not only has the freshman won six straight games, but he had a shutout streak of 178 minutes, 16 seconds snapped in the third period last Saturday against St. Cloud State. That’s a school record, almost 20 minutes more than the old mark by Wade Dubielewicz.
• According to the Duluth News Tribune, the 1998 playoff game between Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota that was scheduled to be aired on Fox Sports Net North Tuesday night didn’t make it to air because FSN archives only include a copy with the first two periods erased. We’re sure there are hundreds of UMD fans who would have loaned FSN their copy.
• Talking trivia: The last time Michigan Tech swept Minnesota in Minneapolis was in the 1970-71 season. That was the same season the Huskies had a WCHA MVP for the first time. Who was it? Answer below.
• And finally, here’s the week that was: Eight league games, no home wins. WCHA hockey: It’s fan-tastic (as long as you’re a fan of the road team).
Another Great Chance
How about this: Michigan Tech has to guard against a letdown with the No. 2 team in the country coming to town.
Shake your head as much as you’d like, but it’s true. After a historic road sweep of Minnesota last weekend — one that could be seen as the first big splash of the Jamie Russell tenure — the Huskies have Colorado College at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena this weekend with a newfound confidence.
Russell’s job is to make sure there’s not too much confidence or satisfaction in his players’ minds after sweeping the Gophers.
“Obviously, everybody up here’s excited about how we’ve been able to turn things around, but that was one week last week. It was a great week, but last week’s over,” Russell said. “We’ve got Colorado College coming in, who’s No. 2 in the country, was No. 1 in the country, so we’re going to have our hands full.
“We’ve got to remember what we did successfully, and it came from a team effort. We got some big performances from some individuals, but we had success because we had 20 guys going and a work ethic and competitiveness and sticking to the system — those are the things that made us successful.”
Colin Murphy had six points against the Gophers — more on him later — while Conner had four to give Cam Ellsworth enough offensive support to hold off Minnesota’s charges.
As far as Russell is concerned, the last week, the last five games, in which Tech is 4-1, has finally been the payoff to a lot of hard work.
“I think the guys are getting some confidence now, but we played some very good games in the first half that we didn’t get results,” he said. “It’s been very encouraging that we’ve gone into the third period with a lead and played some pretty smart hockey. We’ve played in some tough buildings, obviously — Minnesota, Denver’s a tough place to play — and we had a lead going into the third period and [played] disciplined hockey. We stuck to the systems, everybody was on the same page.”
Those games last weekend were just the fifth and sixth of the season where the Huskies have had a lead going into the third period. They’re 5-1 in those situations, with a five-goal Minnesota-Duluth third period on Oct. 16 providing the only loss.
Now, the Huskies have to get back up for the home series against CC, something that has never been a problem in the past. In each of the last two seasons, Tech has played CC tough at home, with a tie two seasons ago when the Tigers were also No. 2 and a win last year, when CC was No. 12.
“As a coach, you have to guard against having an emotional letdown,” Russell said. “We had success in Green Bay against Notre Dame and then two huge wins for the program against Minnesota, the first time in 31 years that Tech swept at Minnesota. I think what really works in our favor is we’re home for the first time in 55 days. I would sure hope that we’ve got a full building and it’s loud. Our rink is a tough place to play when it’s rocking, and I think there’s no way that our guys can come out and have a letdown after last weekend.”
It has been common knowledge that Wisconsin’s road to the MacNaughton Cup is the toughest of the contending teams, but the others’ remaining schedules are at the other end of the spectrum.
Minnesota has the easiest remaining league schedule by the RPI ranking of its opponents, followed by Colorado College, North Dakota and Denver.
Having those teams face easier schedules — if you believe in that sort of thing in the WCHA — makes the task just that much more difficult for Wisconsin.
But the Badgers finally have the advantage of playing from ahead — this week is the first time they have the lead in the points-lost category (eight; Colorado College and Denver both have nine) — and have it all laid out in front of them.
After having this weekend off, Wisconsin hosts Minnesota, travels to Denver, hosts Colorado College and travels to North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth.
By comparison, the series against Wisconsin is the only remaining one Minnesota has against a team currently in the top half of the standings. CC has two — against the Badgers and a home-and-home series against Denver to close out the regular season.
Here’s the order of WCHA teams by strength of remaining schedule: Wisconsin, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota State, Michigan Tech, Denver, North Dakota, Colorado College, Minnesota.
North Dakota captain Matt Greene will serve a two-game, team-issued suspension stemming from his arrest on suspicion of drunken driving this weekend but has not been stripped of his captaincy.
According to police, Greene failed a sobriety test after being pulled over in Warroad, Minn., early last Sunday, and on Wednesday UND coach Dave Hakstol suspended him for this weekend’s home series against Bemidji State.
Greene was remorseful in a statement.
“This past weekend I made an inexcusable mistake,” he said. “I am willing to accept full responsibility for my actions and the consequences that result because of it. I would like to apologize to my teammates, the University of North Dakota and the community of Grand Forks for my poor judgment concerning this incident.”
It was the second incident of the season concerning the captain of a WCHA team and law enforcement. Alaska-Anchorage’s Lee Green was stripped of his captaincy and was suspended for four games after being arrested on a second-degree assault charge for allegedly punching teammate Brett Arcand-Kootenay in the team’s locker room on Sept. 12. The dispute reportedly was about Arcand-Kootenay’s attendance at a training run.
The Fan Cost
St. Cloud State has an average attendance of 5,894 for the season, 131 over the sellout level at the National Hockey Center.
But being in ninth place has apparently taken a toll on how many fans actually are in the seats at the on-campus arena.
The St. Cloud Times reported this week that, while the school doesn’t count the number of people actually in the building (attendance is based on tickets sold), some games have seen crowds maybe 2,000 people short of the listed attendance.
“Are we concerned? Absolutely,” SCSU athletics director Morris Kurtz told the newspaper. “How can we not be? We have to operate on a balanced budget, and that’s based on extrapolations from recent seasons. It’s hard to foresee what will happen in a year like this but we’ll make whatever adjustments we have to.”
While the athletic department gets the revenue from tickets no matter whether the patrons actually show up, it also forecasts a certain level of sales at the concession stands that may not be met if the seats aren’t full. According to the paper, that’s at least $1 for each person in attendance, or not in attendance.
Earlier this month, late in a 6-0 loss to Wisconsin, the fans cleared out of the arena early.
“It’s an embarrassment in our own building when we don’t have fans in the stands at the end of the game,” Huskies captain Dave Iannazzo said after that game.
The whispers have been there all along.
If Minnesota-Duluth can just get something going …
Maybe this is it. Earning three points at Colorado College last weekend was not only good for the standings — they’re just two points out of fifth place — but could have been good for the overall state of the team as it enters the final six weeks of the regular season.
The Bulldogs had to hold off a CC charge in the third period last Saturday for a 4-3 victory. A night earlier, they battled back from a 3-1 deficit for a 3-3 tie.
If they can just get something going …
“These are the kind of wins we need,” Bulldogs forward Tim Stapleton told the Duluth News Tribune last Saturday.
“We just outworked them in the second period, and got goals, and got a lead, and put ourselves in a position to win,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin told the newspaper. “To come on the road and get three points against a good team is a great weekend.”
This weekend, the Bulldogs head downstate to play Minnesota in the teams’ only meetings of the regular season. It’ll be a closely watched series, both to see whether the Gophers can right the ship and also to see whether the Bulldogs can continue the momentum they started last weekend.
The volumes of talent and experience on the UMD roster have told you all season not to count the Bulldogs out. Their performance last weekend finally gave some reason to hold onto that.
As Michigan Tech’s captain, Colin Murphy has a lot of responsibility to make sure the Huskies are ready to play Colorado College this weekend.
Nothing new there, just a different twist.
“When we weren’t getting results and everybody was frustrated, he was able to stay positive and really encourage the younger guys,” Russell said. “They want results now, and I think being an older player and having gone through it, he understands it’s a process. And then for the guys to watch him, he’s such an offensive player.
“He’s got great poise with the puck, but to see him bust his [butt] coming back on the backcheck, it’s like, ‘Hey, if he can do that when he’s second in the nation in scoring, I’d better make sure [I’m] getting back pretty hard.'”
That’s just one of the reasons why Russell considers Murphy to be a “sure-fire” candidate for the Hobey Baker Award. The fact that he’s second in the nation in points per game, 1.65, doesn’t hurt matters. In three games last week, he had 10 points.
But it’s the intangibles that set Murphy apart. He kept the Huskies together through a horrendous first half in terms of wins and losses, so that they would even have a chance to make a run like they have in the last few weeks.
Murphy also is married and has a 1-year-old son.
“Obviously, I get to work with him every day, but I couldn’t imagine a better guy to win the Hobey Baker than Colin Murphy,” Russell said. “You read about the history of Hobey Baker and the type of person he was, and the adversity that we went through in the first half, Colin Murphy, his leadership was the glue. He kept things stuck together. To go to school as a full-time student, he’s a husband, he’s a father, he’s a great example in the community, and I think he’s going to be a [heck] of an NHL hockey player.”
It will be tough for a player from a team that has just five wins this season to get widespread support for the award, but what he leaves the Tech program with may be even greater.
“He’s a great person and he’s just a great example to our younger kids,” Russell said. “With a young team that’s rebuilding to have somebody like Colin who’s so talented, the work ethic he has is just a great example for our young kids and really sets the foundation for our program.”
Save Before Save
Wisconsin’s goaltenders will get credit for a rare weekend shutout, but the players in front of them should get consideration, too.
In beating Notre Dame 2-0 in both games of last weekend’s non-conference series, the Badgers earned the first weekend shutout of a team since November 1968, when they blanked Pennsylvania 7-0 and 11-0. Brian Elliott got the first shutout, Bernd Bruckler the second.
But lost in the stats sheets was that Wisconsin forwards and defensemen actually blocked more shots (35) than its goaltenders did (33) in the series.
“They go hand in hand, the way our players play in front of them and the way the goaltenders play when they have to make a save,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “We block 17, 18 shots a game, those are saves a goalie doesn’t have to make because of the way the people play in front of them. They clear rebounds, they’re doing a pretty good job of blocking out. In [Saturday’s] case, we gave the game puck to Bernd but you look around the room and Bernd’s the first one to say, ‘It’s you guys in front of me as well.'”
Wisconsin has tied the 1981-82 team for the most shutouts in a season, six. Bruckler and Elliott each have three.
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Michigan Tech’s Murphy on offense, the Huskies’ Ellsworth on defense and Denver forward Paul Stastny as the top rookie.
• WCHA teams will surpass the 1 million mark in attendance this weekend.
• Detroit Red Wings star Darren McCarty will drop the ceremonial first puck at Friday night’s Michigan Tech-Colorado College game in Houghton. He’ll also sign autographs before the game. McCarty’s band, Grinder, is playing at the Uphill 41 in Hancock, Mich., this weekend, along with the band Martial Law, which features Huskies radio play-by-play announcer Dirk Hembroff.
• Minnesota’s four-game home losing streak — which comes on the heels of a 20-game home winning streak — is its first since the 1997-98 season.
• Sophomore Ryan Helgason had both of Denver’s game-winning goals last weekend at St. Cloud State, giving him a team-high three for the season.
• Alaska-Anchorage’s Shea Hamilton returned from a broken wrist last weekend and scored a goal in his first game, last Saturday. The scary part for the Seawolves: He hadn’t played since Oct. 23, but his fourth goal of the season last Saturday tied him for fourth on the team.
• Because of a shortage of bodies up front, Colorado College defenseman Brady Greco was used as a forward last Saturday.
• Ellsworth stopped 113 of 119 shots he faced in three games last week.
• Minnesota State defenseman Kyle Peto has seven points (three goals, four assists) in his last five games.
• St. Cloud State defenseman Justin Fletcher returned to the lineup last Friday after missing four games with an injured shoulder and scored a goal and an assist in his first game back.
• Wisconsin took over the top spot in penalty killing nationally with a 17-for-17 performance against Notre Dame last weekend.
• Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Josh Johnson has started the Bulldogs’ last three games, the first time in the sophomore’s career that has happened.
• North Dakota practiced outside at University Park near campus last Friday, at one point breaking into a U.S.-vs.-Canada scrimmage complete with sweaters.
• Trivia answer: Rob Murray.