Some thoughts this week, while wondering what happened to all the ties this season:
• And then there were three. Five teams are mathematically alive in the race for the MacNaughton Cup, but realistically, only three of them — Colorado College, Wisconsin and Denver — have a chance. Don Lucia says so, and when he’s leading team No. 4, that makes it a pretty safe bet.
• As if Minnesota-Wisconsin didn’t have enough fuel, add in the first sold-out weekend for hockey at the Kohl Center and you should have a pretty entertaining series.
• Surprised by North Dakota’s tie against Bemidji State last Friday? Maybe the Sioux were, too.
• Talking trivia: Colorado College’s Marty Sertich now has 50 points overall and 33 points in league games. Since the WCHA reduced its league schedule to 28 games for the 1997-98 season, what is the lowest league-leading point total? Answer below.
• And finally, last season there were 17 tie conference games in the WCHA. So far this season, there have been only five. We’d try to figure out what that means, but we’d probably end up realizing that it’s just a weird stat.
Ask the Pro
Who’s going to win the MacNaughton Cup? Who knows?
But if you want to know what it takes to win the WCHA’s regular-season championship, you go to Dean Blais. Before he left North Dakota last summer for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, he won five Cups in 10 seasons with the Sioux.
So what are Blais’ keys to winning the title? Be healthy, be balanced and be focused on the goal of coming out on top.
“It’s something that you talk about all year, and now you’re in position to win it and you’ve got to really bear down and concentrate,” Blais said while on his way from Columbus to Grand Forks for this weekend’s North Dakota-Denver series. “You can’t have bad practices. Now, it’s who really wants it, and how bad do they want it?
“What kind of leadership do you have and who can take a team on their back right now and do it? It might not be your best player; it might be your third- or fourth-line guy who is a tremendous leader that can make the difference to your team.”
But the offensive players that got the teams to this point will need to continue to produce, Blais said. That means Colorado College’s Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling, Wisconsin’s Robbie Earl and Ryan MacMurchy and Denver’s slew of scorers still need to be big-time players.
“It’s got to be one of those guys taking a team on their back like maybe a Grant Potulny did” for the last few seasons at Minnesota, Blais said. “For us, it was a Lee Goren or a Travis Roche or a [Jeff] Panzer. [You need them] to really play well all the way through the playoffs, but it starts about this time of year.”
At this time of year, Blais usually was gearing up for a run at the Cup. Now, he’s with everyone else connected to the NHL — in a holding pattern. He left for North Dakota after telling people to call him back to Columbus if there was a breakthrough between the owners and the union to end the lockout.
During the lockout, he’s seen plenty of college hockey while doing some scouting. He has also done a good bit in the way of community outreach, with visits to children’s hospitals and serving meals to the homeless.
In preparation for a possible return to action this season, he has studied division rivals and his own team to be ready to go in the apparently unlikely event games will start soon.
On a lighter note, he said he now knows everyone at the Blue Jackets’ arena, including the Zamboni drivers.
Blais was in Grand Forks for the duration of the World Junior Championship — an odd situation for him considering he was originally the coach of Team USA before he had to back out when he accepted the job in Columbus.
“That was hard,” Blais said. “That was harder than watching North Dakota. I had my time there [at UND] and I feel it’s in good hands and everything, but I really wanted to coach in Grand Forks, my home arena and everything. That would have been fun.”
Blais’ return to Grand Forks this weekend gives him a chance to complete a full house of pictures. Each time his UND teams won the MacNaughton Cup, he also added a grandchild to his family. He has a picture of the first four in the Cup, and he needs one of the most recent addition before the Sioux relinquish the Cup.
Upon Further Review
It was only a matter of time before the WCHA’s replay experiment got put to the ultimate test: deciding a game in overtime. Fortunately for the league, the system appears to have gotten it right.
Denver’s Jeff Drummond scored the winner in a 3-2 victory over Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday at Magness Arena, one of two arenas where the league is experimenting with video replay this season. Only, play continued after Seawolves goaltender Nathan Lawson gloved Drummond’s shot for more than two minutes until the Pioneers were called for icing.
That was the first chance for referee Todd Anderson to be able to take a look at the replay, which showed the puck was over the goal line when it hit Lawson’s glove.
“If a team deserves to win and scores a goal and we can get it right, we should,” Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill told the Denver Post. “Denver deserves to win. [Anderson] told me he was 100 percent conclusive, and I know he had an overhead [monitor].”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky told the newspaper, “It worked in our favor, but more important the right call was made.”
As league officials would tell you, that’s the point of it all.
Dave Hakstol says his North Dakota team can’t afford to take a look around at the rest of the WCHA.
“You look at the standings, and there’s still an awful lot left to be decided,” Hakstol said. “Right now, we’re just looking at ourselves. You can’t worry too much about anything going on around us, we’ve got to worry about ourselves. We’ve got an eight-game stretch run here where we’ve got to have some success.
“Where we’re going to end up as far as the standings go, that will go hand in hand with how well we’re playing toward the end of the year. We want to position ourselves as well as we can for the first round of the playoffs, and that’ll go hand in hand with how well we’re playing down the stretch. And obviously that’ll decide how much success we’ll have in the postseason.”
Rallying from a 3-0 deficit for a 3-3 tie against Bemidji State last Friday broke a three-game losing streak, and the Sioux ended a four-game winless streak a night later with a tight 3-1 victory over the Beavers.
UND played only six games in January and went 2-3-1 while averaging 2.17 goals scored per game. More critically, each of the Sioux’s last five losses, dating to Dec. 4, has been by one goal.
“We’re getting opportunities; it’s a matter of burying pucks,” Hakstol said. “We have to win tight hockey games. I don’t think that’s a secret to us. We’d like to score four, five or six goals a game — maybe that’ll happen, maybe it won’t. The bottom line is we have to be prepared to win close, one-goal hockey games.”
Minnesota has struggled lately, losing six of its last nine games, including five of six at home. But Gophers coach Don Lucia said his team isn’t panicking.
“I’ve always believed you’re going to have ups and downs over the course of a season,” Lucia said. “It’s not only who you play, it’s when you play them. Duluth played really well [last] weekend. I thought CC played really well against us. [Michigan] Tech, they played great against us.”
Against those three teams, the Gophers were 1-5, with the win coming last Friday against the Bulldogs. But Lucia said only the sweep by Michigan Tech is still hurting the Gophers.
“That weekend really hurt us in the standings and eliminated us from any chance to win the league,” he said.
Lucia pronounced his team out of the race because of its number of losses in league games (eight, compared to four for the leaders). Now, he hopes his team can get healthy and mentally prepared for the final weeks of the season.
“We’re playing for NCAA seeding and, hey, we’ve still got to worry about home ice,” Lucia said. “We’re only three points up, although we have a couple of games in hand on Duluth, so we still have things to worry about. Our hope is that one of these three teams [Colorado College, Wisconsin or Denver] really gets hot and wins all four against those other teams.
“I told our guys we can finish anywhere from third to sixth. Realistically, we’re probably looking at fourth with what we have left.”
Lucia said he won’t be able to fully evaluate his team until it gets in a few games at full strength. Defenseman Alex Goligoski is questionable for this weekend’s series at Wisconsin because of an ankle injury. Defenseman Peter Kennedy has missed the past 20 games with a hip injury.
The Gophers would like to be able to have a consistent lineup in place for the last weeks of the regular season. They host Alaska-Anchorage next weekend and have an exhibition against the U.S. Under-18 Team on Feb. 19 before returning for the final two weeks of the regular season.
“We’re hoping that at that point in time we’re healthy and try to set a lineup at that time,” Lucia said. “I think that’s what’s hurt us, too. Here we are, lines are being moved around and you’d like to have continuity in your lines.”
Minnesota State doesn’t necessarily have a goal in mind in terms of how it would like to finish. Coach Troy Jutting is more mindful of a need for his team to go into the playoffs a few weeks down the road playing well consistently.
The Mavericks took three points at Alaska-Anchorage two weeks ago before a week off, so it’ll be interesting to see whether they can carry that over to this weekend’s home series against Colorado College.
“We need to pick up where we left off there and get ourselves geared up and playing consistently the way you need to play in order to be successful come playoff time,” Jutting said.
Minnesota State has played some solid games this season but has been unable to sustain that level of play over a period of time. Jutting chalks that up to having a young team and a recent falloff in goalscoring. But he has seen growth from the younger players.
“I think we’re headed in that direction where we will develop some consistency here over these last 10 games,” Jutting said.
Was last Saturday’s 3-2 victory at Minnesota the best game of the season for Minnesota-Duluth?
Considering the way the Bulldogs dominated on the ice and on the stats sheet, it has to rank up there. UMD used a strong finish to Friday’s 4-3 loss as a springboard to Saturday’s game, when it outshot the Gophers 45-33.
“Everyone had a good effort and mentally it was so important because we didn’t want to go back into another slide,” Bulldogs defenseman Tim Hambly told the Duluth News Tribune. “We stopped the losing streak at one.”
UMD coach Scott Sandelin boiled it down:
“I’m hoping we’ll get some more performances like that,” he told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. “If we do, we’ll win some games.”
Back In Town
Minnesota State will fete its 1980 Division II national championship team after the first period of Saturday’s game against Colorado College.
Nearly every member of that team, which defeated Elmira 5-2 on the road for the championship, will be present for the reunion, according to Steve Carroll, the goaltender on that team who also is the color commentator on Mavericks television broadcasts.
This year’s Mavericks will wear throwback uniforms to honor the 25th anniversary of the title.
Check’s In The Mail
The Minnesota State athletics department is using part of the money it received from moving a home game against Minnesota to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for market research on how to boost attendance at Mavericks sports events.
The athletics department received $148,247.80 for the game, according to a school release. After expenses, the department is expected to net about $135,000, MSU athletics director Kevin Buisman said.
$100,000 is being put into the Blue Line Club’s scholarship endowment for future grant-in-aid awards. $30,000 is going toward the market research, which also will be supported by the Greater Mankato Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The decision to move the game out of Mankato was criticized by some downtown establishments which stood to lose business as a result.
“The process was sometimes contentious, but I think more people understand some of the long-term implications of the decisions that we made,” Buisman said in the release. “Some estimates have placed our share of the crowd [at the Xcel Center] at between 40 percent and 50 percent of the total, and that suggests strong interest in the program. We need to find a way to convert that level of interest into regular support, and begin filling the Civic Center every night. The future success of the program depends on building a stronger core base of fans, and the exposure created by this game will assist us in those outreach efforts.”
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Minnesota-Duluth’s Marco Peluso on offense, Colorado College’s Lee Sweatt on defense and Denver forward Paul Stastny as the top rookie.
• This weekend’s series will mark the latest in a season Minnesota has visited Wisconsin since the 1995-96 season. The Badgers swept the Gophers on Feb. 23 and 24, winning the second game 7-4 after trailing 4-0.
• North Dakota forward Rory McMahon picked up his second game DQ of the season last Saturday, meaning he has to sit out both of this weekend’s games against Denver.
• Alaska-Anchorage captain Ales Parez has six points in his last four games. He scored just five points in his first 19 games of the season.
• Denver freshman goaltender Peter Mannino continued his hot streak last Saturday, winning his seventh straight game. He has a 1.42 goals against average and a .954 save percentage in that span.
• CC’s Sertich has 17 multi-point games this season.
• Minnesota-Duluth has won seven of its last 10 games against Minnesota, the most successful run for the Bulldogs in their 52-year history of playing the Gophers.
• After Michigan Tech cycled through goaltenders early in the season, senior Cam Ellsworth has been the only goaltender the Huskies have used in the last 12 games.
• St. Cloud State’s Billy Hengen made a productive return from injury, contributing three points to the Huskies’ 9-1 victory over Sacred Heart last Friday.
• The lowest league-leading point total was 34, by Minnesota’s Reggie Berg and CC’s Brian Swanson in 1997-98.