Some thoughts this week, while contemplating who would want to win the lottery to face Michigan Tech in the first round of the WCHA playoffs:
• Three teams clinched home-ice spots for the league playoffs last weekend. Colorado College, Denver and Wisconsin are also the three teams that have already surpassed their conference win totals of a year ago. Just another part of the year-by-year shuffle at the top of the standings.
• Road teams were 7-2-1 in league play last weekend. Playoff upsets, anyone?
• This weekend’s Wisconsin-Denver series has plenty of title implications. Both teams also face Colorado College in the final three weeks of the season, so if either can sweep this weekend, they’ll likely go into that series with everything on the line.
• Talking trivia: The current streak of defending MacNaughton Cup champions not earning home ice for the playoffs the next season is at three seasons. What’s the lowest position in the standings ever recorded by a team that won the WCHA regular-season title the year previous? Answer below.
• And finally, we’re pretty sure no one wants Tech to come to town, for the playoffs or otherwise. The Huskies have won five straight games away from home — making you think whether they should move more of their home games out of Houghton.
Change With the Times
Remember last season at this time? Denver sure doesn’t want to.
A year ago, the Pioneers were 1-4-1 in their last six games and had fallen to 6-10-4 in league play. A down stretch? That’s an understatement, coach George Gwozdecky said.
Things obviously turned around from that point last season, with Denver going 11-2-1 the rest of the way to win the national championship. Things also have turned around this season, with the Pioneers 15-1-1 in their last 17 games going into this weekend’s home series against Wisconsin.
Denver can credit a steadily improving corps of freshmen and an impressive goaltending duo in Peter Mannino and Glenn Fisher, but in the end it comes down to having learned some lessons last season.
“It’s a product of experience,” Gwozdecky said. “One of the things our returning players gained from their past is the experience they went through last year. And I’m not talking about the last third of the season or the Frozen Four or anything like that. I’m talking about any challenge that this team had to persevere through and overcome in order to put ourselves in a position to be successful in the latter part of the season, I think the returning players have benefited from that.
“I think that they have become wiser, they have an understanding that we can do things that make things easier for ourselves so we don’t have to be in a position where all of a sudden our backs are against the wall every time we step on the ice. I think from that we’ve been a more consistent team and in many ways ahead of where we were at this time last year.”
The Pioneers are on a seven-game winning streak, the team’s longest since a 12-game stretch in the 2001-02 season.
If the WCHA’s experiment with instant replay continues to be a success, one would have to think the NCAA might reconsider the way it does things for the national tournament.
Right now, NCAA games have a replay official, someone who looks at video replays upstairs and rules whether a goal should be counted. The WCHA experiment has the game referee make the call after watching a replay on a monitor in the penalty box area.
League officials are thrilled with the way the system has worked, prompting some speculation that there may be an expansion in the works, with a time on the horizon where the system is in all 10 league arenas.
“Every time we’ve used it, it has worked with success. I think that’s the most important thing,” said Greg Shepherd, the WCHA’s supervisor of officials and a video replay judge for the NCAA tournament. “The coaches, that’s what they want — they want the calls right. As long as you get the right call, that’s all they care about because sooner or later it’s going to happen to them.”
Shepherd will present the findings from the first season of a two-year trial when the rules committee meets in June.
One helpful feature of the WCHA system is that the average wait time for a ruling is only 30 seconds. Two weeks ago, a call in overtime at Denver’s Magness Arena took about four minutes, but Shepherd said that was because of a glitch with the video machine.
That play, on which a Denver shot finally was ruled to have crossed the goal line before the goaltender could swat it out of the air, was a testament to the overhead camera that is a staple of the system. Cameras are suspended from the ceiling over the goal to give a perspective no other camera can offer.
“It was such a bang-bang play that you can’t even catch it with the naked eye,” Gwozdecky said. “But the overhead cameras showed it plain as day.”
Possibilities for future expansion include North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena and Alaska-Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena, both of which already have overhead cameras installed.
Twenty minutes away from being swept by Wisconsin, Minnesota collected itself in its dressing room and got things together just in time.
Minnesota rallied with three third-period goals last Saturday for a 5-3 victory over the Badgers and a series split. Barry Tallackson got the game winner with just 41.5 seconds remaining in the third period, beating a pair of Wisconsin players and goaltender Bernd Brückler for just his fifth goal of the season.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia moved Tallackson from the fourth line to the second line between games of the series, and it paid off.
“We needed other guys to score,” Lucia said. “[Ryan] Potulny’s line had three and then Barry stepped up with the game-winner. We put him back with Gino [Guyer] because the bottom line is he’s got to do it. He’s a senior, he’s done it before. He has to do it. He’s got to produce for us.”
Said Tallackson: “I just thought it’s time to step up here, and fortunately I did that.”
The magnitude of the victory for the Gophers couldn’t be overstated. They had just three wins in their last 10 games before Saturday.
“We knew that going in, that this was going to be a huge game for us,” Lucia said. “Coming in here and getting a split, we feel a whole lot better now. They feel good about themselves — it’s probably the best they’ve felt about themselves in a long time. Hopefully we can use this as a springboard and get back to where we were.”
Sum it Up
Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill boiled down his team’s stretch run thusly:
“I think you have to pick up points every weekend,” he said. “We’re at Minnesota this weekend, and that’s going to be a tough task. Then we’ve got North Dakota and Tech at home. It’s always a challenge for us because we struggle to score goals. But one thing we do have is a goalie who has given us a chance to win every night he’s been between the pipes.”
Freshman Nathan Lawson is in the process of adding his name to the list of Seawolves goaltenders who have excelled in their rookie seasons. Recently, Gregg Naumenko was on the all-rookie team in 1998-99 and Chris King made the list in 2000-01.
Lawson is at the bottom of the list of eligible WCHA goalies in goals against average (3.52) and winning percentage (.333) and in the middle of the pack in save percentage (.905). But when he has played well, the Seawolves have occasionally been able to capitalize.
“I know that he’s our MVP and he’s certainly the reason why he’s had success on some nights,” Hill said. “And he hasn’t had a chance to ease into this slowly. He was given the No. 1 job at the break and he’s run with it.”
The Seawolves’ defense has a struggle on its hands without Mark Smith and Tyler Cherwinski. Both are out for the season — Smith with a knee injury and Cherwinski because he’s academically ineligible.
Those two defensemen had a good deal of stick skill, but UAA just has to move on.
“To have those guys out is a void, but they’re not coming back,” Hill said. “We’ve got to find a way to clamp down in the defensive zone and at the same time we’ve got to find a way to advance zones with that puck when it’s on our defensemen’s stick and try to generate some offense for a team that has struggled to score.”
With the final few weeks coming into view, the Seawolves are trying to stay positive despite a 8-15-3 record.
“We’re just trying to keep our guys fresh and feeling good about themselves down the stretch,” Hill said. “Last year we didn’t win a game in February and we were able to beat Wisconsin [in the first round of the playoffs] and beat CC at the Final Five. I’m certainly not saying we’re going to duplicate that, but I think you have to keep your eye on the finish line. The finish line for us is the middle of March, it’s not next week or the week after.”
It’s a Carnival
This is quite a way for Michigan Tech to go into this weekend’s Winter Carnival celebration. The Huskies go into the series with Minnesota State as winners of six of their nine games in 2005.
Unfortunately, they’re 0-2 at home in that span, so maybe home isn’t such a comfort.
But the Huskies’ recent surge has come thanks in large part to consistent play by goaltender Cam Ellsworth. In 2005, the senior has a 2.11 goals against average and a .948 save percentage.
Alaska-Anchorage freshman Shea Hamilton added his name to the UAA record book last Friday when he became the first Seawolves player to score on a penalty shot.
UAA hadn’t had a penalty shot attempt since 1993, when Paul Williams missed against Northern Michigan.
Of course, Hill had the option of taking a power play over the penalty shot, but when the referee asked, all the coach had to say was, “Have you seen our power play lately?”
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Colorado College’s Brett Sterling on offense, Denver’s Jussi Halme and Michigan Tech’s Cam Ellsworth sharing the defensive honors and St. Cloud State’s Matt Hartman as the top rookie.
• North Dakota athletics director Roger Thomas will be leaving that position later this month to become commissioner of the North Central Conference. The school hopes to name a replacement by April 1. Thomas is a member of the WCHA’s structure committee.
• Ryan Potulny’s third-period goal last Friday ended Wisconsin’s team shutout streak of 183:58, which spanned four games.
• CC’s Sterling collected a season-high five points in last Friday’s 7-1 victory at Minnesota State. His strike partner, Marty Sertich, has a goal in his last five games.
• Minnesota-Duluth has a better record on the road (6-6-2) than at home (5-8-3) this season. In the eight home losses and three home ties, the opposing goaltender has a 2.02 goals against average, a .948 save percentage and faces an average of 41.1 Bulldogs shots.
• Minnesota State has struggled on Fridays recently, going 0-5-1 in its last six Friday games while being outscored 34-17.
• North Dakota has lost five straight league games, its longest WCHA losing streak since Dean Blais’ rookie season of 1994-95.
• Alaska-Anchorage broke a home winless streak that stretched for almost three months last Friday. Its last home victory had been Nov. 6 against Minnesota-Duluth.
• Denver’s Luke Fulghum has scored three points in three of his last five games.
• Josh Singer, a transfer from Michigan Tech, had his best game for St. Cloud State last Saturday with two goals and an assist.
• Colorado College has 12 power-play goals in its last six games. In that time, the Tigers are 12-for-33 (36.4 percent) with the man advantage.
• Michigan Tech’s sweep at Minnesota-Duluth last weekend was its first in Duluth since October 1988.
• St. Cloud State is 7-0 this season when Joe Jensen scores.
• Trivia answer: Four WCHA teams have finished in seventh place the year after finishing first. They are Michigan Tech in 1971-72, Minnesota-Duluth in 1993-94, Denver in 2002-03 and Colorado College last season.