This Week in the WCHA: March 10, 2005

Some thoughts this week, while searching for the great first-round upset:

• Anyone else get the feeling we haven’t seen the last of the Denver-Colorado College rivalry for the season?

• So Phil Kessel is off to Minnesota next season, ending one of the most drawn-out recruiting tales in recent memory. But will the wounds heal for Wisconsin fans? Not likely when the Gophers go to the Kohl Center next season.

• Very well done, Minnesota-Duluth student section. It took you only about 12 seconds of last Friday’s game against Wisconsin to break out the “Where is Kessel?” chant. And your band rocks.

• Talking trivia: Forty points is the second-lowest total ever to lead the WCHA at the end of a 28-game regular-season schedule. What was the lowest? Answer below.

• And finally, go ahead and rule out the possibility of any of the WCHA’s 10 teams winning a series this weekend. We dare you.

Playoff Time … Really

You’ll hear every so often in the last few weeks of the regular season that the playoffs have already started.

With all due respect, the playoffs don’t start until one team’s season can end. That’s where we are this weekend as the WCHA opens its two weeks of playoffs.

“As many people agree, this is the most fun time of the year to be playing,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “Going into the league playoffs, there are certain teams that definitely have their backs against the wall, or whatever cliche you want to use. There’s no tomorrow, they have to either win and move on or their season’s done. There are some teams that are in a little bit better position, and I think we’re one of those teams.”

What will it take to get the Broadmoor Trophy at the conclusion of the Final Five next weekend?

“I think you really have to tap into your reserves,” Gwozdecky said. “A lot of teams in our conference have gone through a physical and emotional marathon. The slate is clean for everybody, but this is another great opportunity for teams that may not have been one of the top five seeds, to allow them to advance. … It makes it so much more exciting. Every series is intense, every team is thinking, ‘Boy, we’ve got to get through this.’

“The emotion is at its highest, the intensity is at its peak. It’s playoffs and it’s a short playoff. There’s not a lot of room for error, and that’s why that first game of the series is so important in developing momentum.”

Here’s a look at the five series on tap this weekend:

No. 10 Michigan Tech at No. 1 Denver

Season series: Denver won 3-1, with Michigan Tech gaining a 3-0 victory at Denver on Jan. 7.

That loss to the Huskies was a real eye-opener for the Pioneers, and it may have helped them win a share of the MacNaughton Cup. After losing to Tech, Denver went on a 10-game unbeaten streak that cemented its place in the group at the top of the league standings.

That loss might also help the Pioneers get through the first round of the playoffs. No one would be taking Michigan Tech lightly, but especially not the Pioneers, who saw firsthand what the Huskies can do when they put everything together.

Meanwhile, Tech has cooled in the last three weeks. Since a four-game unbeaten streak against Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State, the Huskies are 0-4-2 against Northern Michigan, Alaska-Anchorage and Minnesota.

If the Huskies want to compete in this series, they’ll need to get their offense going again. They have scored only 10 goals in those last six games, led by Nick Anderson’s three scores. Leading goalscorer Chris Conner has just one goal in that span.

No. 9 St. Cloud State at No. 2 Colorado College

Season series: The teams split 1-1, with St. Cloud State winning 4-3 in overtime on Feb. 11 and Colorado College winning 3-0 on Feb. 12. Both games were in Colorado Springs.

The Huskies have just two wins in their last eight games, but one of them was over the Tigers. So while it would seem to be a longshot for St. Cloud State to have any success this weekend, there’s that lingering doubt stemming from the Feb. 11 game.

With just three wins in its last six games, CC enters the playoffs on its poorest stretch of the season in terms of wins and losses. And when the Tigers have lost recently, their defense has been especially suspect. In the three losses in the last three series, CC has allowed four, five and five goals.

Defense will be critical in this series. The Huskies have to rely on goaltender Tim Boron to have a big weekend to stay in it.

No. 8 Minnesota State at No. 3 Minnesota

Season series: Minnesota won 4-0.

The reason Minnesota State is a feared first-round opponent is because the Mavericks can put up goals in bunches. Of course, so can the Gophers. They scored nine goals against Minnesota State in two of the four meetings between the teams this season.

The other two games, however, were low-scoring, one-goal games. So while the Mavericks have the ability to score — see the 8-5 victory over Denver on Feb. 25 — their best chance to win this weekend might be to keep the score low and eke one out.

Meanwhile, Minnesota goaltender Kellen Briggs has been cleared to practice and play this weekend. He has been out since Feb. 23 because of a broken bone in his hand and an injured knee. Gophers coach Don Lucia, however, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Justin Johnson would start Friday’s game but didn’t rule out putting Briggs in goal sometime during the series.

No. 7 Alaska-Anchorage at No. 4 Wisconsin

Season series: Wisconsin won 4-0.

Look familiar? Yes, Alaska-Anchorage won this same matchup last season after 11 years of WCHA playoff futility, but there are differences this year. The Badgers won’t be able to claim they were caught off-guard by the Seawolves. Many of them say last year’s series hurt for a while, and they’re not likely to forget that.

Also, this series takes place at the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum, the Badgers’ former home, because the Kohl Center is being used for the Wisconsin high school girls basketball tournament. New year, new setting, but the Seawolves have plenty of confidence because of what they accomplished last season.

If the Seawolves can get a few goals on the board, they may be able to further dent Wisconsin’s confidence. The Badgers need to get some scoring going, even though they made a step in that direction on the power play last weekend.

No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth at No. 5 North Dakota

Season series: The teams split 1-1, with North Dakota winning 5-1 on Dec. 10 and Minnesota-Duluth winning 4-3 on Dec. 11. Both games were in Duluth.

With both of these teams playing well in the last few weeks, this figures to be one of the best series of the first round. The Sioux are unbeaten in their last four games, while the Bulldogs are unbeaten in their last five.

The goaltending has come around recently for both teams, too. Jordan Parise has allowed only five goals in North Dakota’s last four games. UMD’s Isaac Reichmuth made some phenomenal, game-saving stops against Wisconsin last weekend.

So look to the offenses. Both teams have gotten some offensive contributions from lower lines in the last few weeks, and without more than one big-time scorer on either team, those will be crucial in the playoffs.

Broken Crystal Ball

As painful as it is, it’s time to revisit our preseason predictions for the final standings. We’re happy to say that we did slightly better than the WCHA’s coaches — we got three spots right (Wisconsin in third, Minnesota State in eighth and Michigan Tech in 10th), they got two (Wisconsin and Minnesota State).

So here’s the damage, in order of final finish:

1 (tie). Denver: Our pick was sixth. It turned out the losses of goaltender Adam Berkhoel, forward Connor James and defenseman Ryan Caldwell didn’t hurt the Pioneers as much as anticipated.

1 (tie). Colorado College: Our pick was fifth. The Tigers didn’t find the one goaltender they needed to have a solid season. They found two.

3 (tie). Minnesota: Our pick was fourth. That third-period comeback for a victory over Wisconsin on Feb. 6 was pretty big, wasn’t it?

3 (tie). Wisconsin: Our pick was third. The Badgers earned this spot in the middle of the season and certainly not at the end.

5. North Dakota: Our pick was second. Coach Dave Hakstol’s first season was plagued by scoring problems and injuries, especially to talented forward Brady Murray. Then again, it would have been tough for the Sioux to get past the teams ahead of them this season anyway.

6. Minnesota-Duluth: Our pick was first. Flat-out, the Bulldogs didn’t get enough production from their seniors to contend. Last year’s junior class had 273 points. As seniors this season, the 11 of them have 179.

7. Alaska-Anchorage: Our pick was ninth. The Seawolves’ respectable season in the face of preseason and in-season adversity might get John Hill some votes for WCHA coach of the year.

8. Minnesota State: Our pick was eighth. There were some impressive wins along the way, but defense and goaltending hurt the Mavericks again.

9. St. Cloud State: Our pick was seventh. Coach Craig Dahl set the table for a lower-level finish by saying his team was in a rebuilding year, but this may have been even worse than expected.

10. Michigan Tech: Our pick was 10th. The Huskies had a good stretch after returning from winter break, but the start and the finish were lacking.

Quick Turnaround

The biggest factor in Denver’s overnight turnaround to claim a share of the MacNaughton Cup and the top spot in the playoffs wasn’t hearing Colorado College players and fans celebrate their share of the title last Thursday, Gwozdecky said.

It was the Pioneers’ play in that loss to the Tigers that was the biggest motivator.

“We needed to show ourselves and prove to ourselves and to our followers, our fans, our program that we were better than what we demonstrated the first night,” Gwozdecky said. “I thought that was the primary motivation in how we played on Friday night.”

That, apparently, was plenty of motivation. The Pioneers rolled over the Tigers 5-0 at Magness Arena a night after losing 3-0 at the World Arena.

Now, the Pioneers have another turnaround to make. They need to put the championship and the long road it took to get there in the past and move on to their pursuit of another title, starting with a series against Michigan Tech this weekend.

Only Denver’s seniors have ever competed in the Final Five, something the team is out to change. En route to the national championship last season, the Pioneers lost to CC in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

“We don’t want to go through what we went through last year,” Gwozdecky said. “When you look back, for the shape our team was in at the time, it was the best thing for us. But this conference championship tournament is truly a great tournament, and it’s something we want to be at. We want to be participating in it, we want to play in it, we want to experience all the great things that this tournament has to offer. And the only way you can do that is by advancing through this weekend. So that’s great motivation for us.”

Good Finish

Minnesota-Duluth has found a good way to go into the playoffs. Getting three points from Wisconsin last weekend wasn’t enough to get the Bulldogs a home-ice spot for the first round, but it has them confident about their chances at North Dakota this weekend.

A good series will do that. “It had that playoff intensity,” Sandelin said of the series against the Badgers. “I didn’t expect anything different.”

One of the differences in the series was the play Saturday night of forward Marco Peluso. He missed Friday night’s game with the flu but returned a night later to score two goals.

“When I got up Saturday I felt much better,” Peluso told the Duluth News Tribune. “The difference was like night and day. I was still a little weak, but this was going to be my last game in this rink. I got ready.”

Second Verse

The formula will be the same for Hill and Alaska-Anchorage.

Score three goals. Get some good goaltending. And be ready for the third game.

It worked last year against Wisconsin, so it deserves another try.

Last season in Madison, the Seawolves won Games 1 and 3 by getting to three goals first and getting solid goaltending from Chris King in those games. Kevin Reiter played the second game, a rotation that allowed King to be fresh for the third game.

Hill said both of his goalies — Nathan Lawson and John DeCaro — will play this weekend in an effort to duplicate last year’s breakthrough for a team that had been 0-22 all-time in the WCHA playoffs.

“I think the guys certainly remember what happened last year, but I’m sure that the Badgers do as well,” Hill said. “We would feel a lot better if we were coming down healthy. We’re missing a couple of very good hockey players in Ales Parez [broken leg], Eric Walsky [broken wrist] and Mark Smith [torn ACL]. But nonetheless, we’ve gotten outstanding goaltending from both John DeCaro and Nathan Lawson, and any time you have that you have a chance to win.

“The challenge is to score goals against Wisconsin because they may be as good as any team in the country when it comes to team defense. That’s where the real challenge is going to be for us, finding a way to score enough goals to win.”

No Puck Luck

It’s a bad time for Wisconsin to be not only slumping but also coming up short in the luck department.

Two weeks ago, the Badgers had a goal waved off in what ended up being a 1-1 tie with North Dakota. Last Saturday, they thought Minnesota-Duluth’s go-ahead goal late in the second period of what turned out to be a 4-3 UW loss shouldn’t have happened because they contended the puck hit the netting above the Plexiglas behind the goal on the play.

So how can the Badgers reverse that dreaded negative puck luck, which looks even worse to them when they’ve been playing so many close games down the stretch?

“Earlier in the year we were scoring four, five goals a game and right now we can’t seem to find that,” Wisconsin forward Andrew Joudrey said. “We just have to stick to the basics, keep shooting the puck and just stay positive.”

In Other Words

• League players of the week were Minnesota State’s Adam Gerlach on offense, North Dakota’s Parise on defense and Denver goaltender Peter Mannino as the top rookie.

• The WCHA and Fox Sports Net have reached an agreement to broadcast all five games of the Final Five in the next two years. This year will be the first time all five games have been shown.

• A pair of Colorado College players won the WCHA’s individual stats races for the 28-game conference schedule. Marty Sertich led the league with 42 points, while teammate Curtis McElhinney won the goaltending title with a 2.09 goals against average.

• Denver forward Kevin Ulanski and defenseman Nick Larson may miss this weekend’s action with injuries.

• Alaska-Anchorage came up short in its bid for the Governor’s Cup. Alaska-Fairbanks retained the cup with a 2-1-1 record in the season series.

• Minnesota State retained the Maverick Cup by sweeping Nebraska-Omaha last week. Gerlach and five goals and an assist in the series, including his first career hat trick last Saturday.

• The crowd of 7,881 that saw last Thursday’s Colorado College-Denver game in Colorado Springs was the largest ever at a CC home game.

• Wisconsin freshman Joe Pavelski is tied for the team scoring lead. The last rookie to lead the Badgers in scoring? Mike Eaves in 1974-75.

• Trivia answer: Thirty-nine points, by Wisconsin in the 1989-90 season.