This Week in the WCHA: Oct. 13, 2005

First things first:

• After a nice run through Minnesota last weekend, where do you think the University of Alberta would finish in the WCHA standings? A one-goal loss to Minnesota and wins over Minnesota State and St. Cloud State probably puts Alberta in the middle of the pack, if you conveniently neglect the fact that they were exhibition games.

• Months of study and countless pages of research went into our WCHA picks for the season. And then we saw that, with the exception of two spots, the league coaches had it the same way, virtually negating any chance of us being right this season. All right, it was about 10 minutes. And a much-scribbled-on half-sheet of paper.

• Hobey Patrosso? Hey, it’s never too early to start the hype.

• That was a dubious start for Minnesota-Duluth last weekend. Losing twice at home to Bemidji State shows there’s a lot of work ahead, but you had to expect that with the number of young players on the team.

• What’s with North Dakota and penalty shots in the season opener? Last year, Drew Stafford won the first game of the year with an overtime penalty shot at Maine. Last Friday, Jordan Parise stopped Miami’s Chris Michael — one of 37 saves in a 3-0 victory.

First-Year Focus

In a few months, we’ll know whether the production matches the hype with the WCHA’s freshman class. For now, all we can look at is the number of NHL draft picks in the rookie class and project that this will be a solid group.

That’s what everyone seems to be saying about the top first-year players. Nineteen of the 75 freshmen enter college with an NHL draft pick attached to their name, and six of them are first-rounders.

Before any of them even stepped on the ice this season, there was a leaguewide appreciation of the quality of this group.

“It’s sick good,” Colorado College coach Scott Owens said. “And it’s not just Minnesota or North Dakota. It’s all the way across. It’s other programs that are getting players. We’re very proud of Chad Rau. I think [of] Denver and Chris Butler.

“Our league is getting a lot of top players. This is kind of the place to go right now. The way it’s run, the way it’s viewed, the exposure, the venues, the support from the schools … it’s great to be a WCHA fan right now, not just for an individual team but for the entire league, to watch these kids play and then to follow their progress in the pros.”

It might not be just Minnesota and North Dakota getting the top-end players, but those two teams grabbed a good share of them this season.

In their 13-player freshman class, the Sioux have six draft picks. Three of them — defenseman Brian Lee and Joe Finley and forward T.J. Oshie — were first-round selections this season.

Four of Minnesota’s freshmen are draft picks, and that doesn’t even include the rookie everyone will watch this season. Forward Phil Kessel isn’t eligible until next year’s draft, and he’s being touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick.

“He’s a great hockey player that’ll have to go through some growing pains,” said Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, who coached Kessel during last year’s World Junior Championship. “You look at our league, we voted Phil unanimous (for the preseason rookie of the year) as coaches, but I think there’s a lot of other freshmen in this league that are going to have similar impacts. I think his learning curve will be quicker. He’s played at a high level and played against some competition that some of the other players haven’t.”

The eyes on Kessel will probably help one of the highest selections among this year’s rookie class. The Gophers’ Blake Wheeler, the fifth overall pick in 2004, has been spared some of the attention he normally would have received early this season.

Gophers coach Don Lucia cautioned that in his 13 seasons in the WCHA, he hasn’t seen a truly dominant freshman, saying they often take a while to get acclimated to the league.

With the experience this year’s group has, that transition period might not be as much of a factor this season.

“I think it’s as good a freshman class coming into the WCHA as there has been in a long time,” Lucia said. “I think that’s a result of some of the top players in the country or in North America being from this region. If the top players are out on the east coast, it’s going to be hard for the WCHA to track them.

“But when you have a good nucleus of kids that are playing in the USHL or from the state of Minnesota or Wisconsin or from this area, it goes a long way to helping us to attract. The facilities that have been built in the WCHA and probably the success of the last four or five years at the national level have certainly added to the attraction.”

Trivial Matters

Which WCHA team went the most regular-season games without a loss to start the season a year ago? Answer below.

Bruised Start

Injuries have hurt Colorado College long-term in the past, so the Tigers can only hope a lot of work for team trainer Richard Quincy early this year isn’t foreshadowing the season.

The latest loss was freshman forward Andreas Vlassopoulos, who dislocated his kneecap last Friday and is out two weeks, according to The Gazette of Colorado Springs.

That left the Tigers with only 17 skaters for last Saturday’s 3-2 overtime victory over Maine in the Ice Breaker Invitational. CC was already without forwards Braydon Cox, Aaron Slattengren, Jimmy Kilpatrick and Scott Thauwald and defenseman Jake Gannon due to various injuries.

CC had a list of injuries accumulated in the first weeks of the 2003-04 season and couldn’t get that season to take off. Last season, which brought 31 wins and a trip to the Frozen Four, was much calmer on the injury front.

So it has to be a concern for CC to be getting started on the wrong foot with injuries this season, especially with No. 5 Ohio State coming to town this weekend for a key early non-conference series. The Tigers haven’t lost to a non-WCHA team since falling to Michigan in the 2003 NCAA quarterfinals.

But why should CC have to change anything with the way Derek Patrosso started the season last weekend? The sophomore winger put up a hat trick in a 6-1 win over Union on Friday and scored the overtime winner against Maine.

Video On Pause

The leaguewide debut of video replay for disputed goals has been delayed as the league waits for the last pieces of equipment that will be installed at WCHA arenas.

Originally scheduled to be in place for the start of the season, the system now won’t be operational until the weekend of Oct. 28-29. Colorado College and Denver, which hosted the successful trial run of the system last season, will continue to use the old equipment until then.

But 21 games — four of them league contests — will be played without the technology, and the league can only hope that isn’t the difference in a game.

“I hope we don’t miss anything,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said.

The system was designed by Sanford, Fla.,-based XOS Technologies, whose software the league is using to distribute game tapes via the Internet this season.

First to Fall

Michigan Tech freshman forward Alex Lord was the WCHA’s first victim of the new rule that calls for checking from behind to be punished with a five-minute major and either a game misconduct or a game disqualification.

Lord was sent off for a hit in the second period against Mercyhurst last Friday, but he wasn’t the only WCHA player disciplined.

North Dakota’s Matt Smaby and Wisconsin’s Robbie Earl each got called for checking from behind in the third period of each’s game Saturday.

All three players were given game misconducts to accompany the penalty, meaning they didn’t have to miss their team’s next game.

Welcome Party

The regular-season openers for the WCHA’s two new head coaches have Dave Shyiak at his new home and Bob Motzko at his old one.

While Shyiak is leading his Alaska-Anchorage team in the Nye Frontier Classic, Motzko takes St. Cloud State to Northern Michigan, where Shyiak was a player and assistant coach.

Shyiak conveyed the sense of excitement you’d expect from a first-year coach.

“It’s a fresh start for a lot of players and obviously the program and for me,” he said. “It’s a great way to kick off the season and it’s traditionally been a great tournament. I think our guys are ready. We’re still trying to figure out where players are slotted in and get defensive pairings. As it is every time this year, it’s always a challenge and we’re still molding our team together.”

The Seawolves got a glimpse at what could be a scoring bonus for them in a 7-1 exhibition victory over the University of Windsor last Friday. Chris Tarkir had a hat trick, scoring on a power play, shorthanded and at even strength.

Tarkir, a sophomore, scored six goals last season and is one of the players who could help get the UAA offense into gear with a good season.

This weekend’s tournament — the Seawolves face Rensselaer and Vermont — will provide more of a test.

“We’re still trying to find out where we are as a team, identify what type of team we have and identify what type of team we are,” Shyiak said. “This is going to be another measuring stick for us this weekend to find out what our team is all about.”

In Other Words

• Patrosso was the WCHA offensive player of the week, while Parise took defensive honors and Michigan Tech defenseman Geoff Kinrade was named the rookie of the week.

• Warner Brothers got video footage from a mid-1990s St. Cloud State game for use in the production of “North Country,” a movie starring Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand. Not too many degrees of separation there between “North Country” and “Fargo,” which featured a clip of a Minnesota-Wisconsin game and starred McDormand.

• The last time Wisconsin opened with two overtime games was the 1976-77 season, when the Badgers and Michigan traded 7-6 victories. Wisconsin concluded that season by beating Michigan in overtime for the national championship. What are the odds, then, on the Badgers and St. Lawrence going OT in Milwaukee on April 8?

• Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State will compete against each other for the DQ Cup this season. Twelve games count toward the standings, and five points are given for a win and two for a tie.

• Oct. 22 has been designated as Craig Dahl Appreciation Night at St. Cloud State. Dahl resigned in August after 18 years as the Huskies’ head coach.

• Trivia answer: Minnesota-Duluth, six games (5-0-1).

The Final Word

Denver gets an early test this weekend with a trip to Maine for a two-game series and a rematch of the 2004 NCAA title game. Skates in the crease are OK this time.