Tuesday Morning Quarterback: West

Throughout the season, USCHO.com staffers Scott Brown and Jim Connelly will offer their views on the previous weeks’ action, alternating writing duties every Tuesday. Brown will focus on the West and Connelly on the East, in a regular column exclusive to USCHO Extra.

Shock To The System

Minnesota came into the weekend as the No. 1 team in the nation, but the Gophers sure didn’t leave that way.

A few days ago, the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks rolled into Mariucci Arena wanting to know whether they could skate and shoot with the host team. And throughout the weekend series, the Nanooks frustrated the Gophers with an effective forecheck, played smart and hard, got good netminding and added a healthy dose of offense.



The results? The Nanooks proved they could handle everything Minnesota had, shocking the Gophers with an overtime win Friday and battling to a draw Saturday.

Now mind you, it was opening weekend for both programs, and two games are still just two games, but the consequences for both teams could be far-reaching.

For UAF, the three-point weekend built confidence that head coach Tavis MacMillan was glad to see.

“I like the identity that we’re trying to create this early in the season,” said MacMillan, who played under current Minnesota head coach Don Lucia during his first three seasons with the Nanooks, when Lucia was behind the bench for UAF.

MacMillan also referred to the “special” feeling of competing as a coach against his old mentor — though the quality of his team’s performance certainly had to stoke the fires as well.

Lucia, meanwhile, had little praise for his team after Saturday’s game.

“I was surprised by how we played this weekend,” he said. “Very surprised.

“The freshmen aren’t my biggest concerns,” he added, referring to the Gophers’ highly-touted rookie class. “I was disappointed in some of our older guys. I’m hard-pressed to find some guys this weekend who I can say had good games. … We have too many guys trying to be too cute.”

It’s not as if the Gophers didn’t have their chances. But they were consistently outbattled by a Nanook team unfazed by the pomp and grandeur of Mariucci Arena, and unimpressed by the challenge of overcoming one of the nation’s most storied programs on its own turf.

The experience of rookie phenom Phil Kessel was a microcosm of the Gophers’ woes. Kessel, the most-hyped college recruit in recent memory whose eventual commitment to Minnesota created quite the media stir, was kept quiet by an aggressive UAF defense, limited to just one assist on the weekend.

The Nanooks laid plenty of hits on Kessel, who showed his potential with some nifty moves and hard slapshots, but the results weren’t there — for one weekend, at least.

Lucia is known for his even temperament, and his team has come to reflect that. The Gophers were businesslike even after Saturday’s disappointment, vowing to regroup in practice and make something better happen this weekend.

“[The coaches] aren’t happy with us, and they shouldn’t be,” said Gopher forward Andy Sertich.

But some of the Gophers who faced off against Fairbanks might not see as much ice time in the near future. Lucia took the blame for not preparing his squad to face real competition, but it’s still the players’ game to play, and the likely result of the 0-1-1 weekend will be shuffled lines and potentially, some outright benchings.

“This week, we’ll see who wants it — which 12 forwards and six defensemen,” Lucia said.

UAF, meanwhile, seems to have little to worry about if its performance last weekend is any indication. Last season’s returning scorer, Kyle Greentree, was Friday’s hero with two assists and the overtime game winner, and both of UAF’s goaltenders played well; MacMillan started incumbent Wylie Rogers Friday, then handed the netminding duties over to freshman Chad Johnson Saturday.

“We’re confident in both our goalies,” MacMillan said, and rightly so, it seems.

Any way you slice it, it’ll be interesting to see how both programs move on from here.

Beavers Make Their Mark

The growth of college hockey depends on parity. When new programs, or teams stepping up a level of competition, succeed, it’s good for the game. That’s why the birth of the MAAC Hockey League, now Atlantic Hockey, was a plus for the sport. That’s why the founding of College Hockey America, and the continued viability of the league, which has been beset by membership changes, is needed.

And that’s why Bemidji State has been a breath of fresh air in the early going.

The Beavers, the CHA champions last season, now own a four-game winning streak against WCHA opposition this season, after sweeping Minnesota-Duluth on the road and Minnesota State at home.

The victories were well-earned: though the Beavers were handily outshot in the first game of their season against UMD, the next three games featured even shot totals. More impressive were BSU’s starts: in each of the four contests, the Beavers scored first, and never trailed.

Those four performances follow the Beavers’ last NCAA game, in which Bemidji hung in with eventual national champion Denver in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling in overtime. Looks like good things are coming out of northern Minnesota.

Along The Same Lines…

Congratulations to RIT and head coach Wayne Wilson, who earned their first win as a Division I program, 5-2 Saturday night over Air Force. Those two programs will be seeing one another regularly in future years, as both will join Atlantic Hockey for the 2005-06 season.

Protection You Can Trust

Last season, Denver’s Geoff Paukovich’s nasty hit from behind on North Dakota’s Robbie Bina broke Bina’s neck, putting him out of action for the rest of the year, and, as it turns out, for this season as well. The NCAA took notice, adding hitting from behind as a no-nonsense enforcement issue for 2005-06.

The rule change instituted during the offseason mandates a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for all offenders. Any hit from behind is now a major, without the option of calling boarding or charging, as might have been done in past seasons.

That fact was in evidence last weekend, as several players ran afoul of the officiating in various games across the country.

Paukovich, in fact, was one of them, picking up the major and accompanying game misconduct against Maine in the second period Saturday.

Now, in the course of enforcing the new standard, there will be some whistles that draw the ire of coaches and fans along the way. But this writer, at least, is in full agreement with the stiffer penalties. Safety must come first, especially as players get stronger, faster and better year after year.

Better to send a few players to the showers on borderline calls than to risk permanent injury due to overaggressive play or outright cheap shots.

Great Lakes State

The state of Michigan has been done proud by two of its most successful programs so far. Michigan and Michigan State, traditionally among the CCHA’s powerhouses, are a combined 6-0-0 through the first two weekends, including the Spartans’ title at the Lefty McFadden Invitational and the Wolverines’ 3-2 win over Hockey East powerhouse Boston College Friday.

For 4-0-0 Michigan, the reward was the No. 1 spot in Monday’s fractured USCHO.com/CSTV poll. The Spartans are ranked 10th.

The perfect combined record won’t last much longer, though; the Spartans and the Wolverines next face one another, on Saturday.