This Week in the WCHA: Oct. 20, 2005

First things first:

• Weekends like the last one, when WCHA teams combined to go 5-10-1 in non-conference games, are just payback for the Frozen Four last season.

• Minnesota’s stunning opening weekend against Alaska-Fairbanks drew memories of the 2003 opening weekend, when the then-No. 1 Gophers were flat in the Maverick Stampede, losing to Maine and falling behind Nebraska-Omaha 3-0 before rallying for a 7-3 win. That team started 2-7-1, and if this year’s Minnesota squad comes even close to that there’s going to be a lot of head-scratching.

• Given the success Bemidji State has scored against WCHA teams thus far, its home-and-home series against North Dakota on Dec. 16 and 17 should be a good one.

No Home Cooking

For as nice as the new arenas are around the WCHA, you’ve got to admit that the old barns had something in them.

That something was a home-ice advantage. These days, there isn’t as much of a sense of intimidation coming from the building as there was in the days of the old Mariucci Arena, the old Ralph Engelstad Arena and the like.

That might be why it’s becoming easier statistically for road teams to win WCHA games.

Over the past three seasons, the number of road victories in WCHA play has jumped, from 48 in 2002-03 to 58 in 2003-04 to 62 last season. Last season, home teams were just 64-62-13 in 139 WCHA games played on campus. (Minnesota State played one home game at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.)

Parity is one explanation. Just about every league game is up for grabs, so home and away doesn’t play that much of a role there.

“But I also think there’s something to the fact that old Dane County Coliseum is gone. Old Mariucci is gone. Our old [Ralph Engelstad Arena],” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “The old, classic buildings, I think they maybe provided for a little bit more of a home-ice advantage. When you go on the road [now], everything is pretty bright, pretty new. So maybe we’ve lost a little bit of that.”

Last season, Minnesota had the best WCHA road record at 10-4, while Minnesota State and Alaska-Anchorage tied for the worst at 4-8-2.

Michigan Tech’s MacInnes Student Ice Arena was the easiest building for opponents to win in statistically, with the Huskies going just 2-11-1 in their 14 league home games. Wisconsin’s Kohl Center was the toughest place to get a road win. The Badgers went 11-3 on home ice, losing only to Denver, Minnesota and Colorado College.

Trivial Matters

After two weeks of the season, there are no WCHA teams left undefeated. How many were undefeated after two weeks last season? Answer below.

Bump In The Road

Some speed bumps you see coming in time to either slow down or swerve out of the way. And then sometimes you hit one at full speed, making such a racket when the car finally hits the ground that everybody around stops to look.

Minnesota knows the feeling of the latter.

Alaska-Fairbanks’ win and tie at Mariucci Arena threw a heap of questions into the early part of the Gophers’ season, like about whether they really have the hard workers to get the job done.

Granted, it’s one series and it shouldn’t be cause for the Chicken Little kind of talk that is being used by some for the WCHA as a whole after last weekend. But there are clearly issues the Gophers will have to iron out.

“I’ll take the blame,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia told USCHO’s Scott Brown. “I obviously did a poor job of preparing this team. … This week [in practice] we’ll see who wants it: which 12 forwards and six defensemen.”

There probably weren’t too many Gophers players looking forward to practice this week.

No Lulls

Bob Motzko is slowly getting acquainted with his St. Cloud State team, and he already sees an area where he’s trying to make an adjustment.

Motzko, the first-year Huskies coach, is making an effort to get his players to avoid stretches when their intensity lags. He’s looking for players to be on their toes, not their heels.

“We have to fight through the moments when we try to settle in,” said Motzko, who makes his home debut as the St. Cloud State coach Friday when the Huskies host Wisconsin.

He got his first collegiate victory last Saturday when Joe Jensen scored late in overtime for a 3-2 victory at Northern Michigan that gave St. Cloud State a split.

And this weekend, Motzko will be looking to follow in Craig Dahl’s footsteps in winning his home debut. Dahl, the only other coach in the Huskies’ Division I history, beat Air Force 6-3 on Oct. 30, 1987.

St. Cloud is looking for an offensive surge this season to improve upon the ninth-best scoring team in last year’s WCHA statistics. Motzko has no intentions of reining in the offense.

“We’re going to go out there and try to make plays,” Motzko said. “We want to go out and beat people and the only way is to go out and try.”

Early Success Helps

The early reports from North Dakota are good, and not just because the Sioux are 3-1. They have been put in learning situations and have been able to draw valuable lessons.

They got a split at the Lefty McFadden Invitational two weekends ago, then returned home and earned a sweep of Northeastern with a good offensive outing (a 6-0 win) and a solid third-period defensive effort (a 2-1 win).

With the young roster the Sioux have, those early experiences are vital.

“I think these are all experiences you have to go through as a team,” Hakstol said. “It’s nice to be able to have a little bit of success early in the year and to be able to learn from those. It gets tough if all your learning experiences come through losing situations. It’s nice to be able to learn and go through some experiences as a team while we’re having a little bit of success. I think that’s the most positive way to build and to learn.”

This weekend brings another challenge when UND plays at New Hampshire.

“We’re going to go out and play on an Olympic sheet for the first time,” Hakstol said. “We’re going to go into a hostile environment for the first time. We’re playing against one of the top teams in Hockey East. It’s important for us to try and have some success, but it’s going to be a whole new set of circumstances.”

Teeing Off

Even where the WCHA had some success on the ice last weekend, its officials got a bit of a black eye. After his team lost 2-1 to North Dakota last Saturday, Northeastern coach Greg Cronin let loose on the officiating crew that was led by referee Bill Mason.

North Dakota, which swept the series, had 13 power plays compared to Northeastern’s five.

Here’s part of what Cronin had to say to USCHO’s Patrick C. Miller after the game:

“Honest to God, I’ve coached in the National Hockey League, the American Hockey League, the OHL, international, WCHA, Hockey East, and that was the worst officiating I’ve ever seen in my life. All three of them — Moe, Larry and Curly — were sniffing glue. It was embarrassing. If I was the league, I’d be embarrassed by that.”

WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said he got a copy of a letter of reprimand from Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna to Cronin on Monday. He also said league officials were surprised by what they heard from Cronin.

“On our behalf, we’re a little dumbfounded by the deal,” McLeod said.

In Other Words

• League players of the week were Michigan Tech’s Chris Conner on offense, Colorado College goaltender Matt Zaba on defense and North Dakota forward T.J. Oshie and Alaska-Anchorage defenseman Mat Robinson as the top rookies.

• Minnesota forward Danny Irmen will be out four to six weeks with a hand injury suffered while blocking a shot in the Gophers’ loss to Alaska-Fairbanks last Friday. He was scheduled for surgery this week.

• Minnesota-Duluth radio announcer Kerry Rodd, who didn’t miss a game in 18 years, resigned from KDAL radio last week, the Duluth News Tribune reported. KDAL is planning on picking up the Vermont radio feed for this weekend because arrangements couldn’t be made in time. Bruce Ciskie is slotted to slide over from UMD football to hockey starting with next weekend’s series at Michigan Tech.

• Wisconsin forward Matt Auffrey left the team on Monday to join Kitchener of the OHL in search of more playing time. The sophomore, who was battling for a lineup spot with the Badgers, had three goals and eight points in 26 career college games.

• Denver goaltender Peter Mannino had his seven-game winning streak stopped with a 4-2 loss at Maine last Saturday. He hadn’t lost since allowing five goals in relief of Glenn Fisher in an 8-5 loss at Minnesota State on Feb. 25.

• Michigan Tech will induct former hockey player Gerald Fabbro and six others into its sports hall of fame before Saturday’s game against Northern Michigan.

• Trivia answer: Five — Minnesota-Duluth (3-0-1), North Dakota (3-0-1), Colorado College (2-0), Wisconsin (2-0) and Alaska-Anchorage (1-0-1).

Final Word

Referees have one of the worst jobs around because someone always thinks they’re wrong, but Cronin stepped over the line in bringing his thoughts on officials to the media last Saturday. Still, in my view, WCHA referees could stand to be more consistent. And privately, there are some who just nodded when hearing of the comments.