First things first:
• Yes, Colorado College is the deserving No. 1 team in this week’s USCHO.com/CSTV poll. And if they survive this home weekend against St. Cloud State, next week’s trip to Wisconsin should tell us a lot about the Tigers.
• The WCHA announced an extension to its deal to play the Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center. No-brainer there.
• Double-take of the week: The combined total of penalties in last Friday’s Minnesota-St. Cloud State game was six. Yes, for the whole game. There were six in the first period alone the next night.
Target: Unmistaken Identity
Wisconsin players and coaches have been doing a lot of talking about their identity early this season. They want to be known around the league as a hardworking team, one that’s going to make opponents struggle for everything they get.
In the first three games, they weren’t projecting that image. But since coach Mike Eaves let his team have it in a pregame meeting on Saturday morning at St. Cloud State two weeks ago, the Badgers have come closer to their desired picture.
Coincidentally, they’re also 3-0 in that stretch.
“We made a big step [last] weekend in the fact that we were consistent in our effort,” Eaves said. “For six periods, we were pretty close to playing with good intensity and support around the puck, away from the puck. We talk about time and space, when Anchorage had the puck, we took away their time and space. To allow a team fewer than 25 shots a game is pretty good. So it’s nice that we got a little bit more of a flow in our offense.”
The Badgers scored five or more goals in both games of a regular-season series for the first time since 2000 in sweeping Alaska-Anchorage last weekend. They also have been stingy defensively thanks to goaltender Brian Elliott and a steadily improving defensive corps.
Wisconsin has allowed two goals or fewer in all six games it has played, and held the Seawolves’ power play, which led the league going into the series, to one score all weekend.
“I like some of the improvement that we’ve had in our penalty killing,” Eaves said. “When we watch video and we give feedback to our kids, we see growth, we see them doing the things that we’re asking them to do. We only allow one goal all weekend on that, and that’s a good sign.
“Our power play contributed … so that’s a good thing. I like the fact that this weekend we were closer to our game that we want to play, the identity, being relentless in all areas of our game, going after pucks and supporting each other. That’s a good sign, so there’s growth there. And that’s something we want to build on as we get ready going into North Dakota.”
Which WCHA regular-season championship team had the best scoring margin (goals-for minus goals-against) in conference games? Answer below.
The last pieces of equipment for the WCHA’s instant replay equipment arrived at the last minute — Friday morning — but in enough time for the system to begin in earnest last weekend.
Referees went to the video six times on the first weekend, WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd told the Duluth News Tribune. In a victory for the officiating body, no calls were overturned.
The delay in action in some instances was longer than anticipated. One review at the Minnesota-St. Cloud State game last Friday lasted around five minutes from whistle to faceoff. The two reviews at Wisconsin’s home game against Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday took 1:43 and 2:37, respectively, from the goal to the next faceoff.
“This is still a learning situation for most of us, but things went pretty well,” Shepherd told the newspaper. “We don’t want our referees to go to the monitor on every little thing, just when needed. If you get just one goal right, then it’s worth it.”
The average time of games at WCHA rinks went down six minutes last weekend from the week before that, which offered replays only at Colorado College and Denver — the two places that had the technology last season. The average game time last weekend was 2:13; two weeks ago it was 2:19.
The WCHA Final Five isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The league announced Tuesday that it had agreed to a contract extension with the Xcel Energy Center that will keep the playoff championship weekend at the downtown St. Paul, Minn., arena through the 2011 season.
The five-game tournament at the home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild drew 77,746 fans last season, down from the record of 82,564 in 2004.
Don’t Blame It On The Youth
The young North Dakota defense seemed to be getting along fairly well early this season, allowing only 10 goals through its first seven games. Then last Saturday came and Denver dropped seven on the Sioux, including an empty-net goal.
It was the first time UND had allowed seven goals at home since a 7-5 loss to Minnesota in the opening game at new Ralph Engelstad Arena on Oct. 5, 2001.
The Sioux defense was a focal point before the season because it lost four regulars from last year’s lineup and was replacing them with highly touted freshmen. Three of the top 36 picks in the 2005 NHL entry draft — Brian Lee, Joe Finley and Taylor Chorney — are on the North Dakota blue line.
It would be convenient to blame the inexperience for what happened last Saturday, but Sioux coach Dave Hakstol isn’t willing to do that.
“We can’t play the youth card on this one,” he told USCHO’s Patrick C. Miller. “That’s not an acceptable reason or excuse. We have to learn that you come into the WCHA to close out a series sweep. I don’t care who it’s against. It’s very difficult, and you have to play extremely well.”
A contributing factor to Wisconsin’s penalty killing success last weekend was that Alaska-Anchorage simply couldn’t get any offense going. They attempted only 77 shots for the series, four fewer than the Badgers attempted in Friday’s game alone.
In Saturday’s game, the Seawolves got only two shots on goal over seven power-play chances.
“If you look at the scores right now, wins and losses, I’ll bet you 95 percent of the time (the team) who wins the special teams wins the game,” UAA coach Dave Shyiak said. “That’s just the way college hockey is right now. Seven or eight power plays for each team, and you’ve got to be able to convert on the power play to win.”
Also, Anchorage fell to 0-4 this season when allowing a power-play goal.
Minnesota State has the dubious honor of being the only WCHA team left without a victory this season. That’s the result of the tough early-season schedule the Mavericks have faced.
Each of the three teams they have played this season are ranked in USCHO’s top 20. Bemidji State is No. 18, Minnesota is No. 7 and Colorado College is No. 1.
The push for the first victory of the season takes the Mavericks to Alaska-Anchorage this weekend.
“It’s pretty desperate,” Minnesota State forward David Backes told USCHO’s Dusty Sedars. “We’re 0-6. There’s a sense of urgency throughout the locker room that this has got to end sooner or later.”
Said Mavericks coach Troy Jutting: “We’ve got to get better. I told them, ‘No sense in hanging your heads. That’s not going to do us any good. We’ve got to come back to practice on Monday and keep getting better.'”
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Colorado College’s Brett Sterling on offense, St. Cloud State goaltender Bobby Goepfert on defense and CC forward Chad Rau as the top rookie.
• Denver freshman Brock Trotter, who was tied for the team lead with three goals entering last weekend’s series at North Dakota, was lost for the season last Friday when he suffered a severed right Achilles tendon. For Saturday’s game, the Pioneers listed only 10 forwards and seven defensemen.
• Forty-five of Sterling’s 85 career goals — and three of four last weekend — have come on the power play. The CC senior moved into 13th place on the Tigers’ all-time scoring chart.
• St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko on his first WCHA victory, which happened to come against Minnesota, the team for which he was an assistant coach: “It’s a big win, I don’t know what to say,” he told the St. Cloud Times. “Maybe it will sink in later. It feels good, no question. And for this team, it’s big because they’ve been working their tail off.”
• Colorado College defenseman Weston Tardy will be out until Christmas with a broken right thumb, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reported.
• Minnesota coach Don Lucia is two wins shy of tying Herb Brooks for fourth place on the Gophers’ all-time coaching wins list. Lucia has 165 wins at Minnesota.
• Denver will raise its second straight national championship banner before Saturday’s game against Michigan Tech.
• Former Grand Forks Herald sportswriter Virg Foss, who recently retired, was presented with an honorary letterwinner award by North Dakota during its athletic hall of fame inductions last Saturday. UND inducted former Sioux forward Bob Joyce and its 1987 national championship team.
• Alaska-Anchorage has its own version of the DQ Cup ahead on its schedule. The Seawolves’ next four series are against WCHA teams from Minnesota, starting with a home series against Minnesota State.
• After this weekend’s series against Wisconsin, North Dakota doesn’t play at home again until Dec. 9-10 against Minnesota.
• Trivia answer: North Dakota in the 1986-87 season, when it outscored opponents 200-94 in 35 games. That’s a per-game average score of roughly 6-3.
I’ve heard plenty of complaints over the years about the Final Five being in Minnesota’s backyard every year and how that gives the Gophers an advantage. Well, put yourself in the WCHA’s shoes. There’s a tremendous facility there with a great staff that puts together a top-notch event. And it’s about as centrally located for the league as is reasonably expected. Why would you leave?