First things first:
• Two years ago, Minnesota and Wisconsin completed an unprecedented road sweep of the College Hockey Showcase — unprecedented for the WCHA, that is. With the Gophers and the Badgers back in Michigan this weekend, the bar is raised.
• When things go wrong for Michigan Tech, they really go wrong. But being shut out three games in a row is odd considering it’s the Huskies’ offense that tends to be the saving grace.
• You can tell someone in a scoring drought that they’re getting chances and they’re doing well on special teams until you’re blue in the face, but nothing helps quite like that first goal. Just ask Minnesota’s Kris Chucko and Wisconsin’s Jake Dowell, who each broke out last weekend.
• Minnesota State doesn’t have a lot of wins to show for its first 12 conference games, but if the Mavericks keep playing the way they did last weekend at Wisconsin, they’ll be a tough team to play at the end of the season and should win their share.
Stating Their Showcase
You could be the No. 2 team in the country that’s had plenty of success early this season. You could be the No. 7 team that’s had its share of close losses.
Either way, the College Hockey Showcase is always a measuring stick of where you’re really at by the Thanksgiving break.
“We have that opportunity this weekend to go into Michigan and play out of conference and play some good teams,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “And you take a look at the big picture, down the line these games will be invaluable for us.”
The feedback value, however, will be immediate.
“It just gives you an idea of where you stack up,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “If you compete well against those teams, you’re going to usually compete well against everybody else across the country.”
Here’s a quick update on Minnesota and Wisconsin, who will square off with Michigan and Michigan State this weekend:
Gophers Gaining Ground?
In the first eight games of the season, Minnesota was 1-3 in games decided by one goal, with an overtime loss to Alaska-Fairbanks and regulation losses at St. Cloud State and at Minnesota-Duluth.
In the past two weeks, however, the Gophers have closed out each series with a one-goal victory — one positive sign for a Minnesota team that has been hurt by injury losses.
But Lucia is waiting for his team to put together a complete game.
“I don’t think we’ve played a game this year where I could say our goalie was sharp from start to finish, our [defensive] corps played well and our forwards played well,” he said. “Maybe our forwards play well and our defensemen struggle for a period, then our defensemen play well and our forwards disappear and our goalie lets in one bad goal.
“We’ve lost three games by one goal — one in overtime — but we just haven’t been able to get over the hump. Two of the games we lost, we had basically 40 shots on goal and scored two or three goals. It’s not getting the timely goal, the goal to give us a two-goal cushion late in a game. Or it goes off the crossbar and they go down and score. That’s kind of how it’s been the first third of the year for us.”
The Gophers got Danny Irmen back from a broken finger last week, and the team had been missing the pivotal junior, Lucia said.
Minnesota is still missing injured defenseman Nate Hagemo, out since the last week of October with a neck/shoulder injury. Lucia said the sophomore is expected back after Christmas, which should provide a second-half boost.
“We need to get everybody back on the ice — I think that’s No. 1 — so we can find that continuity,” Lucia said. “Some of the young guys are in and out, which freshmen are supposed to do. I think Phil [Kessel] has been probably our most consistent freshman, but the rest of them play well in stretches, play a good game and like a typical freshman who’s 18 years old, you don’t notice him the next game.”
Right now, the Gophers are in a part of the schedule where the next game is just as tough as the last one. If they can get through it with some wins — they started with a tie and win at Denver last weekend — they should be in good shape going into the holiday break.
“Our eight-game stretch here — at Denver, at Michigan and Michigan state, home to Wisconsin, at North Dakota — that’s as difficult an eight-game stretch as anybody will go through all year long, especially with so many on the road,” Lucia said. “That was important for us to get off to a good start on this eight-game segment.”
Badgers’ Blocking Bonanza
From watching tape, Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting had an idea that Wisconsin was going to block its share of shots to bolster its defense.
Then he got the live version.
“I knew they blocked shots,” Jutting said. “I had no idea how many they’d get in front of.”
In the first period of Sunday’s game against the Mavericks, the Badgers got in front of 12 of Minnesota State’s 22 attempted shots, tying a season high for blocks in a period.
Jutting and Badgers coach Mike Eaves both credited Wisconsin assistant coach Mark Osiecki for that effort. In his playing days at Wisconsin and in the pros, Osiecki had no reservations about putting his body in the way to prevent a shot from getting to the goaltender.
Now, he’s carrying that on to the Badgers players.
“We’ve got a guy who made his living blocking shots in Mr. Osiecki,” Eaves said. “It’s something that when we first got here as a staff it was a part of us. I think that Mark has carried that on with his young defensive corps and our forwards, especially penalty killing.
“It’s about getting in lanes. It’s amazing when you watch hockey all over, it’s become an integral part of hockey now, the ability to get big low and take away shooting lanes and blocking shots. It’s an art form, and it’s pretty common throughout the game of hockey right now.”
Osiecki and the Badgers make sure to teach blocking while putting an emphasis on avoiding injury. “It takes technique to do it well and not get hurt,” Eaves said.
Over the years, the mind-set of blocking shots has become ingrained in the heads of Wisconsin players. And it has contributed to the Badgers defensive success — they haven’t allowed more than two goals in a game this season.
“It’s part of our tradition now as how we play,” Eaves said. “Guys hear about it all the time and they’re required to do it. It’s demanded by the coaching staff and their teammates expect them to do it.”
Minnesota State goaltender Isaac Reichmuth made 11 saves in a 2-0 loss to Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday. It was the fewest saves by a goaltender against the Seawolves since a Denver goaltender also made 11 in a 4-0 Pioneers victory on Oct. 22, 1999. Name that Denver goaltender. Answer below.
Race to Three
St. Cloud State has been consistent, but that hasn’t always been a good thing.
With one notable exception (a 7-0 victory at Michigan Tech), the Huskies haven’t registered more than three goals in a game this season. In fact, three has been the magic number this season: Their four victories have come in the only games in which they have scored three or more times.
“When we get to three we’ve got a real good chance to win,” Huskies coach Bob Motzko said. “We’ve just had a real tough time getting to three. When we have, we’ve had success. There’s our team right now.
“We have a ceiling offensively to get a little bit better. I’m not sure how much, but I know we can get better offensively. That’s the biggest thing we’re working on. We’re getting chances — we got 40-some shots Saturday against North Dakota. So we’re getting chances to make ourselves better.”
In a split with the Sioux last weekend, the Huskies had four players — John Swanson, Nate Raduns, Brock Hooton and Grant Clafton — record their first goal of the season.
“That’s what you need now, some guys to start scoring and build some confidence, maybe get something going a little more offensively,” Motzko said.
It’s Been A While
For two games, Michigan Tech’s shutouts could be blamed on a lack of chances. In a 7-0 loss to St. Cloud State on Nov. 12, Tech got just 14 shots on goal. Last Friday, in a 5-0 loss at Colorado College, the Huskies managed just 19 shots.
But last Saturday they broke out for 30 shots on goal but still couldn’t score against CC goaltender Matt Zaba.
Of those 63 shots on goal over the last three games, 10 have come from the senior top-line duo of Chris Conner and Taggart Desmet, from whom almost half (13 of 27) of the team’s goals have come this season.
The worst part about things for the Huskies is they now have a week to sit on this streak. They are idle this week before hosting North Dakota next weekend.
The Top Two
Michigan will attempt to become the first top-ranked team in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll to beat the nation’s No. 2 team while playing at home when Wisconsin goes to Yost Ice Arena on Saturday.
The No. 1 team in the country is 0-4 at home against the No. 2 team since USCHO’s poll debuted in October 1997.
Overall, this will be the 14th meeting between the top two teams in that time. No. 2 has won six games, No. 1 has won four and there have been three ties.
A tie and loss against Minnesota last weekend left Denver with its first four-game winless streak since late in the 2003 season, and it has highlighted the team’s youth.
“There are so many different bodies in these jerseys from what we had last year; it’s a work in progress developing that chemistry and that confidence and know-how,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky told the Denver Post. “On the goals Minnesota did score, a number of our freshman defensemen were out there. I’m not putting them at fault, but at same point at time, those are things you have to grin and bear. There is no other way to develop inexperienced players.”
The Pioneers, now 1-4-1 this season against ranked teams, have uncharacteristically fallen below .900 in save percentage this season.
Sophomore Peter Mannino, last season’s Frozen Four most outstanding player, is at .868 while junior Glenn Fisher is at .892.
On the Road Again
It was just like junior hockey this week for Minnesota State players. With a game in Omaha on Tuesday night after last weekend’s series at Wisconsin, the Mavericks turned it into a five-day road trip.
They stayed in Madison after Sunday night’s game, bussed to Omaha on Monday, played the other Mavericks on Tuesday and then left for home.
A 6-3 victory in Omaha gave Minnesota State some success to take home, but it’s not like they were shamed in Madison, either. They didn’t get any points out of the games with the Badgers, only a pair of close losses that showed they’re not too far off.
“You look at the series, two one-goal games,” Jutting said. “But I think that’s where it’s at right now. We’ve got to get better.”
Wisconsin’s Dowell scored 12 goals last season; Minnesota’s Chucko had 10. So it was something of a surprise that each went the first 11 games this year without a goal.
Each took care of that, however, in the second game of a series last weekend.
Chucko scored a shorthanded goal to tie last Saturday’s game at Denver, then scored the winner just over four minutes later.
“I think he needed that desperately,” Lucia said. “I think he was really struggling mentally as much as anything. Even though he was doing other things, whether it was killing penalties and playing physical and doing things that we needed to be successful, I think a guy that scored 10 as a freshman, you expect to do better as a sophomore. That’s why early in the year, you really like to see guys score and get that first goal of the year out of the way. Otherwise, you start going down that line and that burden becomes greater.”
Dowell, meanwhile, scored what turned out to be the winning goal against Minnesota State last Sunday.
“It’s definitely a big monkey off my back,” he said. “I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it lately and I’ve just been telling people that other people have been scoring and we’ve been winning, and that’s fine. I’d get my first goal when we really needed it, and it turns out that’s what happened.”
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Wisconsin’s Joe Pavelski on offense, Colorado College’s Brian Salcido on defense and Tigers goaltender Drew O’Connell as the top rookie.
• Five-game ticket packages for the WCHA Final Five will go on sale through Ticketmaster on Dec. 1.
• The back-to-back blankings of Michigan Tech last weekend was the first time Colorado College has held a WCHA opponent scoreless in both games of a two-game series. The last time CC did that to any opponent was Dec. 10-11, 1954, beating St. Thomas (Minn.) 17-0 and 11-0.
• Minnesota-Duluth’s shutout loss to Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday was its first since Nov. 6 last season, also at UAA.
• Wisconsin winger Robbie Earl was held out of last Saturday’s game against Minnesota State because he missed part of a team meeting that morning. Pavelski, the only player left from the Badgers’ top scoring line — Adam Burish was serving his automatic suspension from a game DQ — scored twice.
• With 41 saves in last Saturday’s victory over St. Cloud State, North Dakota goaltender Jordan Parise improved to 1-1-1 this season when making 40 or more saves.
• In its last 50 games, UMD has scored first just 16 times.
• Trivia answer: Stephen Wagner.
Part of me says I’d love to see Big Ten schools play a lot more often than they do already. Then the rational part of me comes along and says there’s no way that would be good for college hockey as a whole.