This Week in the WCHA: Dec. 1, 2005

First things first:

• It’s rivalry week in the WCHA, with Colorado College and Denver squaring off while Minnesota hosts Wisconsin. But there are also some pretty important series in terms of points for teams lower in the standings who are looking to make a jump before the holiday break.

• In saying that, there’s a distinct possibility we’ll see the league standings break up into three sections after this weekend. Alaska-Anchorage and Michigan Tech need some home points against St. Cloud State and North Dakota, respectively, to avoid comprising the bottom part, and Minnesota State could use some success at home against Minnesota-Duluth to avoid slipping there.

• Over the past three seasons, the WCHA’s Minnesota and Wisconsin are 10-1-1 against the CCHA’s Michigan and Michigan State in the College Hockey Showcase. You could stay that starts to make up for the first 10 seasons.

• Minnesota’s Don Lucia, who this week received a three-year contract extension, reiterated that he wants his current job to be his last one, taking him until he’s about 60. Just think of the career that would be.

Rocky Road

Denver has only one win in its last six games. Colorado College had to scrap to salvage one win out East last weekend.

When the Pioneers and the Tigers get together, to borrow a line from Tripper Harrison, it just doesn’t matter.

“You can’t look at records and how the teams are doing because it really has no bearing and usually has no bearing on how the games are going to be played,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said in advance of his team’s home-and-home series with CC this weekend. “Sometimes it has a little bearing on what the outcome might be, but the games usually are so tight and so difficult and challenging and competitive that some little thing can turn the tide either way. It’s typical of a great rivalry. That’s the way these games are played, and I’m sure that’s the way they’ll always be played.”

The Denver-CC rivalry has always been good, but it went to a new level last season thanks to the success of both teams and the big games they played.

On the final weekend of the regular season, each team grabbed a share of the MacNaugton Cup with a home victory, giving the teams a 2-2 split in the regular-season series. Two weeks later, after the teams shared a flight to St. Paul, Minn., the Pioneers won the WCHA playoff title by beating the Tigers.

Three weeks after that, the Pioneers won the season series 4-2 by winning in the Frozen Four semifinals.

“Two years ago we took seventh and beat them in the first round of the playoffs,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “They were 4-2 against us last year, and we won 31 games. It doesn’t really matter where you’re sitting or what the situation is.”

But last year also put Colorado hockey in a pretty good light.

“Last year was one of those years where I think both teams respected each other so much,” Gwozdecky said. “I think both teams made each other better and both teams brought such great notoriety to our universities and college hockey in general in the Rocky Mountain region. There was such great respect, and both teams wind up going to the Frozen Four and Marty Sertich [wins] the Hobey Baker, all those great things.”

There soon should be another great feature of the rivalry. The Gold Pan got lost in the Pioneers’ possession a while back, so the teams are going in together to buy a new trophy for the winner of the season series.

Gwozdecky said it’ll be ready in time for the last weekend of the regular season, when this year’s winner will be decided. The Pioneers still are the holders of the original trophy, so CC will have to win the series outright to take control.

It’ll be more statuesque, Gwozdecky said, and likely will contain some kind of figure as part of the design. That’s in contrast to the old Gold Pan.

“This thing was really getting beat up,” Gwozdecky said. “In fact, Scott and I had spoken a couple years ago, maybe even longer, about doing something to improve — either completely redoing the existing Gold Pan or doing something to replace it. It was so beat up. It had dents and bumps and bruises — not from actual use of panning for gold, but the players just having it and it getting abused by being sometimes thrown in the corner. Some of the etching on it was completely missing. It had seen its better days, that’s for sure.”

Trivial Matters

Denver was 6-of-12 on the power play in its 6-2 victory over Colorado College in last season’s national semifinals. How many of the 13 goals the Pioneers scored against the Tigers in the five other games the teams played a year ago were on the power play? Answer below.

Stay a While

When a coach gets a contract extension these days, it says just as much about the health of the program as a whole as how the coach has done.

That seems to be the case with Minnesota and Lucia, who now is under contract through the 2011-12 season. While nothing is guaranteed in the world of athletics, such a move shows any potential recruits that Lucia will be around for quite a while.

“I think it certainly helps, especially with recruits getting younger and younger, when you have 10th, 11th graders committing,” Lucia said. “This is going to be my last job in hockey, and I want to be here hopefully for another 13, 14 years. I’m 47, and I’m not going to coach until I’m 70, I know that. If I can get to my late 50s, 60, that would be great. Then it would probably be time for somebody else. But I love my job, and now with seven years, anybody we’re recruiting knows that I’m going to be here for their time here.”

That’s the kind of thing a program the likes of Minnesota should have, Lucia said.

“This is a type of program where you should have a coach here for 10 or 15 years at a time,” he said. “Quality programs allow that. Wisconsin, they had Bob Johnson and they had Jeff Sauer for, what, 30-some years. Mike [Eaves] can be there as long as he wants to be there. [Michigan’s] Red [Berenson] has been there a long time. You look at the BUs and the BCs, and coaches, for the most part, have had long tenures.

“Because you get into a good spot, and where are you going to go? You’re kind of at the pinnacle. And for me, personally, I’ve got daughters that are going to be graduating from college this spring and more than likely this area will be home. And for my family, this is home. This is where I want to live, God willing, 30 more years or more. Maybe 40.”

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the entire value of Lucia’s contract, including base salary, media compensation and supplemental pay, will reach about $421,000 by the time the 2011-12 season comes around.

“He’s the real deal, and we’ve got to do everything we can to keep him,” Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi told the Pioneer Press. “He got a little bit of a raise and some security there, which I think is important to him.”

Security from Lucia’s end seems fairly strong. Asked whether his current stance that this was his final coaching destination had changed over the years, he said he never really thought that far ahead, even when he was coaching Alaska-Fairbanks in the late 1980s.

“We had just bought a motor home the summer before I left to go to Colorado [College] because we thought we’re going to live here, my wife has a teaching job and we’re fine with that,” said Lucia, who is two victories behind Brad Buetow for third place on the Gophers’ all-time win list. “I’ve never been one that, ‘God, I can’t wait to get to the next job.’ I’m much more of a homebody.

“Then you go to CC and I could have easily seen myself there for 20 years. But this job opened up and it was like, ‘Well, are you going to take your crack at a Big Ten school or not?’ I’m a Western guy, so I don’t think I’d have much of a comfort level anywhere but the West. And certainly I have a great comfort level with the WCHA after playing in it and coaching in it. I enjoy our league.”

Chances are, he’ll enjoy it for quite a while.

Short Shifts

Minnesota-Duluth dressed only 16 skaters for last Friday’s 9-1 victory over Yale while five players served a suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules.

The Duluth News Tribune reported they were leading scorer Tim Stapleton, Justin [nl]Williams and goaltender Isaac Reichmuth — all seniors — and sophomores Mike [nl]Curry and Jim Jensen.

All but Jensen dressed for Saturday night’s rematch, although Reichmuth watched from the bench.

Twelve of the 16 skaters dressed for Friday’s game scored at least one point, with center Matt McKnight claiming two goals and two assists and left winger Andrew Carroll netting a goal and three assists.

Stories Aplenty

How many subplots can you fit into one series? Minnesota and Wisconsin are stretching things.

If it wasn’t enough to just be the Border Battle, there’s the fact that Wisconsin has lost its last 10 games against Minnesota at Mariucci Arena. And that the Badgers became the nation’s top-ranked team for the first time in over five years just before the series.

And that they’re the top two teams in the WCHA standings. And that it’s the league’s top offense (Minnesota) against the league’s top defense (Wisconsin, which also leads the nation).

Oh, and there’s that little matter of Phil Kessel, the Madison native who chose the Gophers over the Badgers and will be playing his first game against the team for which his parents held season tickets.

Eaves downplayed the Kessel angle, but this should be an emotional series nonetheless.

“The motivation is going to be the easy part,” Eaves said. “The emotion is going to be there — that’ll be the easy part. The challenge for our kids is keeping those emotions in check and allowing themselves to get into that ideal performance state so they can go out and play their best.”

In a twist on the normal order of things, Lucia is interested to see how his team measures up.

“I think they clearly have proven to be the best team in the country up to this point,” Lucia said of the Badgers. “No weaknesses, experienced, good at every position. This’ll be a great test to see where we’re at right now.”

Brother for Brother

It was a curious entry in the stat report from last Friday’s Minnesota-Duluth home game against Yale.

Referee: Derek/Brad Shepherd

No, the Shepherds had not suddenly morphed into one referee. Derek Shepherd was hit with a puck early in the game and left with a broken nose.

According to the Duluth News Tribune, assistant referees Joe Romano and Sean Jacques pressed on as a two-man crew briefly before Brad Shepherd, Derek’s brother, came on as the referee. It seems Brad Shepherd had worked a women’s game at the DECC earlier that day.

Jeff Albers was brought in to work the second game of the series.

More Short Shifts

St. Cloud State surged into the lead among WCHA teams and a tie for the national lead in shorthanded goals last Saturday.

Andrew Gordon and Konrad Reeder each scored a shorthanded goal in the first period of the Huskies’ 4-4 tie with Brown, giving St. Cloud State four for the season.

Huskies sophomore defenseman Matt Stephenson had a hand in both goals — by being responsible for the penalties. On Gordon’s goal, he was in the box for tripping. Midway through the period, he was sent off for checking from behind. After a Brown goal on the ensuing power play, Reeder gave St. Cloud the lead again.

In Other Words

• League players of the week were Colorado College’s Brett Sterling on offense, Wisconsin goaltender Brian Elliott on defense and Minnesota-Duluth’s Carroll and Minnesota’s Kessel sharing the rookie honors.

• Wisconsin’s Elliott has won three of the last four defensive honors and has extended his personal streak of not allowing more than two goals in a start to 18.

• CC’s Sterling moved into seventh place on the Tigers’ all-time goalscoring chart with a hat trick last Saturday at Boston University. Sterling has 93 goals, 19 behind leader Ron Hartwell.

• A hat trick last Friday at Michigan gave Minnesota’s Ryan Potulny six goals in three career games in the College Hockey Showcase. He was held scoreless the next night.

• Michigan Tech gets defenseman John Scott back from suspension in time for this weekend’s home series against North Dakota.

• Alaska-Anchorage has killed off 15 straight opponent power plays, covering the last three games.

• Denver junior goaltender Glenn Fisher may have a 19-9-4 career record, but this week for the first time he has a save percentage over .900.

• Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Josh Johnson stopped 39 of 41 shots in a series against Yale last weekend and earned his first victory since Jan. 22, 2004.

• Wisconsin was 7-0-1 in November, its most victories in a month under Eaves. It’s the third time the Badgers have gone undefeated in a month in Eaves’ three-plus seasons.

• Trivia answer: Three.

Final Word

My ears perked up when I heard Lucia say the next two weeks will show whether his Minnesota team will be in or out of the race for the MacNaughton Cup. But it seems true, even if the Gophers are only four points out of first place going into a series with Wisconsin, which will be followed with a pair of games at North Dakota. And anyway, Lucia tends to be right about things like that.