This Week in the WCHA: Dec. 8, 2005

First things first:

• After Wisconsin’s road sweep of Minnesota last weekend, you start to wonder how long the Badgers’ unbeaten streak could go. It’s at 14 now, and they’ll be heavy favorites to make it 16 this weekend with Michigan Tech in town.

• Ten players from the WCHA will play for the United States in the World Junior Championship later this month. North Dakota could be especially impacted for the length of that tournament, with three players going to the American team and the possibility that Jonathan Toews could suit up for the Canadians. That could be a problem, but that also tells you there’s some pretty good talent there.

• As it turns out, we already know who will get to hold the Gold Pan — or whatever they’re going to call the new trophy — through next season. With its sweep of Colorado College last weekend and as the trophy holder, Denver clinched. The best CC could hope for is a tie in the season series, in which case Denver would keep the missing trophy anyway.

• You know you’ve had a tough time when, through 16 games, you’ve led for a total of 62 minutes, 48 seconds. For Michigan Tech, more than half of that (34:01) came in the first game of the season — one of two games the Huskies have won. They didn’t lead in the other until they won in overtime.

Road Recovery

It was hardly the way you’d like to go into a six-game road stretch, but North Dakota made the best of it.

The Sioux lost their last three home games — one to Denver, two to Wisconsin — before starting that road swing. That had them 1-3 in the league and just one game over .500 overall at 5-4-1.

But going 5-1 on the road, including sweeps of Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan Tech and a split at St. Cloud State, has the Sioux right back in the mix.

“We put ourselves in a little bit of a hole with those losses,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “You can’t have too many ticks in the loss column that early in the year, so it was real important for us to get some wins over that six-game [road] stretch.”

With a home series against Minnesota on the schedule this weekend, North Dakota is looking to get back some of its home-ice advantage, and at the same time make up some points on a team that is two points up in the standings. The Gophers have 14 points to UND’s 12, but Minnesota also has played two more games than third-place Colorado College and fourth-place Denver and UND.

“Wisconsin has got the jump on everybody and is way out front, but you look at the rest of the pack and every point is really critical,” Hakstol said. “It’s so tight that it’s going to be a heck of a battle for those top five spots.”

The Sioux got a pair of hat tricks in sweeping Michigan Tech last weekend. Rastislav Spirko scored three times on Friday and Drew Stafford did the same on Saturday as UND racked up 14 goals in the series.

Hakstol said there were some nice offensive plays, but the results came because his players were able to finish their chances.

UND scored 31 goals on its six-game road stretch while allowing just 15. Still, Hakstol is waiting to see his team put together a complete game, something he said it hasn’t done yet this season.

“Maybe that’s something that’s not going to come until a little bit later in the second half,” Hakstol said. “But that’s one of the things that we’re trying to accomplish. We want to try to play a full, consistent 60 minutes of hockey. We’re getting closer. We’re not there yet; we haven’t done it yet but you can see the signs. We’re practicing at a much better level, and we’re slowly starting to see that carry through to consistency in our games.”

Trivial Matters

What is the fewest number of teams the WCHA has had at or above .500 in the final overall records for a season, and what season was that? Answer below.

‘Coaching’s Coaching’

The perception when a head coach takes an assistant coaching job is that there had to be some pride-swallowing along the way.

Not so with John Hill’s move back to Minnesota in the offseason, he said.

Hill spent four years as the head coach at Alaska-Anchorage, his alma mater, before leaving in the summer to rejoin Don Lucia’s staff at Minnesota.

“I enjoyed the four years back at Alaska-Anchorage,” Hill said. “Sometimes when you make decisions, you make decisions that are best for your family. It isn’t just always about us as coaches. I think what we do is very demanding, and I think our families get the short end of the stick.

“And for me, we had a level of success at UAA. No, I don’t feel like the job was completed. But I felt like the turnaround we had — after the year we didn’t win a conference game, we made it to the Final Five and last year we were within a goal of going back to the Final Five — I felt like the program was in good shape.

“My wife and I both loved our two years here living in the Twin Cities [before going to UAA], and I certainly enjoyed working here. I can’t think of a better place to go to work. And I don’t mean anything disrespectful to Alaska-Anchorage. It’s where I went to school, it’s where I played and I’ll always be fond of it. But this is a special place in terms of college hockey.”

While getting back to business with the Minnesota staff was a quick process because he had done it before, building relationships with the Gophers’ players was a process that took a good month, Hill said, and one that really continues today.

“The most important thing is, and I think I mentioned this to the guys the first day we had a meeting, is I look forward to earning their trust and gaining their respect,” Hill said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do through the natural progression. You have to be demanding but not demeaning.

“As a coach, I think for me stepping back into an assistant’s role, I’m trying to get out on the ice early with guys and stay a little bit late and help them with individual aspects of their games as I see them needing work, not having the perspective of having recruited them. I’m kind of coming in late, but I feel like there’s a relationship now with them individually and with this group as a team.”

Hill was 39-89-21 in his four seasons at UAA and endured some trying situations, including a miserable 1-28-7 season that featured a 35-game winless run to end the 2002-03 campaign.

He said he doesn’t miss many of the game-day duties of a head coach, saying he much prefers taking part in the morning skate to taking part in the midday luncheon.

So to him, moving from the top spot to an assistant spot wasn’t as much of a career concern as it would seem.

“For me, coaching’s coaching,” Hill said. “I know that a lot of people questioned it and thought it was odd, but no, there was no swallowing of any pride. I don’t think I’m a big ego guy. I just want to be part of a program that is having success in a place where you have fun coming to work every day. I had that at Anchorage and I have it here.

“And my mom had a very good comment to me. I was talking to her this summer and she said, ‘I remember how excited you were when you went to go to work at the University of Minnesota the first time. You couldn’t believe that you had an opportunity to work there.’ She goes, ‘You’re a pretty lucky guy because now you’ve had two opportunities.’

“And when you put it in that perspective, for me, it really sunk home. Let’s face it: This is a special place. I think anyone would admit it.”

Frustrating Fate

As you would expect, there’s a high level of frustration at Michigan Tech at the moment. In a five-game losing streak, the Huskies have scored only three goals — all of them coming in the last four periods.

The 11-period scoring drought took a toll, and the Huskies now have to face top-ranked Wisconsin and its suffocating defense in Madison.

Still, Tech coach Jamie Russell wants his players thinking of the times they have overcome such long odds to have success. Two years ago, the Huskies beat Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. Last season, they took a game from fifth-ranked Denver on the road when they had won only one game all season to that point.

“It’s a big challenge,” Russell said. “Wisconsin’s playing well, with a lot of confidence. We need to keep in mind that we did it last year. A break here, a break there and we get a few bounces. It would be nice to play a hockey game with a lead.”

Michigan Tech has held a lead for only 6.5 percent of its time on the ice this season. It has scored first in only two of 16 games.

Rollercoaster Ride

Minnesota-Duluth worked its way back above .500 in the conference with a three-point weekend at Minnesota State, which showed again that the Bulldogs are a viable candidate for an upper-half spot this season.

They’ll get a big test in that area this weekend when they play at reeling Colorado College.

“I’m still trying to figure out our team,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin told USCHO’s Dusty Sedars. “It’s still kind of a mystery.”

The Bulldogs have lost only three times in their last 12 games after opening with four straight losses.

History Lesson

The way Wisconsin completed a sweep of Minnesota last weekend was historic on a number of fronts. It was the Gophers’ first shutout loss at home since March 3, 2000, a span of 121 Gopher home games.

It was Wisconsin’s first shutout of the Gophers since Nov. 12, 1983, 101 games ago in the series. And it was only the second time the Badgers had shut out Minnesota in Minneapolis, the other coming on Feb. 28, 1970 — 84 series road games before.

Badgers coach Mike Eaves said it was an important turn of events for Wisconsin’s seniors, who were parties to 5-2 and 8-1 losses at Minnesota in their freshman season. Late in that 8-1 game, Eaves called a timeout to talk to his players.

“We brought the guys in and we said, ‘I want you to listen to this noise,’ and it was deafening,” Eaves said. “And we said that this summer when you’re training and you’re tired and you’re hurt, you remember this noise and you push yourself a little further so this never happens again. So for those guys it was at the other end of the spectrum to win on the road in Minneapolis and shut them out.”

It was pointed out to Eaves that people were leaving Mariucci Arena in droves by the 10-minute mark of the third period last Saturday.

“That doesn’t happen there very much,” he said. “So for those young men that experienced that when they were freshmen, to have that happen when they were seniors, the circle becomes complete.”

On the Minnesota side, captain Gino Guyer said the results of the series will show what kind of character the team has.

“It’s a very, very disappointing weekend,” Guyer said. “We definitely didn’t have the effort we wanted for an extended period of time all weekend. Wisconsin came in here, they played hard, they played their systems to a T. They made it tough for us, so I want to give them a lot of credit for the way they played because they’re all on the same page and they all play their system to a T.”

Lighting the Lamp

George Gwozdecky has started to see it come together for his two-time defending national champion Denver team.

The Pioneers have equaled their longest winning streak of the season with a three-game run after their sweep of Colorado College.

“The last three weekends I think we’ve played extremely well,” Gwozdecky told USCHO’s Alex Clark. “We’re playing better as we gain an understanding of how hard we have to play and how we have to execute. You can see the light coming on. We’re starting to get it.”

Quick Turnaround

There’s a good bit of logistical work ahead for two of the five WCHA teams who have players in the World Junior Championship.

The gold- and bronze-medal games of the tournament are scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 5. Both North Dakota and Minnesota have games the next day, with the Sioux playing at Alaska-Anchorage and the Gophers hosting Niagara.

Hakstol said the North Dakota representatives would go right from Vancouver to Anchorage to play the next day if the U.S. is in the final four, but the UND lineup plans are still up in the air.

The Sioux have three players on the U.S. roster: defensemen Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee and forward T.J. Oshie. Also invited: Minnesota goaltender Jeff Frazee and forwards Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel; Denver defenseman Chris Butler and forward Geoff Paukovich; Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Matt Niskanen; and Wisconsin forward Jack Skille.

Minnesota forward Kris Chucko and North Dakota forward Toews were among 34 players invited to the Dec. 11-16 camp that will determine Canada’s roster. Toews will miss the Sioux’s series against Bemidji State.

In Other Words

• League players of the week were North Dakota’s Stafford on offense, Denver’s Matt Carle and Wisconsin’s Brian Elliott sharing the defensive honor and Denver’s Chris Butler as the top rookie.

• Elliott was named the national player of the month for November by the Hockey Commissioners’ Association, while Kessel earned the rookie honor.

• Referee Scott Zelkin left last Saturday’s Minnesota-Wisconsin game in the final two minutes after being cut under the eye by a stick. He walked out of Mariucci Arena after the game with the eye nearly swollen shut.

• Konrad Reeder scored a natural hat trick in St. Cloud State’s 5-0 victory at Alaska-Anchorage last Friday.

• Since allowing 12 goals in a series against North Dakota four weeks ago, Minnesota-Duluth’s defense hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a game over its last six contests.

• Denver’s Ryan Dingle scored a pair of goals in each game against Colorado College last weekend and now is second in the nation with eight power-play goals. The sophomore also is tied for first in the WCHA with four game-winning goals.

• Last Friday’s 4-3 loss to Wisconsin dropped Minnesota to 3-4 this season in one-goal games.

• Colorado College is 3-3 since breaking up the line that included seniors Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling after gaining only a tie in two games at Wisconsin.

• Wisconsin’s 12-game unbeaten streak in WCHA play (10-0-2) is the second-longest to start a season in league history. Colorado College started the 1995-96 season with an 18-game run (15-0-3).

• Alaska-Anchorage’s Charlie Kronschnabel, who was third on the team in goalscoring last season, broke a 12-game scoreless stretch last Saturday.

• Colorado College coach Scott Owens is still one win away from tying Jeff Sauer and Don Lucia atop the win list for a Tigers coach. Sauer and Lucia both had 166 victories.

• Minnesota State defenseman Kyle Peto has a goal and five assists over his last five games and moved into 13th place on the Mavericks’ all-time list for defenseman scoring.

• North Dakota’s Jordan Parise tied a career high with 42 saves in last Saturday’s 8-2 victory over Michigan Tech.

• CC hit bottom in shots on goal last Friday, getting just 20 in a loss to Denver and only five in the third period, both season lows.

• Trivia answer: Three, in 1998-99. They were North Dakota, Colorado College and Denver.

Final Word

Got this well-written message this week from someone known only as The Hammer, who was man or woman enough to not include a real name or e-mail address:

“Hockey east rules!!!In your articles, you are too much of a “homer”, never picking anyone outside of your conference. Not too mention it is about time you invested in some contacts instead of those “coke-bottles” you have been watching with!! Get a clue, your style & your writing sucks!!”

Hold on, Hammer. You can’t touch these glasses after wearing those Steve Urkel-esque specs in the early ’90s.

Of course, I’m only able to assume that message came from MC Hammer.