First things first:
• Thank you, Michigan Tech, for reminding us why the games still have to be played.
• North Dakota’s home losing streak has reached a program-high five games after last weekend’s sweep by Minnesota. With the way that Bemidji State has handled the WCHA this season, there’s no guarantee it’ll end Saturday.
• And you thought you had heard the last of Minnesota players and underage drinking. This week, Minneapolis TV station KMSP aired reports of underage Gophers recruits being in the same campus-area bar where underage players were previously filmed drinking alcohol. There are significant issues to address here, but we can’t quite picture the final result yet.
• Things are winding down for the first half of the season, but this weekend’s series between Denver and Minnesota-Duluth has a lot riding on it, with the teams separated by one point in fourth and fifth place, respectively.
It’s hard to pass up someone who will have at least 18 goals by the holiday break, but my pick for the hypothetical first-half MVP award in the WCHA has more to do with value to the team.
Colorado College’s Brett Sterling has continued to put together outstanding offensive statistics in his senior season and will be near the top of the list when awards are handed out in March.
But the first-half ride of Wisconsin goaltender Brian Elliott was enough to trump that effort. He has backstopped the Badgers to the nation’s best record (14-2-2) with a solid effort in his first season as the full-time starter.
Numbers don’t always tell the story, but in the case of Wisconsin and its storied goaltending tradition, Elliott’s do.
If the junior’s statistics held up, they would shatter the team records for goals against average (2.09) and save percentage (.924) set just two years ago by Bernd Brückler. Elliott is at 1.43 and .943 at the break.
“He’s exceeded any expectations that we had to the degree that he’s played right now,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. “We knew and his teammates knew that he was a very good goaltender. We shoot on him every day. We see him every day. But he’s had to answer the hurdle of doing it in games back to back.
“When he had played in the two previous years, except for maybe one outing, he had been pretty good for us. But to get the numbers that he has is a tribute to his work, it’s a tribute to the defensemen that play in front of him, and it’s a tribute to the forwards as well, both playing defense and taking care of the puck. … We have the puck more, which makes it less work for him.”
The Badgers’ strong defense could serve as an argument against his candidacy. But Elliott has made over 30 saves five times in 18 games this season, so he has had to earn his success.
Speaking of defense, Denver’s Matt Carle gets consideration for a strong first half. The only knock on Carle would seem to be that his plus-minus is only plus-6. In comparison, Wisconsin’s Tom Gilbert is at plus-19.
Who was the last Minnesota-Duluth goaltender to shut out an opponent at home? Answer below.
Cashing In on the Rebound
After his team didn’t score on a five-minute power play last Friday, Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin thought it gave up.
Down 4-2 at Colorado College, the Bulldogs couldn’t cut into the deficit and soon were run out of the building.
“They embarrassed us,” Sandelin said. “I felt bad for [goaltender] Josh [Johnson] because I thought he played pretty well but we left him hanging out to dry, and the next thing you know it’s 7-2.”
Sandelin said he was around only five or 10 minutes after the game.
“I’ve never done that,” he said. “I just went in and told them, ‘You guys talk about it. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.’ They did and we talked about it the next day and we changed a couple of things, changed some lines and went out and played a much better game.”
The result was a more passionate performance that led to a 4-3 victory over the Tigers that put them on a high note going into this weekend’s series with Denver.
“It was a huge win for us,” Sandelin said. “After that game, guys felt better. You could just tell. It’s led to, so far, a pretty good week of practice.”
The Bulldogs are 4-1-1 in their last six games. Going into a series at Minnesota State two weeks ago, Sandelin set the goal of eight points in the three series before the break.
UMD has five entering a series with the Pioneers, who have won four of their last five games.
It’ll be a big series for both teams, Sandelin said, because they’re separated by only one point.
“It’s important for us to keep some of the momentum we’ve built and hopefully the confidence into the break,” Sandelin said. “I’m sure [the Pioneers] are saying the same thing.”
You can be the No. 1 team in the country, but if you don’t put forth the effort, even a team with the second-worst winning percentage in Division I can beat you.
That’s the lesson for Wisconsin in its stunning 4-2 home loss to Michigan Tech last Friday. The Badgers faulted their lack of effort, but there’s another effort that needs to be credited: the one from the Huskies.
Tech beat the Badgers in hard work and also won the special-teams battle to end Wisconsin’s unbeaten streak at 14 games.
“I bet people across the country were looking at our scores last week [6-1 and 8-2 losses to North Dakota], saying, ‘Boy, Tech’s going to get crucified, just absolutely hammered tonight,'” Huskies coach Jamie Russell said after Friday’s game.
It was a popular opinion, but then again, you never know what to expect from a Huskies game. They could get routed — as they were the week before and again last Saturday — or they could see everything click and get a victory.
Last Friday, they got two shorthanded goals — one by Chris Conner and another set up by the shorthanded specialist — and a power-play goal while keeping the Badgers scoreless on eight power-play chances.
“You look at our numbers and it looks like our penalty killing sucks,” Russell said after the game. “But we’ve worked on it an awful lot.”
Many had to wonder where Minnesota was going to be emotionally last weekend at North Dakota. The Gophers had just been swept at home by rival Wisconsin — and without putting up much of a fight in the second game of the series.
The answer made a statement about the Gophers’ resiliency, if it wasn’t a flat-out reminder that they’re still a good team.
A sweep in Grand Forks brought a needed lift for Minnesota as it closed out the first half of its season.
“To come back and sweep our other rival, it’s really good for the team, it’s really good for our confidence,” Gophers forward Danny Irmen told USCHO’s Patrick C. Miller.
It was Irmen and Ryan Potulny — the Gophers’ North Dakota natives — who did a lot of the damage. Irmen had two goals and three assists, while Potulny had three goals and an assist.
In six career games at Ralph Engelstad Arena, Irmen and Potulny have combined for 10 goals and eight assists.
Five Men Out
You don’t see five game disqualifications given in one game too often. But that’s what happened when last Saturday’s Wisconsin-Michigan Tech game got out of hand.
First, Tech’s Jake Wilkens got his second ejection of the weekend for fighting after taking exception to a crouching hit by Wisconsin’s Nick Licari.
Two periods later, Licari was DQed for checking from behind, setting off a fracas that also led to fighting DQs for Tech’s John Schwarz and Mike Batovanja and Wisconsin’s Ross Carlson.
The 151 penalty minutes from Saturday’s game was the second-most in Wisconsin history.
Wilkens, Schwarz and Batovanja must sit out Friday’s game against Minnesota State, while Licari and Carlson are out for Wisconsin’s opener in the Badger Hockey Showdown against Western Michigan on Dec. 30.
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Irmen on offense, Alaska-Anchorage goaltender Nathan Lawson on defense and Minnesota-Duluth’s Mason Raymond as the top rookie.
• North Dakota defenseman Joe Finley has a broken bone in his left arm and will miss two to six weeks, the Grand Forks Herald reported. The freshman, who has played in every UND game this season, was injured early in last Saturday’s game against Minnesota but continued to play a few shifts.
• Sophomore forward Brent Borgen has left Minnesota to play for the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League, the Minnesota Daily reported.
• Lawson made 37 saves to blank Denver 3-0 last Saturday, while Merit Waldrop scored the game-winning goal a night after being a healthy scratch.
• Colorado College has scored at least one power-play goal in its last eight games, but the Tigers are just 4-4 in that stretch.
• St. Cloud State goaltender Bobby Goepfert would set team single-season records with a 2.03 goals against average and a .929 save percentage if he held those stats for the rest of the season.
• Wisconsin’s Adam Burish scored his seventh career shorthanded goal in WCHA play last Saturday, tying him with Eaves and Norm Cherrey atop the Badgers’ all-time list.
• Minnesota State’s David Backes was held scoreless in two straight games by Notre Dame last week. That’s the first time that has happened this season.
• The three shutout losses Denver has suffered this season is the most since the 1999-2000 team had five.
• Michigan Tech’s Conner has six goals and 12 points in 10 career games against Wisconsin.
• Last Friday’s game was the 2,500th in Minnesota history.
• The millionth fan to enter The Ralph for a UND hockey game clicked the turnstiles last Saturday and received four club seats for the rest of the season and a parking pass.
• Trivia answer: Brant Nicklin, on Feb. 28, 1998 against North Dakota. The Bulldogs have had six shutouts since, but all on the road.