This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 5, 2006

First things first:

• The embarrassment of finishing fourth in your own tournament fades fairly quickly. But for Denver, the problem is the losses to Princeton and Ferris State don’t disappear from their PairWise Rankings figures. The Pioneers finished the nonconference part of their schedule 3-5.

• Michigan Tech really deserved better than a fourth-place finish at the Great Lakes Invitational. The Huskies led games against Michigan State and Michigan in the third period and got 57 saves from Michael-Lee Teslak in the semifinals but couldn’t get a win.

• It’ll be interesting to see how the four North Dakota players who were at the World Junior Championship fare in this weekend UND series at Alaska-Anchorage. Based on previous experiences, adrenaline may get Brian Lee, Taylor Chorney, T.J. Oshie and Jonathan Toews by this weekend before they run out of steam early next week.

A Dangerous Time

It seems like such a good time to be a college hockey player. Between the end of the holiday break and the start of second-semester classes, it’s just hockey.

You wake up, you go to practice and you’re done. Sounds great, right?

It can be one of the most challenging times for a player, however, because it makes it that much more difficult to maintain your focus.

When you’ve got the routine of daily life down cold and then it changes, there’s an adjustment to be made. Some do it well; some don’t.

“You go from not having enough time to do errands for a week to getting everything done in one day,” Wisconsin forward Andrew Joudrey said. “It’s definitely an adjustment you have to deal with, but the good thing is we’ve been doing some workouts in the morning and getting together as a team in the morning to get ourselves out of bed and kind of simulate the school.

“You can’t completely simulate school, obviously, but at least get ourselves into a routine of getting up and getting our day going before practice. If you don’t manage it well and don’t stay on top of things and try to stay somewhat in a routine, it can be difficult to stay on track.”

St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko called it a dangerous time, and said that he likes the fact that his team is on the road for the next two weekends because it means he can monitor their itineraries for at least part of the week.

“When you’re on the road you can monitor their schedule better, you can keep their itinerary full and not let complacency or laziness set in,” he said.

Motzko knows from experience that most teams do better in a routine.

“You see a lot of those teams that play at the national level, they’ve had to go through a few national tournaments to find the routine that works,” said Motzko, who was an assistant coach at Minnesota before this season. “I can guarantee you at Minnesota or Denver, they don’t change. Their routine, they know it now. They’ve been through it enough and they stay on the same itinerary.”

Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves consulted with his captains to get input on how to handle this week of practice, which comes during break and a bye week.

“In the beginning of the year when you’re just getting started you’ve got small groups and you’ve got school going on, you’ve got dry land, everybody’s excited,” Eaves said. “Now you’re into the season and you’re halfway through, you could go crazy in this time period and wear guys out.

“That’s the balance I think that you have to strike. We have a week off; how hard do you push? What’s realistic in terms of what you’re going to get out of these young men? So we try to strike a balance between how hard you push them and giving time to relax and have some fun and have some down time. That’s what we as a coaching staff have wrestled with.”

Trivial Matters

Colorado College’s Brett Sterling moved into fifth place on the Tigers’ all-time goalscoring list with 98 career goals. Who leads that category with 112 goals? Answer below.

New Year’s Wishes

All in all, 2005 turned out to be pretty good for the WCHA.

The league took some hits in October, when its nonconference record was subpar, but there were plenty of highlights, too.

The WCHA moved to a new level in technology when it went to a leaguewide implementation of its video replay system. There was the struggle between Denver and Colorado College for the MacNaughton Cup, a race that went down to the final weekend of the series and a home-and-home series between the teams.

For the fourth straight year, a WCHA player won the Hobey Baker Award when CC’s Marty Sertich took home the award.

Of course, there were the unprecedented four WCHA teams in the Frozen Four and a fourth straight national champion from the league when Denver came away with a second straight title.

“2005 was great,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “I think the Frozen Four put an exclamation point on some of the things that we thought. But it’s the same thing: You start the ’05-’06 season and it’s a new ballgame. It certainly has turned out that way. We had an influx of some highly, highly talented young kids. I think some of the struggles you’ve seen are maybe surprising to some people because of how heralded these newcomers were.”

McLeod’s wish for the WCHA in 2006 is simple: to maintain the high competitive level that has been established.

“You always hope that, whether you’re talking about just internally in the WCHA or nationally, that there aren’t these pullaway type of circumstances,” McLeod said. “The competitive level and the quality of the competitive level, I really hope that’s what we can continue to be a leader in.”

Defining Time Ahead

St. Cloud State closes its nonconference schedule this weekend with a trip to Colgate, but when the Huskies return, they’re in for a stretch that may define their season.

In the three weeks after this series, the Huskies play at Denver, at home against Minnesota-Duluth and at North Dakota, a challenging stretch that will likely determine whether they’re still fighting for a top-five spot. St. Cloud State is in seventh place and can see those three teams directly ahead of them in the standings.

“We’re either going to be fighting for that four, five, six spot or we’re going to be below that,” Motzko said. “… It can’t be any more simple than that.”

St. Cloud State finished the first half with a 6-2-1 record in its last nine games, getting the Huskies back to .500 overall after a 2-6-1 start. While SCSU ranks second in the conference in team defense, there’s work to be done on offense if it wants to make a run.

In that last nine-game stretch, the Huskies scored five or more goals four times, a good sign for them even if the opposition in those games are all in the bottom third nationally in team defense.

“We’re almost like an open book right now,” Motzko said. “If we get a little offense, we’re kind of dangerous.”

Motzko pointed out that Konrad Reeder has put up six goals this season, nearly equaling his total of the three previous seasons (seven). Sophomore Marty Mjelleli has chipped in with three goals.

Joe Jensen is the only double-digit scorer in the lineup, but if others can put in a goal here and there, the outlook isn’t bleak for the Huskies’ offense.

“That’s what we need right now, other guys to be chipping in,” Motzko said. “That’s our Christmas wish, for our offense to continue to grow and by committee chip in more. And our power play’s got to take another step forward. We can knock some people off.”

Motzko has heard people call his team inconsistent. He, on the other hand, thinks it has been extremely consistent. When it scores four goals or more, it’s successful.

Thanks to a solid defense led by goaltender Bobby Goepfert, the Huskies have allowed more than three goals only twice this season. That gives them a good chance of winning if they can get some goals of their own.

“It didn’t matter if we were playing Minnesota, North Dakota or Brown, when we get to four, we’ve been on the good side of wins,” Motzko said.

What’s Left

North Dakota has the easiest remaining league schedule, while Colorado College has the toughest road left.

That’s according to the combined winning percentages of their remaining opponents. North Dakota’s remaining opponents have a .455 winning percentage; CC’s have a .537 winning percentage.

Minnesota State (.479) has the second-easiest WCHA schedule left, followed by Wisconsin (.484), Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage (.489), St. Cloud State (.495), Minnesota (.5208) and Denver and Minnesota-Duluth (.5212).

Torrid Tigers

The numbers tell the story from an impressive showing by Colorado College at the Great Lakes Invitational.

In a 6-1 win over Michigan and a 6-3 victory over Michigan State, the Tigers scored seven power-play goals and converted three times while shorthanded.

Tournament MVP Joey Crabb had four goals and three assists in the tournament and now has 13 points in his last six games.

“He just looks so confident with the puck all of the time,” CC coach Scott Owens told USCHO’s Lindsey Ungar. “He had 19 shots in two games. It’s great for a senior, a veteran player like that, to step up for us.”

The Tigers are 2-for-2 in tournaments this season — they also won the Ice Breaker Invitational — and extended their winning streak in the state of Michigan to six games.

Convention Conversations

There are a couple of items of interest to college hockey to keep an eye on at the NCAA convention currently taking place in Indianapolis.

This season, men’s and women’s basketball teams were afforded the opportunity to get together for full-squad workouts with coaches before the start of official practices, and there will be discussion on whether that should be carried over to hockey.

There are two schools of thought in play on the subject. Some coaches would like to be able to get early time to avoid rushing their players into games because the season opener is often only a week after the start of official practices. Others think the season is already long enough as it is.

The tabled legislation on eliminating exempt games and changing the number of games a team can play is expected to get some discussion again this season. Last season, a proposal was introduced that would, for hockey, up the number of allowable games to 35 from 34 but also eliminate the exemptions for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game, in-season tournaments and games against foreign teams.

Switching Stripes

The WCHA sent Derek Shepherd east and Hockey East sent Scott Hansen west last week as part of the conferences’ annual referee exchange.

Shepherd worked two games at the Sheraton/TD Banknorth Catamount Cup in Burlington, Vt., while Hansen had two assignments at the Badger Hockey Showdown in Madison, Wis.

In Other Words

• League players of the week were CC’s Crabb and Minnesota’s Ryan Potulny on offense, Minnesota-Duluth’s Isaac Reichmuth on defense and Michigan Tech’s Teslak as the top rookie. The Dec. 19 awards went to CC’s Aaron Slattengren on offense, Denver’s Matt Carle on defense and North Dakota’s Oshie as the top rookie.

• UMD’s Reichmuth stopped 44 of 46 shots in helping the Bulldogs to a second-place finish at the Florida College Hockey Classic. UMD beat No. 9 Maine in the semifinals and tied No. 8 Cornell in the championship game. Cornell won the shootout.

• Teslak’s 57 saves against Michigan State was a Great Lakes Invitational record, topping Geoff McMullen’s 46 saves for Michigan Tech in an 11-6 victory over Colgate in 1970.

• North Dakota forward Drew Stafford recorded his 14th goal of the season last Friday, already giving him more than he recorded last season. He had 13 goals as a sophomore and 11 as a freshman.

• Minnesota’s Mike Howe collected his first collegiate hat trick in an 8-0 victory over Union in the semifinals of the Dodge Holiday Classic.

• Alaska-Fairbanks claimed the Governor’s Cup for the fifth straight year by winning the season series against Alaska-Anchorage three games to one.

• Denver finished fourth in the Denver Cup for only the second time in 14 years of the tournament.

• Former Minnesota State players suited up against each other in the NHL for the first time on Dec. 22. Tim Jackman’s Phoenix Coyotes beat Grant Stevenson’s San Jose Sharks.

• After last Thursday’s loss to Harvard, North Dakota stands 3-8 all time in games decided by a 1-0 score. It also was just the third time UND has been shut out at the new Ralph Engelstad Arena.

• Trivia answer: Ron Hartwell.

Final Word

Alaska-Anchorage and North Dakota are the only WCHA teams playing for league points this weekend, but those points could be vital to each. The Seawolves are looking to break out of a tie for ninth place with Michigan Tech, while the Sioux are trying to get back into the top five in the standings.