This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 12, 2006

First things first:

• Wisconsin’s Adam Burish likely will get a rude welcome this weekend in Colorado Springs, after his hit on Scott Thauwald at the end of the last series the Badgers played with Colorado College ended the Tigers forward’s season. But these two teams are too good and playing for too much for anything to get out of control at the World Arena. We hope.

• This is a crucial weekend for Minnesota-Duluth. If the Bulldogs are going to make a second-half run at solidifying a home-ice playoff spot, one would think they must sweep 10th-place Michigan Tech at home. Then again, that battle likely will go down to the wire anyway.

• This tidbit from North Dakota SID Dan Benson’s weekly notes: The last four North Dakota-Minnesota regular-season series at Mariucci Arena have had a common thread. All were in January. UND won each Friday night game by scoring four goals. Minnesota won each Saturday night game. Like it was scripted or something.

Four-Week Frenzy

You’re going to have to wait until after the first weekend in March to know exactly how things will shake out in the WCHA standings, but the next four weeks should provide a glimpse.

In those four weeks, there are six series between teams currently in the top half of the league, starting with a pair of dandies this weekend: first-place Wisconsin at second-place Colorado College and fifth-place North Dakota at third-place Minnesota.

Next week, Denver plays at Wisconsin while CC goes to Minnesota. Then Minnesota plays at the Badgers on the weekend of Jan. 27-28, followed by a series between North Dakota and CC on Feb. 3-4.

Wisconsin can’t wrap up the league title in the next few weeks, but it can get the league office to start filling out the shipping label. At the other end, North Dakota needs some wins to not only move up the standings but also to hold off Minnesota-Duluth, which is one point back in sixth place.

CC, Denver and Minnesota are in the position of still being in the race for first because they still have games against Wisconsin remaining. If someone can bring the Badgers back to the pack by sweeping them — or even by a string of splits — the landscape will change completely.

“As you look around, you’ve got Minnesota-North Dakota, you’ve got Denver and St. Cloud. There’s some good matchups here in the next few weeks,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “I think our league is strong and continues to look strong and seems to be growing as the season goes on this year. These are crucial for positioning — PairWise and standings — because there’s still a lot of things that can happen.”

Not that the jockeying for position will be limited to the top half of the league, either. Minnesota State plays four of the five teams around them in the standings over the next four weeks, starting with a series against Alaska-Anchorage this weekend.

“I think it’s a situation where it’s all out in front of us,” Mavericks coach Troy Jutting said. “It’s time for us to go grab it.”

A lot of teams could be saying the same thing.

Trivial Matters

The top five teams in the WCHA standings are separated by 10 points at the halfway point of the league’s schedule. What’s the closest finish for the top five teams in terms of points since the league expanded to 10 teams in 1993-94? Answer below.

CC’s Chance

Colorado College has good reason to be excited to start the second half of the WCHA schedule.

The Tigers have plenty of momentum coming out of their impressive performance at the Great Lakes Invitational, even despite a week off between that and this weekend’s home series against Wisconsin. They’ve got the Badgers in their building and another chance to get closer to the top spot in the league standings.

“This may be the last chance to get to the Badgers for us,” Owens said. “But we’re trying to get home ice and top three and PairWise — all those things become very important right now.”

The Tigers played like a veteran team at the GLI, Owens said, and it showed in the dominating way they took care of Michigan and Michigan State.

That’ll get challenged against Wisconsin, another veteran team. Owens wants his team to use its quickness on the big sheet and hopes to take advantage of having the last change to get the matchups he wants on the ice.

“That being said, no one’s been able to do it, home or away,” he said. “They’ve got impressive sweeps at Minnesota, who’s quicker than us and play on the same size sheet and they weren’t able to do it. I think we’ve got to be at the very top of our game to have any chance. Hopefully we can get some special teams opportunities and go from there.”

Owens said he doesn’t expect any leftovers from the last CC-Wisconsin series, which ended on a sour note when Burish, the Wisconsin captain, hit CC’s Thauwald as the second game of the series ended. Burish received a game DQ for the incident but no further suspension from the league.

“It’s too big of a series and that just serves as a distraction,” Owens said. “I feel bad for Scott, but the reality of the situation is it’s just too big of a weekend. Nothing good ever comes of that, anyway.”

Unheard Appeals

Minnesota coach Don Lucia was so upset with a call that will keep his most experienced defenseman in the stands for the opener of this weekend’s series against North Dakota that he confronted WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd in the Mariucci Arena hallways after last Saturday’s game.

Gophers defenseman Chris Harrington and Niagara’s Jason Williamson were each assessed fighting majors and game disqualifications for a scuffle in the third period. Lucia claimed it was no more than wrestling and no punches were thrown.

The DQ carries a one-game suspension that will sideline Harrington for Friday’s game against North Dakota.

At present, teams are not given the opportunity to appeal decisions like the assessment of a DQ, which are final once the referee signs the scoresheet. Lucia thinks that’s wrong.

“When there’s an obvious mistake, you should have some recourse to have the ability to appeal a disqualification like that,” he said. “There has to be an avenue because we have a situation here where there wasn’t a punch thrown and gloves never came off and they wrestled a little bit. But boy, that’s a big leap from wrestling to a disqualification because that’s such a costly penalty.”

Interim No More

In Bob Motzko’s first series as St. Cloud State’s head coach — interim tag removed — he’ll go up against one of his former bosses.

Motzko was officially tabbed as the Huskies’ coach this week when the school removed the “interim” before his title that existed since he took over for the retired Craig Dahl in the offseason.

According to the St. Cloud Times, Motzko was one of four people who applied for the job and was the only finalist. The paper reported he has a four-year contract that will pay him $110,592 in base salary this year.

This weekend, Motzko has his first head coaching meeting with Denver’s George Gwozdecky, under whom he worked as an assistant coach at Miami from 1991 to 1993.

Score to Win

Jutting has a pretty simple explanation for why his Minnesota State team has had some success recently. Just look at the scoreboard.

The Mavericks have scored five or more goals three times in their last five games after doing so twice in their first 17 contests.

“I think we’ve actually played really well since our third week of the season,” Jutting said. “The problem that we had is that we weren’t scoring goals. We had been getting a ton of opportunities and just not cashing in. Obviously that wears on players when you’re getting your chances and they’re not going into the net.”

In the 16 games since the Mavericks opened the season 0-6, they have lost only five times and all have been by one goal. In four of those losses, they scored two goals or fewer.

That shows how important getting more than a couple of goals on the board is for Jutting’s team, which is seventh in the league in scoring offense.

The Mavericks are 4-1-1 in their last six games, but only two of those were WCHA contests. They’re 1-4-1 in their last six league games, and all of them have been decided by one goal.

Now, they have an opportunity to gain ground. They’re part of a three-way tie for seventh place, and this weekend host Alaska-Anchorage, which is also part of that tie. They go to fifth-place North Dakota next weekend before traveling to sixth-place Minnesota-Duluth and returning home for 10th-place Michigan Tech.

Offense will be the key in that stretch.

“It’s been the reason we’ve been winning, but it’s also been a huge confidence boost for the kids,” Jutting said. “I think it gets contagious a little bit. When you score some, it seems like more pucks go in the net.”

Delay Creates Temporary OK for Sioux

The story is far from being over, but this week’s decision by the NCAA to allow North Dakota to use its Fighting Sioux nickname in NCAA tournaments at least until April 27 headed off a potential logistical nightmare.

That’s when the NCAA executive committee will take up the school’s appeal of a decision calling their nickname “hostile or abusive” again. It was unable to reach a decision at its meetings in Indianapolis, which allowed for the school to continue to use its nickname in NCAA events.

And that means the hockey team, if it makes the tournament, won’t have to strip all of its equipment of the Sioux nickname or logo. Considering that any college hockey team has its logos plastered all over its apparel and equipment, right down to the bags that carry everything, that most likely would have been a massive undertaking.

North Dakota’s initial appeal was rejected by a staff review committee, so the school appealed to the executive committee.

Determined Defense

With Harrington out for Friday’s game, Minnesota’s defense will be stretched to the limits. The Gophers have moved Andy Sertich back to defense for practice this week but, as of Wednesday, hadn’t decided whether to use him there or as a forward who could slide back to defense midgame if needed.

Senior Peter Kennedy, who has played in four games this season while battling hip injuries, hasn’t gotten back to the form that he had before the injury. Sophomore Nate Hagemo, one of the team’s top four defensemen, has been out since October because of a shoulder injury.

So you would expect some level of disarray with the Minnesota defensemen this season, and maybe there was early in the season and in the series against Wisconsin at the start of December. Otherwise, however, Lucia has been pleased.

“They’ve played much, much better,” Lucia said. “Chris Harrington is at the top of the chart. Really, the last couple of months, he’s played like an all-league defenseman. He’s played very well.

“That’s what we need. And Alex [Goligoski] has played really well. And Derek [Peltier] and [Mike] Vannelli are playing much better than they did in the first month of the season. Some of those guys, for whatever reason, got off to average starts and now they’re playing much, much better.”

Junior Report

Fresh off his gold medal earned for Canada at the World Junior Championship last week, North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews picked up an assist in two games for the Sioux at Alaska-Anchorage last weekend.

All four North Dakota players who competed in the WJC played in both games of UND’s split at the Seawolves. T.J. Oshie had a goal, while Brian Lee and Taylor Chorney each collected an assist.

Minnesota’s Phil Kessel returned with three assists in a sweep of Niagara and teammate Blake Wheeler scored a goal in his first game back. Gophers goaltender Jeff Frazee, who played only one game for the Americans, collected a 7-1 victory over the Purple Eagles last Saturday, stopping 35 of 36 shots.

Kessel led the Americans with 11 points (1-10), while Wheeler and Wisconsin’s Jack Skille each had two goals in the tournament. Oshie, Lee and Denver’s Geoff Paukovich each scored a goal for the United States, which finished fourth.

Denver’s Chris Butler suffered a shoulder injury in the tournament and is out at least for this weekend.

In Other Words

• League players of the week were North Dakota’s Travis Zajac on offense, Minnesota’s Harrington on defense and St. Cloud State’s John Swanson as the top rookie.

• In the century watch, Colorado College’s Brett Sterling needs two goals to reach 100 for his career; Denver’s Matt Carle and Wisconsin’s Ryan MacMurchy each need two points for 100; and North Dakota’s Drew Stafford is three points away from 100.

• Eleven players have registered Minnesota’s 13 game-winning goals this season. Phil Kessel and Mike Howe are the only players with two.

• Minnesota-Duluth has been swept three times in its five home series this season, and is at home for six of its next eight games.

• Alaska-Anchorage’s Nathan Lawson set a career high with 48 saves in last Friday’s 5-2 victory over North Dakota. Just a sophomore, he already has six games with more than 40 saves for the Seawolves.

• Minnesota’s Kellen Briggs is one win behind Jeff Stolp for fourth place on the Gophers’ all-time win list for goalies.

• St. Cloud State forward Konrad Reeder has a point in his last seven games.

• In its last 31 penalty kills, Minnesota State has allowed only one power-play goal while scoring three shorthanded goals.

• The NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes will be hosting Denver fans and alumni at a game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 31. Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky will appear at a private postgame reception. Tickets can be purchased through Jason Uslan of the Coyotes’ group sales office at 623-463-8867.

• Trivia Answer: Five points, in the 1996-97 season. North Dakota and Minnesota shared the title with 43 points, while Colorado College and Denver, who tied for fourth place, each had 38 points.

Final Word

The WCHA has been proactive with replay technology. Maybe it’s time to push to use that technology to take a second look at all disqualification penalties considering the high price that is paid by the player who gets one.