This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 26, 2006

First things first:

• It seems just about the right time for Colorado College to take a week off and clear its collective heads. There’s no telling how far its slump — presently at a four-game losing streak — could have gone otherwise.

• That big lead Wisconsin had last week? Yeah, not so much now. Minnesota and Denver now trail by only four points, but each team’s coach curiously dismissed talk that they have a chance to catch the Badgers.

• If St. Cloud State forward Dan Kronick was saving up his first collegiate hat trick for the right time, he did a pretty good job. He got it last Saturday against Minnesota-Duluth, the team he transferred from.

Heading Home

If Phil Kessel wants any advice on how to handle playing in front of a hostile crowd in a place you used to call home, he can just look down the bench.

Kessel plays his first games at the Kohl Center this weekend when the Madison native and his Minnesota team travel to Wisconsin. He said he expects to be booed, but he also has received some pointers from teammates Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen, who are used to such treatment when they play back home in North Dakota.

They told Kessel to have fun with everything.

“I remember the crowd getting on me pretty hard,” Potulny, a Grand Forks native, said of the first time he played against the Sioux back home. “They had signs up for me and they booed me pretty good. But that’s something where you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. If anything, take it and run with it and let it get you going a little bit. You can’t take it the other way because if you let it bother you, that’s what they want to do and your mind’s going to be out of it all weekend.”

Irmen, a Fargo native who went to high school in Grand Forks, said he had mixed feelings the first time he played collegiately at the Ralph. On one hand, he was excited to play in front of friends, family and the team he grew up watching. But he also was nervous about possibly playing a bad game.

“You’ve got to realize that it’s not a one-person sport, and you’ve got 20 other guys out there to help you,” Irmen said. “Phil tried to do a lot himself the first time we played Wisconsin [this season, at Mariucci Arena] because he just wanted to beat them so bad. We’ve just got to let him know that it’s a 20-man sport and we’re going to be there to help him.”

Kessel, the top rookie scorer in Division I, chose Minnesota over hometown Wisconsin last March, and one figures the center will get his share of negative attention from the crowd this weekend.

“I expect to get booed by some people, but that happens,” Kessel said. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

Trivial Matters

Denver is 9-1-2 all-time at the Kohl Center after sweeping the Badgers last weekend. What was the Pioneers’ record in their first 12 games at Magness Arena? Answer below.

Pulling It Together

Jonathan Toews doesn’t have the points this season that Kessel does. He doesn’t even lead North Dakota’s freshmen in scoring — T.J. Oshie has that honor with 14 goals and 26 points.

But Sioux coach Dave Hakstol said he thinks Toews, ranked third on the NHL Central Scouting Service midterm rankings for North American skaters, is starting to emerge as a dynamic player.

Maybe he saw it last Saturday, when Toews scored a breakaway goal with so many dekes that he told USCHO’s Patrick C. Miller he thought he out-deked himself.

But Hakstol sees Toews, who has nine goals and 16 points, as a complete player. The center is responsible defensively and is good on faceoffs, and the offensive skills are starting to shine through.

“That dynamic ability is just starting to come out in games now,” Hakstol said. “We’re just starting to see a little more than flashes. We’re starting to see some consistent offensive playmaking coming from him right now. And that’s part of the experience of the first half, the experience of the World Junior tournament and him adjusting to this level.”

The fatigue of the World Junior Championship, where Toews earned a gold medal with Canada, may have finally burned off. Hakstol said Toews had a couple of dominant shifts against Minnesota State.

“I think the experience of the World Junior tournament, winning the gold medal, there’s no question it’s going to make him a better player, just having that experience,” Hakstol said.

Weakness Shown?

Wisconsin couldn’t blame Shane Connelly for its sweep at the hands of Denver last weekend. And even if it could have, the circumstances would have made that unfair.

Connelly, thrown into the starting goaltender role when Brian Elliott suffered an apparent knee injury in last Wednesday’s practice, played well enough to win last Friday but the Badgers lost 1-0. He allowed four goals — three on the power play — a night later as the Pioneers won 4-2.

As it turned out, the freshman wasn’t the story of the weekend. The frustrating of the Badgers by the tenacious Pioneers was.

And now teams have seen something of a weakness in the Badgers, something a number of opposing coaches have claimed didn’t exist. By being willing to block shots and play with a swagger, the Pioneers got the Badgers off their game.

“They talk their trash, they come out there and they back it up,” Wisconsin captain Adam Burish said. “They’re in your face the whole game. They don’t back off for one second. They’re tough, they’re physical, they have skill. I can tell right now why that team’s won two national championships.”

Said Badgers winger Robbie Earl, who scored both Wisconsin goals in the series: “The big thing is we just got outplayed this weekend. Granted, we lost Elliott. We just got outplayed.”

It’s unclear exactly how much of the Badgers’ undoing for the weekend was their being off-kilter from the start because of the loss of Elliott, the WCHA’s top goaltender who’s expected to be out another three weeks.

But some of the edge that made the Badgers a dominant team for much of the season wasn’t there against Denver. Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves likened it to a football team losing its starting quarterback or a baseball team losing a starting pitcher.

“It’s a pretty big chunk of what we do and how we’ve gotten to the point of where we are,” he said.

There’s no time for the Badgers to sulk, however, with Minnesota coming to town for the Border Battle.

“It’s more of a group that has a little bit of a ticked off attitude, that we were embarrassed at home and that needs to stop,” Burish said of the Badgers.

The Big Payback

Kronick left Minnesota-Duluth after playing in only 15 games in two seasons and only four in a sophomore season in which he suffered a broken vertebra.

So do you imagine it meant more than a little bit when he scored four goals and added a pair of assists in St. Cloud State’s sweep last weekend?

“It feels pretty good to take it to them, I guess,” Kronick told the St. Cloud Times after scoring a hat trick in Saturday’s game. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if it’s set in yet. I’ve been thinking about this game for two years now.”

Kronick got a medical redshirt for the 2003-04 season and sat out last season under the NCAA’s transfer rules.

Going through the handshake line after last weekend’s series felt great, Kronick told the paper.

“Just to shake [UMD coach Scott] Sandelin’s hand and sort of be like, ‘How did you like that one?’ with their guys,” he said. “But I’m not trying to be too cocky. It was just a big weekend for me.”

Turning It Around

In a few months, we may be able to look back at last weekend’s performance by Denver as the proverbial line in the sand.

Whether it was the wake-up call of coming in 26th in the PairWise Rankings or just the realization that their season was going in the wrong direction that kicked it into gear, the Pioneers may have started the process of recapturing their top form last weekend at Wisconsin.

“Up to this point for many of the series, we’ve been on the receiving end of some of our opponents’ best games,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “I think that we have found ourselves in the position where we’ve been challenged and challenged, and now it’s time to respond. I think that this weekend was an opportunity for us to make a statement, more primarily to ourselves than to anybody else as to the kind of team we want to be and the kind of team we can be.”

Denver had just broken a three-game losing streak before heading to Madison.

Friday night, the message came from goaltender Glenn Fisher, who earned a shutout. “Our message is look out because we’re a team that’s going to come on strong,” he said.

A night later, Ryan Dingle provided the message after a two-goal outing. “We needed to do something this weekend, and I think that this was the weekend that showed a lot of character from our team,” he said. “It was great to see our team come together like this.”

Eyes Off Standings

North Dakota’s three-game winning streak has it leading the second pack of teams in the WCHA race. The fourth-place Sioux have 20 points, eight points behind first-place Wisconsin and four behind Minnesota and Denver, who are tied for second.

But they’re leading Colorado College by a point and St. Cloud State by five (although the Huskies have two games in hand) with 10 games to play. A top-three spot isn’t out of the question, but on the other hand, a home-ice spot isn’t secured, either.

“It’s more important for us to keep concentrating on our play than it is to worry about what may or may not happen in the standings,” Hakstol said. “We can only control one thing; that’s our play in our remaining 10 games. If we play well and get the results, regardless of where we end up in the standings, we’ll be OK.”

This three-game run started at Minnesota, where, two weeks ago, the Sioux responded from a 6-1 whipping with a 4-2 victory.

“The importance of that was, OK, how strong a locker room do we have?” Hakstol said. “I think the guys answered that question for themselves.”

Early Return

Alaska-Anchorage goaltender John DeCaro had good reason to fly back to Anchorage in the middle of the Seawolves’ week in the Midwest. According to the Anchorage Daily News, the senior went back home to await the birth of his daughter.

Seawolves freshman Mike Rosett flew to Houghton, Mich., to be Nathan Lawson’s backup for the series against Michigan Tech, but his equipment didn’t arrive until Friday, the paper reported. He had to practice in DeCaro’s pads and skates.

Chase On Hold

It would seem that it’s game on again when it comes to the race for the MacNaughton Cup. Wisconsin’s lead was halved by Denver last weekend and the Badgers now are up by only four points with 10 league games remaining.

Perhaps they’re just lowering expectations, but Minnesota coach Don Lucia and Gwozdecky both said it’ll still be hard to catch Wisconsin.

“I still think they’re in such good position when you look at the schedule the rest of the year,” Lucia said. “After our weekend, they play just teams that are in the lower division the rest of the way. And I still think last weekend is more of an aberration than anything else.”

Gwozdecky said he wouldn’t read too much into what happened last weekend if he was in Wisconsin’s place, adding that everyone has their hiccups.

“It’s going to be very difficult for anybody — us, Minnesota, North Dakota, CC, anybody — to catch them,” he said. “In my mind, they’re the cream of the crop in the league and they deserve to be the No. 1 team not only in this league but in this country.”

If the lead gets any smaller, however, it would be foolish to think there won’t be a race for the title.

In Other Words

• League players of the week were St. Cloud State’s Kronick on offense, Denver’s Fisher and Alaska-Anchorage’s Lawson as the top defensive players and Michigan Tech’s Michael-Lee Teslak as the top rookie.

• North Dakota’s Joe Finley and Kyle Radke and Minnesota State’s Steve Wagner and Brent Cummings all received game disqualifications for fighting last Saturday, keeping all out for their teams’ games Friday.

• St. Cloud State forward Joe Jensen’s 137-game playing streak ended last weekend when he missed both games against Minnesota-Duluth with a knee injury. The St. Cloud Times reported he also will miss this weekend’s series against North Dakota.

• All four goals Alaska-Anchorage scored last weekend at Michigan Tech were on the power play. The Seawolves were 4-for-11.

• Colorado College has scored only seven goals, all of them by seniors, in its four-game losing streak.

• Minnesota-Duluth has been outscored 24-11 in its six-game WCHA losing streak.

• Now that Jordan Parise is healthy, North Dakota will go back to its goaltender rotation. Philippe Lamoureux had started five straight games while Parise was out with an upper-body injury.

• Minnesota State forward Ryan Carter has eight points in his last seven games.

• Michigan Tech’s four-game unbeaten streak (2-0-2) is its longest since the 1997-98 season.

• Wisconsin’s Earl scored his 100th career point with his first goal against Denver last Saturday.

• Minnesota-Duluth will retire Brett Hull’s jersey between the first and second periods of next Friday’s game against Wisconsin. Hull scored 84 goals in two seasons with the Bulldogs.

• Wisconsin broadcaster Paul Braun will call his 1,200th Badgers game this weekend.

• The Seawolves’ Lawson posted a career-high 51 saves last Saturday at Michigan Tech.

• Wisconsin is averaging 13,193 fans per game at the Kohl Center, 1,040 more than its NCAA record for average season attendance set in 1998-99.

• Trivia answer: Denver was 5-6-1 in its first 12 games at Magness Arena in the 1999-2000 season.

Final Word

I guess the lesson of the last week is don’t ever think there’s not going to be drama in the chase for the MacNaughton Cup.