This Week in the WCHA: Feb. 2, 2006

First things first:

• Now we’ve really got a race for the MacNaughton Cup. Suddenly, our preseason prediction of a Minnesota-Wisconsin-Denver finish doesn’t sound so improbable.

• Phil Kessel said it was just a reaction — probably born out of a weekend full of booing by Wisconsin fans every time he touched the puck — to clasp his gloved left hand to his left ear in a gesture toward the crowd after he scored last Saturday night. Twenty years ago, the aftermath of such an event probably wouldn’t have been nearly as civil as it turned out to be.

• As if things weren’t going bad enough for Alaska-Anchorage, now it’ll have to play without its anchor, goaltender Nathan Lawson, for at least three weeks because of a knee injury.

• It was no fun being a home team last weekend. Road teams went 8-0 in WCHA play.

Reeder Rejuvenation

It doesn’t take that much of a study of St. Cloud State’s statistics to see where the Huskies are getting more scoring this season.

In fact, you just have to go down to the No. 4 spot, where senior Konrad Reeder has registered nine goals and 20 points. That’s not exactly all-world, but when you consider Reeder had just eight goals and 15 points over his first three college seasons, it’s a step in the right direction.

And that has helped the Huskies improve their goalscoring a half-goal per game over last season. Again, not earth-shattering, but enough to notice.

Enough, say, to notice the Huskies at No. 19 in this week’s Networks poll. They’re 8-1-1 in their last 10 games and 12-3-2 in the 17 games since opening the season 2-6-1.

Huskies coach Bob Motzko says a lot of that has to do with Reeder. All of Reeder’s 20 points have come in those last 17 games.

“We started to go on a roll when we started to get more offensive production, and he’s got 20 points now,” Motzko said. “It kind of coincides. [Joe] Jensen’s been doing it all year until his injury, but when Konrad Reeder made the turn for us, it coincided with the fact that we started winning more games, too.”

Reeder, listed at 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, had two points in 17 games in his freshman season before scoring 10 in 28 games as a sophomore. Last season, he had only two points (both on goals) in 18 games.

This season, he has four multiple-point games (he had one in his first three seasons), including a hat trick at Alaska-Anchorage on Dec. 2.

Only one of his goals has come on the power play, although six of his 11 assists have been while the Huskies were a man up.

“He’s got great energy for offense,” Motzko said. “You can see it in practice. I remember him from the USHL, he was one of the top scorers in the USHL. The kid practiced early in the year [and was] throwing it under the bar. Just great hands. And he’s done a tremendous job in the weight room so he’s strong for not being a big kid.

“He just needed to get some success. He just needed to remember how to score again. He started off real tight and he just needed to settle down. Once he started to score, it just seems like every weekend he’s finding ways to get on the scoresheet.”

As much attention as Bobby Goepfert deservedly gets for his stellar goaltending, the Huskies’ seniors are the secret to the team, Motzko said.

Billy Hengen is second on the team with 24 points. Jensen, who’s nursing a knee injury, leads the team with 13 goals. Brock Hooton earned praise from Motzko as one of the better players he’s been around in college hockey from a defensive standpoint.

Those veterans also will be the ones that keep the Huskies’ heads from getting big now that they’re on a roll.

“When you have seniors that have been around, I think they’ll help guard from us having any letdowns and that we stay consistent,” Motzko said.

Trivial Matters

Colorado College (14-0), Denver (13-0), Minnesota-Duluth (6-0) and Minnesota State (10-0) all are perfect this season when leading after two periods. Which WCHA team has the worst record in games in which it leads after 40 minutes? Answer below.

Two-Faced Bulldogs?

Scott Sandelin isn’t sure if his Minnesota-Duluth team has an identity yet.

He sure doesn’t want it to be the eight-game WCHA losing streak that the Bulldogs currently are suffering through. But that has obscured the other view of the Bulldogs, one formed after they played so well in Florida over the holidays.

UMD had chances to earn valuable points in the last six games, all against teams that were at that point in the bottom half of the league. The competitive atmosphere the Bulldogs created in a win over Maine and a tie with Cornell at the Florida College Classic, however, didn’t carry over.

“For me, it comes down to the competitiveness and really playing,” Sandelin said. “I saw our guys just relax and play, and I think part of that was due to we got away from each other for a while, we came back and there was that freshness. Guys had a little break, mentally and physically, and we came back and … guys relaxed and played.

“I think we got into this stretch and maybe we put a lot of pressure on ourselves because of having the six games and playing teams that are even or right with you, and maybe looking too far ahead.”

The result is really a team of two faces.

“We have seen glimpses of being a pretty decent team,” Sandelin said. “But a lot of it is the sum of all parts. When they’re together, we can be pretty good. When they’re not, we get exposed.”

Such was the case last Saturday against Minnesota State. The Bulldogs got run out of their own building 7-1 to fall to 1-8-1 at home in WCHA play.

This weekend, the Bulldogs have Wisconsin at the DECC, the start of a regular season-concluding stretch that sees UMD also play North Dakota, Colorado College and Minnesota.

“I know one thing: It better keep us pretty focused,” Sandelin said. “Because we’re playing some pretty good teams. Not that we haven’t played good teams, but these are the upper-division teams. I think the focus will be there.”

Painful Sweep

Danny Irmen had a tremendous weekend for Minnesota, but it’ll be the last time Gophers fans see him for a while.

Irmen, who had a hat trick last Friday and a pair of assists last Saturday in the sweep of Wisconsin, suffered a third-degree separation of his right shoulder in the second game, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. He’s expected to be out three to five weeks.

Forward Kris Chucko also left the ice with a shoulder injury during Saturday’s game. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported it as a less severe shoulder separation.

“The open weekend couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, whose team returns to action next weekend at Michigan Tech. “We are beat up right now.”

Fighting the Bad News

Alaska-Anchorage will be without two of its most vital players for at least three weeks. Goaltender Nathan Lawson suffered a knee injury last Friday and is out for a minimum of three weeks.

“He’s been our best player and he gives us a chance to win every single night,” Seawolves coach Dave Shyiak said. “He was just getting in the groove, and unfortunately things like that happen and you just more forward from it.”

Captain Ales Parez is expected to miss three weeks with a partially separated shoulder.

It’s more bad news for a Seawolves team that already has had plenty this season. They’re in last place and have only six WCHA games remaining to make up ground.

“We’re trying to stay positive, keep our chins up and not really focus on how it looks in the standings right now,” Shyiak said.

He said he’s trying to keep it fun for the players in practice to keep them from getting too frustrated. Improvements on the penalty kill and power play have provided a bit of hope, but a lack of offense is what’s really holding down the Seawolves.

At 1.89 goals per game, they’re second from the bottom nationally. Individually, UAA is the only WCHA team without a player with at least 10 goals. The Seawolves have only five players in double figures in points. By comparison, Minnesota has five with more than 20 points.

Chris Tarkir shares the team lead in goals (six) with Merit Waldrop and points (12) with Parez and Charlie Kronschnabel.

“Originally at the beginning of the year, we thought we had two, three 10-goal scorers,” Shyiak said. “Obviously, we’re not there yet. There’s some guys we thought would score a little bit more, and that hasn’t been the case. If they were at that 10-goal mark, some of these guys, that’s probably a difference of anywhere from two to four more wins.”

As it stands, the Seawolves will have to try to get more wins against St. Cloud State, Colorado College and Minnesota, with only the Gophers series at home. More even-strength goals are the key.

“We’ve got to find a way to get through that and tighten up a little bit defensively, not have the mental lapses or breakdowns that lead to goals against,” Shyiak said. “We’ve played good at times, and we’ve just got to lengthen the amount of time that we’re playing good, quality hockey.”

Rough Opening Acts

There probably aren’t many tougher welcomes to the WCHA than Wisconsin goaltender Shane Connelly got in the last two weeks.

The freshman played two-time defending national champion Denver days after being thrown into the starting role when Brian Elliott suffered a knee injury. Then, he played in the Border Battle against Minnesota. All four games came in front of sold-out crowds at the Kohl Center.

So maybe it would have been tougher if those games all were on the road. (Then again, maybe that would have been easier considering the Badgers are 9-0-1 on the road this season.)

Connelly hadn’t played in the first half of the season because he was still learning the five-part sequential system of Wisconsin goaltending coach Bill Howard and because Elliott was playing so well as to make a backup unnecessary.

Badgers coach Mike Eaves probably would dispute the notion that his team threw Connelly into the deep end by having his first stretch of games be so difficult.

“We dropped him in the Pacific Ocean,” Eaves said. “And he’s surviving.”

Connelly is 0-4 and has a below-average .865 save percentage to go with a 3.29 goals against average, but Eaves wants the 18-year-old goaltender to know he’s still in a good light with the head coach.

“What I like is Shane has gotten better,” Eaves said. “His game has gone to another level. It’s just at the level it needed to go to for us. And he’s got to go through some pains. The things that he can control is to keep going on the path that he’s on. He’s getting better. That’s what he can control. That’s going to be my message to him, and hopefully that’ll settle his mind down as far as wondering where the head coach is at.”

Golden Brett

It’s fitting that Minnesota-Duluth will retire Brett Hull’s No. 29 jersey in the first intermission of Friday’s game against Wisconsin because Hull had some of his greatest college success against the Badgers.

He scored 13 goals against Wisconsin in his two-year career with the Bulldogs. At the Dane County Coliseum on Feb. 8-9, 1985, he scored back-to-back hat tricks — two of three he had against the Badgers for UMD — as the Bulldogs earned a sweep, 5-4 and 8-1.

Sandelin joked that Hull could do this year’s Bulldogs good against the Badgers. “He’s going to go around and touch all our guys’ sticks and see if he can rub a little bit of that magic off,” Sandelin said.

Hull scored 84 goals for Minnesota-Duluth, 32 in his rookie season and an amazing 52 the next year. He had seven hat tricks and 13 multiple-games as a sophomore, after which he joined the NHL’s Calgary Flames for the postseason.

That postseason, as Calgary made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Hull was road roommates with Eaves, who was in his final season as a player.

Listen Up

Kessel registered his first point against his hometown team, giving Minnesota a 3-1 lead over Wisconsin last Saturday, and then threw all the emotion that had been directed at him right back at the Badgers fans.

He put hand to ear and circled the rink, mimicking that he couldn’t hear the boos that followed him all weekend.

“It popped in my head,” Kessel said. “I was a little excited.”

Evidently. Lucia said he would rather Kessel not responded like that, “but under the circumstances, with how much grief he took all weekend, I can understand it.” he said.

In Other Words

• League players of the week were Minnesota’s Irmen and Minnesota State’s Kurtis Kisio on offense, St. Cloud State’s Goepfert on defense and Minnesota State’s Brian Kilburg as the top rookie.

• Colorado College coach Scott Owens will get a contract extension before the end of the season, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reported. Owens has one year remaining on his current contract.

• WCHA home attendance topped the 1 million mark last weekend, making it 13 straight seasons the WCHA has reached that figure.

• North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews reached 10 goals last weekend, making this the third straight season the Sioux have had at least two freshmen with at least 10 goals each. Last season, it was Travis Zajac and Rastislav Spirko. In 2003-04, Brady Murray, Drew Stafford and Chris Porter all were in double digits. Freshman T.J. Oshie is second on this year’s UND team with 15 goals.

• Minnesota State’s Kisio has 11 points in his last nine games.

• St. Cloud State’s Goepfert stopped 64 of 66 shots in a pair of 2-1 victories over North Dakota last weekend.

• Last Friday’s game broke a streak in which Wisconsin had won 34 straight games when scoring four or more goals.

• Denver has won eight straight road games, one off the school record. The 1959-60 team won its last nine road games of the season.

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

• Irmen’s hat trick last Friday made him the 54th Minnesota player to score 50 or more career goals.

• Alaska-Anchorage freshman Mike Rosett made 21 saves in nearly 51 minutes of playing time after Lawson was injured last Friday, but took the loss. It was the walk-on’s first collegiate appearance.

• Colorado College is 0-7-1 against teams currently ahead of it in the WCHA standings.

• Minnesota improved to 6-0-2 outside the state of Minnesota with its sweep at Wisconsin.

• Minnesota-Duluth forward Jeff McFarland and Minnesota State forward Ryan McKelvie are out for their team’s game on Friday after each was assessed a game disqualification for fighting last Saturday.

• In its four-game losing streak, Colorado College has scored just seven goals and all have come from seniors.

• Trivia answer: Michigan Tech, at 4-2-1.

Final Word

How’s this for a PairWise twist: At No. 12, St. Cloud State is in much better shape than North Dakota (18th) or Denver (20th).