This Week in the WCHA: Feb. 16, 2006

First things first:

• Many eyes will be on Minneapolis this weekend as Minnesota and Denver, the top two teams in the WCHA, square off for control with the number of remaining games dwindling. Our thoughts? Enjoy the show.

• Brian Elliott will return to the goal for Wisconsin for one game this weekend. Is that enough to make the Badgers a title contender over the last three weeks? Only if his teammates pick up where they left off before Elliott’s knee injury.

• If Colorado College and North Dakota can get going, it’s shaping up to be a great battle for a home-ice spot, and maybe even a better first-round playoff series.

Three For One

You’ve got two of the hottest teams in college hockey in one building this weekend, each with a shot at increasing their chances of winning the WCHA regular-season title.

But Minnesota coach Don Lucia and Denver coach George Gwozdecky don’t have their eyes on the prize. At least not that one.

The MacNaughton Cup race is realistically going to come down to Denver, Minnesota and Wisconsin over the final three weeks of the season, but the teams are looking at that reward as more of a byproduct of what they would get accomplished in that time.

Denver needs wins to improve its standing in regard to the NCAA tournament. It entered Thursday’s play 14th in the PairWise Rankings, a position that means it’s squarely on the bubble despite that it leads the WCHA by a point over Minnesota and two over Wisconsin.

“It’s a great honor to be able to finish as the No. 1 team in the WCHA regular season, but a very, very difficult thing to do,” said Gwozdecky, whose team shared the honor with Colorado College last season. “It can be extremely taxing on a team if you put too much of your physical and emotional mental energy into achieving that goal.

“I think, without a doubt, right now both teams [Denver and Minnesota] are trying to set themselves up as good as possible for postseason play, and there’s no question that Minnesota is already there. I don’t think the next six games are going to have a real significant bearing on their national tournament plans. But there’s no question that we’re still fighting for our postseason lives, and that’s as big a bearing as anything for us.”

Lucia has never been known to focus on winning the MacNaughton Cup over just getting in the top three and being in a solid PairWise spot, and that doesn’t figure to change this year, even with a golden opportunity ahead.

With forwards Danny Irmen and Kris Chucko still battling injuries — there’s a good chance Chucko will play this weekend, Lucia said — he’s not going to risk further injury to push for the regular-season title.

“If we’re hanging around and we have a chance on the last weekend, great,” Lucia said. “I like where we’re sitting overall. We’re playing pretty well right now, but we’ve got to get these guys back from off the injury list. That’s the most important thing for us.”

Wisconsin, meanwhile, was in first place for 15 straight weeks and at one point had an eight-point lead. Now, however, it’s third in the three-team race and its players said the Badgers need to win out to win the league. Even if they do go 6-0, they still need help.

Coach Mike Eaves paused when he was asked whether it would be tough for his team to settle for anything less than first place, given its history this season.

“I’m hesitating because had we stayed healthy, then I think that would be a viable question,” he said, referencing the injury that kept Elliott out for seven games. “But the fact is we had a tremendous storm that we had to handle. We weathered it, and now the storm is diminishing somewhat and now we’re starting to come out of our tents and we’re forging up the mountain. So the goal is still to get to the top of the mountain.

“Being No. 1 in the league is just part of that. And if we happen to get to that pit stop first, so be it, but if not we’re still trying to get to the top. That’s still the No. 1 goal.”

So who really wants the MacNaughton Cup? We’ll know in three weeks.

Trivial Matters

The Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., last Saturday set a WCHA attendance record at 40,890. What arena hosted the game that holds the record for the largest attendance in a non-playoff game between WCHA teams? Answer below.

Always On Carle

Some would see this weekend’s series against Minnesota as the perfect time for Denver defenseman Matt Carle to step up and make his case for the Hobey Baker Award.

It’s a big series, it’s in Minneapolis and it’s against the nation’s second-best offense.

The thing is, he could do what he’s been doing all season and it probably still would get him noticed. That’s the thing about Carle, Gwozdecky said: There aren’t any nights off.

The Denver coach often talks about what he believes to be the fallacy of big players stepping up in big games. The way Gwozdecky sees it, it’s actually that those players compete at the same level every night while others’ performance dips under pressure.

“Matt Carle has been a symbol of consistency from, really, so early in his freshman year,” Gwozdecky said. “And he’s just gained a larger and a major role on our team this year as a captain. There’s not many guys who can log as much ice time as he does and still play so effectively, whether it’s from a defensive standpoint, whether it’s from an offensive standpoint, whether it’s special teams, you name it. He’s not only an exceptional athlete but the best defenseman I’ve ever coached and has contributed more to our program from day one than anybody else that we’ve ever had here.”

That’s heavy praise, but Carle’s presence on the ice goes to show that he deserves it. Lucia said Carle reminds him of Jordan Leopold, a Hobey winner in his senior season at Minnesota who also played physical, carried a heavy shot and had control all over the ice.

“As a defenseman, he just runs the show out there,” Lucia said. “He does it in the defensive end, he plays 30-plus minutes a game, he quarterbacks the power play. There’s just nothing he can’t do. That’s why, whenever he decides, he’s going to be playing in the National Hockey League. He’s going to be one of those guys that doesn’t spend any time in the minors.”

Carle has a three-point lead over teammate Paul Stastny atop the conference scoring race. The junior, who also leads in overall scoring, has nine goals and 38 points in the league.

And he has a fan in the coach he’ll see on the other bench this weekend.

“Guys like him are good for college hockey,” Lucia said. “You don’t like playing against him, but you appreciate him. I can’t sing his praises enough.”

Day to Remember

Think the Wisconsin players enjoyed the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic last Saturday at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field?

Ask them whether they’d like to do it again.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Badgers captain Adam Burish said.

“Every year until I die,” Wisconsin defenseman Davis Drewiske said. “I’d play every game here.”

It was an impressive sight, the rink in one of sport’s most renowned venues and 40,000-plus fans getting into what proved to be a good game between the Badgers and Ohio State.

Wisconsin won 4-2, but that probably won’t be what many of those fans remember from the special event.

Some of them might remember being leapt upon. Wisconsin defenseman Jeff Likens led the parade of players toward the north end zone after the game, following in the Green Bay Packers’ tradition of the Lambeau Leap into the stands after touchdowns.

And yes, Wisconsin director of hockey operations Rob Malnory had a significantly higher workload of skate sharpening on Monday.

“When are you ever going to get to do that in the sport that you play in a real game?” Wisconsin senior forward Ryan MacMurchy said. “We’re not going to play for the Packers, so that was our experience.”

By the giddiness of the Badgers before and after the event, it was an experience they won’t forget.

“It’s something that when you’re sitting around with your buddy and you’re like, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool if there was an outdoor game at Lambeau Field?’ And then all of a sudden it came true today,” MacMurchy said. “It was one of those experiences that’ll never happen again. It just brought you back to when you were a kid playing on an outdoor rink. And then all of a sudden you look around and there’s 40,000 people and you’re in one of the most prestigious stadiums in sports. It was just an unreal experience.”

Something to Play For

Michigan Tech enters the last three weeks of the season with a chance to make some significant strides up the WCHA standings.

Already two spots out of the league cellar, the Huskies are three points behind seventh-place Minnesota State and have two games in hand, to be made up when the Mavericks are idle on the last weekend of the season.

“I think we have an opportunity,” Huskies coach Jamie Russell said. “We’ve got one more series at home this weekend and then we’ve got four straight on the road. It’s a tough schedule to finish with Wisconsin coming in, at St. Cloud and at North Dakota. But I think we’re playing pretty good hockey right now. We’ve gotten points every [league] weekend since Dec. 9-10 when we were at Wisconsin. We’re really looking at improving every weekend and getting as many points as possible.”

Russell wasn’t sure earlier this week what in what direction he would go for goaltending this weekend against the Badgers. Michael-Lee Teslak has been impressive most of this season, but Rob Nolan swooped in and claimed the WCHA rookie of the week award when he replaced Teslak in the series opener last weekend against Minnesota.

“Now as a staff we’ve got a tough decision because [Teslak] has played so well for us and struggled a little bit on the Friday night against Minnesota, and then Robbie came in and played so well,” Russell said. “It’s a good problem to have, having a tough decision which goalie to play, because they’re both very talented goaltenders.”

Slattengren Out

Colorado College dismissed forward Aaron Slattengren from school this week, meaning the senior’s college hockey career is finished. He’s out of eligibility after this season and therefore can’t transfer to another school to play.

Slattengren declined to disclose to The Gazette of Colorado Springs why he was thrown out of school. He told his teammates about his dismissal before Monday’s practice.

“I just told them I had to leave for academic reasons. I didn’t really say much,” Slattengren told The Gazette. “That was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do — to tell the guys. That was really difficult. They definitely have my back. They’re my best friends, and we’ve been through a lot together. They know I didn’t try to hurt them or hurt the team.”

Slattengren, who had been playing left wing alongside Marty Sertich and Derek Patrosso recently, had 43 goals and 88 points in 145 career games for the Tigers. He’s fourth with 10 goals and sixth with 18 points for this year’s team.

Interest Time

Lucia read a quote by Gwozdecky about the Pioneers’ veterans starting to take an interest in the future and knew the feeling.

That’s apparently part of the back-to-back NCAA championship coaching club. Players who are used to playing for national championships sometimes have trouble with the mid-December or mid-January series.

“Back about a month and a half ago, I don’t know if many of our guys were that keyed into where we were at,” Gwozdecky said. “But we’ve certainly taken an interest in our future and where we want to be. I think we’ve finally bought into the little changes we needed to make in how we played compared to last year, because we don’t have the offensive firepower we had last year. We’ve had to become a more difficult team to play against in certain areas of the ice. And so I think all those things have happened, which has allowed us to be a little more successful over our last month of play.”

Lucia said he could relate.

“It’s so true that after you’ve had such success, that first half of the year — I look back to that team we had that won it two years in a row and that third year, they weren’t the most interested team until the end,” Lucia said.

In Other Words

• League players of the week were Denver’s Stastny on offense, the Pioneers’ Carle on defense and Michigan Tech’s Nolan as the top rookie.

• Colorado College goaltender Matt Zaba missed last Saturday’s game at St. Cloud State with an injured right knee, The Gazette reported. His status for this weekend’s series against Alaska-Anchorage is unknown.

• Lucia said this week that Minnesota freshman goaltender Jeff Frazee was being punished for violating a team rules when he didn’t accompany the team on its trip to Michigan Tech last week. He’s back to full status with the team this week.

• Minnesota State forward David Backes sat out for the first time in 108 games last Saturday, when injuries prevented the junior from playing.

• St. Cloud State’s Joe Jensen became the team’s all-time leader in game-winning goals when he scored his 13th last Saturday. He had been tied with Joe Motzko, who had 12 from 1999 to 2003.

• The three-game point-scoring streak Alaska-Anchorage defenseman Shane Lovdahl has going is tied for the Seawolves’ longest of the season.

• Minnesota-Duluth is 6-of-24 (25 percent) on the power play in its last five games.

• Colorado College’s seniors won their 100th career game last Friday. Their record is 100-44-12.

• With 44 career victories, North Dakota goaltender Jordan Parise is two behind Darren Jensen for sixth place on the UND all-time list.

• Denver is only 5-5-1 against ranked teams this season.

• Michigan Tech is 1-2-1 against the nation’s No. 1 team this season. It has a win over Wisconsin and a tie against Minnesota.

• CC’s Joey Crabb became the 69th Tigers player to score 100 points when he reached that mark last Friday.

• Trivia answer: Minneapolis’ Target Center, which held 18,330 for Minnesota’s 4-3 victory over Wisconsin on Feb. 28, 1997.

Final Word

I’m all for the novelty of outdoor hockey games, but doing one every year just seems like overkill. Pretty soon, they’ll just be gimmicks.