First things first:
• If it seems like WCHA teams have been having a harder time than usual defending home ice, it’s not your imagination. Through 122 league games this season, the home team is 55-55-12. Should make for some interesting first-round playoff series two weeks from now.
• One second, we’re ready to pencil in Minnesota as the MacNaughton Cup champs. The next, we remember what happened to Wisconsin the last time we were about to do that for a team.
• While it’s technically possible Alaska-Anchorage will move up, it looks like the WCHA’s last-place finisher for the season has been identified. Too bad for the Seawolves there’s no No. 1 overall draft pick that comes along with that.
Thoughts of Home
It’s widely known that North Dakota would get to play at home in the regionals if it makes the NCAA tournament. But that’s not the kind of home-ice advantage the Sioux are looking to cement in the final two weekends of the regular season.
They’re focused on locking up one of the top five spots in the WCHA standings for a home series in the first round of the playoffs. UND is in fifth, one point behind fourth-place Colorado College and one point ahead of sixth-place St. Cloud State with four games remaining.
With a trip to Denver this weekend and a home series against Michigan Tech closing things out, the Sioux’s drive for another home series may go down to the final game.
Coach Dave Hakstol is taking things as a progression. He’d like to get a home playoff series to give his team its best shot at making the WCHA Final Five.
“The rest,” he said, “that’ll take care of itself.”
The rest is the NCAA tournament, in which the Sioux would play at home because they’re hosting one of the regionals. But they’re squarely on the bubble and need some good results down the stretch to even get there.
Of course, North Dakota is only 9-8 at home this season, so a first-round series or a spot in the regionals doesn’t guarantee anything.
Hakstol said, however, that his team has improved at home as the season has gone along.
“Early in the year, we lost four or five in a row at home, and you don’t get all those back at once,” he said. “You just have to slowly chip away, and we feel like we’re playing pretty well at home right now.”
This weekend, however, it’s a road trip to Denver, where the teams from last year’s national championship game will meet in an important series for both WCHA and NCAA purposes.
Which WCHA team has played in the fewest overtime games in league play this season? Answer below.
Minnesota State and Alaska-Anchorage end their regular seasons this weekend, creating a somewhat uncomfortable pause in the flow of things just before the start of the playoffs.
The odd spot for a break comes because the CCHA added a week to its playoff system this season, leaving the Mavericks and the Seawolves — who traditionally have played Nebraska-Omaha and Alaska-Fairbanks, respectively, on the final weekend of the season — with byes.
Mavericks coach Troy Jutting said he’ll give his team some time to rest next week but also will blend in some practices to not let his players get too far away from things.
“I guess it’s a little concerning to me simply because I don’t think you’re quite as sharp,” Jutting said of his experiences the week after open weekends. “Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation, but there was nothing we could do about it with the CCHA changing their schedule in the spring and implementing it in the fall. We had no time to do anything different. So it is what it is for us, and we have to do the best job we can with it.”
The best thing the Mavericks can do with it is go into the break on a high note. They started that process last weekend with a pair of overtime victories over St. Cloud State.
Now they get Wisconsin at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center as they try to do their part in keeping alive the remote chance at a home-ice spot for the first round.
Even if that doesn’t come to pass, they’ll take with them a taste of playoff hockey from their last two series.
“They’re forcing us to the level that we’re going to have to play at if we want to be successful in the playoffs,” Jutting said.
The Huskies were outshot 34-26 and 48-29 by the Huskies but used good goaltending and an opportunistic offense to claim their third WCHA sweep of the season.
“It was nice to see us win a game because normally we’re on the other end of those, where we outshoot opponents and end up losing them,” Jutting said. “It was nice to see us persevere through the shots and to continue to play strong and be able to win. Obviously, when you win in overtime it’s a big boost mentally for your kids, and to win twice in overtime I think is a big boost.”
The race for the WCHA’s player of the year award conveniently doubles, at least for the time being, as the race to get the league’s attention for the Hobey Baker Award.
There were some pluses and minuses around the league in that category last weekend.
Minnesota forward Ryan Potulny helped his candidacy with a pair of goals, including the winner, in last Friday’s 3-2 victory over Denver. For the season, the junior is second in the league in both goals (24) and points (45) overall.
Matt Carle’s team didn’t show very well last weekend, but the Denver defenseman didn’t have an awful weekend statistically. On Friday, he was on the ice for a Pioneers power-play goal and an even-strength score but also was on when Potulny put the Gophers ahead to stay.
A night later, he got a plus for Denver’s goal and wasn’t on the ice for any of Minnesota’s five goals. He continues to lead the league in overall scoring (47 points) and league scoring (39 points).
Colorado College’s Brett Sterling broke out of a slump with a hat trick last Friday, giving him the lead in overall goals with 25.
Wisconsin goaltender Brian Elliott returned from an eight-game injury absence last Saturday and allowed a season-high four goals to Michigan Tech in a 4-4 tie.
Steady the Ship
St. Cloud State’s road to home ice for the first round of the playoffs hit a major bump last weekend when the Huskies lost a pair at Minnesota State.
Now the Huskies have followed a six-game conference winning streak by losing three of their last four games and are one point behind North Dakota for fifth place. They host Michigan Tech this weekend before closing the regular season at Wisconsin.
“These last few games we have are huge,” St. Cloud State defenseman Aaron Brocklehurst told the St. Cloud Times. “We have to get on a streak and just keep going. We can’t be up and down anymore.”
This is the first time the Huskies have lost back-to-back games since losing four straight from Oct. 29 to Nov. 11.
Breaking Out, Breaking In
Sterling finally had an answer for his scoring slump. The Colorado College senior scored three times last Friday to break a seven-game drought and finally get off of 99 career goals.
“You have no idea how much lighter I feel, just being able to get that first one,” Sterling told The Gazette of Colorado Springs.
CC coach Scott Owens reunited Sterling with Marty Sertich and Derek Patrosso in the wake of last week’s dismissal of senior Aaron Slattengren. They combined for nine points in the sweep of Alaska-Anchorage.
Chris Kawano got both starts in goal as Matt Zaba continued to be hobbled by a bruised right knee. Zaba may get at least one start this weekend, Owens told The Gazette, but Kawano, a junior, is keeping his head in the game in case he’s needed.
“My routine is the same every week,” Kawano told the newspaper. “I pretty much have the mindset every week that I’m going to [practice] like I am going to start the game.”
To the Polls
Duluth, Minn., voters go to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to accept an additional 0.75 percent tax on food and beverage sales to fund the city’s share of the proposed expansion of the DECC, including a new hockey arena for Minnesota-Duluth.
The current DECC arena, opened in 1966, is the oldest and third-smallest building in the WCHA. It seats 5,333, ahead of Michigan Tech’s MacInnes Student Ice Arena (4,200) and the Midwest Wireless Civic Center (4,832) in Mankato, Minn., in WCHA capacity.
The proposed new arena, which would be ready for the 2008-09 season, would seat 6,630 for hockey.
On the Shelf (Again)
Minnesota forward Kris Chucko returned from a shoulder injury last weekend only to suffer a sprained ankle in Saturday’s game against Denver.
“[The doctors] said it’s a tough injury to get over,” Chucko told the Minnesota Daily. “It’s not really [going to be] anytime in the next couple weeks, I’ve heard.”
Across the border at Wisconsin, forward Andrew Joudrey suffered a left leg injury last Saturday at Michigan Tech and is out for three to four weeks.
“It’s just frustrating, as any injury is, to have to miss some time, especially with the team we’ve got and the thing we’ve got going,” Joudrey said. “But the responsibility I have now is to be there for my teammates and make sure I get better as fast as I can.”
Secret is Work
If there’s a secret to scoring more than two goals on Wisconsin’s Elliott, Michigan Tech apparently has it.
The Huskies are the only team to have done that twice this season. They put four past the Wisconsin junior last Saturday in a 4-4 tie and also put three past him and one into an empty net in a 4-2 victory in Madison on Dec. 9.
Tech coach Jamie Russell said there’s no secret for his team other than effort. It had to come out in the third period last Saturday, when the Huskies were down 4-2 to a team that had soundly beaten them 5-0 the night before.
“I really felt like we hung our head and felt sorry for ourselves that things weren’t going our way,” Russell said of Friday’s game. “So we said, ‘Hey, if you don’t have a good shift, right away you’ve got to refocus and your next shift out there has to be the best it can possibly be.’ I think we showed a lot of character in coming back from adversity and bouncing back and trying to gain momentum.”
The Huskies will take that momentum on the road to St. Cloud State this weekend and North Dakota on the final weekend of regular-season play.
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Colorado College’s Sterling on offense, North Dakota’s Jordan Parise on defense and Minnesota’s Phil Kessel and Minnesota State’s Mike Zacharias as the top rookies.
• Minnesota has swept series against North Dakota, Colorado College, Wisconsin and Denver for the first time since the 1990-91 season.
• With 113 career assists, Colorado College’s Sertich is tied for 10th on the Tigers’ all-time list.
• After its sweep by Minnesota last weekend, Denver fell to 5-7-1 against ranked teams this season.
• Michigan Tech’s Rob Nolan made a career-high 59 saves in the Huskies 5-0 loss to Wisconsin last Friday. Wisconsin’s Jack Skille had 11 shots on goal for the game and added eight more in the series finale.
• Alaska-Anchorage faces a fourth straight ranked opponent this weekend when Minnesota comes to town. The Seawolves are 3-16 this season against ranked teams.
• Wisconsin has scored four or more goals in 15 games this season, setting a high for the four-year Mike Eaves era.
• Hakstol became just the third North Dakota coach to open his time at UND with two straight 20-win seasons, joining Bob May and Gino Gasparini.
• Minnesota State goaltender Dan Tormey made a career-high 46 saves in the Mavericks’ 3-2 overtime victory over St. Cloud State last Saturday.
• Minnesota’s Potulny and Chris Harrington each earned his 100th career point last Saturday.
• Wisconsin has sold out a sixth game this season — the regular-season finale against St. Cloud State next Saturday — to set a program record for its time at the Kohl Center.
• Trivia answer: North Dakota has played in one WCHA overtime game this season, losing to St. Cloud State on Jan. 28.
Congratulations to the Michigan Tech Pep Band for being named the official band of the WCHA Final Five. They’ll be in St. Paul to play during the games, covering for the teams that don’t bring bands. We’re reminded each time we go to Houghton how much energy that band pumps into the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.