This Week in the WCHA: Nov. 2, 2006

Off the Top of my Head

• What has gotten into the water up in Houghton? Four straight wins has pushed Michigan Tech into the rankings, and the Huskies’ five October wins matches the number they had in the last four Octobers combined.

• And what has gotten into the water in Colorado Springs? It seems like the Tigers may need to be quarantined after losing Jimmy Kilpatrick to strep throat, Billy Sweatt to strep and mononucleosis, and now James Brannigan may have strep? Eesh.

• Trick or treat? How about both? Michigan Tech’s Peter Rouleau, North Dakota’s Brad Miller and Minnesota’s Kyle Okposo all notched hat tricks in WCHA games last weekend, treating their teams to a victories.

The Age-Old Argument

With five straight national champions, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association has had the last word in the endless debate over which is the best league in college hockey. But it’s a discussion that isn’t going to go away, especially considering the start to this season.

Teams from the WCHA have faced Hockey East opponents 12 times through the first month of play, and the teams from the Eastern time zone hold a 7-4-1 record in those contests.

Maybe that number isn’t too striking, until you realize that two of those four losses — and the tie — have come from defeats of either UMass-Lowell (0-1-1 against the WCHA) or Merrimack.

Furthermore, the number of big wins is striking, as current No. 1 Maine has beaten North Dakota (twice) and Minnesota, Boston College swept Wisconsin last weekend and New Hampshire scored two wins against Colorado College.

And in the seven victories, the Hockey East teams scored a total of 30 goals, more than four per game on some pretty respectable goaltenders. It is clear that those teams know what is on the line.

“We’re very conscious of the fact that (a WCHA team has won) every year since we won it in 2001,” Boston College head coach Jerry York said.

Is this a sign of things to come this season? Evidence that the losses of players in the WCHA are as bad as many thought they were?

“We can’t talk about those things (the losses of players),” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “Those are in the past; we have to deal with the kids we have right now and getting better.”

Or is it just the first week of November, far too early to start making generalizations?

Probably the latter, but you cannot overlook the success that Hockey East had in the opening month.

The WCHA coaches are not dwelling on anything this early in the season. Moreso, they really aren’t sure how much they can take from anything over the first month.

“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know (how much you can make of it),” UND head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I think it’s way too early to read anything into any of these games other than the respect of the individual games. You can say one team was better than the other on that particular night, but big picture, it’s way too early.”

Hakstol even went a step further, saying he doesn’t think that the polls should begin until after Christmas, but he was willing to make one prediction after seeing the Black Bears.

“I have a ton of respect for Maine … I know they’re an outstanding team,” he said. “If I’m going to make one prediction, it’s that they’ll be a team that’s around in the end.”

One thing is certain, it will be interesting to see how everything plays out in a few months.

“We want to see how we are in April,” York said.

Sick as a … Tiger?

When Colorado College head coach Scott Owens said that Tiger fans would have to be patient in the early parts of the season as his team matured and built some chemistry, he certainly was not talking about this.

The young Tigers squad was going to go through some growing pains, but now many of them have also been hit with injuries and illness.

Freshman forward Billy Sweatt has been sidelined with a case of mononucleosis and his date of return is still up in the air. But the problem with a bug like that is that it doesn’t take long to start taking its toll on teammates.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, the team’s second leading scorer, missed last weekend’s series at Minnesota with a case of strep, but the Colorado Springs Gazette reports he should be back this weekend against Michigan Tech.

However, forward James Brannigan was sent home from practice earlier this week with the same predicament. It sounds like he may play, which is not the case for Nate Prosser or Andreas Vlassopoulos, who are both out with injuries.

Needless to say, it’s been a tough opening month for Colorado College. All things considered, 3-4-1 doesn’t look too bad considering the competition CC has faced.

A Win is a Win

Last weekend did not go according to plan for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux at Minnesota State

Both Friday and Saturday night, they jumped out to 3-0 leads in the first period only to see the advantage fall by the wayside in the second.

UND gave up nine goals to the Mavericks over the two games and took 54 minutes worth of penalties.

But as the coaches always say: “We’ll take points any way we can get them.”

Despite those blunders — and the fact that the Sioux were missing goaltender Philippe Lamoureux and star forward Jonathan Toews — UND escaped Mankato with a sweep. In fact, the Sioux never trailed in either game.

“I guess it doesn’t really matter how you get the points,” Hakstol said. “Looking at it in that respect, it was a good weekend. We were able to find a way to win two games on the road.”

Freshman goalie Anthony Grieco probably shares a lot of the same sentiments. Surrendering nine goals in his first two career starts is probably not the way he would have drawn up his debut, but when the dust settled, he picked up his first two wins in a UND sweater.

“He did a good job for us and gave us a chance to win both nights, regardless of the numbers,” Hakstol said.

As of Wednesday, the third-year head coach did not have an update as to whether the Sioux would have Lamoureux or Toews back in the lineup this weekend against St. Cloud State.

Kick or No Kick?

Straight from the hazy-rules department comes the phrase “kicking motion.”

One thing was clear on Boston College’s second — and eventual game-winning — goal Saturday night against Wisconsin: it definitely came off of Andrew Orpik’s skate.

But after a brief review, which clearly showed the puck coming off the player’s skate, the goal was still allowed.

“It’s got be a distinctive kicking motion. At the coaches’ meetings in September, when we left the room, we still weren’t sure what that meant. It’s one of those arguments that you’re not going to decide right on the bench.”

Eaves said he would send a tape into the league this week if, for nothing else, to help determine for future situations a more black-and-white rule.

Wisconsin goaltender Brian Elliott thought it was a kick, and wasted no time in pleading his case with referee Jon Campion. But it was to no avail.

“I thought he kicked it in,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what a distinctive kicking motion is.”

It sure would be nice to find out.

He Said It Best

Entering this weekend, Minnesota’s freshman class has contributed nearly 40 percent of the team’s scoring.

That number seems a bit surprising considering how early it is in the season and how it usually takes rookies a bit of time to get used to the college pace. However, it is not surprising at all to Gophers head coach Don Lucia, who had a sound and smart explanation as to his rookies’ output.

“When almost half of your players are freshmen, almost half of your points have to come from them.”

A Look at the Pros

Former Denver defenseman Matt Carle is second among NHL rookies in scoring. His 12 points (2-10–12) are just one shy of the league lead for rookies. Former teammate Paul Stastny is tied for third among rookies, just one point back from Carle.

Travis Zajac and Phil Kessel, the only other early exits from the WCHA last year who are currently on NHL rosters, each have four points on the season.

In the AHL, former Wisconsin center Joe Pavelski is first among rookies and tied for fourth in overall scoring with 14 points (3-11–14) in nine games. He was also named the Rbk Hockey/AHL Rookie of the Month for October.

In Other Words

• WCHA Player of the Week went to North Dakota’s Brad Miller and Michigan Tech’s Tyler Shelast on offense, Minnesota’s Alex Goligoski on defense and Minnesota’s Kyle Okposo for the rookies.

• Something will have to give between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth this weekend. The Gophers are just 5-6-1 when facing the Bulldogs on the road under Lucia and have not won in Duluth since February of 2003. However, Minnesota is also riding a 14-game road unbeaten streak.

• Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting will try to continue his success against former dorm roommate Tom Serratore this weekend. Jutting is 7-3-2 against Serratore’s Bemidji State Beavers.

• It’s a long trip from Madison, Wis., to Anchorage, but Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said this week that he’s looking forward to getting away for a while, saying a trip like this helps the team chemistry.

• With the starts that they are off to, Denver freshmen Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger probably wish that they didn’t have this weekend off.

• Anchorage center Jay Beagle scored his fourth goal of the year against Michigan Tech last weekend. Through just the first month of play, the sophomore has already doubled his career total.

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