This Week in the WCHA: Nov. 16, 2006

Off the Top of My Head

• Two games, 16 goals and two ties? I thought that was crazy enough for the series between Minnesota and St. Cloud State, but a quick look at the box scores shows 15 different scorers! Congratulations to Minnesota’s Jay Barriball, the only one to find the back of the net twice.

• An interesting answer from Denver head coach George Gwozdecky last weekend. Asked if he wanted to move into the Kohl Center in Madison, where his team is 11-1-2 since it opened in 1998, he responded, “(Expletive), no…”

• Nothing like a good old 0-0 draw. Glad I wasn’t covering the game in Houghton last weekend between Michigan Tech and Duluth, the first 0-0 finish in Houghton since 1968.

A Tale of Two Teams

When arch-rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin square off on the rink, you usually expect a hotly contended series. However, judging by results and statistics, it’s hard not to go in expecting a couple of Gopher victories.

It may not exactly be the best of times or the worst of times, but certainly these teams are in two very different places right now.

Despite a pair of ties against St. Cloud State last weekend, Minnesota enters the weekend the hottest team in the country. Boasting a 10-game unbeaten streak, its only loss came on opening night against Maine.

The Gophers also haven’t lost in their last 13 tries at Mariucci Arena, a streak that sits at third-best in school history.

For defending champion Wisconsin, the engine seems to be sputtering. Coming off a sweep at home to Denver, the Badgers have won just once in their last six outings and are 4-6-2 on the year.

And while the Mariucci was good to them last year — when they swept — they have won just five times in 26 tries.

And it really isn’t hard to see why things are going so differently for the two teams which were expected to contend for the MacNaughton Cup.

Minnesota has 10 multi-goal scorers already and its scoring leaders include a great mix of under- and upperclassmen. Veterans Tyler Hirsch and Ben Gordon have been key in dishing out the puck and rookies Barriball and Kyle Okposo have been phenomenal in finding the back of the net.

Wisconsin has just four multi-goal scorers. Only senior captain Andrew Joudrey has more than 10 points and senior Jake Dowell has eight goals, but mostly because none of the Badgers have shown much other than some streaky play from rookie Michael Davies.

Consequently, Minnesota is first in the league in offense while Wisconsin is last.

Defensively, Don Lucia and the Gophers have shown that they have two very capable goaltenders in Jeff Frazee and Kellen Briggs. And perhaps more importantly, they have a leader on the blue line in junior Alex Goligoski.

On the other hand, the Badgers still seem to be searching for that defensive leader. It was no secret that losing Tom Gilbert was going to hurt, but many assumed Kyle Klubertanz would step up and assume his role. Goalie Brian Elliott’s numbers aren’t that far off from a year ago when he was a Hobey Baker finalist — but they would be better if UW shored up its defense.

And injuries have played a key role. Unlike many teams early on, Minnesota has been largely spared injury or illness, while Wisconsin has had to deal with injuries to all three of its top returning scorers.

I’m not about to throw any team in the country under the bus at this point in the season, but just looking at the matchup this weekend, it seems pretty lopsided.

Then again, anything can happen in rivalry games … and perhaps I’ll see a couple of competitive games during my first trip to Mariucci Arena.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions

After goaltender Glenn Fisher notched his second career shutout — both of them coming against Wisconsin — last Friday night, nobody would have blamed Gwozdecky if he stuck with Fisher for Saturday night’s rematch.

Instead, Gwozdecky didn’t even think about it, saying that Peter Mannino would get the nod, sticking with a rotation that he has used nearly every weekend this season.

“If Peter wasn’t playing as well as he would, it wouldn’t be tempting at all, Glenn [Fisher] would go,” Gwozdecky said. “I don’t want to say it’s his turn, but he’s earned it.”

But if you’re thinking that it’s just the same old Gwozdecky rotation at the goalie position, he offered a little, ‘Not so fast my friend.’

“I know this sounds (like), ‘Well, you’ve gone back to the same platooning system you’ve used in previous years,” he said. “Not necessarily. Guys gotta earn it, and both guys, I’m glad to say, have earned it.”

Fisher is 4-2-0 on the year with a 2.14 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. Mannino is 2-2-0 with a 2.88 GAA and a .901 save percentage.

Speaking of Goalie Tandems

It isn’t unusual to see a marked improvement in players in their sophomore seasons as compared to their rookie years, so nobody would have been surprised to see better play out of Michigan Tech goalies Michael-Lee Teslak and Rob Nolan.

But if you would have told me that they would have come this far, I would have told you you were nuts.

Teslak led the Huskies last year with a 3.68 goals against average and a .902 save percentage and garnered the win in all seven Tech victories. Nolan, winless on the year, finished with a 4.06 and .888 in those same categories.

Needless to say, with those kind of numbers, they weren’t playing very well and weren’t getting much help in front of them either.

Fast-forward to this season, where all of that has changed. Jamie Russell and the Huskies are just 10 games into the campaign and are only one win shy of last year’s total.

Apparently, nobody told Teslak and Nolan they were playing with smaller pads. Teslak now boasts a 1.57 goals against average and a .923 save percentage and Nolan is right there with him at 1.61 and .930, respectively.

Sure, the offense is scoring almost one more goal per game this season. But that 2.80 mark still ranks in the middle of the pack in the NCAA and includes a nine-goal outing against Alaska-Anchorage.

If you want to see the difference-maker, it’s all about the defense. Michigan Tech is second in the country, behind only Notre Dame, in team defense. It has allowed just 16 goals in the first 10 games, a far cry from letting nearly four goals a game just last year.

Teslak already has two shutouts, two more than last year, and Nolan already has three wins, three more than he had all of last year.

This weekend will be a major test as they go on the road for the second time in WCHA play. They hope this trip to Colorado (Denver), will be better than the last, when they were swept, giving up six goals combined.

Whopper of a Wednesday

Maybe a little change in schedule was all Scott Sandelin’s Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs needed.

Winless in its last five games — and losers of four of the five — Duluth probably benefited with a change of pace when it made a rare mid-week road trip to No. 15 Northern Michigan for a Wednesday night game.

The short rest meant a break for rookie netminder Alex Stalock as senior Josh Johnson got the nod between the pipes.

He probably thanked Drew Akins, Matt Greer, Trent Palm and MacGregor Sharp (twice) as they sprung open for five straight goals over the first 11-plus minutes of the second period. Talk about a wacky Wednesday.

Johnson made 22 saves for the 15th win of his career.

Furthermore, the win on short rest now means that the Bulldogs can rest up and prepare for eight days before hosting St. Cloud State next weekend.

N-o-n-W-C-H-A Spells Relief

After playing eight straight games against league opponents to start the season St. Cloud State is looking forward to some non-conference action this weekend when it hosts Clarkson.

Despite being 2-3-3 overall, the No. 17 Huskies will take on the No. 18 Golden Knights, who are 6-3-1.

It seems evident that voters are taking into account the Huskies’ season a year ago, as well as their strength of schedule. At this point in the season, a pair of draws at Minnesota last weekend looked pretty good, St. Cloud has already had to play ranked teams in North Dakota and Denver as well.

“I’m not complaining as much as it’s just a fact, but we started the season with no non-conference games,” head coach Bob Motzko said. “We had a terrible schedule to start with … Some teams play six non-conference teams as warm-up to get going. We’ve had to do some experimenting in league play.

“We’ve had more of a rocky schedule than a rocky start.”

In the NHL

Former Gopher Ryan Potulny was recalled by the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday.

In Other Words

• WCHA Players of the Week were Denver’s Ryan Dingle on offense, Michigan Tech’s Geoff Kinrade on defense and Denver’s Rhett Rakhshani for the rookies.

• North Dakota goaltender Philippe Lamoureux will not make the trip to Alaska-Anchorage because he is still suffering from an injury which has sidelined him the past three weeks.

• Colorado College expects both Billy Sweatt and Nate Prosser back in the lineup at Minnesota State this weekend after suffering from mononucleosis and a concussion, respectively.

• The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Wednesday that Minnesota is now down to six healthy defensemen after sophomore R.J. Anderson underwent an appendectomy this week. Forward Tom Pohl will be moved back to defenseman for some insurance.

• It would certainly be interesting to see how many wins Michigan Tech would have right now if its power play wasn’t producing just seven percent of the time.

• North Dakota senior captain Chris Porter has 10 points through 10 games this year, matching his output through the first 10 games of each of the last two season’s combined.

• Former Hobey Baker winner Matt Carle will be back in Denver as a special guest for the game between Denver and Michigan Tech.

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