This Week in the WCHA: Dec. 7, 2006

Off The Top Of My Head

• Look out for those feisty Minnesota State Mavericks. It seems like every year they sneak up on teams and snag some points, just like they did with a 5-5 tie against Minnesota last weekend.

• What a way for Minnesota-Duluth to end its 11-game WCHA road winless streak. Outshot 42-19 by Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday, the Bulldogs found the back of the net seven times — nearly 37 percent of their shots on goal — to win 7-4.

• And a quick congratulations to the flurry of WCHA players who will represent their countries at the World Junior Championship in Sweden from Dec. 26, 2006, through Jan. 5, 2007.

Power Outage

After winning five of their first six games to start the season, the Michigan Tech Huskies have hit a rough stretch, winning just once in their last eight tries. But head coach Jamie Russell says it has just made his team that much hungrier.

“The mood’s been very good at practice,” Russell said. “We’ve got to move forward — we’ve got the No. 1 team in the country, Minnesota, coming in.”

Not only are the top-ranked Gophers visiting with the nation’s longest unbeaten streak (16 games), they will not be overlooking anybody after settling for a tie with Minnesota State last Friday.

Either way, the Huskies stand ready for the challenge, especially after last year. About a year ago this weekend they went to then-No. 1 Wisconsin and spoiled the Badgers’ holiday break, and later took down the No. 1 Gophers.

“We’ve done a good job of getting up for big games,” Russell said.

The Huskies will have to do that for the rest of 2006 as they take on Minnesota this weekend, then North Dakota and then the Great Lakes Invitational, where they will play Michigan in the first round.

If anything is standing in the way of bursting out of this rough stretch, it is the power play, or lack thereof. Michigan Tech sits dead last in Division I in that respect, having tallied just five goals on the man-advantage all year in 79 attempts: just over a six percent conversion rate.

While Russell is not one to make excuses, few would blame him after they hear his tale of bad luck over the past few weeks as the Huskies have tried to bust out of the power-play slump.

Gearing up for the road series at Denver, the team spent a week working on a unit which revolved around senior captain Mike Batovanja, only to lose him after about one period of play. The Huskies went 1-for-12 on the power play that weekend.

Then, preparing for last weekend’s series with St. Cloud State, freshman Alex Gagne became the focal point for the week, only to learn just hours before Friday night’s game that he would not be able to play that weekend. Tech went 0-for-10 on the weekend, including an 0-for-8 showing in Friday’s loss.

“We’ve got to look down our depth chart this week and probably pick our 25th guy on the roster and design a power play around him … then he’ll get scratched and we can move forward,” Russell said.

Bulldogs Have Bite … Every Now and Then

This Minnesota-Duluth team really is a goofy one to gauge.

Take, for instance, what the Bulldogs have done in their victories this year. Yes, there may only be four of them, but in three of those four, the Bulldogs have scored six or more goals. They have only scored more than two goals in any other game all season, a 3-3 tie with Massachusetts-Lowell to open the season.

Then you can look at the fact that they’ve given up exactly four goals in five of their last six games. One might assume that that would result in poor outcomes; however, they have won two of those games and lost the one where they didn’t give up four — a 2-1 defeat.

And they have the third-best power play in the country, because 21 of their 39 goals have come on the man-advantage.

Good luck trying to figure this team out.

Back to True Form

As reported here nearly a month ago, St. Cloud State goaltender Bobby Goepfert had switched back to his old brand of pads, something which head coach Bob Motzko said he thought would turn things around.

Since then, the senior is 5-0-2 and has given up just 15 goals in those seven games (and he gave up five of those in one outing).

He has helped spark the Huskies to a nine-game unbeaten streak, the third best stretch in the country. They are also in second place in the WCHA after opening the season 2-3-0.

“I thought Bobby Goepfert absolutely stole the hockey game for them,” Tech head coach Jamie Russell said of last Saturday’s matchup.

In A Hole?

My, what a difference a year makes …

At this point last year, Wisconsin had not lost a single WCHA game. The Badgers were 10-0-2 before being upset by Michigan Tech at home and had jumped out to a lead that many thought might be impossible to surmount.

Fast-forward to this year, and they are just 3-6-1 and 10 points back from first-place Minnesota, a deficit which seems like it might be impossible to dig out of.

“Right now I think our focus has to be on getting some points every weekend. I think that becomes a thing that we talk about, controlling what we can control,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “If we do that, we give ourselves a chance to get back to being in the battle and, you know, get home ice and all those kind of things.

“How far we’ll crawl up will be determined by how everybody else does.”

In Other Words

• WCHA Players of the Week were Colorado College’s Chad Rau on offense, CC’s Lee Sweatt on defense and Minnesota’s Kyle Okposo for the rookies. It was the second time this year that Okposo has won the award.

• Minnesota State goaltender Dan Tormey had successful surgery this week after the wrist of his catching hand was sliced by the skate of Minnesota’s Blake Wheeler last Friday. The Mavericks will rely heavily on Mike Zacharias as Tormey recovers.

• It’s not often that you hear schools telling people to throw things on the ice after a goal, but that’s what Minnesota-Duluth is doing Saturday night for its fourth annual Teddy Bear Toss. Fans are asked to throw stuffed animals onto the ice after the Bulldogs’ first goal, which will then be distributed to local hospitals and charities.

• Colorado College center Andreas Vlassopoulos returned to the ice Friday night against Denver after 14 months of rehab on his injured knee.

• I think it is safe to say Minnesota does not overlook its last series before the holiday break. The Gophers are 9-2-0 in those series over the past five years.