Off The Top Of My Head
• Nothing like five league series in one weekend to open the second half of the WCHA season.
• The question is, will it turn out to be a race for second? It would be surprising to see a team catch Minnesota, but don’t forget that people were asking the same question last year when Wisconsin jumped out to a similar-sized lead.
A Sad Note
Sadly, we must begin this week’s column by paying our respects to former WCHA commissioner Otto Breitenbach, who passed away this week in Madison, Wis.
While I never met him and was too young to remember much of the league under his tenure, he meant a great deal to the WCHA and to everyone that he came in contact with.
The list of his accomplishments is long, including a new postseason format and the expansion of the league to its current 10-team format. His tenure saw three national champions come from the league and five of its players earn the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.
“There are really no adequate words to describe what Otto meant to all of us in the WCHA family as well as throughout athletic circles across the country,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said in a release this week. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his entire family in this most difficult time.
“Otto touched so many lives in so many positive ways over the years and so many of us owe so very much to him. Our lasting memories of his qualities as a father, grandfather, coach, leader and mentor are a fitting tribute to a truly great man. Three words always come to mind when I think of Otto – quality, class, gentleman. He has left a noteworthy legacy through everyone that ever had a chance to know him and we will all miss him dearly.”
Your Guide to the Second Half
What is in store for the second half of the WCHA schedule? Most likely it will be as unpredictable as the first, but here’s a look at where the teams stand, where their schedule takes them, who to keep an eye on, and my predictions for what could happen down the stretch.
Current Record: 17-1-3 overall, 9-0-3 WCHA, 21 points, 1st place
Key Players: Where to start? Most eyes have been on freshmen Kyle Okposo and Jay Barriball, who rank first and tied for second, respectively, in goals for the Gophers. But the goaltending has improved remarkably. Kellen Briggs carries a 1.97 goals against average and .925 save percentage in 11 games, while sophomore Jeff Frazee sits at 1.98 and .900 in 10 contests.
Key Spots in the Schedule: After the first half, it is obvious that no game will be easy in the WCHA schedule, but the stretch that stands out in the Gopher schedule begins in February, where they have five straight road games (Alaska-Anchorage, Colorado College and St. Cloud State) before hosting St. Cloud in their only home game of the month.
Thoughts: Is it possible for a team to catch Minnesota? Of course: there is plenty of schedule left. But at this point, it doesn’t seem very likely. The Gophers have stretched their unbeaten streak to 20 games, and presumably that will end somewhere down the stretch, but it would seem foolish to predict any sort of collapse at this point.
Predicted Finish: 1st
Current Record: 14-6-2, 8-4-2, 18 points, 2nd place
Key Players: It all starts at the back for the Pioneers with Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino in goal. Each is allowing just over two goals per game and each has a save percentage around .930. Also, if history holds true and freshmen Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger make second-half strides, they should be fun to watch.
Key Spots in the Schedule: If it comes down to the final weeks, and it usually does, it could be a tough path for the Pioneers over the final three series. They will go to Michigan Tech, where Houghton will be celebrating its Winter Carnival, before hosting North Dakota and closing with a home-and-home with in-state rival Colorado College.
Thoughts: Back three points with two games in hand, it will be tough for Denver to make up the necessary ground to catch Minnesota. Even head coach George Gwozdecky is willing to admit that. Similarly, they have some work to do to maintain second place as they also have two games in hand over CC and St. Cloud, which are nipping at their heels.
Predicted Finish: 3rd
Current Record: 12-7-1, 8-4-0, 16 points, 3rd place
Key Players: The Tigers have gotten great leadership from juniors Jimmy Kilpatrick (7-14-21) and Scott McCulloch (14-4-8) while senior Matt Zaba has remained solid between the pipes.
Key Spots in the Schedule: CC’s biggest test of the season will come in the middle of February when it tries to avenge an early-season sweep by the Gophers one week after traveling to St. Cloud for its only series of the season with St. Cloud. And, as mentioned before, the Tigers will close the season with another rivalry weekend, home-and-home against Denver.
Thoughts: As much as the successes of Anchorage and Michigan Tech have surprised me, this team may be the biggest surprise. Head coach Scott Owens admitted that it could be a slow first half as the Tigers regrouped, so to be sitting third at this point in the season after winning nine of their last 12 games is remarkable.
Predicted Finish: 4th
St. Cloud State
Current Record: 12-3-3, 6-3-3, 15 points, 4th place
Key Players: Excuse me for being a broken record, but once again it’s the goaltending that sticks out. After a rocky start, Bobby Goepfert has returned to the form which garnered him first-team All-WCHA honors last year. The even scoring up front is what could carry this team, especially if freshmen Andreas Nodl and Ryan Lasch can continue their pace.
Key Spots in the Schedule: The schedule does no favors down the home stretch for the Huskies. Over the final six weeks, they go to Denver and Wisconsin, host North Dakota and Colorado College, and play a home-and-home with Minnesota.
Thoughts: With that said, there is only one other team — perhaps in the country — looking as strong as St. Cloud right now. This is about where I expected the Huskies to be at this point, but their current clip has me thinking that the cream will rise.
Predicted Finish: 2nd
Current Record: 10-8-2, 6-8-0, 12 points, Tied-5th place
Key Players: Strike up that record again, as the Seawolves will count on goaltender Nathan Lawson to stay consistent down the stretch, but the senior leadership of Justin Bourne and Chad Anderson cannot be overlooked as they try to carry this team to a home series in the WCHA playoffs.
Key Spots in the Schedule: It starts this weekend with back-to-back road series at St. Cloud and then at North Dakota, which seems like it is back on track. They will need to snag some road points to gain some confidence before hosting Michigan Tech and Minnesota. It could be a tough month.
Thoughts: Not enough can be said with what Dave Shyiak has done with this team so far this year, but of their six wins, only one has come against a team in the top five of the WCHA standings.
Predicted finish: 8th
Current Record: 8-10-2, 5-7-2, 12 points, Tied-5th place
Key Players: With nobody tallying more than six goals or 13 points in the first half, you know this is a team either scores by committee or relies on its goaltending. It’s been a little bit of both so far. After utilizing a goalie rotation for much of the way, Jamie Russell said he’s going with Rob Nolan in net for now. We’ll see how he holds up.
Key Spots in the Schedule: It is imperative that the Huskies bring points back to Houghton when facing Duluth, Anchorage and Minnesota State on the road in the second half. If garnering home ice comes down to the final three weeks — hosting Denver and Wisconsin before heading to Minnesota — they could be in trouble.
Thoughts: The Huskies’ schedule seems pretty favorable in the second half, but whether they host a first-round WCHA matchup will come down to two things: what happens with the goaltending situation and whether the Huskies can improve on the power play. They are currently last in the nation in that department.
Predicted Finish: 7th
Current Record: 9-10-1, 5-8-1, 11 points, Tied-7th place
Key Players: Goalie Philippe Lamoureux may have had the weekend he needed to get back on track last week, but most likely it will come down to whether Jonathan Toews can stay healthy and bust out for a big second half of the season. It’s all about the sophomores in Grand Forks.
Key Spots in the Schedule: It’s important for the Sioux to take points at CC this weekend and at home against Anchorage next week to jump back to the middle of the pack. Home series against Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth should help North Dakota climb back into the race for home ice.
Thoughts: After a quick start, the Sioux have won just three of their last 10 games, but got the jump that they needed with a tourney championship last week. If they can carry that, there is no reason that this team won’t come back from its tough stretch.
Predicted Finish: 6th
Current Record: 8-10-2, 5-6-1, 11 points, Tied-7th place
Key Players: Plain and simple: Jack Skille. When the sophomore returns from the World Juniors, he will need to lead the Badgers down the stretch and hope that senior Jake Dowell continues to pitch in. By this time, Mike Eaves already knows what he’s going to get from goalie Brian Elliott night in and night out.
Key Spots in the Schedule: The Badgers’ last four games come on the road, where they will face Michigan Tech and Duluth, probably knowing that they will be playing for home ice at that point. If they can somehow get points against Denver and Minnesota the next two weeks, they should find their way back to the top half of the standings.
Thoughts: The key for Wisconsin is that the Badgers have played two fewer games than Anchorage, Tech and North Dakota, which gives them a distinct advantage in fighting for the fifth and final playoff spot. It will come down to the wire.
Predicted Finish: 5th
Current Record: 6-12-3, 4-8-2, 10 points, 9th place
Key Players: It is no secret that Travis Morin is one of the elite players in the league, but he cannot do it all himself. The Mavericks need some of their freshmen currently in the six-to-nine point range to make strides in the second half and hope that goalie Mike Zacharias can remain steady.
Key Spots in the Schedule: Eight of the Mavericks’ last 14 WCHA games come away from Mankato. If they are going to try and climb the standings ladder, it’s going to take some hard work, but that’s what this team is known for, so it could surprise.
Thoughts: The Mavericks are 3-3-3 in their last nine games and that warm spell is not a fluke. This team is improving, but with such a daunting schedule, it will be hard to take that warmth and turn it into a red-hot flame. While the prognosis for this year may not be good, this young Minnesota State team can do a lot for itself heading into next season.
Predicted Finish: 9th
Current Record: 5-13-3, 2-10-2, six points, 10th place
Key Players: While his record and statistics won’t jump off the page at you, freshman goalie Alex Stalock is getting his fair share of experience, as is this team’s bevy of talented sophomores, though it would be nice to see one of them take a big step up to become a prominent scorer.
Key Spots in the Schedule: Three straight WCHA road series — at St. Cloud, Denver and North Dakota — with a stint against Northern Michigan in between should prove to be a tough month between mid-January and February.
Thoughts: Again, this is another young team playing for experience for next year. The underdog/spoiler role should suit this team well down the stretch, so don’t be surprised if they snag some unexpected points or give some teams a scare.
Predicted Finish: 10th
The Perfect Storm
Much of the news through the holiday break centered around the weather in the city of Denver, as a pair of snowstorms socked the city, making for dicey travel on roadways and forcing the cancellation of dozens of flights at Denver International Airport.
While those waves of snow wreaked havoc on plenty of travelers, the timing probably couldn’t have been better for the Denver Pioneers.
They arrived back from a road trip to Anchorage on Sunday, December 17, and quickly got out of town, heading home either that night or the next day, before the first snowstorm dumped two feet of snow on Wednesday and into Thursday morning.
Then, all of the players made it back into Denver before a similar storm came through the next Friday, again snarling travel through the region.
“We were really lucky,” Denver head coach George Gwozdecky said. “As I look back, it could have really messed up a lot of our players’ Christmases. The timing couldn’t have been better.
As for Gwozdecky himself, he stayed in Denver, spending his break spending time with family and shoveling.
“It was fun; you get a little bit stir-crazy sitting inside and just stepping out to shovel, but there was no other thing to do,” he said. “But we enjoyed the family time and the white Christmas, which was the first one in quite a while.”
Everyone Need Not Apply
The Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves are off to their best start since the 1999-2000 season (in which they started 10-8-0). They won their first Governor’s Cup since the ’00-’01 season after going 3-0-1 this year against in-state rival Alaska.
So why is head coach Dave Shyiak’s job in jeopardy?
The school posted a job opening for the head-coaching position over break, sparking a bit of confusion.
Shyiak is a Canadian citizen and has worked in the United States under a variety of work permits since 1995, including his current one. But he has decided it is time to apply for permanent residency in the United States.
Unfortunately for him, that means that Anchorage must conduct a national search.
According to a story by the Associated Press, UAA must receive a “permanent labor certification” from the Department of Labor.
A key element in getting that certification, and the reason UAA is advertising for a new hockey head coach, is that the Labor Department must certify that there are no qualified U.S. workers who want the job.
That puts Shyiak and the program in somewhat of a precarious situation, but the second-year head coach said it will not affect the team down the stretch as they attempt to put it in the back of their minds, knowing it could take more than a year before we find out exactly what will happen.
“We’re not even thinking about it,” Shyiak said. “We’re focusing on St. Cloud and keeping that in hindsight right now.”
File this one under something to keep an eye on.
WCHA Players in the NHL Update
First and foremost, here is to wishing Phil Kessel a full and speedy recovery. The former Gopher had cancer surgery on Dec. 11.
As far as hockey action is concerned, the biggest surprise lately has been former Badger Joe Pavelski, who has eight goals and 13 points in 18 games. The San Jose Sharks have won all seven games in which he has scored.
Former Minnesota State Maverick David Backes made his debut with the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 19th and has two points in seven games so far.
Former Denver Pioneer Paul Stastny is fourth among rookies with 29 points in 39 games, while former teammate Matthew Carle has 21 points and is sixth in rookie scoring.
Travis Zajac has 19 points in 37 games. Ryan Potulny has six points in 15 games this year. Drew Stafford has five in the same number of games.