This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 11, 2007

Off The Top Of My Head

• If the first weekend of 2007 was any indication, the second half of the season looks to be just as wild as the first.

• Michigan Tech’s goaltending carried it through the first half of the season, but at some point you have to start scoring. The Huskies could be in some real trouble.

• I know that’s how the standings look, but it just doesn’t feel like the bottom six teams of the WCHA are within three points of each other.

You Can’t Take the Fight Out of The ‘Dogs

Just as if someone found my column last week and decided to post it on the bulletin board in the Minnesota-Duluth locker room, the Bulldogs started off 2007 in relatively surprising fashion last weekend with a sweep over Michigan Tech.

The Bulldogs showed that they aren’t just playing to get ready for next year, jumping from four points out of ninth place in the WCHA standings to a tie with Minnesota State, just two points out of seventh.

“This was big for us, this was something we could really use. We wanted to start off good, especially at home,” Duluth’s Matt Niskanen told the Duluth News Tribune after the game. “We played a lot better defensively and with more confidence. For a lot of the game we shut them down.”

Now, I’m not about to let a three-game winning streak make me change all of my predictions from a week ago, because the Bulldogs’ schedule the rest of the way is pretty brutal, but this was truly a step in the right direction, and something that I thought we would see much earlier this season.

Sure, they are playing with a freshman goalie who has an unorthodox style, but the Bulldogs have so much talent in their sophomore class that it seemed like they could be a team with a first-round bye in the WCHA playoffs.

Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves even went so far to say that he could see Duluth finishing near the top of the league.

I said in my season preview that they could be the surprise of the WCHA this year. And they actually might be … though in the completely opposite way in which I thought they would be.

Maybe they finally started showing who they should have been all season in this past weekend’s series.

And it was the Bulldogs’ sophomores who came through in big ways. Sure, that class boasts Duluth’s top five scorers, but only two have more than 20 points.

The sophomores grabbed four of the team’s seven goals on the weekend, including two by MacGregor Sharp, and Mason Raymond picked up the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honor.

The schedule won’t help them at all, but if these players continue to pick it up, they could steal some points along the way.

We’re (Still) Goin’ Streakin’

In case you’ve been in hibernation mode, Minnesota’s unbeaten streak continues to roll and is now at a school-record and nation-leading 22 games.

When a streak gets this long, it’s easy to get a feeling like it could go on forever, but also ask yourself: is this the weekend when it comes to an end?

You know what almost any coach would tell you … it could happen on any given weekend in this league. Perhaps it could be this weekend for the Gophers, who travel to archrival Wisconsin, which is 5-2-0 after sputtering on a six-game losing streak.

UW head coach Mike Eaves said this week that he can appreciate such a streak, as his teams have made similar runs in recent memory.

“That’s difficult. We’ve had long stretches ourselves here in our tenure together, and, you know, you need to win on nights that you’re not your best, and they’ve done that,” he said.

Minnesota did that this past Sunday, when an obviously tired group gritted out a 1-0 win over Minnesota State.

But it’s rivalry weekend, so who really knows what will happen?

What we do know is that we should see a battle of some great goaltending. Minnesota’s Kellen Briggs is putting together a season much like Brian Elliott’s Hobey-finalist season a year ago.

Sophomore Jeff Frazee is not far behind, and Elliott’s numbers really aren’t that far off from last year’s, despite Wisconsin’s record.

And we know that there is plenty of young talent to go around for these two teams, which should provide a good show for the packed Kohl Center this weekend.

Other than that, it’s hard to predict what we’ll happen. The games were close — on the scoreboard — in a series at Mariucci earlier this year where Wisconsin was missing a key factor in Jack Skille.

I guess we’ll find out.

Some Stiff Non-League Competition

Teams are most focused on league play heading down the stretch, but for teams that have non-conference opponents left on the schedule, it doesn’t hurt that they will face some tough competition when they have weekends off from the WCHA schedule.

After a full slate of league games to open 2007 last weekend, both Denver and Michigan Tech will play non-WCHA foes this Friday and Saturday.

Denver hosts Niagara and Tech hosts Bemidji State, both ranked teams from the CHA that will give the Pioneers and Huskies a test.

While Denver has never lost to a College Hockey America opponent in 20 games, it cannot overlook the No. 17 Purple Eagles, who are riding a five-game winning streak and have lost just once since Nov. 3.

Niagara sophomores Les Reaney and Ted Cook are both in the top five nationally in points per game and Cook leads the country as the only 20-goal scorer thus far.

And Michigan Tech has to know that it cannot overlook Tom Serratore’s Bemidji State Beavers.

BSU has already swept two WCHA series this year — at Minnesota State and a home-and-home with Minnesota-Duluth — and split with Colorado College.

Furthermore, the No. 16 Beavers have scored four goals per game in those contests against WCHA opponents.

While there aren’t many Bemidji statistics that leap off the page at you, the Beavers have been nothing but solid this season, and it will be interesting to see what happens between two teams that have been heading in opposite directions recently.

North Dakota will take on the Beavers next weekend, while Minnesota State still has one matchup left with Nebraska-Omaha Tuesday and Duluth has a date with Northern Michigan Jan. 24 it what will be the final non-conference game of the regular season for WCHA teams.

In Other Words

• WCHA Players of the Week were St. Cloud’s Ben Gordon and Minnesota-Duluth’s Mason Raymond on offense, Minnesota goalie Kellen Briggs on defense and Minnesota forward Ryan Flynn for the rookies.

• The league is investigating an altercation between Minnesota State assistant coach Eric Means and WCHA official Jon Campion following the Mavericks loss to Minnesota Saturday. The Gophers had 13 power-play opportunities last weekend, while MSU had four.

• It will be interesting to see how the players who participated in the World Junior Championships will play this weekend, but also how some of them improve after the experience. I’m especially keeping my eye on what kind of half North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews puts out.

• If Anchorage can find the back of the net four times against the Sioux this weekend, it will have equaled the number of goals that it scored all of last year.

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