This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 25, 2007

Off the Top of My Head

• Time to break out the broom. For the first time — and quite surprisingly considering the erratic state of the WCHA — I went a perfect 8-0 in predictions last week. I’ll go ahead and predict that it’s the last time this season that happens.

• At the risk of sounding ultra-cliché, it’s another big weekend in the WCHA, and when I say big, I mean one team firmly planted itself into the NCAA tournament picture, one needs a sweep to continue making a case, and two could be playing for No. 1 seeds.

Here They Go Again

So the Denver Pioneers are taking on a ranked opponent? Tell me something new.

That’s pretty much all they’ve done since the calendar changed over to the year 2007. They opened the year against Wisconsin, which is only receiving votes, but have since faced off with Niagara and Minnesota, and now have a date with St. Cloud State.

Denver coach George Gwozdecky puts his team’s schedule into pretty good perspective.

“It almost seems like once you finish one tough opponent, the following weekend you’ve got another tough assignment,” Gwozdecky told the Rocky Mountain News this week. “I think it’s what makes this league so difficult. And yet, if you are able to survive this regular season in decent physical and positional shape, it makes you really ready for the postseason. That’s the benefit, but while you’re doing it, it’s extremely difficult and challenging.”

It’s a challenge that the Pioneers seem to be embracing to its fullest. After sweeping away upstart Niagara, they took an attitude with them to the Twin Cities this past weekend and came away with a split — a pretty good outcome considering the top-ranked Gophers had lost just twice all season and were riding a school-record home unbeaten streak.

And they’ve passed those tests thanks to the power play, or as I like to compare, after the teacher tells you that you are allowed a cheatsheet.

Eight of the Pioneers’ 12 goals in their last two series combined have come on the man-advantage, and they are a solid 33.3 percent in that span. Furthermore, all three DU goals scored against Wisconsin came on the power play, and the game it lost, the Pioneers were 0-for-7.

Translation: Stay out of the box against Denver.

But of course it will not be that simple for St. Cloud State this weekend, where there are huge implications on the line.

Not only is this a battle for second place in the WCHA, but if all goes right for both teams down the stretch, this could be the series that decides which team winds up with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

St. Cloud is tied for first in the latest edition of the PairWise Rankings and Denver sits at fifth.

Oh, and by the way, while Denver will get a bit of a vacation from ranked opponents after this, the third straight weekend against them, it’s not all downhill from here. The Pioneers still have to close out the season with North Dakota and Colorado College.

Not the Only Important Series

While the Denver-St.Cloud matchup is one between a pair of top-five foes, it might not even be the most important series of the weekend.

It might be a more important weekend for North Dakota, which will try to hand Minnesota a loss for the third straight week.

The Sioux, who were not included in USCHO’s Bracketology field this week but now sit at 14th in the PairWise, would certainly add to their case by bringing home a few points from a road series with the top-ranked team.

I think this series is interesting after comparing North Dakota’s sophomore class with Minnesota’s freshmen.

A year ago, North Dakota used freshman forwards T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Duncan to make a Frozen Four experience. They finished with 45, 39 and 36 points, respectively.

Plenty of other rookies were mentioned around the league, but the fact that North Dakota had such a huge freshman class and they were playing at such a level, helped garner them plenty of attention.

One year later, Minnesota, like many other WCHA teams, was saddled with an expansive freshman class led by a couple of players who jump right off the page in Kyle Okposo and Jay Barriball.

These players very well could decide the series this weekend, and either way it should give viewers their money’s worth.

Oh Yeah, and Let’s Not Forget

As far as head coach Mike Eaves is concerned, the biggest weekend of the series will be in Madison this weekend, when Wisconsin hosts Minnesota State.

That’s because, as much as the Badgers struggled earlier this season, they are not out of the postseason picture.

With games in hand in the WCHA schedule, they are very much in the mix to host a first-round WCHA playoff matchup. And with their schedule, they certainly control their own destiny down the stretch.

“As we talked about earlier last week, the Friday game is the most important game of the year,” Eaves said. “Saturday’s game will be the most important game of the year. And that’ll be the trumpet sound all the way until the end.”

While the Badgers are tied for sixth in the standings right now, with this series and a trip to Colorado College next weekend, it isn’t entirely out of the picture that Wisconsin will be up to fourth two weeks from now.

UAA Coaching Update

The Anchorage Daily News reported this week that Alaska-Anchorage has received five applications for its head-coaching position.

Current head coach Dave Shyiak brings that number up to six total candidates. In case you missed it, Shyiak, who is a Canadian citizen, is seeking permanent residency in the United States, and part of that process includes that a mandate that an employer post the position to see if there are U.S. residents who want, and are qualified, to fill the position.

While the candidates’ names have not been released, the Daily News reported that two of them have WCHA ties.

Frank Bretti, a former Seawolf assistant coach, is among the candidates. He coached at Anchorage from 1993-96. He has since been a head coach at Iona and an assistant at Rensselaer.

And another reported candidate is former Wisconsin assistant Troy Ward. He has coached and just about every level of hockey from prep to professional.

While this situation is still unfolding, I can’t help but to think that those would be “U.S. workers able, willing, qualified and available to accept the job.”

This could get messy.

In Other Words

• WCHA Players of the Week were St. Cloud’s Andrew Gordon on offense, St. Cloud’s Justin Fletcher on defense and Denver’s Keith Seabrook for the rookies. It is the third time Gordon has been honored this season.

• Colorado College freshman center Andreas Vlassopoulos has collected six points in nine outings since returning to the lineup following more than a year’s absence. He declared a medical hardship last season after being injured in the season opener.

• Minnesota State goaltender Mike Zacharias has a .925 save percentage in his last eight outings.

• Struggling on the power play for most of the season, Michigan Tech has now scored on the man-advantage in each of its last four games. It’s the first time since November of last season that the Huskies have accomplished such a feat.