This Week in the WCHA: Feb. 1, 2007

Off the Top of My Head

• There is a stunning resemblance between last year’s Wisconsin team and this year’s Minnesota squad as we head into what I’m dubbing WCHA men’s hockey “Bracket-Buster Weekend.”

Same Story, Different Team?

The Minnesota Gophers are starting to look a lot like the Wisconsin Badgers of the 2005-06 season.

Okay, so that statement may sound a little absurd when looking at the offensive statistics or in the fact that the Gophers use a tag team of goaltenders … but hear me out.

In early January of 2006, many WCHA coaches had all but mailed in a league title for the Badgers after an 18-2-2 start. At the beginning of 2007, it looked like Minnesota would run away, using a 22-game unbeaten streak.

For the second straight year, February has arrived and the race is on again for the MacNaughton Cup. Coincidentally, for the second straight year, the runaway favorite has seen its lead shrink after the loss of a key player.

A year ago, Wisconsin lost goalie Brian Elliott after an accident in practice with the team sitting with that 18-2-2 record.

The Badgers went 3-5-1 without him and lost the first two games with him back between the pipes as he settled in. Suddenly, their lead was gone.

This season, Minnesota lost senior forward Tyler Hirsch when he was dismissed from the team by head coach Don Lucia Dec. 30.

He had accumulated 22 points and a team-high 18 assists when he was let go by the team, which has struggled to click on offense since his departure from the team’s top line.

The Gophers are 5-4 over that time, including three straight losses on Friday nights and a weekend sweep by visiting North Dakota last weekend.

There are two other key differences in this picture:

One, whereas Elliott returned to form and helped lead UW to the national championship last year, Hirsch’s career at Minnesota is over and the Gophers will have to right their ship without him.

Two, the Badgers did not recover in time to win the league title — it went to the Gophers. Minnesota, this time around, has yet to lose that lead in the standings.

There’s still time, but just a little food for thought.

Time to Bust the Bracket

While this weekend might not offer the premier, must-win matchups of a week ago, the four series this time around have great implications, especially considering seeding for the WCHA tournament.

With sweeps in any of the matchups this weekend, top-five teams will either distance themselves from the chasers or create more of a mess in the middle.

Coincidentally, all four of the series are the only meetings between the respective teams this season.

Let’s start with Michigan Tech/Minnesota State series — the only one between two teams in the bottom half of the standings.

A sweep for either team means it stays in the hunt for the chance to host a first-round tournament matchup. A sweep would help the Huskies the most, but it won’t be easy against a resilient Maverick team which is 6-4-1 in its last 11.

Wisconsin heads to Colorado College in what really seems like a do-or-die situation. Both teams have played just 18 games, tied for lowest in the league, which makes this series that much more important.

A sweep by the Badgers — which they did in Colorado Springs a year ago — and they would pull even with the Tigers. A sweep at home by CC, and it’s right there in the fight for an ever-important top-three seed to avoid the play-in game at the Final Five should the Tigers advance that far.

Minnesota-Duluth is not in the hunt for home ice, but could try to play spoiler to Denver, another team looking for one of the pivotal top-three spots. This is a must-win series for the Pioneers.

The same can be said for Minnesota on the road at Anchorage. The Seawolves are not completely out of the home-ice hunt, but the Gophers really need to stop the bleeding before they see their lead evaporate completely.

A 3,000-mile trip, good or bad in this situation?

Shyiak Situation All Cleared Up?

Was the head-coaching situation in Anchorage blown out of proportion, or is it still just getting started?

It looked as though head coach Dave Shyiak’s job may have been in jeopardy due to a situation involving his application for residency in the United States.

With Shyiak a Canadian citizen, the process for obtaining a green card included having his job posted to determine whether any U.S. citizens were willing and qualified for his position.

Last week, the resume roundup was completed and five applicants were to be considered.

Just one week later, the university has announced that Shyiak will remain on board.

“The University received five applications for the position. While some may have met the minimum qualifications, it is our opinion that Dave Shyiak, our current head hockey coach, is highly qualified,” Dr. Steve Cobb, UAA director of athletics, said this week. “His performance and contributions to the improving success of UAA’s hockey program and its student-athletes have been outstanding.”

It would be nearly impossible for anyone to disagree with that, but does that completely clear up the process of finding “qualified U.S. workers able, willing, qualified and available to accept the job?”

In Other Words

• WCHA Players of the Week were North Dakota’s Ryan Duncan on offense — his third such award of the year — North Dakota’s Taylor Chorney on defense and Michigan Tech’s Alex Gagne for the rookies.

• The WCHA also announced its second-annual group of scholar-athletes: Scott McCulloch and Lee Sweatt of Colorado College; Zach Blom, Steven E. Cook, J.D. Corbin and Daniel King of Denver; Tyler Skworchinski of Michigan Tech; Evan Kaufmann of Minnesota; Joel Hanson of Minnesota State; Erik Fabian of North Dakota; and Nate Raduns of St. Cloud State.

• WDAZ-TV out of Grand Forks and Devil’s Lake, N.D., reported Wednesday that North Dakota forwards Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie received citations for being underage in a bar, and that junior defenseman Robbie Bina could be cited with obstructing a police officer.

• Think things might get a bit heated between Colorado College and Wisconsin this weekend? Not only did the Badgers sweep the Tigers in Colorado Springs last year, but they did so with a 9-1 drubbing. Oh, and CC still hasn’t forgotten about a hit at the horn that ended Scott Thauwald’s season a year ago.

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