This Week in the WCHA: Nov. 13, 2008

Colorado College no longer holds the top spot in the country or the WCHA — the latter at least goes to the Gophers. Are they a little bit of a surprise? Maybe to some, but not to others.

Same goes for the rest of the league, though.

Red Baron Pizza WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Player of the Week: Eric Walsky, CC.
Why: Scored four goals on Saturday against North Dakota to help his team win 7-4 against North Dakota and earn the weekend split.
Also Nominated: Anthony Maiani, DU; Ryan Stoa, UM; Ryan Duncan, UND; Jamie McBain, UW.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Marc Cheverie, DU.
Why: Helped DU to a sweep of Minnesota Duluth this past weekend by stopping a total of 61 of 63 shots over the weekend for a .968 save percentage.
Also Nominated: Brian Connelly, CC; Alex Kangas, UM; Brad Miller, UND; Chris Hepp, SCSU; Scott Gudmandson, UW.

Red Baron WCHA Rookie of the Week: Jordan Schroeder, UM.
Why: Scored three points to help his Gophers take three points from visiting New Hampshire.
Also Nominated: Nick Dineen, CC; Joe Colborne, DU; Brett Hextall, UND.

A Scoring Start

One of Minnesota Duluth’s big questions going into last season was offense. The Bulldogs lost their top three scorers — one to graduation and two to early departure — and knew they wouldn’t have that go-to guy to look to for scoring. Instead, the team hoped everyone would contribute and a few guys would break out offensively.

The reality was the opposite. The ‘Dogs still had quite a few players with double-digit point totals (10), but that statistic doesn’t mean much when matched with the fact that the team’s top scorer, MacGregor Sharp, saw his point production go down 10 points (from 27 to 17) that season.

As a result, coach Scott Sandelin knew his team had to do something to improve the offense, as the Bulldogs were the second-lowest scoring team in the league coming in to this season.

It’s still early in the season, but things seem to be looking a little brighter so far as the team already has two players with 11 points — the aforementioned Sharp and sophomore Justin Fontaine.

“We’ve added a couple of those freshmen [Mike and Jack Connolly, no relation] and obviously got us a little more depth offensively, but obviously our power play is decent,” said Sandelin, “and that was one area where you can improve offensively.”

The power play struggled this past weekend against Denver and so did the Bulldogs’ (apparently newfound) offense, but Sandelin knows his team will be fine in the long run.

“In this league, it is tough to score goals but to get a start like we did and get some guys scoring some goals, certainly it gives your team a lot of confidence,” he said.

“We’ll be fine,” he continued. “I think last year was just one of those years. We knew we were going to struggle offensively and we lost some key guys to our offense. You hope some guys step up, but it was one of those years where theoretically, probably we should have had guys with more than 17 points.

“[They] just didn’t get breaks and they didn’t find the net so hopefully this year we’ll do a little bit more.”

Panic Button? What Panic Button?

Coming into this season, we all knew North Dakota wouldn’t be quite as good as in years past, thanks in part to the departures of goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux and T.J. Oshie.

Sioux fans knew the back line and goaltending situations would be sticky but thought that the offense would be able to help the team limp along until the freshmen came up to speed (probably by the holiday tournaments).

However, Sioux nation hasn’t even been able to count on offense until this past weekend, when the Sioux scored a surprise seven goals against CC and last year’s WCHA Rookie and Player of the Year, netminder Richard Bachman. The outburst helped a struggling squad to a split with the then top-ranked Tigers, winning 3-1 and losing 7-4.

“I don’t know if I want to see too many high-scoring games like that,” said coach Dave Hakstol, referencing Saturday night’s shootout, “but I felt like we made a ton of good plays; obviously, we were able to finish some of them. I think we’re starting to see more and more of our forward units click a little bit and it’s a positive sign.”

It’s one of many positive signs the Sioux can use going forward, now that the first month of the season is behind them.

“We’re playing good hockey,” said Hakstol. “Really, we’ve played one period of probably our last 15 — last Saturday against Wisconsin — [that] we just simply didn’t play well.

“We’ve played pretty well. Hey, we’re going through some struggles like you do throughout a season. We’re going through some struggles with some injuries [defensemen Joe Finley and Chay Genoway are currently out] and some issues like that, but that’s the kind of adversity that teams grow through.”

Another struggle for the Sioux starting out was their goaltending, the biggest of all the question marks for North Dakota. Hakstol rotated senior Aaron Walski and freshman Brad Eidsness for the first two weeks of the season with little success (1-3 record). Walski’s play in particular suggested to Sioux fans that there was a good reason he played little coming into this year.

However, Eidsness has had more success, as the Sioux have gone 2-2 since he has seemingly taken over.

“He’s been very solid,” said Hakstol. “His play has been steady, he’s been getting stronger and stronger and really showing more of a comfort level night in and night out at this level.”

All of that makes Hakstol believe his team isn’t far from returning to either the top of the league or, at the very least, firmly entrenching itself in the middle of the pack.

“It’s a matter of execution. It’s a matter of our play,” he said. “It comes down to us. You create your own luck. Through hard work, you create your own bounces and your own luck, so it’s up to us; we’ve got to take it [up] one more notch here.

“We’re not happy with where we’re at record-wise, but we’re doing an awful lot of good things and we’re continuing to play well and continuing to play better,” he said. “This team, we’re not far away from being able to put a little string together.

“I feel confident about that.”

Matchups By the Numbers

All 10 teams are in action this weekend against one another, with Michigan Tech and Minnesota playing a Saturday/Sunday series to give us all an extra day of hockey.

No. 4 Denver @ St. Cloud State
Overall Records: DU — 6-2-1 (4-1-1 WCHA). SCSU — 5-4-0 (0-3-0 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: DU leads the overall series, 35-27-4.

Alaska Anchorage @ No. 18 North Dakota
Overall Records: UAA — 5-3-2 (2-2-2 WCHA). UND — 3-5-0 (3-3-0 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UND leads the overall series, 36-15-3.

Wisconsin @ Minnesota Duluth
Overall Records: UW — 3-6-1 (3-4-1 WCHA). UMD — 4-3-2 (1-3-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UW leads the overall series, 84-55-12.

No. 3 Colorado College @ No. 11 Minnesota State
Overall Records: CC — 6-1-3 (4-1-1 WCHA). MSU, M — 4-2-2 (2-2-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: CC leads the overall series, 23-10-1.

Michigan Tech @ No. 2 Minnesota
Overall Records: MTU — 2-6-0 (1-5-0 WCHA). UM — 5-0-3 (4-0-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UM leads the overall series, 166-73-14.

Goodbye to a Friend

If you read either the message boards here or the blogs here on the site (specifically Todd Milewski’s), you may have read that longtime DU poster, fan and Magness Arena fixture/off-ice official Jim White passed away late last Thursday night after suffering from illness for the past few months. I was fortunate to meet him and considered him a friend thanks to being around DU hockey for the past few years. He would always look for me as I traveled around the arena in between periods, looking for the most up-to-date WCHA scores.

If you haven’t already and you post on the Fan Forum, please leave your condolences in the “R.I.P. Jimbo” thread in the D-I Forum and share your memories if you had met him like so many in the small, wonderful community that is (college) hockey.

Goodbye, Jimbo — you will be missed by many.

For those of you in the Denver area or coming in for the Pioneers’ series against the Gophers the weekend before Thanksgiving, DU will have a memorial to Jim at some point during the game on Friday, Nov. 21.