This Week in the WCHA: Nov. 27, 2008

I was originally thinking of keeping this short so you could quickly read through it and get to your turkey. However, I decided that content was more important and figured you could read it in snippets in between football games or something.

Oh, and a lot of you liked the NHL thing from last week. That’s not going to become a regular feature, but you can add one more notch for the Mavericks — Jon Kalinski got called up Thursday and made his big-league debut for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Red Baron Pizza WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Player of the Week: Tommy Grant, UAA.
Why: Scored three goals and two assists in helping his Seawolves earn a weekend split against Colorado College.
Also Nominated: Tyler Bozak, DU; Ryan Galiardi, MSU, M.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Alex Stalock, UMD.
Why: Stopped 68 of 71 shots to help his Bulldogs take three points from North Dakota, posted four shutout periods and did not let in an even-strength goal.
Also Nominated: Kurt Davis, MSU, M; Chay Genoway, UND; Garrett Raboin, SCSU; Shane Connelly, UW.

Red Baron WCHA Rookie of the Week: Mike Louwerse, MSU, M.
Why: Scored two key points (1g, 1a) in his team’s sweep of Michigan Tech.
Also Nominated: Joe Colborne, DU; Brett Olson, MTU; Jordan Schroeder, UM; Brad Eidsness, UND.

Early Rolling

Despite suffering their first loss this past Saturday, the Minnesota Golden Gophers got off to the best start of the WCHA, surprising many — including myself.

“Obviously, [our start has] been better than expected,” said coach Don Lucia. “We’ve had great leadership starting with Ryan Stoa, our special teams have been very strong and goaltending has been very strong and those are a couple of very important ingredients if you’re going to have success.”

Stoa and linemates Jordan Schroeder and Jay Barriball have been the main offensive success for the Gophers, combining for 48 of the team’s 103 points.

“Those guys have terrific game and they lead the way for us. They have great chemistry and right from day one, those guys have been playing together,” said Lucia. “They’re the catalysts for us whether it’s on the power play or five-on-five; they’re expected to score every night.”

However, if those guys get shut down as they did this past Saturday against Denver but on a consistent basis, will it spell trouble for the Gophers? Lucia doesn’t think so.

“I think guys are getting opportunities — now, they just have to finish,” he said. “We have to have some timely goals and Saturday was a good example that if that line was a bit off and not playing like they usually do, that somebody else can step up in a game like that and we have to have some more players stepping forward.

“Now, some of that is because we have four, five freshmen up front playing and it takes them a while to get acclimated to the pace and what Division I college hockey’s all about in the WCHA.”

Lucia also doesn’t worry about keeping Alex Kangas, his bread and butter, between the pipes.

“The Boston College goalie [John Muse] didn’t get tired at all last year and he played every minute of every game,” he said, scoffing at the idea of sitting his goaltender in case of fatigue. “We’ve got two games in the month of December — that’s plenty of time to rest and we also have an off weekend in January so we’ll pick our spots for Kent [Patterson] to get in there and play some games.

“But, as it is right now, you see NHL goalies play 70-plus games a year and then the playoffs roll and they play every game for two months so I think some of that gets overblown a bit. We don’t take a forward out and say, ‘Gee, well you better sit a game because you might be getting tired.'”

For a team for which “number one in the country really doesn’t matter,” Lucia’s Gophers look like they’ll do a good job staying on top and continuing to surprise us all.

Learning From a Wake-Up Call

After starting off the season with four straight wins, the Denver Pioneers started to struggle, going 2-5-2 in their next nine games. After this past Friday’s loss to Minnesota, the players had a team-only meeting, sequestering themselves inside the locker room and refusing to talk to any media.

Granted, the Pioneers had just lost to the number-one team in the country, 5-2, but in coach George Gwozdecky’s postgame comments, it sounded like there were bigger issues at play for a team that had been lauded for its character six weeks earlier.

After praising a few select players for their play Friday night, Gwozdecky then said that “others are more affected by their own, probably their personal, individual games and the struggles they’re having with their individual games which is taking away from our team game.”

A few minutes later in the same interview session, the issue came up again.

“The challenges that have set in for many of our guys who are used to having more success and are not having success is accentuating the individual effort rather than the team effort.”

Enter the team meeting which, on its own wasn’t a big deal, but given the timing of it, became notable — especially after Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Gophers.

“There’s no question our attitude, our approach to Saturday night’s game was much, much different than Friday,” said Gwozdecky.

A safe bet for that attitude change was the players held themselves accountable for what went wrong and changed it internally.

“I think probably that out of that meeting, it’s important that people are held accountable, individuals are held accountable for their actions [and] for their non-actions,” said Gwozdecky.

“I think more importantly, with the meeting that was held, the player-only meeting that was held Friday night, the players, the leaders holding each other accountable I think is probably as important as anything,” he continued. “It’s all about emotional preparation, it’s all about the mental preparation of how to compete at the highest level and playing smart.

“When things aren’t going to plan, you expect your leaders to be able to communicate that with the rest of the team and it doesn’t matter if it’s after a win or after a loss. It could be a Tuesday afternoon after practice.”

As said previously, Friday night’s meeting garnered attention due to its timing and perhaps was more successful than one of Gwozdecky’s (and many coaches’) usual tool — benching players.

“I think as a coaching staff, we held some accountable because of perhaps for what they were or were not doing and perhaps there were more that could have sat,” said Gwozdecky. “Sometimes, you need a kick in the pants to get going.

“Sometimes it’s very beneficial to be able to take a night off and watch the game from a different perspective to be able to see and translate what’s going on the ice into your own personal game to see what can help, what can be a benefit the next time you step on the ice. So I think for different reasons they may need the line-up changes that we did.”

Match-Ups By the Numbers

Lots and lots of games this weekend thanks to the holiday, so I’m personally thankful I cut this section down this year.

Colgate @ No. 9 Denver, No. 3 Colorado College
Overall Records: CU — 4-4-2 (1-3-2 ECAC). DU — 7-5-1 (5-4-1 WCHA). CC — 8-3-3 (6-3-1 WCHA).

No. 10 Minnesota State @ Bowling Green
Overall Records: MSU, M — 7-3-2 (5-3-2 WCHA). BGSU — 5-7-2 (4-5-1-0 CCHA).

Michigan Tech @ Bemidji State
Overall Records: MTU — 2-9-1 (1-8-1 WCHA). BSU — 3-7-0 (2-2-0 CHA).

No. 12 Cornell @ North Dakota
Overall Records: CU — 4-0-2 (4-0-2 ECAC). UND — 4-7-1 (4-5-1 WCHA).

No. 3 Colorado College, No. 9 Denver vs. No. 11 Air Force
Overall Records: CC — 8-3-3 (6-3-1 WCHA). DU — 7-5-1 (5-4-1 WCHA). AFA — 12-0-0 (10-0-0 AHA).

No. 14 Michigan @ No. 1 Minnesota, Wisconsin; College Hockey Showcase
Overall Records: UMich — 8-6-0 (5-5-0-0 CCHA). UMinn — 7-1-4 (6-1-3 WCHA). UW — 5-7-2 (5-5-2 WCHA).

Michigan State @ Wisconsin, No. 1 Minnesota; College Hockey Showcase
Overall Records: MSU — 4-8-2 (2-6-2-2 CCHA). UW — 5-7-2 (5-5-2 WCHA). UM — 7-1-4 (6-1-3 WCHA).

No. 18 St. Cloud State @ Minnesota Duluth
Overall Records: SCSU — 8-5-0 (3-4-0 WCHA). UMD — 5-4-4 (2-4-3 WCHA).

The Cliched Assignment

As it’s Thanksgiving, I wanted to quickly mention a few things I’m thankful for:

• My family, while even though I know they don’t always agree with the decisions I make (particularly regarding my career(s)), they’ve supported me through everything.

• Having a job (or three, as it actually is) during a period in time where there are many without work.

• Actually liking all three jobs (for the most part).

• Last but not least, my boyfriend, for being there through everything … and occasionally helping me with this here column, whether it be ideas, support or research.