This Week in the WCHA: Dec. 4, 2008

Well, it’s finally starting to feel like winter in my neck of the woods. That, along with the calendar turning to December, means it’s almost the halfway point of the season.

That in turn means a regular column this week and a report card of sorts next week. I’ll also revisit the penalty crackdown issue. As the initial adjustment period for most teams is over, one would likely think that the penalty adjustment period is over as well. I’m planning on looking at the numbers to see if that’s truly the case.

Red Baron Pizza WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Player of the Week: Matt Frattin, UND.
Why: Had a four-point game, which included his first collegiate hat trick, during Friday night’s victory over non-conference foe Cornell.
Also Nominated: Anthony Maiani, DU; Justin Fontaine, UMD; Geoff Irwin, MSU, M; Ben Grotting, UW.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Marc Cheverie, DU.
Why: Helped his Pioneers to two non-conference victories over Colgate and Air Force, stopping 67 of 69 shots on the weekend.
Also Nominated: Mike Zacharias, MSU, M; Chay Genoway, UND; Shane Connelly.

Red Baron WCHA Rookies of the Week: Joe Colborne, DU and Jake Gardiner, UW.
Why: Colborne scored two assists each night in his team’s non-conference victories over Colgate and Air Force. Gardiner scored two assists during the College Hockey Showcase to help his Badgers to two non-conference wins over Michigan State and Michigan.
Also Nominated: Brad Eidsness, UND.

Back on Track

After a rough start, the Wisconsin Badgers seem to be back on track after going 7-1-1 in their past nine games. The start wasn’t helped by having six of their first eight games on the road or having the majority of those games against traditionally tough opponents, either, going 0-6-2 until they finally got their first victory over North Dakota on November 1.

“During that stretch there where we didn’t win, we were firing on some cylinders. It depended on the game — one thing would be going and not the other,” said coach Mike Eaves. “Right now, we’re just firing on more cylinders at the same time so that’s probably why — in a general sense — we’re winning more games. We’re firing on more cylinders.”

Since November, however, those cylinders have been firing and the Badgers have only lost once. They have also seemingly gotten over the early-season adjustment period that all teams discuss.

“It’s [also] playing with new teammates [and] a lot of young people learning the system,” he said. “And now, we have more repetitions in our drills in terms of what we want to get done and it’s just all coming together for us.”

The Badgers are also coming together as a team — and a team in the true sense in that they have no real “star,” or at least one player getting the majority of the attention, as in Kyle Turris last year.

“Every team has to find out what its identity is and certainly the identity of our team is threefold in that our forward group is … kind of faceless in that there’s no star and yet they can all be hard to play against, they can play well without the puck and they can chip in offensively,” Eaves said. “We [also] don’t really have a fourth line. All the lines can play and play well.

“I think our defensive core, in terms of ability, has lots of natural ability and they’re playing to those strengths and they’re also playing well without the puck,” he continued. “Thirdly, our goaltending has become consistent with I think Shane [Connelly] and [Scott Gudmandson] having a transformation here. Having a new coach come in and work with them, I think it took a little bit but Shane’s playing very well right now, playing very consistent for us.

“So, those are things that have come together and our team identity can be built around those things.”

In other words, the Badgers are starting simple, building around the three basic groups that make up a hockey team. However, Eaves understands that sometimes, simple is the way to go, whether it be in terms of a team’s identity or its goals.

“After the start that we had, we kind of had to revamp our intermediate goals and our next immediate goal was to get back to .500 and then, now that we’ve done that, we have to continue to go,” he said. “We’ve got to get ourselves back in the rankings and the RPI picture and the best way for us to do that is to simply say that we’ve got to keep winning.

“We’ve got a chance to do that here this weekend against a very good Anchorage team and that’s our short-term goal — to go 1-0 on Friday and 1-0 on Saturday.”

Experience Counts

While some teams have either noticeably struggled or noticeably succeeded, one team that has quietly rolled along has been the Minnesota State Mavericks. The Mavericks have started off the season 8-3-3, a stark contrast to the last couple years when a more typical start has been either 3-6-2, 3-9-1 or 3-8-2 through the same period.

“We’re an older, more experienced team finally,” said coach Troy Jutting. “We’ve been a very young hockey team for the last three, four years and now our age, I believe, has allowed us to get out of the blocks a little bit quicker than we have in the past.”

The experience has also aided the Mavericks on the road where the team is 4-0-3 so far.

“I think a big part of it is we’ve got kids who have been there and done it before and understand what it’s about and I think it’s allowed us to have more success not only in the early season, but on the road as well,” he said.

The experience Jutting credits comes from upperclassmen such as goaltender Mike Zacharias, forwards Trevor Bruess and Mick Berge and defensemen Blake Friesen and Brian Kilburg.

“Those kids … are kids that have really done a nice job of getting the young guys accustomed to what it’s about and doing a nice job of playing themselves,” said Jutting.

As the Mavericks near the holidays and the midpoint of the season, Jutting hopes that the experience he has continues to bring success for the rest of the year.

“I hope so,” he said. “I think that any time you have experience, provided that it’s solid, good kids that are leaders, it can only help and I would say that we do have a bunch of kids that are definitely leaders and good kids and it’s definitely helped us out.”

Matchups By the Numbers

Not as many games as last week, thankfully.

No. 8 Denver @ Michigan Tech
Overall Records: DU — 9-5-1 (5-4-1 WCHA). MTU — 2-11-1 (1-8-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: DU leads the overall series, 101-81-8.

No. 15 Alaska Anchorage @ Wisconsin
Overall Records: UAA — 7-5-2 (4-4-2 WCHA). UW — 7-7-2 (5-5-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UW leads the overall series, 38-13-9.

St. Cloud State @ No. 11 Minnesota State
Overall Records: SCSU — 8-6-0 (3-5-0 WCHA). MSU, M — 8-3-3 (5-3-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: MSU, M leads the overall series, 56-40-8.

Minnesota Duluth @ No. 5 Colorado College
Overall Records: UMD — 6-4-4 (3-4-3 WCHA). CC — 9-4-3 (6-3-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: CC leads the overall series, 81-71-5.

North Dakota @ Harvard
Overall Records: UND — 5-8-1 (4-5-1 WCHA). HU — 4-4-2 (4-3-2 ECAC).
Head-to-Head: UND leads the overall series, 6-2-1.

World Juniors

Once again, a few teams will be without players due to the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship. Team USA has already announced its roster, while Team Canada is taking players for its tryout camp. Not many teams are losing players this year — only Minnesota and Wisconsin are for sure — while Denver has one possibility.

Denver — D Patrick Wiercioch invited to Team Canada camp
Minnesota — D Cade Fairchild, F Jordan Schroeder and F Mike Hoeffel on Team USA.
Wisconsin — D Ryan McDonagh on Team USA; D Brendan Smith and D Cody Golubef invited to Team Canada camp.

Those players invited to Team Canada’s camp will miss next weekend’s games — that is, Wiercioch will miss DU’s series with MSU, M.