This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 29, 2009

Well now, wasn’t that an exciting weekend of hockey? Long column ahead, so buckle down and enjoy the ride.

Red Baron Pizza WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Player of the Week: Drew LeBlanc, SCSU.
Why: Scored his first collegiate hat trick and added two assists to help his Huskies take three points from Colorado College.
Also Nominated: Matt Overman, CC; Brett Olson, MTU; Jack Connolly, UMD; Evan Trupp, UND.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Alex Stalock, UMD.
Why: Didn’t allow an even-strength goal en route to helping his Bulldogs sweep Minnesota State.
Also Nominated: Deron Cousens, MTU; Joe Finley, UND; Jase Weslosky, SCSU.

Red Baron WCHA Rookies of the Week: Brett Olson, MTU and Jack Connolly, UMD.
Why: Olson had four points (3g, 1a) to help his Huskies to two ties against Alaska Anchorage. Connolly scored five points (3g, 2a) in his Bulldogs’ sweep of Minnesota State.
Also Nominated: Brad Eidsness, UND; Drew LeBlanc, SCSU.

On Late-Season Breaks

By the time the second half of the season rolls around, each team typically has at least one weekend off to rest up for the stretch run … unless you’re Wisconsin. The Badgers, who were off this past weekend, also get one more week to rest up over Valentine’s Day weekend.

So, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is it good to get extra rest now to prepare for the stretch run or, on the flip side of the coin, is it hard to sit idle and watch the other teams catch up to you in the standings?

“I really don’t know,” said coach Mike Eaves. “We’ve actually talked about it back and forth. Last year, we had a weird schedule at the end of the year. We played a week, had a week off for playoffs, then we played and had another week off. We just need to play pretty good so I think more times than not, it’s a roll of the dice.

“You just try to do things in that week off that stimulate you so that you’re ready to play. It’s tough to really get that game-readiness situation. It is what it is and we’re going to handle it as best we can and not use it as an excuse and prepare to play.”

How to Solve In-Season Doldrums: CC Style

In my mid-season review, I labeled the Colorado College Tigers as the league’s biggest disappointment to date. Coming into this season, it looked like they had all the parts to repeat as MacNaughton Cup champions.

While they’ve managed to stay in the top half of the league standings, often it’s felt like it’s been by the tips of their claws. World Arena, where the Tigers were so dominant last year, hasn’t felt as nearly as friendly this season.

So, what is wrong with the Tigers and what needs to be done to fix things? After all, despite everything, they’re still in fourth place and just three points out of first.

First of all, coach Scott Owens will point out that the Tigers aren’t playing that poorly. “We weren’t that flat; we were skating fine” on Saturday night, he said. Still, “One game each of the three weeks has been like this. Mankato 3-1, Wisconsin 6-1; I think this one (Saturday’s 6-1 loss to SCSU), because it’s on our home ice and against a young team … we shouldn’t get ourselves in that position.

“It’s not a good hockey team right now and there isn’t another team around that needs a week off more than us.”

So, during that week off, Owens will get his guys back to basics.

“We lost another guy — we’re down four or five guys right now … so you start by taking three or four days off, getting everybody back and going and that’s how you start,” he said. “Then you work everyone back in, you go through some basics and try to get ready to go up to Tech and hope that we can tread water for three weeks until we get some people back and some confidence back.”

As for last season’s WCHA Player and Rookie of the Year, Richard Bachman? Anyone who’s watched the Tigers can tell he isn’t as sharp as he was last year, but it’s also hard to top a 1.85 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. His numbers this year? A 2.60 GAA and a .914 sv%.

“He set the bar so high for himself last year and you know what? We’re giving up a lot of good shots but there’s no doubt he’s not as sharp as he was last year,” said Owens. “He’s sort of one our issues, but he’s not in the top four. We’ve got to find a way to get our top guys going a little bit and take some of the pressure off, we’re still getting decent underneath scoring, we weren’t good in our own end defensively and we’re not getting much top-end scoring.”

On Denver at North Dakota

A lot has been said about what happened between the Pioneers and Sioux up at the Ralph Engelstad Arena this past weekend, so I’m not going to rehash exactly what happened.

Still, what is it about DU and UND that when they meet, sparks (and often fists) fly?

I’m sure all of you have your own ruminations as to why, but as for the coaches? Well, that’s just what happens between tough competitors.

“The [games are] tense and they’re physical, but I don’t think that I would refer to them as ugly,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “I think there’s an intensity that dates back because of the rivalry.

“When you play with a great deal of emotion and intensity, sometimes that self-control slips a little bit … I don’t think that anything was really out of control at all [though].”

“When there’s a lot on the line, when there’s a lot of intensity on both sides, I think it makes for great games, great competition and that’s the way I look at our games over the past few years,” said Sioux coach Dave Hakstol. “I think they’ve all been extremely entertaining games.”

As for what happened late Friday night?

“When you have a game that’s as one-sided as that one was late in the game [and] you’ve got two longtime rivals, there’s always one team that’s going to maybe rub your nose in it [and] there’s always the other team that’s going to get a little frustrated because of what the score is and not going to stand for it,” said Gwozdecky.

Gwozdecky: The Aftermath

Though Saturday didn’t see quite the number of the penalty minutes that Friday night did, it did see Gwozdecky get ejected from the game.

On Monday, Denver released a statement saying that the university did (does) not condone his actions and included a quote from DU’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics, Ron Grahame:

“We have discussed this incident with George, and he understands that his behavior was unacceptable. George’s actions were very much out of character. We respect the integrity of not only the University of Denver, but the Western Collegiate Hockey Association as well.”

Then, on Tuesday, DU announced that it was suspending Gwozdecky for Friday’s game against Alaska Anchorage due to him communicating with assistant coaches via headset during the remainder of the game. The statement once again included a quote from Grahame:

“Upon further investigation of George’s actions on Jan. 24, we feel a one-game suspension is necessary. George acknowledged that he was in violation of NCAA Rule, Misconduct Penalties, Section 4b. George understands the one-game suspension is warranted and he will serve the suspension this Friday against Alaska Anchorage.”

What, Goalie Pulled Twice?

You’ll most likely see a coach pull his goaltender under one of two circumstances: the goalie is just getting shelled or it’s near the end of a close game. Therefore, it’s a little weird to see a goaltender pulled twice during the same game for different reasons.

However, that’s exactly what Gwozdecky did with goaltender Marc Cheverie on Friday night, pulling him six minutes into the first period and again about nine minutes into the third.

“I thought that we were playing so poorly in front of Marc,” said Gwozdecky, “so it was more about getting [him] out of there, being able to give him a chance to refocus and regroup and I told him right away, as soon as he came off the ice, ‘You’re going to go back in. My plan is to put you hack in to start the rest of the second. Take the rest of the time off here and hopefully we can get this thing turned around for you.’

“Lars (Paulgaard) played well, our team seemed to respond a little bit and I thought Marc played pretty well in the second period,” he continued. Gwozdecky mentioned that he thought that if the Pioneers could have scored again in the second, the game would have taken a different course.

As that’s not the way things turned out, plans changed.

“When the game got a little out of hand, I felt it was best to give again. Marc’s going to come back the next night; let’s give Lars some opportunities to play.”

Sioux Second-Half Surge … Times Five?

Each year under Hakstol, it appears as if the Sioux have had second-half surges. While several people (including me) tried to disprove this line of thinking last year, it’s looking once again like the Sioux are starting their run in the second half.

While last year’s “surge” meant the team was finally starting to click and sweep series that it would have otherwise split, this year’s run has been brought on by something completely different — desperation.

“We’re just a team trying to win games,” said Hakstol. “We dug ourselves a pretty deep hole in the first half but by the end of the first half, we felt like we at least had gotten ourselves out, got our head above water. Now we’re in the thick of things and like anybody else, we’re just trying to get better every weekend and trying to get points in the WCHA standings.”

Although the Sioux have lost players to graduation and early departure — like everyone else — the past few years, they finally had to deal with transitioning in a new goaltender this year thanks to the graduation of Jean-Philippe Lamoureux.

“This year it’s been a case for us of key positions, none more key than goaltending, but Brad Eidsness has done a good job adjusting into the number-one role,” said Hakstol before adding, “There’s other factors as well. Other guys having to step up and play more minutes and injury situations change the landscape a little bit so there’s a lot of factors involved.”

Matchups By the Numbers

Colorado College and Michigan Tech get one last week off to rest up.

No. 16 Minnesota Duluth @ No. 15 Wisconsin
Overall Records: UMD — 13-7-6 (7-6-5 WCHA). UW — 13-10-3 (10-6-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UW leads the overall series, 84-55-12.

Alaska Anchorage @ No. 7 Denver
Overall Records: UAA — 8-10-4 (5-9-4 WCHA). DU — 15-7-3 (11-5-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: DU leads the overall series, 36-13-5.

No. 12 North Dakota @ St. Cloud State
Overall Records: UND — 15-10-3 (10-5-3 WCHA). SCSU — 13-11-2 (8-9-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UND leads the overall series, 47-26-10.

No. 5 Minnesota and Minnesota State (home-and-home)
Overall Records: UM — 12-5-5 (9-4-3 WCHA). MSU, M — 11-13-3 (7-11-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UM leads the overall series, 29 (or 28)-3-6.

PairWise Watch

Who from the WCHA would be in the tournament if the season were to end today?

Minnesota (t-4th) and Denver (t-8th) would be in for sure. Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota (t-14th) are right there on the bubble, while Wisconsin (17), St. Cloud State (19) and Colorado College (20) need a little bit of help.

Honored Coaches

Something you may have missed is that two WCHA assistant coaches have been chosen for some personal honors over the past few weeks.

Gophers’ assistant coach Mike Hastings was inducted into the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame for his work with the United States Hockey League’s Omaha Lancers. Hastings is the winningest coach in the USHL’s history, won Coach of the Year twice and General Manager of the Year five times.

Pioneers’ assistant coach Steve Miller, who will be behind the bench for Denver this Friday, was chosen by the American Hockey Coaches Association to receive the Terry Flanagan Award. The award honors an assistant coach’s career body of work. Miller has spent 18 years as an assistant coach — 15 at Denver and three at Miami, all under Gwozdecky.

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