This Week in the WCHA: Feb. 19, 2009

We are only a month away from the Final Five. Crazy, huh? Three more weekends of the regular season, then quarterfinals and bam, before you know it, we’ll all be convening in St. Paul.

Of course, as mentioned, it’s a few weeks away and there’s still hockey to be played and conference standings to be determined. First through ninth are still only separated by 10 points and have been that way for the past few weeks.

And now, first through fifth are separated by a mere four points. Will the playoff picture start to come into focus this weekend? Or will we be waiting on the edges of our seats until the final weekend?

Stay tuned to this column — same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Red Baron Pizza WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Players of the Week: Jay Barriball, UM and Chris VandeVelde, UND.
Why: Barriball had two goals and one assist, including Saturday’s game-winning goal to help his Gophers take three points from Alaska Anchorage. VandeVelde also had three points (1g, 2a) to help his Sioux sweep Minnesota State.
Also Nominated: Joe Colborne, DU; Jordan Baker, MTU.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Garrett Raboin, SCSU.
Why: Scored three points (1g, 2a) and helped the Husky defense allow only 45 shots on goal the entire weekend to help his team sweep Michigan Tech.
Also Nominated: Patrick Wiercioch, DU; Cade Fairchild, UM; Brad Miller, UND.

Red Baron WCHA Rookie of the Week: Brad Eidsness, UND.
Why: Stopped 46 of 50 total shots on goal to help the Sioux sweep Minnesota State.
Also Nominated: Josh Robinson, MTU; Jordan Schroeder, UM.

Revisiting Minnesota State

The last time I seriously talked to Mavericks head coach Troy Jutting, the team was on an 8-3-3 roll, thanks in part to his team finally having some experience.

After our chat and the accompanying column, the team slid. Hard. The Mavs lost seven in a row and have gone 5-5 since the first of the year.

So, what happened? According to Jutting, it’s fairly simple — the team got hit with injuries.

“We’ve had a series of injuries that have really hurt us,” he said. “It’s one of those situations where last season, we barely lost any man games to injury and this year, we’ve played very few games, two or three, with our whole roster. We went through a stretch there in mid-December through January where we had three or four kids out with all kinds of injuries and it really hurt the continuity of practice; obviously you miss those kids in the games as well.”

Despite still having a few players out for the season with various broken bones, Jutting feels his team is starting to come back around — and no, not because of its sweep of Minnesota.

“We got swept up in North Dakota this weekend, but I think we probably played better Saturday than we’ve played in a long time,” he said. “When these games are as close as they are in our league right now, I think you find that a break here or there is what decides most of the games in our league right now.

“Against Minnesota, we got a few bounces and against North Dakota, we didn’t. But in terms of play, I thought [we played] one of our better games for sure Saturday night in a loss at North Dakota.”

The tough thing now for Jutting and his team will to stay sharp through the rest of the season … something that has been a bit difficult lately due to league scheduling.

“The problem is, we got a break two weeks ago, we had 14 days off in between the Minnesota series and the North Dakota series and now we have another weekend off right after the North Dakota series,” Jutting explained.

“The scheduling here at the end has been a little difficult, only playing once in basically three and a half weeks,” he continued. “Only playing two games at this time of the year [in that amount of time] is not ideal. Yeah, you can get rested up, but you also need to stay sharp and stay involved in games.”

Even though the Mavs technically have this weekend off, they will end up playing three games in five days thanks to their Tuesday nonconference match against Nebraska Omaha and the following weekend’s series with Wisconsin, which should help get their continuity back.

“Our focus right now is being as good as we can be down the stretch here and come playoff time,” said Jutting. “We’ve got five regular-season games left before the playoffs. We need to make sure we’re at our best come playoff time because you can have a great season and lose in the playoffs to make it not a very good year, so we need to make sure we’re as good as we can be.”

Bulldogs: Just Rolling Along

Even though their current position doesn’t show it (thanks in part to sitting idle this past weekend), the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs are in the middle of the pack fighting for home ice.

For some of us (including me), it’s a surprise given that many picked the Bulldogs to be in the lower third of the league by the end of the season.

Still, this is why the games are played. If you talk to coach Scott Sandelin, however, he’s not surprised at all.

“Well, I don’t know if it’s been a surprise,” he said. “We had some returning guys that could certainly do more offensively and obviously with some incoming freshmen that we thought could help our team [and] with a good goaltender which we knew with [Alex] Stalock coming back, I wouldn’t say it’s surprising.

“To me, I think probably the biggest difference has been we’re a little more consistent and we’ve scored more goals,” he continued. “I mean, last year we played well, we played hard, but we just couldn’t score and it’s tough to win games when you’re not scoring.”

The lack of offense and the way everything went down for the Bulldogs last year makes it one of the more interesting years Sandelin has had in his hockey career.

“Last year was a unique year. I’ve never been through anything like that as a player or coach,” he said. However, he acknowledged that last year is “behind us, so we can keep moving forward.”

The question is now, will the move forward include home ice in the playoffs? An NCAA bid? Both?

“Right now, there’s a lot ahead of us and it’s certainly good to be in a decent position,” said Sandelin. “I think last year, we were in the same boat maybe, we were kind of right on that bubble and we had a poor finish so again, I’m a big believer like every coach that you’ve gotta win and take care of yourself.

“There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played and [our PairWise position] is going to change, quite drastically, probably for a lot of teams in that 10-to-20 range.”

Still, Sandelin’s optimistic and is hoping the cards fall in his team’s favor.

“We’re right in the thick of it, you know obviously, with six games to go, we’ve been good at home so we’d obviously love to play there. It would be great for our seniors [and] our fans,” he said. “That would be what we’re shooting for: a top-five finish, get to the Final Five and stay in that race to get a tournament bid.”

Matchups By the Numbers

St. Cloud State is off while the Mavericks play only a Tuesday nonconference game.

No. 8 Denver @ No. 13 Wisconsin
Overall Records: DU — 17-9-4 (13-7-3 WCHA). UW — 16-11-3 (13-7-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UW leads the overall series, 71-52-9.

No. 9 North Dakota @ Alaska Anchorage
Overall Records: UND — 18-11-3 (13-6-3 WCHA). UAA — 10-13-5 (7-12-5 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UND leads the overall series, 37-16-3.

No. 15 Minnesota Duluth @ Michigan Tech
Overall Records: UMD — 15-9-6 (9-8-5 WCHA). MTU — 5-21-6 (1-17-6 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: MTU leads the overall series, 116-72-16 (or 116-71-17, depending on whom you ask).

No. 14 Minnesota @ No. 18 Colorado College
Overall Records: UM — 13-9-6 (10-8-4 WCHA). CC — 14-9-8 (10-8-5 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UM leads the overall series, 156-82-7.

Minnesota State @ Nebraska Omaha
Overall Records: MSU, M — 13-15-3 (9-13-2 WCHA). UNO — 13-13-7 (8-11-7-3 CCHA).
Head-to-Head: MSU, M leads the overall series, 12-7-3.

PairWise Watch

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

(Yes, I changed the wording. It makes what I’ve been saying clearer.)

Denver (eighth) would be the only lock. If the tournaments were to go down the way they in theory should, North Dakota (12th), Minnesota (13th) and Minnesota Duluth (14th) would also be in. Wisconsin is right on the bubble at 15th while St. Cloud State (19th) and Colorado College (t-20th) still need quite a bit of help.

Odds and Ends

• Former Maverick defenseman Chad Brownlee made his musical debut Wednesday, unveiling his new CD in Mankato.

• Michigan Tech is one tie away from matching the WCHA record of seven in a season in WCHA play. Tech’s six ties are tied for most in school history and all six have come in league.

• Another former Seawolf joined the NHL ranks this past week, as Jay Beagle suited up for the Washington Capitals.

• UND will be without defenseman Derrick LaPoint for the remainder of the season. He underwent successful surgery for an undisclosed injury (that is, a broken leg) suffered Saturday night against Minnesota State. Trevor Bruess, the Maverick responsible, has been suspended for one game by the school.

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