This Week in the WCHA: October 22, 2009

We’ve entered the early part of the season, where everything still feels new, on both the spectators’ side and that of the coaches and teams, who are still feeling everything out. This weekend, we get all ten teams in action against each other for the first of five total times this year, an early way to gauge competition.

It’ll be an early glimpse to see how our respective teams match up with others in the conference, to give us an early hint of how our team might fare or to show us that, hey, injuries happen to everyone this early and we shouldn’t be worried just quite yet.

For me, like the coaches, this time of year helps me get a better handle on things to try to guess on how this crazy, unpredictable league just might (maybe) pan out.

Red Baron WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Player of the Week: Justin Fontaine, UMD.
Why: Scored five points (4g, 1a) to help his Bulldogs sweep Minnesota State.
Also Nominated: Rhett Rakhshani, DU; Chay Genoway, UND.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Chay Genoway, UND.
Why: Scored three power-play goals and was a vital member of UND’s special teams to help the Sioux take three points from the Gophers.
Also Nominated: Joe Howe, CC; Marc Cheverie, DU.

Red Baron WCHA Rookie of the Week: Joe Howe, CC.
Why: Stopped 65 of 68 Wisconsin shots to help his Tigers take three points from the Badgers.
Also Nominated: Drew Shore, DU; Danny Kristo, UND.

Howe About Those Tigers

Given how much CC lost this past summer, it’s understandable that no one really expected much out of them. Now granted, it’s still early, but the Tigers are without a doubt this year’s early surprise team.

The Tigers, picked to finish in the lower half of the league (around the seventh or eighth spot), are 2-1-1 to start so far (1-0-1 in conference), thanks in part to a couple different factors, especially the play of freshman goaltender Joe Howe.

“Joe’s played great for us,” said Tigers’ coach Scott Owens. “He’s been poised, he’s been making tough saves and easy saves, he gave us a chance at Wisconsin to pick up those points, especially on Friday night. He got the win against Northeastern, so it’s been a huge bright spot here for us in the early goings. His poise and his confidence is obvious, and I think it’s been a little bit reflective on our team as well.”

Besides Howe, the Tigers have received scoring from unlikely sources, namely third and fourth line players such as Matt Overman, Brian McMillin and Tyler Johnson, all of whom scored in Friday’s win over Wisconsin, and all of whom combined for 23 points last season.

“We’re kind of hoping it’s foreshadowing for our team this year, that we can have some diversified scoring,” said Owens. “Different people stepping up on different nights is going to be key for us if we want to have success.”

As for CC’s start, did Owens expect it? Not in the least.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he admitted. “I think the team has come together very nicely, and a large part of that is Mike Testwuide as captain as done a great job. I’m pleasantly surprised, and it’s early, but the energy’s been good, the excitement level’s been good and a lot of people have been playing well. From a coaching staff’s perspective, that makes us happy.”

Despite the good things that have happened for the Tigers so far, Owens knows that there’s still a long road ahead as far as the season goes.

“We’ve got a lot of things we need to get better at. We’re still working to become a better team [and] we’re a long ways away, but it’s been an encouraging start.”

Fontaine of Early Success

Another team that has been a pleasant surprise so far is last year’s Broadmoor Trophy-winning Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. After losing so many people and key components of last year’s squad, predictions on where UMD would end up ran the gamut, from home ice to the league basement.

Now, I’ll stress once again that it’s early, but so far, the Bulldogs’ start has started them on the path to defending last year’s hardware, even if coach Scott Sandelin is cautious to admit as much.

“It’s been like early season play,” he said, when asked to describe his team’s play, before admitting his team played well this past weekend against Minnesota State.

He is happy, however, about the play of his top guys, particularly Justin Fontaine and Jack Connelly, who have seemingly picked right back up from last year.

“Obviously those are the guys going into the year, the type of players they are; you count on those guys to contribute and lead our offense and to this point, they’ve done that,” said Sandelin. “It’s good to see them have a good start, confidence-wise, for both of those guys and then Mike Connelly was back in the line-up, had four points and hopefully those [three] guys can lead us in the early part and continue to have good years. But, we certainly need some secondary scoring but hopefully our young guys will keep growing.”

Along with the scoring he’s gotten, Sandelin is also pleased with the play of his goaltenders, Brady Hjelle and Kenny Reiter

“We were comfortable with our goaltenders going in, even though they didn’t have a lot of experience,” he said. “We know there’s still probably going to be some ups and downs, but I think to this point, obviously Brady’s had a good start and we know Kenny is right there too.”

Still, Sandelin is wary, knowing the youth of his defensive corps and the fact that there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played.

“Hopefully, it can continue. We just want those guys to do their job. If they can do their job, it makes everyone in front of them better too, and we’re still pretty young on the blue line and there’s games where we’re going to get exposed.”

Seawolf Injury Déja Vu

At the second-column-of-the-season point of last year, I wrote about Alaska Anchorage’s early success despite the team being hit by early season departures as well as a few injuries.

This year, the team isn’t quite off to the same start (2-2 as compared to 3-1) and hasn’t had anyone leave early, but the Seawolves have been bitten by the injury bug once again, this time, on their back line.

Senior defensemen Nils Backstrom and Trevor Hunt have been out since before the season started, but this past weekend, during the Brice Alaska Goal Rush, the Seawolves lost junior blueliner Luka Vidmar, forcing coach Dave Shyiak to move Ken Selby to defense.

Now that the Seawolves have been forced to deal with injury early on for the second straight year, is Shyiak frustrated? Probably, but he accepts it as part of the game.

“Different programs deal with injuries at different points in the year,” he said. “Some have them earlier, some have them mid-year and some at the end of the year so we’re no different. We just deal with it the best way we can. What it does is give opportunity to other people to eat up those minutes and see what they can do in those situations.”

Opportunities like that for freshmen Lee Baldwin, who normally wouldn’t be seeing as much action early on.

“Right now, we have some freshmen in that probably wouldn’t be getting as many minutes as they’re getting right now, but we basically have no choice,” said Shyiak. “It does give them experience and it does give them a quicker transition into league play.”

Match-Ups By the Numbers

Our first weekend of all-WCHA play, as you read above, includes all ten teams playing against each other. No byes this week …

#18 Minnesota-Duluth @ St. Cloud State
Overall Records: UMD — 3-1-0 (2-0-0 WCHA). SCSU — 1-2-1 (0-0-0 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: SCSU leads the overall series, 52-37-5.

Michigan Tech @ Colorado College
Overall Records: MTU — 1-1-0 (0-0-0 WCHA). CC — 2-1-1 (1-0-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: CC leads the all-time series, 87-71-12.

#17 Wisconsin @ Minnesota State
Overall Records: UW — 0-1-1 (0-1-1 WCHA). MSU, M — 2-2-0 (0-2-0 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UW leads the overall series, 17-13-4.

#4 Denver @ #11 Minnesota
Overall Records: DU — 2-2-0 (0-0-0 WCHA). UM — 0-1-1 (0-1-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UM leads the overall series, 93-64-12.

#2 North Dakota @ Alaska Anchorage
Overall Records: UND — 3-0-1 (1-0-1 WCHA). UAA — 2-2-0 (0-0-0 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UND leads the overall series, 40-17-3 (or 39-16-3, depending on whom you ask)

Future WCHA Team Watch

Both future teams are doing well. Nebraska-Omaha took three points from Colgate, is ranked 12 in the polls and hosts Bowling Green this weekend. Bemidji State had a bye week, is ranked 16, and travels to Northern Michigan this weekend.

BSU: 2-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 vs. WCHA
UNO: 3-0-1 overall, 0-0-0 vs. WCHA

Room for Improvement

The first big round of non-conference play is done and the results are in: the WCHA went 12-9-1 against the rest of college hockey. The above-.500 record is good, but probably not good enough in the long run when one thinks of possible future tournament bids.

It also makes one think if we’re once again looking toward another down (relatively speaking) year in the league or, conversely, if it just proves that the parity in college hockey grows bigger every year, closing the gap between the first team and the 58th.

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