This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 7, 2010

Welcome back after the break to the second half of the WCHA season. We’ve got a mere two and a half months until we convene in St. Paul, Minn., for the Final Five with a lot of hockey left to be played.

However, the league standings are starting to become marginally clearer. We now have 16 points separating first (Denver, 20 points) from last (Michigan Tech, four points), and 12 between first and ninth (Anchorage, eight points). The battle for home ice is the kicker, though. Denver has 20 and from there, you go on down the list in backwards numerical order to St. Cloud State in fifth. North Dakota is two points behind the Huskies, Minnesota one behind the Sioux and the Mavericks just two behind the Gophers.

Crazy? Yes. Knowing it’s going to be an exciting second half? Undoubtedly.

Red Baron WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Co-Offensive Players of the Week: Rhett Rakhshani, DU and Michael Davies, UW.
Why: Rakhshani scored six points (4 goals, 2 assists) to help his Pioneers capture the Denver Cup and was named tournament MVP in the process. Davies had five points (2 goals, 3 assists) and one shootout goal during the Badger Showdown to help his Badgers win their 11th tournament title.
Also Nominated: David Civitarese, CC; Mike Hoeffel, UM; Brett Hextall, UND.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Patrick Wiercioch, DU.
Why: Scored three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and helped his Pioneers limit their opponents to three goals overall in the Denver Cup. He was also named to the all-tournament team.
Also Nominated: Nate Prosser, CC; Jake Marto, UND.

Red Baron WCHA Rookie of the Week: Phil Cook, MSU.
Why: Dominated in his three games played for the Mavericks over the break, going 2-0-1 with a 0.65 goals against average and a .974 saves percentage.
Also Nominated: Joe Howe, CC; Drew Shore, DU; Ben Hanowski, SCSU.

Secret Plans

Although Denver is sitting atop the league standings, the team has had some struggles this season; namely, its Saturday nights.

Going into the Wells Fargo Denver Cup, four of the five Pioneers losses — as well as both ties — had come on Saturday nights, for a 3-4-2 Saturday night record. Their one non-Saturday loss, a Friday night contest against Ohio State back in mid-October, was even essentially a Saturday game as it was the second night of the series.

Even in many of the Saturday night wins, the Pioneers have gotten off to a slow start. Coach George Gwozdecky recognized this along with the rest of us and, while he won’t say what it is, has developed a plan of attack for Saturday nights for the rest of the season.

“We were talking about some of the things that we need to do and without saying, without giving up the specifics, there are certain things that we are going to do starting next weekend that is really going to force our team to focus on areas of our game that we can control that will hopefully give us a better jump start for our second night of a series,” he said after the Denver Cup.

It will be interesting to see what happens this weekend against the Seawolves, that’s for sure.

Getting Some Well-Deserved Rest

Several of the WCHA members of the World Junior Championship gold medal-winning USA team will not be joining their teams on the ice this weekend, getting a chance to rest up for the second half of the season instead.

DU freshman defenseman Matt Donovan will miss the series with the Seawolves, instead going home to Oklahoma. The three Badgers involved — sophomores Derek Stepan and Jake Gardiner as well as freshman John Ramage — will miss UW’s exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 Team (which, it should be noted, will also probably be resting the two kids who won gold).

North Dakota’s Danny Kristo, on the other hand, will be playing this weekend (barring any freak accidents), as well as SCSU’s Mike Lee and Minnesota’s Jordan Schroeder, as I couldn’t find anything saying differently.

Around the WCHA

MTU: While we often recognize former Fighting Sioux, Gophers, Pioneers and even Mavericks and Tigers in the National Hockey League, we don’t often see a name associated with the MTU Huskies. Therefore, I thought it was cool to read that former Michigan Tech player Davis Payne was named interim head coach of the St. Louis Blues. Payne was at Tech from 1988 to 1992 and played one season with the Boston Bruins.

UM: As it’s the second half of the season, Bowling Green transfer Jacob Cepis was finally able to skate for the Gophers during the Dodge Holiday Classic. Cepis had a solid debut weekend, firing 10 shots on net (six against his former team and four against Northern Michigan) and scoring his first goal as a Gopher on Sunday. Cepis had 31 points in his freshman year for the Falcons and will be an asset to the U.

“He can skate, he can make plays. He’s got some dash to his game. He is not afraid of the physical contact. He is going to help our team,” coach Don Lucia said after the Bowling Green win. “He is a power-play type player, he has skills.”

UMD: It’s not often that ESPN and/or covers hockey, much less college hockey. We all know that college hockey gets its nod a.) if there’s a really cool goal scored somewhere; b.) in February for the Beanpot; and c.) in April for the Frozen Four.

So, imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned of a story on that profiled the 10 oldest rinks in college hockey, with No. 10 being the WCHA’s own Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

It was almost sad reading it, however, knowing that Duluth will be getting a brand spanking new DECC next season, even though I’m sure everyone will enjoy it.

UW: In perusing the Internet this week, I found a fun piece that the Wisconsin State Journal’s Andy Baggot did on the Badgers practicing outside at a local Madison rink this week in preparation for February’s Camp Randall Classic. The official Badgers site also has a short video of the practice as well as a few interviews.

I think the reason I liked it so much was that it showed the passion that these guys still have for hockey and that, even though it’s starting to become a “job” for them, they still enjoy the game at its core.

A few quotes from the piece: “Look at ’em … They’re just a bunch of kids out here. Seriously, we’ll have to kick them off. They will not want to leave.” — coach Mike Eaves.

“I’m thinking about it … I haven’t skated outside in so long. It’s nice. It takes you back to your roots.” — Ben Street, on him and a few teammates considering going back to the outdoors to skate on their own.

In other Badgers news, the team should get goaltender Brett Bennett back from his shoulder injury this weekend.

Match-Ups By the Numbers

Everyone’s in action this week, with four league tilts and a smattering of non-conference play.

Minnesota State @ North Dakota
Overall Records: MSU — 11-9-2 (5-8-1 WCHA). UND — 10-6-4 (6-6-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UND leads the overall series, 31-10-7, or 30-10-1, depending on whom you ask.

Michigan Tech @ St. Cloud State
Overall Records: MTU — 3-16-0 (2-12-0 WCHA). SCSU — 10-7-3 (7-5-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: SCSU leads the overall series, 49-26-5.

Alaska Anchorage @ Denver
Overall Records: UAA — 6-12-0 (4-10-0 WCHA). DU — 13-5-2 (9-3-2 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: DU leads the overall series, 40-15-5.

Colorado College @ Minnesota-Duluth
Overall Records: CC — 12-5-3 (8-3-3 WCHA). UMD — 12-7-1 (8-5-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: CC leads the overall series, 82-75-6.

Minnesota vs. Harvard
Overall Records: UM — 9-10-1 (6-7-1 WCHA). HU — 2-8-2 (2-5-2 ECACHL).
Head-to-Head: UM leads the overall series, 20-6-0.
Note: This is the first meeting between the two teams since late December 1999.

Wisconsin vs. U.S. Under-18 Team
Overall Records: UW — 12-5-3 (8-4-2 WCHA). U.S. — 3-5-0 against D-I college hockey this season.
Last Time Out: UW won 6-5 in December 2005.

Michigan Tech vs. Northern Michigan
Overall Records: MTU — 3-16-0 (2-12-0 WCHA). NMU — 9-8-4 (5-6-3-0 CCHA).
Head-to-Head: NMU leads the overall series, 62-47-11.

Future WCHA Team Watch

Since we last heard about Bemidji State, the Beavers were swept by Mankato and then took three points from Western Michigan. Next up is a road trip to play conference foe Niagara. Nebraska-Omaha had a bumpy last month. The Mavericks split Alaska, took three points from Mankato and then had a disappointing showing in the Denver Cup, losing to DU and then tying St. Lawrence. On the slate is a home series with Alaska.

No. 10 BSU: 14-4-2 overall, 1-3-0 vs. WCHA
UNO: 9-8-5 overall, 1-1-1 vs. WCHA

Righting the Dominance Ship

Way back in October, after the first major round of nonconference action, the WCHA went 12-9-1 against the rest of college hockey. Back then, I said that was a good record, being over .500 and all, but probably not good enough overall when tournament bids come around.

Well, a few teams are done with nonconference play or will be after this weekend (Tech, Minnesota, Mankato), and the league’s record is much improved at 35-19-5 with 16 non-conference games remaining. For the curious, the best records so far are:

MSU — 6-1-1
UND — 4-0-2
UW — 4-1-1

As a result of the improved nonconference record, the now not-so-early PairWise Rankings have six league teams (in theory) making it into the tournament: Denver (2), Colorado College (4), Wisconsin (5), St. Cloud State (t-9), Minnesota-Duluth (11) and North Dakota (t-12). The same six teams are in and bunched more together toward the top if you use KRACH.

In other news regarding the WCHA as the best conference in college hockey, 10 out of the 20 skaters (no goalies, sadly) on this year’s U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team are WCHA products (as well as two on Team Canada). Seven current WCHA players (as well as a few future league products) also won gold for the United States at the World Junior Championship earlier this week. Not too shabby, eh?


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