This Week in the WCHA: Jan. 28, 2010

With just over a month left in the season, the gap between first place and fifth place is two points.

You read that right. Two. League-leading Minnesota-Duluth has 25 points, followed by St. Cloud State and Denver with 24 and Wisconsin and Colorado College with 23. North Dakota isn’t quite out of the hunt for home ice yet, with 19 points.

Unless something drastic happens, Minnesota (16), Alaska-Anchorage (15) and Minnesota State (11) will be on the road for the playoffs, while Michigan Tech (four) needs a miracle.

Although it’s in the context of his own team, UND coach Dave Hakstol mentioned what it’s going to be like going into the stretch run of the season in his weekly news conference.

“Anybody that’s afraid to fail and afraid to put themselves out there better go home right now because she’s going to be a dogfight down the stretch,” he said. “We’re going to put ourselves out on a limb, we’re going to go after it, we’re going to play good teams and we’re going to find ways to win against good teams, so that’s life. That’s life in the WCHA. Anybody that’s afraid of that, you’re in the wrong business.”

Red Baron WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Player of the Week: Michael Davies, UW.
Why: Scored four points (two goals, two assists) and became the first Badger to reach 100 career points since 2006 in helping his team take three points from Denver.
Also Nominated: Kane LaFranchise, UAA; Jason Gregoire, UND; Jared Festler, SCSU.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Garrett Raboin, SCSU.
Why: Scored a goal and helped his Huskies sweep Minnesota by limiting the Gophers to four goals total despite UM outshooting SCSU 85-54.
Also Nominated: Jon Olthuis, UAA; Brad Eidsness, UND.

Red Baron WCHA Rookie of the Week: David Eddy, SCSU.
Why: Scored both game-winning goals for the Huskies in their home-and-home sweep of Minnesota.
Also Nominated: Alex Gellart, UAA; William Rapuzzi, CC; Matt Donovan, DU; Aaron Dell, UND; Craig Smith, UW.

Playoff Preview

… Kind of. The Pioneers and Badgers may indeed meet in the playoffs, but if they do, it’ll undoubtedly be either at the Final Five or in the NCAA tournament.

Still, their series last weekend was one that led both coaches to compare the weekend’s atmosphere to that of the playoffs.

“It was as close to a playoff series as a regular season series can provide,” said DU’s George Gwozdecky.

“The best thing about this weekend that when you play at that level, that’s championship level at college hockey,” said Badgers coach Mike Eaves on Saturday night. “What better way to prepare yourself than playing in these types of games?”

The weekend’s results — a 3-3 tie (“What you might expect from two top hockey teams in the college hockey world, Eaves said) and a 4-3 UW win — were a pleasant surprise for Badgers fans, who had been used to seeing the Pioneers dominate in their building. Going into the series, DU had a 13-2-2 record at the Kohl Center.

“Well, I was hoping that that record for us would continue to go for the next 15, 20, 25, 30 years,” quipped Gwozdecky. “But in all seriousness, it’s a heck of a team they’ve got there this year. It’s not by fluke that they are one of the top teams in the country, no matter who they’re playing against — especially at home.

“Whatever’s happened in the past, whether it was last year or the year before, really doesn’t matter when you step on the ice in the series,” he said. “It’s about who’s on the ice and who’s competing against who. So I would have liked somehow to have this mystical record that we have sprinkle gold dust over our team and have it magically give us an edge, but it just doesn’t happen.”

Playoff Preview, Part Two

Like last weekend, we have a couple big series this weekend. However, if you look at the league standings (or hark back to the first few paragraphs of this column), you could make the argument that every series from here on out is difficult. Don’t believe me? Believe George.

“When you look at the league race right now, as close as it is and as competitive as this league is, from here on in, every series is important,” said Gwozdecky. “Whether you want to describe them as big or important or difficult or challenging or whatever, this is what makes the league so much fun to follow, so much fun to watch the games and why this league is continually the top league of college hockey in the country.”

That being said, two series this weekend stand out.

Sioux vs. Pioneers

This series is typically fun regardless just because one usually sees an exciting game, whether it be a goalie duel, a high-scoring shoot out or a brawling blood bath.

Granted, UND will be without a couple of its better-known players (news flash: Chay Genoway is still out) and is struggling for Fighting Sioux standards, but it’s a team you should never count out.

“I’ve seen them play and I think in this league, sometimes the bounce of the puck works for you and sometimes it doesn’t,” said Gwozdecky. “I watched them play both games against Minnesota a couple weekends ago and they were very, very good. Unfortunately, the puck — and I mean this with all sincerity — the puck just didn’t seem to bounce with them.

“That Saturday night game, everybody looks at the score and it’s 5-1 Minnesota and people are going, ‘My goodness, North Dakota got blown out of the building and they’re not the team that they used to be,’ or whatever reason if they just look at the score,” he continued. “If you watched the game, I think you realize how good North Dakota was.”

The Sioux, meanwhile, are looking for a chance to even the season series, after being swept in Denver back in November.

“We didn’t like the way things went down there,” said Hakstol. “The bottom line is, we didn’t win either night. We’ll be a better team here. … I feel confident that we’ll play hard.

“They’re a multidimensional team and we’ll be ready to play against all of their strengths.”

Bulldogs vs. Badgers

This series probably won’t get as much press, which is a shame, because it should also be a good one, pitting the second-ranked team in the country (tied for third in the league) against the ninth-ranked team in the country (first in the league).

For the Badgers, in many ways, it’s another weekend in the WCHA meat grinder before a small non-conference break at Camp Randall.

“The last three weekends have been like that,” said coach Mike Eaves. “We’ve gone from CC to Denver to Duluth. So every week, it seems to be a groundhog week in terms of same type of mind-set. Try to put points on the board and W’s and then get ready for the next game, and that’s our task again this week.”

For the Bulldogs, this series is about getting back on the winning track after being swept by Bemidji State and keeping a good position in the league.

“We played well for about half the weekend against Bemidji. From a competitive standpoint, that’s never going to be good enough,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said after Saturday’s game. “We have to get better with puck management and turnovers. And we have to be better defensively, especially against Wisconsin, because they have no holes in their lineup.”

Honorable Mention: Tigers vs. Huskies

Two teams in the second and third positions in the league (and fifth and 11th in the polls) and it’s not even considered “big.” Such a shame. Due to proximity, I’ll be at at least one game in this series (while catching snippets of other games on the World Arena press box TV).

Around the WCHA

UAA: Barring anything freaky happening in Thursday’s practices or Friday’s morning skate, the Seawolves should have their full roster available and healthy for the first time all season on Friday night.

The Anchorage Daily News had a note about how the Seawolves do poorly on Friday nights at home and well on Saturdays and included some good quotes from a few players:

“I honestly can’t explain it. We get our asses kicked on Fridays, but we do great Saturdays, so I guess we learn from our mistakes?” — junior wing Tommy Grant.

“After Saturday night wins, we might come in [the next Friday] with big egos and maybe we let off the gas a little bit. We come back [Saturday] with some fire under our asses.” — freshman center Alex Gellart.

Matchups by the Numbers

All 10 teams play in some fashion against each other.

Wisconsin @ Minnesota-Duluth
Overall Records: UW — 14-6-4 (10-5-3 WCHA). UMD — 16-9-1 (12-5-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UW leads the overall series, 86-56-13.

Denver @ North Dakota
Overall Records: DU — 14-6-4 (10-4-4 WCHA). UND — 13-8-5 (8-7-3 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UND leads the overall series, 129-112-8.

Minnesota @ Alaska-Anchorage
Overall Records: UM — 12-12-2 (7-9-2 WCHA). UAA — 9-14-1 (7-12-1 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: UM leads the overall series, 48-15-7.

Minnesota State @ Michigan Tech
Overall Records: MSU — 11-13-2 (5-12-1 WCHA). MTU — 3-20-1 (2-16-0 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: MSU leads the overall series, 22-12-3.

St. Cloud State @ Colorado College
Overall Records: SCSU — 16-7-3 (11-5-2 WCHA). CC — 14-9-3 (10-7-3 WCHA).
Head-to-Head: CC leads the overall series, 41-30-6.
Notes: SCSU has gone 11-1-1 in its last 13 games, with the loss and the tie coming at the hands of the Tigers.

Future WCHA Team Watch

Bemidji State swept the WCHA’s own Minnesota-Duluth and next hosts conference foe Robert Morris. Nebraska-Omaha swept former WCHA member Northern Michigan and next heads on the road for two against Notre Dame.

No. 7 BSU: 17-5-2 overall, 3-3-0 vs. WCHA
UNO: 12-11-5 overall, 1-1-1 vs. WCHA

I Love a Good Story

I quit subscribing to Sports Illustrated a few years back (too much basketball and not enough hockey for my tastes), but I did miss the well-written features the magazine had every now and then. Each issue had some feature, some brilliant piece of sportswriting that caught my eye and captured my attention.

This week’s issue has a piece on the Lamoureux family, who we all know because of their presence at North Dakota. Gary Smith’s story is one of the better pieces I’ve read in a while in any publication, not only because of the story he weaves, but also because of the pure, simple spirit of hockey that he encapsulates.


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