This Week in the WCHA: March 11, 2010

Oh hey, look at that — playoffs start this week. For a season that seemed to drag at times, the last month sure has flown by …

Red Baron WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Player of the Week: Kevin Clark, UAA.
Why: Scored four goals (two in each game) to help his Seawolves split with Minnesota-Duluth.
Also Nominated: Mike Testwuide, CC; Kyle Ostrow, DU; Mike Carman, UM; Rylan Galiardi, MSU; Jason Gregoire, UND.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Kurt Davis, MSU.
Why: Scored Friday’s game-winning goal and was crucial defensively, including on the penalty kill, to help his Mavericks earn three points from St. Cloud State.
Also Nominated: Patrick Wiercioch, DU; Alex Kangas, UM; Brad Eidsness, UND.

Red Baron WCHA Rookie of the Week: Phil Cook, MSU.
Why: Stopped 51 of 55 shots on goal and had four shutout periods to help his Mavericks get three points from SCSU.
Also Nominated: Danny Kristo, UND; Craig Smith, UW.

Recapping Picks

Well, another year gone by and another year failed on picking the league correctly. Let’s see how we all did, shall we?

1. Denver (me 1st, coaches 1st, media 1st)
2. Wisconsin (me 2nd, coaches 3rd, media 3rd)
3. St. Cloud State (me 5th, coaches 5th, media 5th)
4. North Dakota (me 3rd, coaches 2nd, media 2nd)
5. Minnesota-Duluth (me 9th, coaches 6th, media 6th)
6. Colorado College (me 8th, coaches 8th, media 7th)
7. Minnesota (me 4th, coaches 4th, media 4th)
8. Minnesota State (me 6th, coaches 7th, media 8th)
9. Alaska-Anchorage (me 7th, coaches 9th, media 9th)
10. Michigan Tech (me 10th, coaches 10th, media 10th)

I got three right, coaches got three right, media got five right. Congratulations to most of the rest of my colleagues. To be fair, though, coaches got Nos. 7 and 8 backward, so they were almost right there.

Spots two through six were where everyone got lost. Wisconsin was about where we all thought they would be. North Dakota was lower, but that could be in part due to the loss of Chay Genoway early on. Minnesota-Duluth did the things I thought it needed to do to succeed; I just didn’t expect them to do so well (sorry, guys). St. Cloud State finally found some consistency which helped it out and Minnesota, well, the Gophers in many respects had a disappointing season, finishing two spots lower than any of us thought.

I personally gambled a bit on my picks with Minnesota State and Alaska-Anchorage, but I don’t regret it. Both are teams that are on the verge of breaking out and definitely showed signs of doing so this year; Anchorage especially. It just so happens that the rest of the league is so difficult that it’s hard to do so.

My player picks for the WCHA media poll aren’t also what I’d agree with right now.

My choice for player of the year, as well as the media’s, was Minnesota’s Jordan Schroeder. Yeah, that didn’t work out for any of us. Instead, today I’d argue Denver’s Marc Cheverie. Most of DU’s success this year has been because of him.

For rookie of the year, I picked UND’s Danny Kristo while the media had SCSU’s Mike Lee pegged. While Lee had a decent year, I would say CC’s Joe Howe had a better one. I’ll still stand by my Kristo pick, with another nod to UW’s Craig Smith.

Matchups by the Numbers

The playoff version, on steroids.

No. 1 Denver vs. No. 10 Michigan Tech
Overall records: DU — 25-7-4 (19-5-4 WCHA). MTU — 5-28-1 (4-24-0 WCHA).
Season head-to-head: DU won the series, 2-0.
In depth: The Pioneers have been the best team in the league and one of the best teams in the nation all season, and there’s a simple reason why, according to coach George Gwozdecky: the team doesn’t take anyone for granted.

“I think our team has learned throughout the season, especially in this conference, if you don’t play at your best, if you don’t bring your best [and] you’re not ready to match physically and not ready to match the emotion and intensity that the other team has, you’re setting yourself up to get beat,” he said.

That philosophy, along with the Pioneers’ deceptively tough series with Michigan Tech a few weeks ago, is why Gwozdecky knows his players won’t take the woeful Huskies for granted.

“They compete extremely hard,” he said. “There’s no question that we expect Michigan Tech to do whatever they can. They compete as hard as any team we’ve competed against in the WCHA this year and we certainly respect that characteristic. It should be a very good series.”

Jamie Russell, his MTU counterpart, knows his team has an uphill battle going into this weekend, but he’s prepared to fight.

“They’re a very talented team. They’re No. 1 in the country for a reason, but we’ve got to play real simple hockey [and] make sure that we’re strong defensively,” he said. “We need our goaltenders to be very consistent in their play [and] give us an opportunity to win. It’s going to be a challenge.

“We’ve got a banged-up lineup, but to be honest, that’s something we’re pretty used to.”

Russell also knows his team needs to put pucks on the net to try and have a chance against the possible player of the year in Cheverie.

“He’s among the best in the country; he’s put up phenomenal numbers,” said Russell. “We have to concentrate on getting pucks to the net. We have to go to the net hard. We’re a team that has to score those greasy goals that are hard-working. You’ve got to get traffic in front of a goaltender that’s playing that well; make it difficult for him to see the puck.”

No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Alaska-Anchorage
Overall records: UW — 22-9-4 (17-8-3 WCHA). UAA — 11-21-2 (9-17-2 WCHA).
Season head-to-head: UW won the series, 2-0.
In depth: Wisconsin’s Mike Eaves is approaching this series the same way he’s been approaching a lot of this season — with a relaxed attitude. He even gave his players a day off from practice this week, hoping for a refreshed squad.

That’s not to say he’s overlooking the Seawolves, however, even though his team was the only one UAA failed to get a point from.

“They’re going to work extremely hard and they’re going to play very well together,” said Eaves. “When they play five on the ice, you’re going to have to beat all five guys because they play well together.”

In their credit, the Seawolves are a much different team than the one the Badgers faced in November. For one, they’re a lot healthier. Still, coach Dave Shyiak knows his team is going to have to work hard.

“I think right now, we’re usually a team that plays our best hockey this time of the year and we want to go in and be tough to play against,” he said. “Obviously we know we have a challenge against Wisconsin. They’re a legitimate [Frozen] Four team. The D corps they have is real dynamic offensively and they have two lines that can score and they’re good on special teams.

“We’re going to have to have good puck management and find ways to get pucks to the net and have people driving there and, at the same time, find ways to defend our net a little bit better.”

No. 3 St. Cloud State vs. No. 8 Minnesota State
Overall records: SCSU — 20-11-5 (15-9-4 WCHA). MSU — 15-18-3 (9-17-2 WCHA).
Season head-to-head: MSU won the series, 3-0-1.
Notes: MSU has won only two first-round WCHA series.
In depth: The key word for this series is familiarity, as the teams played each other last weekend; the only time the two teams met all season.

However, Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting is quick to point out that even though the games are two weekends apart, the playoffs are different.

“I don’t know how much you put into it since it’s regular season versus playoffs, so I think it’s good for both teams in terms of both teams will have very good familiarity with each other after just playing two games,” he said.

St. Cloud State’s Bob Motzko, on the other hand, told the St. Cloud Times that he’s focusing on what his team needs to get better at; namely, the penalty kill.

“Right now, that’s the thing we have to correct,” he said. “[W]e gave up five power-play goals this weekend and our power play didn’t score and we got one point. That’s pretty cut and dried.”

No. 4 North Dakota vs. No. 7 Minnesota
Overall records: UND — 20-11-5 (15-10-3 WCHA). UM — 17-17-2 (12-14-2 WCHA).
Season head-to-head: The teams tied the series, 1-1-2.
In depth: Though all five series this weekend are big, one could argue that this is the biggest given that it is a rivalry series as well as a playoff series. Though that fact does add a little extra to the series, North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol knows there are more important things on the line.

“You can make what you want of [the rivalry series]. Obviously there’s a little extra on the line … but when you’re preparing to get into the playoffs, preparing for a playoff game, that stuff really doesn’t come into play,” he said. “That stuff starts getting up in your mind [and] you’re going to have a lack of focus going into the weekend.”

As a result, Hakstol has been trying to stay away from the hype this weekend, knowing his team has much more at hand.

“We’re trying to extend our season. We’re trying to make it down to St. Paul for the Final Five,” he said. With Minnesota, “the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the ice. They are the ones that stand between us and having the chance to go to St. Paul next weekend.”

The fact that the series is in Grand Forks doesn’t matter, either.

“Bottom line is you have to go out and play extremely well and simply having home ice advantage, that doesn’t win a series,” he said. “You have to go out and play good hockey and play consistently well over the weekend to win two out of three games.”

Where the series is played doesn’t necessarily matter to his Minnesota counterpart, Don Lucia.

“They have the big advantage of playing at home, but we’ve had some history and success playing at Engelstad,” he said, before correcting himself somewhat, “It’s not Engelstad anymore; at the Ralph here.”

That could have been Lucia’s way of joking, as his main word concerning the series was fun.

“It should be a fun series,” he said. “You’ve got two big rivals and obviously they’re playing very well and I think we’ve played pretty well here lately and you know that we’re going to have to have a strong weekend from Alex [Kangas] and it should be a fun atmosphere and a fun weekend.”

In all seriousness, however, Lucia knows the games will be tight.

“I think they’ll be close games and if history indicates, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an overtime game.”

No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth vs. No. 6 Colorado College
Overall records: UMD — 20-15-1 (16-11-1 WCHA). CC — 18-15-3 (12-13-3 WCHA).
Season head-to-head: UMD won the series, 3-1.
Notes: This is the first time the teams have met in Duluth for the playoffs. … The teams were also first-round opponents last year.
In depth: The two teams had similar seasons for much of the year. The two started out well, exceeding many expectations, before faltering a bit; a similarity noticed by UMD coach Scott Sandelin.

“Both teams are fairly similar,” he said. “Obviously both teams haven’t played their best here down the stretch, but it’s the playoffs and it doesn’t really matter.”

However, Sandelin is still optimistic going into the weekend.

“Three of our last four games have been pretty good [and] two of those have been wins against Minnesota and Anchorage,” he said. “There’s no question I think our special teams are going to be a key and I’m sure they’re going to be saying the same things, but matchup wise, when you get to the playoffs, they’re going to be tighter games.”

For CC, the Tigers have a few positives and negatives coming in. Despite their poor record (1-5 in their last six), their one win was on the “small” sheet at Magness Arena, the same size sheet of ice they’ll be playing on in Duluth. Howe, who went down with an undisclosed upper body injury Saturday against Denver is also reportedly ready to go.

However, coach Scott Owens knows the main thing his team needs is some offense.

“It’s been a tough grind scoring goals,” he said. “We’re barely scoring two goals a game these last six games.”

Future WCHA Team Watch

Bemidji State took three points from Alabama-Huntsville last weekend and next faces off against Niagara and either UAH or Robert Morris in the CHA tournament. Nebraska-Omaha swept Bowling Green last weekend to advance to the second round of the CCHA tournament, where it will go on the road to Ferris State.

No. 8 BSU: 23-8-3 overall, 4-4-0 vs. WCHA
UNO: 20-14-6 overall, 2-2-1 vs. WCHA

Almost There

One more column to go and it’ll come to you from St. Paul.

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