WCHA/CCHA battles bring out the best in nonconference play

For 18 seasons, Minnesota and Wisconsin never had to look far to find quality nonconference opponents.

Michigan and Michigan State have been on the Minnesota and Wisconsin regular season schedules once every Thanksgiving weekend since 1993. The weekend pitted four of the five Big Ten institutions with Division I hockey programs.

The Gophers and Badgers went to Ann Arbor and East Lansing in odd-numbered years and the Wolverines and Spartans came to Minneapolis and Madison each even-numbered year. The WCHA came out on top this season, playing on home ice.

Good for Wisconsin, which lost its last four games at home to North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth, but left this weekend with a 4-4 tie against the No. 8 Wolverines and backed it up with a 4-1 win against Michigan State.

After giving up four goals on 20 shots, Brett Bennett settled down and finished the Michigan game with 12 saves between the third period and overtime. The Badgers took advantage of two unnecessary Wolverines penalties. One was a high-sticking penalty in the first period that led to a Justin Schultz goal that cut a 2-0 deficit in half. Jake Gardiner capitalized on an elbowing penalty that carried over from the second period with the game-tying goal 49 seconds into the third period.

Wisconsin finished the game 3-for-6 on the power play after the Wolverines took nine penalties for 26 minutes. Schultz finished his hat trick Saturday night with a goal on the PP 28 seconds into the third period.

Although the Gophers scored one power play goal against Michigan, Sunday afternoon, penalties weren’t the problem for the Wolverines in the 3-1 Minnesota win. It was the Gophers ‘D’ that frustrated Michigan’s breakout all game long as the Wolverines tried to advance the puck through the neutral zone.

Still, Michigan found a way to get shots on Minnesota goaltender Alex Kangas and outshot the Gophers 36-26. Kangas, who finished with 35 saves, got his first win since the season opener on Oct. 8, in his first start since Nov. 5.

Thanks to Kangas, who stopped all 11 shots he faced in third period, the Gophers held on to their two-goal lead and the win. The Minnesota offense, meanwhile, put only four shots on goal in the final 20 minutes.

Minnesota was a topsy-turvy team in 2009-10 and the trend has continued so far this season. Think: domination at CC, the flop at home to Wisconsin, the sweep at Tech, a first-period meltdown against the Spartans and Sunday’s big win over Michigan. The lack of attack by the Gophers in Sunday’s third period shows inconsistency in itself and it will be interesting which Minnesota team shows up in Mankato this weekend when the Gophers take on Minnesota State.

The Minnesota/Michigan game concluded the College Hockey Showcase, which brought together 23 total national championships between the four teams. Until Boston University won last season’s title, that was more than any other foursome in Division I.
And now it’s a thing of the past.

No. 9 UND hosted No. 11 Notre Dame in another WCHA/CCHA series in Grand Forks this weekend in which the Sioux won 6-3 and tied 2-2. The Fighting Sioux didn’t face a deficit all weekend but more importantly, limited the Irish power play opportunities. Penalty minutes have hurt UND at times this season.

Bemidji State split with the CCHA’s Northern Michigan this weekend in Bemidji. WCHA teams are 8-5-1 against the the CCHA this season.