Consistency helping Alaska-Anchorage persevere

Many times this season, I’ve used this space to talk about a team’s journey, whether it be Colorado College’s roller coaster ride, St. Cloud State’s consistent inconsistency or Denver’s resiliency, to name a few examples.

Tommy Grant of Alaska-Anchorage (Alaska-Anchorage Athletics)
Tommy Grant leads Alaska-Anchorage with 10 goals and 21 points (photo: Alaska-Anchorage Athletics).

This week, I’m using this space to talk about Alaska-Anchorage’s journey (a story I feel has been a bit overdue).

In past years, the Seawolves have been a team that everyone knows can play well (and usually does at the beginning of the season), but will ultimately end up in the league basement before all is said and done.

In other words, your friendly neighborhood league doormat … that occasionally has some thorns in it that get stuck in your feet.

Granted, there are eight WCHA games left for UAA so that might happen again this year, but the 2010-11 edition of the Seawolves has proven that they want to end up in a better position.

True, their record may not be all that impressive — 8-13-3 — but the team has become a force to be reckoned with — just ask Don Lucia.

“Anchorage is better. There only has been two weekends all year that they haven’t gotten points and that’s for a reason. It just shows the depth and balance of our league this year,” the Minnesota coach said on his weekly radio show.

Why are they better? For one thing, they’ve been a more consistent team this season.

“We were a very young team early in the season with 10 freshmen and a transfer, so basically 11 new people that we were working with,” said coach Dave Shyiak. “I think probably the first four to six games, even though they were tight games, there were some inconsistencies as far as our quality of play is concerned. But I think after the Duluth weekend (Oct. 22-23) if I remember correctly, our compete level has been very consistent, the way we’ve played has been consistent, our goaltending’s been consistent and we’ve been able to win some big games because of that.

“I think as the season’s progressed, we’ve been getting better in areas we’ve wanted to,” he continued, before admitting that he knows the team needs improvement in some areas, particularly offense. “But I think the basis of our team is we play just a good, strong, team game, we’re very good defensively and we’ve just got a bunch of guys that care about one another and are willing to sacrifice for one another.”

That doesn’t mean that the team doesn’t have hiccups along the way, and Shyiak points out two in particular — their 5-1 losses to Denver on Jan. 22 and Minnesota last Friday.

“I just think [those games weren’t] very indicative of how our team plays; we don’t give up a lot of chances, we don’t give up a lot of shots and for whatever reason why, we made a lot of mental errors,” he said.

Come Saturday, however, the Seawolves were able to do something that most good teams are able to do — adapt and change the game plan to hopefully lead to victory.

“We simplified the game a little bit to make sure we didn’t give up any rush chances and we were very aggressive when we could be and as a result, it worked,” Shyiak said. “The guys executed it perfectly and we got some strong goaltending so it’s been a team that’s been resilient in a lot of ways.

“And you know, if you look at our, whatever we’ve played, 24 games, I think 20 of them have been one-goal games [note: 13 one-goal games, three ties and another three that were essentially one-goal games with empty-net goals], so we’re getting used to playing these tight situations and I think that’s certainly a positive thing. And I think you take those tight games and you learn how to play with a little bit more composure and poise and you have an understanding about what it’s going to take to win in some of these buildings in tight games.”

Being able to play in tight games is an asset, particularly down the road. Another asset is that the Seawolves have been able to win in several different situations this year. I took a look at UAA’s eight wins, and there has been no particular pattern. Take a lead, lose it, get it back in overtime. Come from behind, hold on. The last three wins, however, the Seawolves have taken the lead and never relinquished it — something that Shyiak would prefer.

“We want to try to play the same way from the start of the puck to the buzzer and no matter if you’re up a goal or down three goals, we just want to remain consistent,” he said. “I think that’s been a real good quality of this team and … that’s why you’ve seen some of the results. We’ve had some leads, we haven’t had some leads but at the end of the day, we’ve come away with some wins.”

Wins like the ones that had everyone buzzing a few weeks ago — their sweep of Colorado College Jan. 14-15.

“That weekend, we had solid goaltending obviously, Tommy Grant had a good weekend and our special teams were the best they’ve been all year, both our penalty kill and our power play,” said Shyiak. “It was just one of those weekends where I thought we played a good 120 minutes.”

He also gives all of the credit that weekend to the team. If you recall from my blog post the Monday after, I wrote that the Anchorage Daily News reported that Shyiak put his players through a boot camp to prepare them for coming off the break.

“We didn’t know how exactly we were going to play after having 35 days off, so I totally give the guys credit — we pushed them hard,” Shyiak said. “It just kind of all came together but the guys worked hard, they put in the time on the bike sessions and everything else and it didn’t look like we were off at all.”

Their success has put them a good place as far as the league is concerned. The Seawolves have 16 points, which puts them in a tie for eighth place. However, they’re only two points behind Minnesota and CC, who are currently tied for sixth place and the final home playoff spot.

Despite that, Shyiak said the team isn’t focusing on the possibility that it still might be playing at home come March.

“We don’t want to look too far ahead. We’ve just got to focus on our one game here on Friday night and plan on doing the best we can on Friday night and see what happens from there,” he said, repeating the simple focus his team has had for years. “You never want to look too far ahead and I think our concentration level and our focus level has to take that approach as one game at a time. I think for the most part this season, that’s what we’ve been doing and whatever there is, eight league games left, you’ve got to take them one game at a time because points are so valued. They’re so tough to get in our league and if you’re able to string a couple wins together, you can certainly make a jump in the standings and put yourself in a good position, but it’s important to focus on one game at a time.”

Which they’ll do, from here on out, starting with Michigan Tech this weekend — a team that, despite its record, Shyiak’s not overlooking.

“I think if you look at our pattern, no matter who we play, whether it’s Denver, North Dakota or Duluth, a lot of them have been tight games and I think it’s going to be the same against Michigan Tech,” he said. “We’re going to have to play our best hockey in order to win.”

Matchups by the numbers

We get five conference series while North Dakota and Wisconsin get the weekend off.

Denver and Colorado College home and home

Records: DU — 16-5-5 (12-3-3 WCHA). CC — 15-12-1 (9-9-0 WCHA).

Head-to-head: DU leads the overall series, 155-108-14.

Last meeting: The teams split on Nov. 5-6: DU 4, CC 1; CC 9, DU 2.

Special teams: DU — 17.8 percent power play (30th in nation), 84.8 percent penalty kill (14th in nation). CC — 22.8 percent power play (7th in nation), 85.7 percent penalty kill (t-10th in nation).

Streaks: DU — eight game unbeaten. CC — one game losing.

Goaltending: DU — Sam Brittain (11-4-5, 2.09 goals-against average, .925 save percentage). CC — Joe Howe (12-10-1, 2.85 goals-against average, .906 save percentage).

Leading scorer: DU — Drew Shore (14-14–28). CC — Tyler Johnson (16-14–30).

Notes: DU needs two points to retain hold of the Gold Pan, the trophy the two teams annually compete for with each other. … Despite leaving Saturday’s UND game with an injury, CC’s Joe Howe hopes to play this weekend.

Bemidji State at Minnesota State

Records: BSU — 9-13-2 (5-11-2 WCHA). MSU — 11-11-6 (5-11-4 WCHA).

Head-to-head: BSU leads the overall series, 44-35-13.

Last meeting: MSU swept on Dec. 11-12, 2009: MSU 5, BSU 1; MSU 3, BSU 2.

Special teams: BSU — 18.8 percent power play (25th in nation), 80.5 percent penalty kill (39th in nation). MSU — 14.4 percent power play (45th in nation), 82.6 percent penalty kill (27th in nation).

Streaks: BSU — two-game losing. MSU — two-game unbeaten.

Goaltending: BSU — Dan Bakala (8-8-1, 2.32 goals-against average, .918 save percentage). MSU — Phil Cook (9-9-4, 2.95 goals-against average, .908 save percentage).

Leading scorer: BSU — Jordan George (9-15–24). MSU — Michael Dorr (10-12–22), Kurt Davis (8-14–22).

Notes: With Bemidji only two points below Minnesota State, this weekend provides a perfect opportunity to pick up some points or have MSU extend its lead. … MSU has won the last six games against the Beavers. … The Mavericks’ Michael Dorr (offensive) and Kurt Davis (defensive) both took home league player of the week honors.

Michigan Tech at Alaska-Anchorage

Records: MTU — 3-20-3 (1-16-1 WCHA). UAA — 8-13-3 (7-11-2 WCHA).

Head-to-head: UAA leads the overall series, 25-14-10.

Last meeting: UAA swept on Jan. 15-16, 2010: UAA 6, MTU 2; UAA 5, MTU 4.

Special teams: MTU — 19.6 percent power play (20th in nation), 76.3 percent penalty kill (53rd in nation). UAA — 14.2 percent power play (46th in nation), 80.7 percent penalty kill (38th in nation).

Streaks: MTU — 22-game winless. UAA — one-game winning.

Goaltending: MTU — Josh Robinson (1-10-2, 4.46 goals-against average, .887 save percentage), Kevin Genoe (2-10-1, 3.96 goals-against average, .889 save percentage). UAA — Rob Gunderson (6-10-2, 2.72 goals-against average, .896 save percentage).

Leading scorer: MTU — Milos Gordic (11-6–17). UAA — Tommy Grant (10-11–21).

Notes: UAA may also play goaltender and league rookie of the week Chris Kamal (2-3-1, 3.44 goals-against average, .864 save percentage) in light of his performance against Minnesota on Saturday.

Minnesota at Minnesota-Duluth

Records: UM — 11-10-3 (8-8-2 WCHA). UMD — 17-5-3 (12-4-2 WCHA).

Head-to-head: UM leads the overall series, 128-71-14.

Last meeting: UM took three points on Dec. 10 and 12: UM 3, UMD 2; UM 2, UMD 2.

Special teams: UM — 20.2 percent power play (15th in nation), 75 percent penalty kill (t-56th in nation). UMD — 21.6 percent power play (11th in nation), 84.3 percent penalty kill (17th in nation).

Streaks: UM — one-game losing. UMD — two-game unbeaten.

Goaltending: UM — Kent Patterson (9-5-3, 2.38 goals-against average, .920 save percentage). UMD — Kenny Reiter (9-3-2, 2.21 goals-against average, .913 save percentage), Aaron Crandall (8-2-1, 2.19 goals-against average, .912 save percentage).

Leading scorer: UM — Jay Barriball (11-11–22). UMD — Jack Connolly (12-23–35).

Notes: UM is 3-1-1 in games against teams ranked in the top-10. … Both teams play extremely well with the lead (UM is 10-2-2 when scoring first and UMD is 12-0-1).

St. Cloud State at Nebraska-Omaha

Records: SCSU — 11-12-3 (7-9-2 WCHA). UNO — 14-10-2 (10-6-2 WCHA).

Head-to-head: SCSU leads the overall series, 4-1-1.

Last meeting: UNO took three points on Nov. 5-6: UNO 3, SCSU 0; UNO 4, SCSU 4.

Special teams: SCSU — 15.4 percent power play (t-40th in nation), 82.6 percent penalty kill (28th in nation). UNO — 20.9 percent power play (13th in nation), 84.1 percent penalty kill (t-20th in nation).

Streaks: SCSU — two-game winless. UNO — one-game losing.

Goaltending: SCSU — Mike Lee (9-8-2, 2.81 goals-against average, .902 save percentage). UNO — John Faulkner (14-9-2, 2.48 goals-against average, .910 save percentage).
Leading scorer: SCSU — Drew LeBlanc (10-22–32). UNO — Joey Martin (8-19–27).

Notes: This will be SCSU’s first trip to Omaha.

Odds and ends

• It’s been cold and snowy this past week pretty much everywhere in WCHA country. So, I implore you, stay warm and bundle up. Otherwise, you might end up like UND’s Danny Kristo — out indefinitely due to frostbite (toes). Not a fun thing.