WCHA teams looking for different results in featured East-West tilts

This is the first week of league play, with three WCHA series set for this weekend. No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth hosting No. 14 Minnesota is certainly one to watch but all of college hockey nation has an eye on a few marquee East-West matchups.

No. 3 Denver heads to Boston to play top-ranked Boston College on Friday and No. 8 Boston University on Saturday. No. 6 North Dakota hosts No. 17 Maine for a two-game series in Grand Forks. Denver-BC and UND-Maine are both rematches of games last season that featured ugly results for the WCHA teams.

Denver fell behind early to the Eagles in both games and couldn’t recover, losing 6-2 and 3-0. The Pioneers power play went 0-for-17 on the weekend. That was at Magness Arena, and this weekend’s trip is going to be even tougher. Cam Atkinson and Joe Whitney lit Denver up last season with four points each in two games. Both are gone this season.

UND’s trip to Maine last season was just as forgettable. The Sioux lost 7-3 and 4-2. Maine was on the bubble for an NCAA tournament bid going into the Hockey East playoffs last year but was swept by Merrimack.

It’s been documented that UND is a different team on its face but so are the Black Bears. Maine lost its 51-point scorer and first-line right winger, Gustav Nyquist, and its top two centers from last year’s team. 

None of that should matter if the Sioux play disciplined hockey this weekend. Maybe UND was outplayed last October, but penalties were a big reason the losses were so lopsided (the second game was a three-goal game going into the last half of the third period).

UND gave Maine 19 power plays on the weekend and the Black Bears cashed in for five power-play goals. The penalties were lazy (hooking, holding, tripping) and unnecessary (contact to the head, elbowing, hitting from behind). The Sioux don’t have the talent to get away with it this year.

Heads up

As WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd said in the league’s preseason teleconference, this isn’t a rules change year. However, the NCAA did tweak the wording on the contact to the head rule just a bit.

Referees were more lenient in recent years on checks when players were traveling “north-south” (i.e., goal line to goal line) than if they were skating “east-west” and contact to the head was made. In other words, there was more of chance to get penalized on a blind-side hit. 

“Now it’ll be penalized whether its north, south, east or west,” Shepherd said. “Any time there’s any kind of contact to the head, it’s a five-minute major and a game misconduct. [The NCAA] is trying to get the concussions and head injuries out of the game.”

Minnesota State’s Eriah Hayes got slapped with a contact-to-the-head penalty in the early minutes of the second period in Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Rensselaer. Gabe Guentzel committed the same penalty early in the second period of an exhibition game against the United States Under-18 Team on Saturday.

“Our officials have done a great job calling this, just like checking from behind,” Shepherd said. “We’re going to call this just as severely. We’re here to protect the players and the game.”

Penalties hurting Michigan Tech

When you’re a team struggling to find ways to win games as Michigan Tech has for several seasons, it would behoove said team to avoid shorthanded situations as much as possible or, at the very least, have an extremely proficient penalty kill unit. Unfortunately for the Huskies, just the opposite is true.

Over the past two seasons, only Alaska-Anchorage has been penalized more in conference play (17.5 penalty minutes per game as opposed to 17.4 for Michigan Tech). What separates the two, however, is that the Seawolves rank fifth in the conference in penalty kill percentage over that span (82.4 percent), nearly 10 full percentage points over the Huskies, who rank dead last at 72.9 percent.

Huskies coach Mel Pearson said the key, of course, is to strive to become the league’s least-penalized team.

“We played in our own zone way too much last year,” said Pearson. “We’ve got to try … and play in the other team’s zone, play at a higher pace, and be a more aggressive forechecking team so that we’re not in our zone taking penalties all the time.”

Although just one series is in the books, early returns reveal modest improvement with, obviously, much work yet to be done. Michigan Tech was penalized 12 times for 27 minutes last weekend in its sweep of American International (4-3, 3-1).

Spencer the spark for Seawolves

Coming off its second-best conference season (12-14-2, eighth place) since joining the WCHA in 1993, Alaska-Anchorage’s 2011-12 campaign got off to a rousing start. The Seawolves (1-0-1) hosted the 21st edition of the Kendall Hockey Classic, which they not only won for the first time since 2006 — and sixth overall — but did so in dramatic fashion.

After playing to a 4-4 draw with Clarkson on Friday, UAA faced a St. Cloud State team needing a win or a tie to take the title. When Cam Reid scored just 3:29 into the final period to give the Huskies a 2-0 lead and goaltender Mike Lee seeming unbeatable, St. Cloud State looked to have things well in hand.

As it turned out, that was all simply a prelude to the Mickey Spencer show.

Spencer not only helped set up Jordan Kwas’ goal at 5:04 to get UAA on the board, he proceeded to score three times himself, including the game winner with just 1:54 remaining in overtime to give the Seawolves a 4-3 victory.

The winning shot was fired low to the blocker side of Lee, which Spencer said WCHA goalies had better get used to seeing.

“That’s my spot,” Spencer told Doyle Woody of the Anchorage Daily News. “I’ll say it, and I don’t care if goalies know it. That’s where I’ll shoot.”

The hat trick was just the sixth in tournament history and only the second by a Seawolves player (Rob Conn vs. Dartmouth in 1990). Not surprisingly, Spencer’s six-point weekend (4-2–6) earned the junior forward the tournament’s most outstanding player award and WCHA offensive player of the week honors.

WCHA skaters: The ones to watch

In our season preview, we gave a thorough rundown of the wealth of goaltending talent returning to the WCHA this season. So we thought it might be in order to recognize some of the forwards and defensemen expected to make headlines in 2011-12.

The WCHA’s deep talent pool of forwards is led by conference preseason player of the year Jason Zucker of Denver. Zucker’s 36 points (20-16–36) in conference play earned him last season’s rookie of the year honors. Junior Drew Shore is also back after leading the Pioneers in scoring with 46 points (23-23–46), giving Denver a serious 1-2 punch for the second straight year.

Just a short drive to the south, Colorado College sophomore Jaden Schwartz looks to build on an explosive rookie year of his own. Despite losing 15 games to injury, Schwartz led the Tigers with 47 points (17-30–47).

Defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth welcomes back a pair of dangerous forwards in leading scorer Jack Connolly (18-41–59) and Frozen Four most outstanding player J.T. Brown (16-21–37). Brown’s contribution was especially impactful as the Bulldogs were 19-3-3 in games in which he registered at least one point and 7-7-3 when he didn’t.

North Dakota forward Corban Knight’s 44 points (14-30–44) were second only to Hobey Baker Award finalist Matt Frattin’s 60-point season last year. While he can’t be expected to triple his production as he did from his freshman to sophomore years, he and 2009-10 WCHA rookie of the year Danny Kristo should provide North Dakota fans with plenty of excitement.

Kristo returns after seeing his production dip from 36 points (15-21–36) as a freshman to 28 (8-20–28) due to a 10-game absence as a sophomore due to frostbite on his toes. But he’s healthy now and the line of Kristo, Knight and sophomore Brock Nelson is certainly one to watch.

Michael Dorr enters this season as Minnesota State’s returning scoring leader (12-14–26), and the Mavericks captain is sure to build on those numbers in his senior year. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Dorr was a two-time WCHA offensive player of the week as a junior, including a five-point weekend (3-2–5) in leading the Mavericks to the Shillelagh Tournament title with wins over Brown and national semifinalist Notre Dame.

Nebraska-Omaha’s dynamic duo of co-captains Terry Broadhurst and Alex Hudson returns to make life miserable for opposing goaltenders. With 31 points (13-18–31) last season as a junior, Hudson, who begins the year sitting out a team-imposed suspension, leads Mavericks returnees in scoring. Broadhurst finished just a point behind (11-19–30) despite missing nine games due to injuries.

Nick Bjugstad finished his freshman season as Minnesota’s hottest-scoring forward with 16 points (6-10–16) in the Gophers’ final 16 games. Overall, the 6-foot-5, 211-pound sophomore finished with 20 points (8-12–20) as a rookie even though he missed five games with mononucleosis and two more while playing for the United States at the 2011 World Junior Championship. Bjugstad is being counted on to shoulder a larger offensive load and appears primed to deliver just that.

On the blue line, there is no bigger threat in the WCHA than Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz, whose 47 points (18-29–47) led the nation’s defensemen last season. A Hobey Baker Award finalist as a sophomore, Schultz should reach the 100-point plateau for his career by season’s end.

North Dakota’s Iron Man, senior Ben Blood, enters the season as the team’s active leader in games played with 108, including 100 consecutive. Blood led the nation last season in plus/minus with a plus-32 while chipping in 12 points (2-10–12).

Denver sophomore David Makowski (6-24–30) is a skilled playmaker from the point but is not afraid to use his body when needed. He’ll be asked to fill the void left by Matt Donovan’s departure for the pros.

Senior Gabe Guentzel begins the final year of a stellar Colorado College career as alternate captain of the Tigers. A well-rounded defenseman, Guentzel set a career high as a junior with 28 points (6-22–28).

An academic All-WCHA defenseman, Bemidji State senior Brad Hunt needs just 14 points to reach 100 for his career. Read led all BSU defensemen in scoring as a junior (3-18–21) and brings a 112-consecutive-games streak into the 2011-12 season.

St. Cloud State sophomore Nick Jensen made quite a splash in his rookie campaign in the Granite City. Winner of the 2011 Roland Vandell Award as SCSU’s rookie of the year, Jensen scored five goals as a freshman and was fourth on the team with 18 assists.

At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Minnesota-Duluth senior Brady Lamb is an imposing figure on the Bulldogs’ blue line. Although the alternate captain’s point totals fell off a bit as a junior, Lamb stepped up when it counted with three assists in UMD’s 3-2 win over Michigan in the 2011 national title game. His role is expected to expand with the departures of Justin Faulk and Mike Montgomery.

Minnesota sophomore Mark Alt is one of the conference’s rising stars on the blue line. Although he may never produce eye-popping numbers, Alt, who led all Gophers freshmen defensemen last season with 10 points (2-8–10), remains a viable offensive threat. But the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Alt, early on at least, has demonstrated a bit of a mean streak and has considerably elevated his game defensively.