Denver’s Brittain on schedule, but taking nothing for granted in comeback

Call it a comeback — one very long in the making. Nonetheless, goaltender Sam Brittain is right on track to make his return to the Denver Pioneers exactly when he, the coaches and trainers planned.

“Things are going very well,” said Brittain, who had his ACL and meniscus surgically repaired mid-summer. “Everything is right on schedule.”

The target date for the Denver goalie’s return: Jan. 27 when the Pioneers travel to Alaska-Anchorage for a series with the Seawolves. 

Brittain’s goals against average (2.40) and save percentage (.920) ranked second in the country among rookie goaltenders last season, and helped him get named to the All-WCHA rookie team. He helped lead the Pioneers to the WCHA Final Five championship game, and then within a game of the Frozen Four. 

But it was during Denver’s double-overtime loss to North Dakota in the Final Five title game that Brittain first realized he injured his left ACL and meniscus.

“It got progressively worse to the point where I had to get [surgery] done,” Brittain said. “I thought I could play on it the last few games of the season. After that I was hoping it might be OK but the more I trained on it, the worse it got.

“It was my decision the whole way. I decided I had to get it done.”

Brittain decided to undergo surgery in June, causing him to miss the first 24 games of the season. Although he’s a fixture in Denver’s dressing room and training room, he doesn’t travel with the team on road trips. Instead, he settles for watching road games via webcast with Denver’s other inactives. 

The injury caused Brittain to miss his chance at playing for Canada’s team in the 2012 World Junior Championship. He was expected to at least make the preliminary camp roster.

“That was pretty frustrating, having the chance to represent Team Canada and having the opportunity to be invited to make that team,” Brittain said. “It made my decision to have surgery that much more difficult, for sure.”

But Brittain’s work ethic to get back to the Pioneers has shown over the past six months. He has advanced his training to strength and speed rehab workouts, five days per week, two hours each. He’s skating again, but he won’t be in goalie pads until late December.

“As of last Tuesday I was able to get back on the ice again,” Brittain said. “I’m getting stronger, more flexible and back into that goalie position and back to play.”

Adam Murray (5-2-1, .902 save percentage, 3.40 goals against average) has seen the bulk of the minutes between the pipes for Denver this season but has been injured himself lately. That left Juho Olkinuora (1-3-2, .923, 2.20) in the spotlight.

“Before Murray got injured, he was playing really well and Olkinuora’s playing great,” Brittain said. “It’s going to be extremely tough to battle and get back in the lineup.”

Murray’s good record isn’t reflective of his save percentage and goals against average, and the Pioneers haven’t translated Olkinuora’s numbers into victories. 

It will be interesting how the situation looks when Brittain returns to the lineup and whether he’s automatically thrown into the starting role full time.

“No one will be handed anything,” Brittain said. “It’s going to come down to hard work, performance, pushing each other to hopefully get the start.”

Forty years later, former Bulldogs goalie’s heart remains in Duluth

Those fortunate enough to subscribe to the NHL’s Center Ice package on their local cable or satellite provider may recognize Glenn Resch as Mike “Doc” Emrick’s long-time color-commentating sidekick calling New Jersey Devils games on New York-based MSG Network.

Still others might remember his 15-year career as an NHL goalie, making stops on Long Island, Colorado, New Jersey and Philadelphia, including winning a Stanley Cup with the Islanders in 1980.

Some, however, will recall Resch’s run as a stalwart in the Minnesota-Duluth net from 1968 to 1971. As a senior, Resch served as captain of the Bulldogs and earned second-team All-WCHA honors for his efforts.

But 40 years later, the man whom Islanders teammate Doug Rombough dubbed “Chico” after a fictional 1970s sitcom character, has no trouble recalling, with great fondness, his time in Duluth.

“I thought, ‘Wow, these guys really seem to get it,’ like they understand I’m more than just a knucklehead hockey player,” Resch said of his first impressions of the school and its staff. “When I went to Duluth and I saw the enthusiasm of the fans and the sellouts and the way they were treating people … I thought, ‘They get it here,’ so that is what was fun.”

The Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, native, who played junior hockey prior to arriving in Duluth, talked about how impressed he was with the WCHA’s quality of play at the time.

“Remember, there wasn’t a lot of teams in college hockey so you were getting some real good, top-end players,” said Resch. “All those things made you feel like, except for the NHL, you were playing in the best environment possible.”

Resch, who earned a four-year degree in education from Minnesota-Duluth, could not say enough about his collegiate experience, both as a person and a player.

“In the ’60s and early ’70s, college hockey was run about as well and as classy as it gets,” said Resch. “Players were treated, except financially, probably as well or better than NHL players. We weren’t living under the pressure of, ‘Hey, if you don’t perform you’re going to the minor leagues,’ being traded, being intimidated. In college hockey, the attitude was we’re going to develop these players as players and as people.

“That’s what the NHL’s gotten to now because, with long-term contracts, you’ve got to develop your players in all different areas.”

Although eager to do so, the 1991 UMD Athletics Hall of Fame inductee and member of the All-DECC Team as chosen by Bulldogs alumni has yet to see UMD’s new home at Amsoil Arena. A scheduling conflict prevented him from attending UMD’s final game at the DECC last Dec. 4.

“They brought back [the All-DECC Team] last year and they wanted me to come in,” Resch said of the ceremony honoring him and his All-DECC teammates. “But I’d never missed a game [on MSG] so I just couldn’t.”

Resch’s Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs are atop the Division I Men’s Poll for the first time since defeating Michigan to win the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn. Resch kept a close eye on his alma mater over the course of the championship run while staying in close contact with former Bulldogs assistant Brett Larson.

“We were starving for a long time for a national championship,” said Resch, who still maintains an offseason residence in northern Minnesota. “It just kind of is a finishing touch on what we always thought was one of the best places to play college hockey.”

Could Sioux surge already be under way?

After a 1-5 start in WCHA play, the North Dakota — final reference, we promise — Fighting Sioux have won five of six to climb back to .500, which puts UND right about where you’d expect in the Dave Hakstol era. The nearly annual second-half surge could be well under way.

Before last season, when North Dakota entered the new year 14-4-1, UND had averaged a 7-6-1 conference and a 10-8-2 October-December record overall from 2004-05 to 2009-10. In those six seasons, however, North Dakota reached four Frozen Fours and one title game.

Although former North Dakota forward Zach Parise’s teams never had to rely on the surge, his family could not escape the ritual early-season swoon.

“A couple years after I left, my brother [Jordan] was there and they started off real slow,” Parise said during a stop in St. Paul for his New Jersey Devils to play the Minnesota Wild. “Everyone was wondering, ‘What’s going on?’ and all of a sudden they’re in the championship game.”

It’s a phenomenon for which Parise has no explanation.

“UND’s always had a strong second half and they always seem to heat up at the right time heading into the playoffs,” said Parise. “I don’t know what it is; they just seem to jell at the right time.”

When asked about last week’s announcement that as of Jan. 1, his alma mater will no longer use either the Fighting Sioux (OK, we lied, one more) nickname or logo, Parise was caught by surprise and expressed his disappointment with the decision.

“It’s a great logo and we only wore it with pride,” said Parise. “I don’t know why people are making a big fuss about it. We never disrespected anything about it — anything about the logo, anything about the name.

“They need to find something else to do rather than pursue getting rid of that.”

Players of the week

Milestone night earns BSU’s Hunt WCHA defensive player of the week honors

Heading into the season, seven Bemidji State players had reached 100 career points since the program elevated itself to Division I status. That number rose to eight last weekend when Brad Hunt became the latest member — and first defenseman — of BSU’s D-I 100-point club.

Hunt’s feat also makes him just the sixth defenseman in the program’s overall history to reach the century mark.

“It was very gratifying for him to get that point tonight and it was a big point,” BSU coach Tom Serratore said after last Saturday’s game. “It was a vintage Brad Hunt shot from the point and it got through.

“I’m very happy for him.”

With a slap shot past St. Cloud State’s Ryan Faragher on Saturday night, Hunt reached the 100-point mark with his third goal and team-leading 14th point of the season. The goal turned out to be the winner in Bemidji State’s 3-1 victory over SCSU.

“It feels great, but it feels even better that we got the win,” Hunt said. “If we didn’t win that game, the 100-point mark doesn’t really feel as special.

“It’s great to get the win and reach that milestone. It’s really cool.”

Hunt’s next assist will be his 79th and establish him as the BSU’s all-time D-I assists leader, breaking the record he shares with former Beavers player and current Philadelphia Flyers forward Matt Read.

Offensive player of the week: North Dakota sophomore Brock Nelson

Nelson’s recent tear (he was co-offensive player of the week last week) continued in Anchorage last weekend with five points (4-1–5) in UND’s sweep of the Seawolves. With his performance, Nelson took over sole possession of North Dakota’s scoring lead with 22 points (14-8–22) and his 14 goals overall rank him second among WCHA players.

Rookie of the week: North Dakota forward Brendan O’Donnell

Like Nelson, O’Donnell contributed a pair of goals to lift UND to a 5-2 win last Friday over Alaska-Anchorage. The goals were O’Donnell’s second and third in six games since his return from absence due to injury.

WCHA at the World Juniors

Of the 29 players listed on Team USA’s U20 roster, 19 are currently playing collegiate hockey and six are playing on WCHA teams.

Denver forward Jason Zucker (8-12–20 this season) and goalie Jack Campbell, of the Ontario Hockey League, are the only two members of the 2010 gold-medal team. 

North Dakota defenseman Derek Forbort (1-3–4) and Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad (15-11–26) are going for their second years on Team USA.

St. Cloud State defenseman Kevin Gravel (0-4–4), Minnesota forward Kyle Rau (11-8–19) and Nebraska-Omaha forward Josh Archibald (7-4–11) are all in competition for their first appearances on the team.

Former Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Justin Faulk will make his second straight appearance pending a release from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Colorado College forward Jaden Schwartz was a key player for Team Canada last year before he fractured his ankle.