WCHA weekend rewind, Jan. 9, 2012

What Huntsville really exposed

Alabama-Huntsville shocked the college hockey world once again when it upset Denver, 3-2, Friday night.

No one saw that coming. Not anyone who looked at the matchup going into the weekend, not George Gwozdecky and neither did us when we picked Denver to sweep the series.

The Chargers did it by erasing a 2-0 lead and killing off five penalties after the first intermission and despite being outshot 43-20. Hats off to UAH.

The win, however, did not expose “stupid” or “lazy” journalism on our behalf.

Going into the series, the tale of the tape spelled two Pioneers victories with all advantages going Denver’s way, with the possible exception of goaltending. UAH had one win through 23 games going in, what is there to break down?

When such an obvious underdog like UAH pulls off a shocker like this, it’s decided by things you can’t possibly foresee.

Then again, the Chargers did expose, perhaps, arrogance on Denver’s part. Gwozdecky said his team got “a bit reckless and lazy” with the two-goal lead and committed too many “unforced” errors down the stretch. It seems the Pioneers figured the disparity between them and UAH was enough for them to get away with their poor play.

But ranking No. 1 in the haughty department was the decision to let  Jason Zucker rest up at home in Las Vegas for the weekend before he returned to the team from the World Juniors tournament in Edmonton. This, according to a tweet by Mike Chambers of the Denver Post.

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Team USA’s last game was Wednesday and that kind of a tournament can take a toll on a player, no doubt. So get him back to Denver, rest him Friday (and Saturday if he needs it) but just make sure he’s back for the sake of his teammates.

Zucker’s Team USA linemates for part of the tournament, Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, were both back in the lineup for Minnesota Saturday night and though Team Canada captain, Jaden Schwartz, sat out Colorado College’s game Friday, he played Saturday despite his stay in Edmonton being a day longer.

But Zucker wasn’t a healthy scratch wearing a coat and tie sitting in the press box this weekend. In fact, he wasn’t in Magness Arena at all, but 700 miles away in Vegas, instead.

It doesn’t matter who the opponent is; when your one of your leaders is healthy or free of any other circumstances keeping him from rejoining the team, he should be in the dressing room before the game, between periods and after the final horn blows.

Whether he’s suited up, or wearing a suit, a guy like Zucker takes charge when his team lets a second-period lead slip away against arguably the worst team in the country.

If Friday’s loss keeps Denver out of the playoffs via the PairWise Rankings, folks will look back to Jan. 6.

All they do is win or, at the very least, not lose.

A pair of road wins against CCHA foe Western Michigan over the weekend extended Minnesota Duluth’s nation-leading unbeaten streak to 16 games. The sweep gives the Bulldogs the country’s best winning percentage, the No. 1 RPI, and vaults them to the top spot in both the PairWise and KRACH rankings.

A consensus No. 1 ranking in the polls to be released later today is sure to follow.

Despite winning a national title last spring, this level of success was not in the forecast for UMD just a few short months ago. The Bulldogs began their first-ever title defense last fall surrounded by several question marks leaving many prognosticators, ourselves included, picking UMD to finish closer to the middle than the top of the WCHA standings.

Among the questions to be answered about Scott Sandelin’s club: How was UMD going to replace the 134 combined points lost via the departures of forwards Justin Fontaine, Kyle Schmidt, and Mike Connolly? Who was going to fill the void— particularly on the power play—left by Justin Faulk’s ascension to the pros? Would Kenny Reiter’s late-season surge last year propel him to providing the stability and consistency the Bulldogs would need to mount a suitable title defense?

Between Jack Connolly’s nation-leading 33 points and increased production from J.T. Brown, Travis Oleksuk, and Mike Seidel, all four are poised to shatter career-best scoring marks. Add freshman Caleb Herbert’s 17 points and the Bulldogs are averaging 0.70 more goals per game overall this season and nearly a full goal (0.96) more in conference play over last year.

Output like that has UMD leading all NCAA Division I teams in offense at 4.10 goals per game.

While we don’t intend to insinuate that Brady Lamb is Faulk’s heir apparent per se, he ranks higher than Faulk in goals (0.250 to 0.205) and assists (0.65 to 0.64) per game which, obviously, puts him on pace to exceed Faulk’s production from last season. Additionally, Scott Kishel and Wade Bergman are each trending to meet or exceed 20 assists. Runner-up to Faulk in blue line assists a year ago? Dylan Olsen with 12 in just 17 games before turning pro.

The effect of Faulk’s departure on the Bulldog power play has been statistically minimal thus far with its success rate falling barely over a single percentage point.

Reiter has started 19 of UMD’s 20 games, has lowered his goals against average, and his winning percentage is 150 points higher than he finished with last season. His three shutouts so far already match his 2010-11 total.

As Nebraska-Omaha and, more recently, Denver found out, college hockey offers no guarantees. But with the roll the Bulldogs are on and with the schedule that lies ahead, it’s hard not to wonder if the team with the best, not the only, chance to beat them is themselves.

Hakstol open to Winnipeg return

In defeating Clarkson 3-1 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the U.S. College Hockey Classic, North Dakota played its first game in Canada since being swept by Fort Frances, Ontario, on Dec. 29-30, 1953.

If UND coach Dave Hakstol has his way, and it’s a sure bet he usually does, North Dakota will be returning to Winnipeg in the not-too-distant future.

“I certainly don’t want this to be the last time we have a chance to come back to this building,” Hakstol told USCHO’s Timothy Boger. “Whether it’s two or three years down the road, I’d sure like to get together with all the parties involved and see if we can make it happen, use it as a baseline and build a great event.”

The game was played before a crowd of 7, 075 and the locals in attendance were treated to three Manitoba natives—UND’s Brendan O’Donnell, Stephane Pattyn, and Taylor Dickin—participating in the game and, fittingly, all four goals were scored by Canadians. Carter Rowney (Alberta) scored twice and Mark MacMillan (British Columbia) tallied once for North Dakota while Quebec’s Julien Cayer scored Clarkson’s lone goal.