Fortunes have changed since Minnesota, North Dakota last met

When last we left the storied Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry the Gophers had just completed a series sweep of UND to get off to their best start overall in five seasons (9-1-0). North Dakota, on the other hand, left Minneapolis at 1-5-0 in the WCHA, its worst conference start since Gerald Ford was in the Oval Office.

Since that point, however, the teams have traveled down vastly different paths as UND has lost just once in its last eight games (7-1-1) despite losing the likes of Rocco Grimaldi, Corban Knight, Derek Rodwell and Derek Forbort due to a range of injuries. In contrast, the Gophers have lost three of their last five, including two in a row, and are 6-6-1 overall since hosting North Dakota.

In addition, history also says this is by far the wrong time of year to be facing North Dakota, specifically with Dave Hakstol at the reins. In Hakstol’s eight years with the school, UND’s post-Christmas winning percentage is at .707 as opposed to .577 before the break.

Not to beat a dead horse, but trends like that rarely seem to matter when these two teams get together. As diametrically opposed as they were in terms of early season success when the two met in November, Minnesota was forced to scratch and claw its way to both victories.

That is what makes this matchup so interesting this weekend, on top of the fact that these will be the final meetings between Minnesota and North Dakota in Grand Forks as members of the WCHA. Sure, they’ll play each other again at the Ralph sometime down the road, and the games are likely to be great as is customary, but there certainly won’t be nearly as much riding on them.

Eyes of a nation on Mavs, Dogs as they seek to rock a packed house

Minnesota-Duluth will put its 16-game unbeaten streak (13-0-3) on the line in front of a national audience on Friday night in Omaha. The series opener between the unanimous No. 1 Bulldogs (14-3-3, 10-2-2 WCHA) and Nebraska-Omaha (10-8-4, 7-4-3) will be telecast live on NBC Sports Network with the puck scheduled to drop at 6:37 p.m. CST.

By sheer chance — or not — the coast-to-coast broadcast just happens to coincide with UNO’s third annual “Sell Out” promotion in which the Mavericks again attempt to sell out all 15,959 seats at the Century Link Center for the first time in school history. The Mavs have fallen short in each of their first two attempts despite record-setting crowds each time.

The defending national champion Bulldogs would seem to be the ideal opponent for UNO to reach its goal but the combination of UMD’s credentials and a national viewing audience should, at the very least, enable Nebraska-Omaha to topple last year’s record of 15,137 set against Wisconsin.

Madison milestones

Congratulations are in order to a couple of Wisconsin Badgers for last week’s milestone-filled series sweep of Rochester Institute of Technology at the Kohl Center.

Coach Mike Eaves earned a landmark win while junior defenseman Justin Schultz put on another exhibition of skill to dress up an already impressive, Hobey-worthy resume.

With a pair of victories (6-3, 2-1) over the Tigers last weekend, Eaves both reached and passed the 200-win mark for his career, making him just the third Badgers bench boss to achieve that distinction (Jeff Sauer with 489 and Bob Johnson with 367).

In the midst of what is now his 10th season at Wisconsin, the onetime Badgers star (1974-78) and three-time captain has guided his alma mater to a 201-147-44 overall record, including five NCAA tournament appearances and a Frozen Four title in 2006.

Eaves said after Friday night’s game that he had completely forgotten about the accomplishment until his players approached him with congratulatory handshakes.

“The kids did a really classy thing when we handed out the game puck and it happened to go to Mr. Schultz,” said Eaves. “He said, ‘We’d also like to recognize you, Coach’ and he threw me a puck with the 200th win on it and my name. That’s pretty cool.

“The one thing about recognizing something like that is it’s a chance to thank a lot of people. The coaches that have been here in the past, the past players, current players; I’m very blessed to be around those kinds of people that help you get to something like this.”

Eaves’ comments raised some eyebrows, particularly among the pleasantly surprised members of the Madison media, when he did not express indifference to the feat as simply another number. UW’s coach took a moment to explain his uncharacteristic acknowledgement of the record before, characteristically, putting it behind him.

“I think when people get nominated to this or that or they mark an occasion, it’s really a neat opportunity to take a moment to thank people but then you turn the page right away,” Eaves said.

The page turned toward singing the praises of Schultz, whose four points (two goals, two assists) in the game pushed him over the century mark in career points (35-66–101). Schultz is just the 12th defenseman in Badgers history (70th overall) to break the 100-point barrier and the first since Brian Rafalski did it in 1994-95.

“He has specialness with his ability to see the ice and his shot,” Eaves said of Schultz. “It’s something you don’t see a lot from defensemen, being able to snap it from the point like he can and get it into areas where it can get tipped and pure score.

“He’s really special; the fact that he’s gotten over 100 points speaks to that.”

Schultz, a Wisconsin alternate captain, recognized the significance of his achievement but he, too, quickly shifted gears.

“Obviously, it’s pretty cool. I mean, not many people do it, especially being a defenseman,” Schultz said after the game. “It’s quite an honor and more importantly we got the win tonight, though.”

“Everything he does he’s trying to get better at, that’s a credit to him,” said Eaves. “It’s a great thing for our guys to have [him] on our team because even though he might be quiet, if you watch him you’re not going to be outdone by him.

“He leads in a quiet way but a very definitive way.”

Another milestone in the making is Badgers forward Mark Zengerle’s 19-game point-scoring streak, which is second only to the Wisconsin record of 21 straight games set in 1977-78 by none other than Eaves.

“[What’s] interesting about Mark, in junior hockey I remember [former assistant] coach [Mark] Osiecki going to watch him play and he came back with the comment, ‘He just gets points. You may not notice him but at the end of the game he’s on the score sheet,'” Eaves said of Zengerle. “He’s been that kind of player his whole life, I think.”

Eaves said the two have not discussed Zengerle’s pursuit of the coach’s record and he has no plans to do so. But if it is broken, Eaves is all for it.

“If it happens it’s tremendous because he’s helping our team and that’s why records are kept, so they can be broken,” Eaves said.

With two assists in each game against RIT, Zengerle moved ahead of another Wisconsin legend, UW women’s coach and 1980 Olympic hero Mark Johnson, whose 17-game streak in 1977-78 mostly overlapped that of Eaves.

Zengerle hasn’t been able to fully absorb what he’s accomplished so far but is humbled by the company he is keeping nonetheless.

“I think it will kind of sink in more probably years down the road when I look back at what I’ve done,” said Zengerle. “But obviously he’s, if not the best, he’s the second-best in Badger history, so that’s pretty cool.

“Obviously, it’s nice to keep it going, but if I’m not on the board I’m not doing my job.”

Future UND goalie Saunders takes down another WCHA team

Clarke Saunders will be in a North Dakota uniform next season but for the time being, he’s not looking that far ahead. Saunders still has a a few weeks yet to be with Alabama-Huntsville.

UAH, a Division I independent, goes to Minnesota-Duluth next weekend, then plays at Maine and Miami and has a pair of exhibitions against the U.S. Under-18 Team in February and that’s it. The Chargers’ season ends at the time when other teams are gearing up to make a run in their conference tournaments.

Saunders led UAH to its only two wins of the season against Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 2 and at Denver last Friday. He had to be near perfect in those games and he was, saving 95 of the 98 shots he faced.

But Saunders, UAH’s goaltender, will play for a perennial WCHA contender next season as a transfer under the NCAA’s rules regarding schools that announce they’re eliminating a program. He said he will finish out the semester at UAH and then pack up and move everything up to Grand Forks some time over the summer.

“Their coaches contacted me not too long after the verdict came out about [the UAH] program,” said Saunders, who owns a .902 save percentage and a 3.72 goals-against average. “I talked with [UND] when I was in juniors. It seems like the right fit for me.”

It’s hard to figure where Saunders, a sophomore, will fit in next season at UND. He’ll be a backup right off the bat with the starting spot likely going to Aaron Dell, who will be a senior. The first backup position will be up for grabs between Saunders, Tate Maris and Zane Gothberg.

Maris is a junior yet to see any playing time as a college goalie and Gothberg is a sixth-round NHL draft pick and a member of the USHL’s Fargo Force. He’ll be at UND next season.

“I haven’t put much thought into that yet,” Saunders said. “I don’t like thinking that far ahead. I’ll just have to go in this summer and work as hard as I can.”

The UND coaching staff got in touch with Saunders after UAH announced in October that it would no longer compete at a varsity level. UAH announced later that it would revive its program but Saunders stuck with his commitment to play at UND. He will be eligible to play right away because he is leaving a program that was due to fold at the time of his commitment.

“I made a commitment and I have to honor that,” Saunders said.

Reid’s departure leaves SCSU’s lines even more depleted

First there were the potential season-ending injuries to St. Cloud State captains, goaltender Mike Lee (hip surgery) and forward Drew LeBlanc (broken leg). Then, forward Mitch MacMillan left the team in December and center Cam Reid followed him out the door earlier this week.

“Numbers-wise, we don’t have very many forwards,” said Ben Hanowski, one of SCSU’s captains. “It’s something I’ve never been a part of in my first three years here. The guys we do have left are great guys and great players who want to be here and that’s what we want.”

The Huskies are left with 12 healthy forwards and have already had to call on defensemen Sam Zabkowicz and Brandon Burrell this season to fill in up front. Reid’s departure, announced Tuesday, came as a shock to the SCSU players and coaches, but Hanowski said they’re ready to move ahead.

“He made a decision he thought was best for his career,” Hanowski said. “We moved on pretty quick. There’s nothing we can do as players so we didn’t really dwell on it.”

The Huskies can’t take any more hits like this, especially with their remaining schedule that brings more challenges than any WCHA team has to face. It makes the speed of LeBlanc’s recovery that much more crucial in regards to SCSU’s hopes to rise in the standings. LeBlanc and Hanowski are the only two Huskies to score more than a point per game.

“LeBlanc is a special player and when you lose a guy like him, it’s going to hurt you,” Hanowski said. “He’s been working hard, rehabbing every day and he wants to get back as soon as possible.”

Hanowski said LeBlanc will get another X-ray on Friday.

MacMillan, who left the team the week before Christmas, joined North Dakota’s squad Tuesday. He’s already practicing with UND but isn’t eligible to play until January 2013.

Between the dots …

Alaska-Anchorage wrapped up the first half of the season with an overall record of 6-10-2 (.388), the highest winning percentage after 18 games since 2008-09 and fourth-best under bench boss Dave Shyiak. … Bemidji State freshman goaltender Andrew Walsh is 6-2-1 on the season and leads the team with a 1.87 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage — ranking third in the nation in both categories. … In his last four starts, Walsh has allowed just two goals on 109 shots in posting a .981 save percentage and a 0.50 goals-against average. …

Colorado College senior defenseman and alternate captain Gabe Guentzel heads into this week’s series against St. Cloud State having played in 116 consecutive games for the Tigers. He’s missed only two, both during his freshman season, of a possible 142 during his collegiate career. … Denver defenseman Joey LaLeggia, who has a four-game point streak, leads NCAA rookie blueliners in goals (nine) and points (19). …

Though Minnesota lost its first game of 2012, the Gophers fans (a top-10 Mariucci Arena crowd of 10,242) stepped up, donating more than $7,700 for the Jack Jablonski Fund on Saturday. Jablonski, a 16-year-old sophomore at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, was severely injured on Dec. 30 when he was checked from behind in a high school game. To make a donation of your own online, visit …

Minnesota State freshman forward Jean-Paul Lafontaine leads the Mavericks with 19 points (11-8–19) on the season and also leads the Mavericks in goals (11), power-play goals (7) and is second in shots (68). The last time a freshman led the Mavericks in scoring for the season was 1994-95 when Ryan Rintoul had 18-27–45 in 30 games played. … North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol enters this week’s series with 198 wins, and with a sweep can join John “Gino” Gasparini (392 wins, 1978-94) and Dean Blais (262 wins, 1994-2004) as the only UND coaches to win 200 games. …

St. Cloud State goaltender Lee returned to practice this week and had an doctor’s appointment to decide whether he could play against Colorado College this weekend. SCSU had not confirmed the results of the appointment as of Wednesday night.