WCHA alums dot NHL All-Star rosters, and it means a change of plans for Faulk

Despite being bombarded with a plethora of circumstantial evidence, reasonable doubt remained in the mind of Carolina Hurricanes rookie defenseman Justin Faulk until he witnessed it with his own eyes.

“I ended up going online just to check and it was there so, obviously, I’m pretty excited about it,” Faulk said.

The “it” Faulk refers to would be his name listed beneath a heading which includes terms such as “NHL” and, more importantly in this case, “All-Star.”

Faulk, who helped lead Minnesota-Duluth to its first national title last spring before turning pro, is one of seven WCHA alums among the 36 veterans and 12 rookies who were recently named by the NHL for participation in the 2012 NHL All-Star Weekend; a weekend which concludes with the 2012 Tim Horton’s NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 29 in Ottawa.

Players from all 30 NHL teams will be represented in Ottawa, with festivities also including the 2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Skills Competition, to be held Jan. 28.

WCHA players named as NHL All-Stars are: North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews, F, Chicago Blackhawks; Minnesota’s Phil Kessel, F, Toronto Maple Leafs; Wisconsin’s Ryan Suter, D, Nashville Predators; and Wisconsin’s Brian Elliott, G, St. Louis Blues.

Named among the 12 NHL All-Star rookies were: Wisconsin’s Craig Smith, F, Nashville Predators; Bemidji State’s Matt Read, F, Philadelphia Flyers; and Faulk.

Faulk’s first call? To his mother, of course.

“I was planning on going home for a bit for the All-Star break so I gave her a call and said, ‘Yeah, I’m not coming home, sorry, I’m going to be heading to Ottawa instead,'” Faulk said.

It was a special moment for Faulk and his mother, Gail, to whom he credits his success.

“She’s always been there for me, she’s always [given] me the option to do whatever I wanted growing up, whatever sport, she never forced anything upon me,” Faulk said of his mother. “She’s always been there for me, driving me to hockey practices growing up so I think without her I wouldn’t be here today.”

But in Faulk’s mind, there is more than enough credit to go around.

“It’s a nice honor but I’ve got to attribute some of it to my teammates and the organization for giving me the opportunity to step in and make an impact right away,” said Faulk, who through 32 games played with the Hurricanes has contributed 11 points (4-7–11).

“When I was leaving [UMD], that’s one of the reasons I signed [with Carolina] because I was told I would have a chance to compete for a spot at camp and that’s all I think you can really ask for,” said Faulk. “You never really expect as a 19-year-old to be playing in the NHL. It’s an amazing feeling. You can’t ask for anything more and it’s been a lot of fun so far.”

Faulk, who led all Bulldogs defensemen in goals (8), assists (25) and points (33) in 39 games in his one and only season at UMD, said his transition to the NHL was made smoother by playing against the older, more physically mature competition offered by the NCAA over junior hockey.

After squeezing a stint with Team USA at the World Junior Championship into his collegiate season, Faulk signed with the Hurricanes shortly after the Frozen Four and was immediately assigned to Carolina’s AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, for the duration of their postseason run.

“It’s all been kind of a whirlwind for me,” Faulk said of the past 13 months.

Faulk reported receiving some good-natured ribbing from some of his teammates over his selection and even said a few new colorful nicknames have been bestowed upon him. But he went on to point out he has been able to go to those veteran teammates for advice about what lies ahead for him in Ottawa.

“I’ve been kind of talking to [current teammate and former Wisconsin Badgers defenseman] Jamie McBain about it, being that he did that whole rookie thing last year here in Raleigh,” said Faulk. “He’s given me a few tips on what to expect and what it might be like and said just go there, enjoy yourself and have fun.”

Although, according to Faulk, his role in the weekend’s events has yet to be determined, he confessed to at least one wish he has.

“I think it would be fun to be part of the skills competition and participate in one of the events,” said Faulk. “I’m not sure which one I’ll be in but I think that’s always a pretty cool event and growing up I always kind of like to watch that.

“I think it’s good for the fans to be able to see the players just have some fun out there.”

Badgers lead the way

Wisconsin will be the most represented WCHA school, with three players heading to Ottawa in Suter, Elliott and Smith. Badgers coach Mike Eaves was kind enough to share a few thoughts with us about his former players and one completely unrelated topic.

On Smith, who has 26 points (9-17–26) in 44 games for the Predators:

“He’s got a good set of skills as a young man. He’s a very good skater and obviously he’s had that ability to get that next gear and play at the National Hockey League level. He shoots the puck very well, he protects it very well and, over the course of his couple of years here at Wisconsin, he became a smarter player in terms of understanding how the game is played with and without the puck and he’s been able to apply those things.

“I think, too, it was nice for Craig to get a little success early with Nashville because that confidence level is such an important part of a player’s psyche.”

On Elliott, who has bounced around the pro ranks but seems to have found a home in St. Louis:

“In his time here, the way he carried himself, he was one of the hardest workers we had and he had good numbers here. But he was always working hard, always trying to get better and that’s kind of his nature. I know in talking to some people down in St. Louis they have said how his teammates have come to respect him so much because of how hard he works in practice.

“His hard work has paid off through his perseverance.”

On Suter, who is making his first All-Star appearance in his seventh season in Nashville:

“The one thing I’ll say about Sutes is the fact that this might be long overdue because he’s a heck of a hockey player. He’s not the kind of guy that’s going to rush the puck end-to-end but he plays very well both ways. He’s kind of that unsung defenseman that is so effective.”

Is the Badgers presence in Ottawa a feather in Eaves’ cap in any way?

“We’re certainly proud of that fact but we as a coaching staff certainly can’t take all the credit. These are young men that come to school here and they have a really good set of skills already. Hopefully we’re able to help in some little form or fashion.”

Eaves also weighed in on the potential for a Wisconsin-Minnesota game next season at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

“I hope it happens and I know Donny [Minnesota coach Don Lucia] does, too,” Eaves said. “To play at Soldier Field, it would be a great venue with its history. Chicago’s such a good area for hockey that I think it would be a natural fit so I’m hoping they can work out the details. The outdoor games are so much fun for players, coaches and fans and everybody involved; it’s a great evening.”

Blood stripped of the ‘A’

North Dakota’s coaches had the assistant captain’s “A” removed from Ben Blood’s uniform after the sucker punch he landed on Minnesota’s Kyle Rau in the handshake line after the Gophers won a 6-2 blowout Saturday in Grand Forks.

The announcement came Monday when UND coach Dave Hakstol said Blood could face more team discipline.

“Regardless of any provocation, Ben’s actions in the post-game handshake were not acceptable,” Hakstol said in a statement. “The handshake line is a traditional, gentlemanly part of our game where, at the end of a hard-fought battle, opponents show good sportsmanship and shake hands like men.”

UND also released a statement from Blood: “I’m not proud of my behavior. That’s not how I want to represent our program, and that’s not how we handle ourselves here. I understand and respect the punishment, and I’ll move forward and not let my emotions get the best of me in the future.”

The incident garnered national media attention on ESPN’s “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption.”

Phil’s Cookin’

While a couple of early goals gave Minnesota State the spark it needed to top Wisconsin 3-0 last Saturday in Mankato, Phil Cook’s performance in goal was the most dominant.

“I feel like I’m back to my normal self again,” Cook said. “I felt like I was trying to do too much earlier in the season. I was fighting the puck instead of letting it come to me.”

Cook stopped all 32 shots he faced, including a highlight-reel, sprawling glove save in which he dived across the crease to rob the Badgers. It was only Cook’s seventh appearance of the season and the fourth time he finished a game, but in his last two games he’s allowed just one goal on 61 shots, going 2-0-0 with a .984 save percentage and a 0.50 goals-against average.

“He played really well Saturday night and I think he has the ability to do that on a regular basis,” said MSU coach Troy Jutting. “Phil went through a stretch where his confidence level wasn’t where it needed it to be. The Christmas break did him wonders and he went home and forgot about hockey for a while and he’s been very good since he’s been back.”

Before his first win of the season Jan. 7 against St. Lawrence, Cook had allowed 23 goals on 125 shots. His performance against Alaska-Anchorage Nov. 26 (five goals on seven shots) was the breaking point, and Jutting told Cook to stay home from the trip to Minnesota.

“The coaching staff told me to stay home and clear my head and don’t come on this trip,” Cook said. “I didn’t have the confidence I needed. It was all mental.”

Healing Huskies

Mike Lee is on the cusp of playing again for St. Cloud State, and the goalie is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation process after hip surgery. Lee has been out of the lineup since he got injured in practice before a series at North Dakota in October. Lee has an .896 save percentage and a 3.34 goals-against average in five games this season.

He won’t be ready to face UND this week, according to Mick Hatten of the St. Cloud Times. His status is week-to-week pending appointments with the doctor.

Drew LeBlanc, the anchor of SCSU’s offense, skated for the first time in months this week, according to Hatten. He suffered a broken leg in a tie against Wisconsin in November and there is no timetable on his return. Lee and LeBlanc are both captains.

Mystery in Alaska

Two key Alaska-Anchorage players, Jordan Kwas and Rob Gunderson, were not in the lineup last weekend at Michigan Tech and stayed home from the Seawolves’ two-week road trip that ends at Wisconsin this weekend.

The Anchorage Daily News originally reported Friday that both were academically ineligible but UAA athletic director Steve Cobb confirmed to the ADN on Wednesday that Gunderson is eligible but staying home to focus on studies. Meanwhile, Kwas is academically ineligible.

The loss of Kwas is a huge blow to the Seawolves, who already lost Mickey Spencer, who was tied for the team lead in points (10) going into last weekend. Spencer left the team early last week.

Loss has silver lining for UMD

Minnesota-Duluth is still ranked No. 1 in the country and is still tied for first place in the WCHA despite its 3-1 loss to Nebraska-Omaha last Saturday, one that snapped UMD’s 17-game unbeaten streak. The loss might be nearly as beneficial as walking out of Omaha with a sweep.

The Bulldogs tasted defeat for the first time since October and, though you wouldn’t call this loss a wake-up call, it will sure make UMD aware of what else is out there.

“We didn’t get the bounces to go our way Saturday,” UMD captain Jack Connolly said. “Obviously we wanted to keep the streak going, but it does take a little bit of the pressure off. It’s better to lose now than right away in the postseason.

“We’re having a good week of practice so hopefully we can regroup and start a new winning streak here.”

The Bulldogs were still by far the better team last weekend, winning 6-2 Friday and outshooting the Mavericks 44-15 Saturday, when they could get only one puck past Ryan Massa.

Between the dots …

After being held off the score sheet for the season’s first nine games, Alaska-Anchorage‘s Curtis Leinweber has 11 points (6-5–11) in his last eight games to vault into a three-way tie for the team lead in scoring with Brett Cameron (4-7–11) and Mitch Bruijsten (7-4–11). … With a goal last Friday, Bemidji State‘s Jordan George is just one point shy of his 90th collegiate point. …

With seven goals and 15 points (7-8–15) in 22 outings this season, Colorado College sophomore winger Alexander Krushelnyski already has surpassed his freshman total of 14 (6-8–14) in 44 games. This goal is likely his most memorable. … Denver junior forward Drew Shore’s five-point game (2-3–5) last Friday gave him 100 points (43-57–100) for his career to become the 94th member of the Pioneers’ century club. Shore ranks second in the WCHA in overall point scoring and leads the nation with six game-winning goals. …

Senior Jordan Baker registered a team-high five points last weekend for Michigan Tech, including a hat trick and four points in last Saturday’s 6-4 win. Baker’s hat trick was the second of the season by a Huskies player. Milos Gordic had the other Oct. 28 vs. Denver. Baker has 20 points (7-13–20) in 23 games this season. … Tech’s 12-goal output vs. UAA last weekend was its highest-scoring series since Oct. 27-28, 2006, when it swept the Seawolves 9-0 and 5-3. …

Nick Bjugstad had two goals for Minnesota on Saturday against North Dakota and has 31 points (19-12–31) on the year. He is the first Gophers player to record 30 or more points in one season since 2008-09 when four players accomplished the feat. … Gophers forward Nate Condon scored his third short-handed goal of the season last Saturday at North Dakota. Only Colgate’s Austin Smith has more short-handed goals nationally (5). …

Minnesota-Duluth has outshot the opposition in all but four of its 22 games and holds a 779-593 advantage in that department. UMD’s 35.41 shots-per-game average is the third-best in the NCAA, trailing only Niagara (35.68) and Union (35.41). … Freshman defenseman Zach Palmquist, who has played in all 24 games this year, leads all Minnesota State blue liners with 11 points (4-7–11) on the year. … MSU’s freshmen class has totaled 24-28–52 this year, which ties it for eighth in the nation among all first-year classes with Minnesota (21-31–52) and Miami (24-28–52). …

After a 43-save performance in defeating UMD, Nebraska-Omaha freshman goaltender Massa is 4-1-1 in his last six outings, posting a 1.81 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage over that stretch. He has allowed two goals or fewer in each of his last four starts. … North Dakota coach Hakstol enters the week with 199 career wins, leaving him on the verge of joining 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 freshman goalie Ryan Faragher has made 18 consecutive starts for the Huskies since Lee’s injury and has posted a 2.83 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in that stretch. Faragher earned his first collegiate shutout (and SCSU’s lone shutout of the 2011-12 season) in the first of those starts against UND on Oct. 28. … Sophomore forward Mark Zengerle of Wisconsin went scoreless last Saturday in UW’s 3-0 loss at Minnesota State, ending a 20-game point-scoring streak (9-24–33). Zengerle, who went scoreless for the first time since opening night, finished one game shy of UW’s all-time point-scoring mark of 21 games held by Eaves.