Minnesota, North Dakota prep for one last series as WCHA rivals

The series circled in red on most every WCHA fan’s calendar is finally here and as usual, the league title may be determined by its outcome.

No. 1 Minnesota hosts No. 6 North Dakota in the final WCHA series between two fierce rivals who are tied for third place in points but tied for first in winning percentage. Minnesota will be part of the new Big Ten league next season while UND is moving to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

It promises to live up to the billing with stars aplenty. Minnesota (16-3-3, 8-3-3 WCHA) has recent home wins over then-No. 1 Boston College and then-No. 2 Notre Dame and a 6-0-1 record against nationally ranked teams this season.

Minnesota leads the WCHA in overall scoring (3.82 goals per game) but may be missing Erik Haula (game-time decision) while North Dakota leads the WCHA in scoring during league games (3.71). Nationally, Minnesota and North Dakota (3.45 goals per game overall) rank first and sixth, respectively, in scoring offense.

North Dakota (13-6-3, 8-3-3) has Division I’s only set of teammates with 30-plus points. Senior linemates Corban Knight (31 points, 21 assists) and Danny Kristo (30 points, 17 assists) have combined for 32 points (14 goals) in the last seven games.

Knight has 29 points (8-21–29) during his 17-game points streak, UND’s longest in a decade. UND is 31-2-4 all-time when Knight scores a goal, including 6-0-2 this season. Minnesota will need to put a body on him whenever he is in the Gophers’ zone or pay the consequences.

Kristo’s average of 1.5 points per game is tied for the WCHA lead, while Knight ranks third at 1.48. Those averages rank third and fifth, respectively, in the national rankings.

Minnesota will have sophomore Kyle Rau (25 points, 13 goals) and junior Nick Bjugstad (24 points, 12 goals) to lead a balanced attack that has outscored foes 84-40 this season. Freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (15-2-3, 1.65 goals against average, .925 save percentage) leads the WCHA’s top overall scoring defense (1.82 goals).

Saturday’s finale is scheduled for 5 p.m. CST as part of Hockey Day Minnesota.

Olkinuora was steady when Denver wasn’t

Juho Olkinuora was never to blame for Denver’s second-quarter collapse.

Five games into the second half of the season, the sophomore from Finland continues to get starts, and quality starts at that. He’s a big reason the Pioneers will stay in the WCHA title hunt.

Olkinuora has the fifth-best save percentage in the nation (.942), 11th-best goals against average (1.86) and the fourth-best winning percentage (.750, 7-1-4).

All three Denver goalies — Olkinuora, Sam Brittain and Adam Murray — got off to solid starts but coach George Gwozdecky said he’d roll with only two goalies. That bumped Murray out.

Brittain and Olkinuora split the time through November and December but the Jan. 4-5 sweep of No. 12 Cornell was Olkinuora’s first weekend in which he played both games.

The job should’ve been his for a while now. During Denver’s eight-game winless streak, Olkinuora was 0-1-3 but had allowed just six goals while the Pioneers scored only five.

Olkinuora has started Denver’s five games since the break, allowing nine goals on 175 shots (.949 save percentage) against solid teams. Plus, he’s finally getting goal support.

The Pioneers have scored 23 goals in the 4-0-1 stretch. In the eight games before, Denver scored 14 goals.

Maybe Olkinuora had an extended stay in Gwozdecky’s doghouse. Olkinuora served a four-game, team-imposed suspension to begin the season and later served a one-game suspension for fighting in November.

It’s Olkinuora’s job to lose now.

UAH makes pitch to save hockey program

The fate of Alabama-Hunstville may be known as early as Thursday afternoon after the school president makes his presentation, which is said to include considerable travel subsidies, to WCHA representatives during the annual NCAA Convention in Grapevine, Texas.

School officials have a very clear idea how big this would be with members of the new-look WCHA on hand and perhaps voting Thursday after the school makes its pitch. League representatives are scheduled to meet Wednesday night and all day Thursday. Seven of the nine schools that will form the WCHA next season must approve UAH’s membership.

“It would open the door to heaven,” UAH athletic director E.J. Brophy told The Huntsville Times.

Lately, the Chargers have been in a hell of sorts.

The team has played as an independent since College Hockey America folded after the 2009-10 season. The team has struggled in recruiting and attendance at home because of scheduling difficulties but could enjoy a resurgence after being declared dead in October 2011 and revived two months later.

If not accepted, it is unlikely UAH will survive much longer despite the efforts of its ardent but few fans. Here’s hoping seven schools see fit to save the Chargers’ program and add to their own league and limit the number of trips to Alaska required each season.

UND trying new additions on top line

One player had been itching to get back on the ice after an injury kept him out for half the season. The other had to play the waiting game last semester after he transferred schools.

It’s become clear Michael Parks and Mitch MacMillan are expected to make an immediate impact for North Dakota.

Parks was inserted at left wing on UND’s top line and scored twice against Holy Cross Jan. 4-5. He played three games in that spot but was moved to second line right wing, a natural spot for him because he’s right-handed.

Parks suffered a high left-ankle sprain in an October exhibition game and it cost him the first half of the season.

“I was just really excited to get back into a game,” said Parks, who returned to face Minnesota-Duluth on Nov. 16 but couldn’t finish the game. “It was a really long four months sitting out and staying behind on road trips.

“It was so tough but I just kept telling myself during the break that I had enough time to get 100 percent healthy for the second half.”

Parks demonstrated he can be a key figure as one of UND’s best players down the stretch last season as a freshman. He recorded 19 of his 22 points after the Christmas break and eight points in seven playoff games.

“He can control the puck and cycle it down low,” said Knight, North Dakota’s top-line center. “He has a lot of special capabilities when it comes to playing a power game.”

MacMillan, who transferred from St. Cloud State around Christmas last season, became eligible for the Holy Cross series.

Three days after MacMillan announced he planned to leave SCSU, he received a call from North Dakota. He played left wing on the third line with his brother, Mark, for the first three games.

“Things weren’t really working out in St. Cloud,” Mitch MacMillan said. “I wasn’t enjoying the hockey side of things so I decided I needed to leave there to further my hockey career.”

MacMillan moved up to the first line Saturday to skate with Knight and Kristo, chipping in a goal and an assist for his first points at UND in a 5-3 win.

MacMillan will have ample opportunity to score points given the talent that surrounds him on his line, but he needs to show why he’s the right guy to play on that top line.

“It’s kind of hard to believe I went from a healthy scratch in St. Cloud to playing with Kristo and Knight,” MacMillan said. “It should be exciting playing [St. Cloud State on Jan. 25-26]. I feel like I have a lot to prove to them.”

Knight streaking

Knight is riding an impressive streak that goes back to Nov. 3 with points in 17 consecutive games.

Knight, an unselfish player who puts the team first, doesn’t think the streak is a big deal.

“To be honest, I think my personal play has been blown out of proportion,” Knight said. “I don’t think I’m doing anything different than I was in October.

“I’m on the receiving end of a lot of good plays by my teammates.”

Other impressive streaks in recent memory are Jack Connolly’s 22-game points streak for Minnesota-Duluth in which he scored 38 points, and Mark Zengerle’s 20-gamer (33 points) for Wisconsin, both last season.

Jason Gregoire (UND, 2010-11) and Chad Rau (Colorado College, 2007-08) both had 16-game point streaks.

Gregoire recorded 1.81 points per game during his streak, the highest rate of those five players during their point streaks. Knight averages 1.71 points per game in his last 17 contests.

Quick hits

• Defenseman John Ramage has recorded six points all season for Wisconsin and three of them came last weekend. Known mostly for his defensive skills, Ramage scored the game-winning goal in both overtime wins at Minnesota State and added an assist Saturday.

• Former Minnesota sophomore defenseman Blake Thompson joined the Minnesota State program, it was revealed earlier this week. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound, native of Eden Prairie, Minn., will sit out under NCAA transfer rules until this time next season.

• Nebraska-Omaha’s Ryan Walters (36) and North Dakota’s Knight (31) are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the nation in points. UND’s Kristo, St. Cloud State’s Drew LeBlanc and Colorado College’s Rylan Schwartz have 30 points.

• Walters leads the nation in goals with 15 and LeBlanc has the national lead in assists with 24.

• Minnesota’s Nate Schmidt leads the nation’s defensemen in points per game (1.00).

• With Minnesota’s 7-1 win against Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday, the Gophers continue to lead the nation in goals per game at 3.82 and scoring margin (2.00 goals per game).