St. Cloud State, North Dakota take a turn in the standings spotlight

In a league race where first and sixth place are separated by only three points, a series between WCHA co-leading St. Cloud State and third-place North Dakota in Grand Forks looms large this weekend.

“We’re still fighting hard for points,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol told the Grand Forks Herald after last Saturday’s 4-4 tie at No. 1 Minnesota moved No. 5 UND into a three-way tie for third place with No. 10 Denver and No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha. “On that side, it’s disappointing to get one point out of four. In evaluating performance, I thought overall, we took a step forward. I liked a lot of things I saw from a couple of young guys in our lineup tonight that are hopefully a sign of things to come.”

North Dakota is led by senior linemates Corban Knight (33 points, 22 assists) and Danny Kristo (31, 17 assists) who have combined for a total of 35 points (16 goals) over the last nine games. Knight has 31 points (22 assists) during his current 19-game points streak, UND’s fourth-longest ever.

St. Cloud State senior captain Drew LeBlanc leads Division I with 27 assists (34 points total) while junior Nic Dowd adds 26 points (11 goals). Freshman Kalle Kossila (21 points) leads the nation’s rookies with 11 goals.

The Huskies had gone 1-3 at home against mediocre nonconference foes coming into the Denver home sweep last Friday and Saturday.

“We needed a big weekend to jump-start us,” LeBlanc said. “It started with our defense and by us outworking them. There is no reason we can’t do that again at North Dakota.”

We’ll see.

Unsung of the WCHA: Wisconsin’s John Ramage

John Ramage is proof that one of a team’s most valuable players doesn’t need to rack up the goals or dazzle the competition with the puck on his stick.

The senior defenseman for Wisconsin earns his scholarship in the defensive zone.

“I contribute in all facets but I focus on shutting teams down,” Ramage said. “I’ve probably played the most [career] games on our team so I have experience leading guys and I know what to expect in each building.”

There’s a reason Ramage is Wisconsin’s captain, there’s a reason he was Team USA’s captain at the 2011 World Junior Championship and there’s a reason the Calgary Flames picked him up in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

“He’s a guy you want in your bunker when you go battle,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. “He’s a fierce competitor. He brings that stay-at-home type of defenseman attitude to the table.”

Defense has been Wisconsin’s calling card as long as Eaves has been there and longer.

The Badgers defense averages 2.05 goals against per game (sixth lowest in Division I) and is looking for its sixth top-eight finish in goals against average over the last 10 seasons.

Ramage plays a big role in that.

“We like to play a sound game, systematically,” said Ramage, whose dad, Rob, played 15 seasons in the NHL. “When we do that, we tend to shut teams down in terms of giving them scoring chances.”

Ramage is on track to go down as another great defenseman to have played at Wisconsin. The list of successful Badgers blue-liners includes Brian Engblom, Brian Rafalski, Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh, Tom Gilbert, Brendan Smith, Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz to name a few.

“There’s a reputation that exists here,” Eaves said. “The program is enticing to young defensemen.”

Ramage’s teammate and fellow defenseman Jake McCabe was the captain for gold medal-winning Team USA at the World Juniors earlier this month.

“It was awesome to see, especially with Jake McCabe being the captain, leading that team to gold,” Ramage said.

Two weeks ago, Ramage (the guy not known to have much of an offensive side), came up with perhaps the two most clutch goals of the season for Wisconsin.

He scored overtime goals on back-to-back nights as the Badgers swept Minnesota State Jan. 11-12. Those wins have Wisconsin back in the WCHA race.

“When you’re in the last minute of a game or you’re going into a hostile environment, you want to have John on your team,” Eaves said.

Despite rule changes, face-to-face recruiting will remain critical

In a move that needed to be made a few years ago, the NCAA Board of Directors voted to dump limitations on ways coaches may communicate with recruits by expanding their ability to stay in touch via emails and texts.

It does not eliminate the need for face-to-face contact.

Men’s college hockey coaches can make unlimited contact starting Aug. 1 following a player’s junior year of high school. There are some limits for the sake of the recruit. Between June 15 after the player’s sophomore year and July 31 after the junior year, one phone call per month is allowed.

It makes sense. Today’s players communicate more via texts than actually using their phones to answer calls.

But it still proves a poor substitute for face-to-face contact. Coaches need to get to know a kid and his family before committing a scholarship. They do that with face time in living rooms, handshakes in arena concourses and talks with trusted youth coaches.

Their jobs and considerable chunks of the school’s money are on the line.

That leads to an important second rule elimination that complements the other move.

The elimination of the so-called “baton rule” — limiting schools to two coaches on the road recruiting at one time — frees up the entire coaching staff to be involved concurrently and should help that concern.

While other concerns remain — the game scouting rule remains contradictory and confusing — these two rule eliminations were steps in the right direction for an organization known for being out of touch most of the time.

WCHA players of the week

Offensive — Nate Condon, Minnesota: Condon had a goal in each game and three assists in Minnesota’s three-point weekend against North Dakota. He sealed Friday’s 5-1 win with a short-handed goal and his goal with 2:58 remaining in the third period knotted Saturday’s game at four. Condon has nine goals and 14 assists this season.

Defensive — Ryan Faragher, St. Cloud State: This one went to Faragher, but it could’ve easily gone to Wisconsin’s Joel Rumpel. Faragher stopped 49 of 52 shots (.942) in a sweep of No. 7 Denver. Rumpel stopped 56 of 58 shots (.966) with a shutout with one fewer goal allowed as Wisconsin split with No. 8 Miami. You be the judge.

Rookie — Pheonix Copley, Michigan Tech: Copley earned his third shutout in five games Friday against Bemidji State. He turned away 96.6 percent of the shots he faced last weekend and has allowed two goals or fewer in five of the last six games.

Quick hits

Here’s an interesting story on North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi from Sports Spectrum. It talks about Grimaldi’s faith and the setbacks he battled through to further his hockey career.

• Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said in his Monday news conference that he will “flip-flop” Mark Zengerle and Derek Lee in the forward lines in an effort to generate more offense.

• Ryan Walters of Nebraska-Omaha continues his hold on the national points leader board with 36, but St. Cloud State’s LeBlanc is close behind with 34 and North Dakota’s Knight has 33.

• Walters has the national lead in goals (15) and LeBlanc leads Division I in assists (27).

• Eriah Hayes has scored seven power-play goals for Minnesota State, second most in the nation.

• Minnesota’s Nate Schmidt and Colorado College’s Mike Boivin are Nos. 1 and 2 in points by defensemen with 23 and 21, respectively.

• Minnesota has the top scoring offense in the nation (3.88 goals per game) and the third-best defense (1.88 goals against).