Denver, Minnesota-Duluth play for a spot in top half of WCHA standings

Think of this weekend’s series between No. 10 Denver and Minnesota-Duluth as a crossroads.

After bye weeks for both teams, Denver and UMD are at a similar spot in the standings coming from different directions.

The Pioneers have traveled downward in the WCHA standings while the Bulldogs have been hot in the WCHA lately, looking to break into the league title race.

“This is huge for us so we can creep up on teams and teams can’t gain separation on us,” UMD wing Mike Seidel said. “There’s a lot on the line. We’re not that far out of reach, only six points from the top.”

Denver is in seventh place with 20 points and UMD is one place and one point behind the Pioneers. A sweep either way could send the winner into the top third of the standings and knock the loser out of the race.

“At this point in the season, every point is so valuable,” Denver’s Nick Shore said. “We’re not looking at this weekend as make or break but every game down the stretch is going to be tough and we have to get as many points as we can.”

The Pioneers started the season strong, went into a slump, bounced back with a 4-0-1 record to start the second half of the season but had to battle injuries and illness. That led to a pair of losses at St. Cloud State on Jan. 18-19.

Denver had the bye week to rest up and get everyone healthy. Captain Paul Phillips said the Pioneers will play with four full forward lines and six defensemen.

“I think we’re the healthiest we’ve been all season,” he said. “We haven’t had the full lineup in a lot of our games.”

The Bulldogs are also coming off a bye and are 7-2-1 in their last 10 WCHA games after starting the season 1-5-2 in league play.

The Bulldogs lost to Maine and Ferris State at the Florida College Hockey Classic in late December but followed that with three straight wins. The competition steps up this weekend when Denver comes into Duluth.

“It’s a big weekend to establish whether you’re a team that’s moving up or moving down for either team,” UMD’s Wade Bergman said. “We need to make a statement this weekend so teams know that we can be at the top of the league.

“We’re a blue-collar team that wins by committee. There’s no more Jack Connollys on this team anymore.”

Seidel leads the Bulldogs in points with 23 (12 goals, 11 assists) but they’re getting a lot of help from two freshmen: Tony Cameranesi (10 goals, 12 assists) and Austin Farley (eight goals, nine assists).

UMD is not a team under consideration for the NCAA tournament right now (their Ratings Percentage Index score is .4972, short of the .5000 needed to qualify), so the Bulldogs would need to go on a ridiculous run to get an at-large bid. It seems the most feasible path for UMD to make the 16-team field is to position itself for a good first-round matchup, advance to the Final Five and run the table to get the WCHA’s automatic bid.

“We need to be playing your best hockey in late February and into March to make the tournament,” Seidel said. “If we’re playing our best hockey at that time, we certainly have a chance to get in there.”

And if the Bulldogs can play at that level starting this weekend against Denver, their chances are better.

Unsung hero: UMD’s Wade Bergman

Minnesota-Duluth senior defenseman Bergman may not be the biggest skater on the ice but the oft-unsung hero makes up for it with his grit and determination for the eighth-place Bulldogs.

Minnesota-Duluth’s Wade Bergman has 15 points after posting 18 as a junior (photo: Melissa Wade).

“He’s always been a guy who plays well defensively and does all the little things you need him to do,” coach Scott Sandelin said before cracking into a smile. “He is one of the best shot blockers we’ve got. Against Union [the NCAA opener during the Bulldogs’ 2011 title run], he must have made eight or nine on the penalty kill. He is willing to do whatever it takes to win.”

After recording a career-high 18 points as a junior, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound blueliner from Calgary, Alberta, has 15 points (13 assists) entering this weekend’s home series with No. 10 Denver.

“He’s gotten more opportunities to score as part of the power play and he has made the most of it,” Sandelin said.

Bergman has finished in the black in plus-minus ratings the previous three seasons and has proven durable with a string of 85 consecutive appearances that ended after an injury in the Florida College Hockey Classic forced him to miss the Jan. 11 game against Michigan Tech.

“I am happy to do whatever I can whether it is on the power play or blocking shots,” Bergman said. “I like blocking shots. It gets the guys into the game because it shows we all have to be willing to put our bodies on the line.”

SCSU’s freshman duo producing

Drew LeBlanc, Ben Hanowski and Nic Dowd are the upperclassmen who’ve made themselves the cornerstones of St. Cloud State’s offense the past two seasons.

With a few new additions, those three have the support from young guys that were brought in to score: freshmen Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila.

Brodzinski and Kossila have 11 goals each, which leads the WCHA by two goals. North Dakota freshman Rocco Grimaldi has nine goals.

“Our team’s playing extremely well right now, so that’s a major contributor [to my success],” Brodzinski said. “It’s who you play with that really helps. I didn’t score many goals last year; I was more of a grinder in the USHL.”

SCSU’s freshman duo was LeBlanc’s wings on the top line for 12 games and helped their senior teammate become the national leader in assists (28).

Brodzinski was moved to a line with Dowd and Jimmy Murray following a loss to Northern Michigan on Jan. 4. Kossila flipped over to LeBlanc’s right wing with Hanowski on the left wing and the new combinations have worked.

“[LeBlanc] is so good,” Kossila said. “He’s a great passer, he’s strong and he’s a good skater.”

Kossila made the jump from playing in Finland to the college game, skipping juniors in the process.

“At first, I didn’t really know anyone and I didn’t know if I was going to play very well,” Kossila said. “People told me to go to the USHL first but I just decided to come here and did my best. I kind of was scared that this might be too high of level for me.”

Kossila and Brodzinski made impacts in SCSU’s three-point series at North Dakota last weekend. Kossila had an assist in each game. Brodzinski finished the weekend with two goals and an assist.

“To take three points out of four points against North Dakota in their building was a great accomplishment,” Brodzinski said. “Everyone was really proud of it. Now we have to keep our foot on the pedal.”

New streaks to watch

Three double-digit scoring streaks — North Dakota’s Corban Knight (19 games), Minnesota’s Erik Haula (16) and St. Cloud State’s LeBlanc (13) — came to an end last Friday.

SCSU freshman Brodzinski (11 games) and Ryan Walters (10 games), Nebraska-Omaha’s league leader in goals, have the only double-digit point streaks in the WCHA.

WCHA players of the week

Offensive — Ben Hanowski, St. Cloud State: The senior scored three times to spark the visiting Huskies to three of four points from North Dakota last weekend to move into first place in the league race. He scored the winner in a 3-1 victory on Friday and both SCSU goals in Saturday’s 2-2 tie.

Defensive — John Faulkner, Nebraska-Omaha: The senior goaltender recorded 44 saves to lead UNO to its first-ever WCHA series sweep of Bemidji State. It was the fourth time this year and the 12th time in his career that he backstopped both ends of a sweep. He has 51 career wins, just two away from tying Dan Ellis’ school record.

Rookie — Jonny Brodzinski, St. Cloud State: He extended his point-scoring streak to 11 games with a pair of goals and an assist last weekend. He scored twice on Friday and assisted on Hanowski’s tying goal on Saturday.

Quick hits

• No. 19 Wisconsin is 10-1-2 since the start of December thanks to the league’s No. 2 defense (2.00 goals per game), but questions remain about the offense (2.33, 44th out of 59 Division I teams), especially with a head injury to senior Derek Lee (19 points, 16 assists) expected to keep him out of this weekend’s series at No. 7 North Dakota, according to Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal.

• Alaska-Anchorage will try to end a 0-11-1 slide this weekend against ninth-place Colorado College. The Seawolves rank last in the WCHA in offense, 11th in defense, last in power play and last in penalty kill.

• The Bemidji State goalie situation bears watching. Sophomore Andrew Walsh gave up at least three goals for the fifth time in four weeks, prompting senior Mathieu Dugas to get the start in last Saturday’s 2-1 home loss to Nebraska-Omaha. The Beavers could really use a hot netminder to pull out their first win of 2013 this weekend against league-leading St. Cloud State.

• About 1,000 pounds of food for Upper Peninsula food banks were collected during Michigan Tech’s intrasquad scrimmage at Dee Stadium over the bye weekend.