Rivalry temperature turned up as Denver, North Dakota square off

As No. 6 North Dakota’s last glimmer of hope to win the MacNaughton Cup fades, the focus turns to the national tournament picture with three weeks to go.

Tied for fourth place in the WCHA standings, UND is sixth in the PairWise Rankings, where a team’s rating is more meaningful as March nears.

No. 10 Denver also knows the importance of positioning in the PWR, in which the Pioneers are 11th. A bad weekend against UND when the teams meet this weekend at Magness Arena could knock Denver down a few rungs and closer to the bubble.

If Denver comes away with three points or more, the Pioneers likely would steal the comparison away from UND and improve their record against teams under consideration to pass other teams ahead of them.

After bolting out of the gates to a sizeable lead in the standings early in the season, the Pioneers find themselves in a battle for one of the final home playoff seeds.

“We know we control our own destiny,” Denver captain Paul Phillips said. “That’s how it goes and all we can focus on is Friday night. That’s what coach [George Gwozdecky] and that’s what I’ve been stressing.”

That’s what’s on the line for two teams coming off their final bye week of the season, but these games have more meaning than postseason positioning. These teams don’t like each other.

UND senior Danny Kristo paints a crystal clear picture of a heated rivalry.

“I think Mac [UND captain Andrew MacWilliam] hates these guys the most,” Kristo said. “I don’t need to beat around the bush but I don’t think our coaching staffs like each other too much, either. Obviously, both teams have a lot of respect for each other because both teams are always there at the end of the year.”

Added Denver defenseman David Makowski: “Next to Colorado College, UND becomes our biggest rival. They come at you pretty hard and we have to make sure we’re ready to go from the start.”

Wherever UND plays, the arena usually has a fair amount of green-clad fans in the crowd. UND fans’ willingness to travel and good alumni numbers in Denver are reasons home-ice advantage is often watered down when the teams play at Magness Arena.

“As crazy as it sounds, even though it’s a home game for us, it’s kind of like a home game for them,” Phillips said. “They bring so many fans with them and their fans are so loud. It’s real important that we can’t let their fans get into the game. We have to throw the first punch.”

Border battle outdoors draws comparisons to Omaha

There’s an unending argument in college hockey circles these days about whether outdoor games are an idea that should be laid to rest, but Sunday’s outdoor spectacle in Chicago proved how successfully such an event can be run.

An announced 52,051 fans made the trek to Soldier Field for the Hockey City Classic, a doubleheader that featured Minnesota and Wisconsin of the WCHA and, in the day’s first game, Notre Dame and Miami from the CCHA. Many fans didn’t stay in the stadium for both games — the 61,500-capacity NFL stadium never looked full whenever TV cameras panned to the crowd — but that didn’t stop the event from being seen as a commercial success.

Fighting Irish and Badgers fans came away the happiest. No. 12 Notre Dame eked out a 2-1 win over the third-ranked RedHawks in the day’s first game, and No. 18 Wisconsin knocked off second-ranked Minnesota 3-2 in the nightcap.

The Hockey City Classic proved a bigger success than Omaha, Neb.’s Battles on Ice two weekends ago. Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota drew 13,650 for their game at what was at best a half-full TD Ameritrade Park on Feb. 9, but both events faced similar challenges.

No one liked seeing all the empty seats at the two venues, but Chicago did a better job than Omaha of dealing with that problem. The lowest price for Hockey City Classic tickets was $15, while the cheapest tickets at the Ameritrade started at $39, including the dreaded fees Ticketmaster tacks on.

Neither event was a part of any of the four WCHA teams’ season ticket packages.

Ice conditions were also an issue at both events. The Soldier Field’s ice held up better than Omaha’s ballpark’s did, but teams at Chicago’s event had to switch ends halfway into the third period, while Omaha’s outdoor affair included an 150-minute delay between games due to the havoc unseasonably warm weather was creating on the playing surface.

The jury’s still out, though, as to whether western college hockey teams will — or should — host future outdoor games. What are your feelings on the subject? Let us know in the comments section below this article.

It’s Gothberg’s job, for now, at UND

By mid-January, Zane Gothberg hadn’t played a game in net for North Dakota since late November, with just four starts to his credit.

It’s easy to see why. Clarke Saunders started the next nine games and went 7-1-1 after Gothberg’s Nov. 24 loss at Notre Dame.

Saunders allowed four goals in a loss to Colorado College on Jan. 11. Gothberg started the next game, got the win and has started seven of UND’s last nine games.

“I’ve been tracking the puck into my pads well, keeping my eye on the puck if there’s a tip or a deflection,” Gothberg said. “Also, my positioning and my communication have to be attributed to me playing well.”

Gothberg had a .901 save percentage and a 3.00 goals against average in his first four games, but those numbers have spiked in the past month. Gothberg’s save percentage is at .928 and his GAA is 2.14 since Jan. 12.

The freshman earned starts in all of UND’s games the past two series, allowing five goals in four games to lead the team to a 3-0-1 record.

It seems the job is Gothberg’s to lose.

“Nothing’s guaranteed at the goaltender position,” said Gothberg, who’s garnered the league’s weekly defensive and top rookie honors his past two weekends out. “The biggest thing is taking advantage of every single day and making sure I can help out my team. That’s the biggest thing.”

Though goaltending isn’t UND’s main strength, there wasn’t much of a drop-off when a change needed to be made in net. Saunders, a junior transfer from Alabama-Huntsville, had a solid start to the season and Gothberg stepped up when Saunders began to struggle after Christmas.

“[Clarke and I] have a tremendous competitive respect for one another, on the ice or in the weight room,” Gothberg said. “We’re going to try and push each other each day and that we take advantage of the time we get on the ice.”

WCHA title race still wide open

Although most WCHA teams have either four or six league games remaining in the regular season — Alaska-Anchorage is the only exception with two — many of those clubs still find themselves in the race for the MacNaughton Cup.

St. Cloud State leads the WCHA pack with 31 points, which puts the Huskies one point ahead of second-place Nebraska-Omaha and two ahead of Minnesota State in third. Of those three, SCSU has the best chance of winning the regular season title, partly due to the two games in hand it has on both UNO and MSU.

However, the league’s fourth- and fifth-place teams also still have realistic shots at finishing the regular season on top. Minnesota and North Dakota are tied at 28 points, and, like SCSU, they both have two games in hand on the WCHA’s two sets of Mavericks.

Sixth-place Wisconsin (27 points) and seventh-place Denver (25 points) had looked in the preseason as though they might be among the favorites to win the league. However, both have taken tumbles that now see them perhaps better off making sure they finish in the WCHA’s top half and clinch home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth, tied for eighth place at 20 points, have big hills to climb if either is to finish in the league’s top half. Bemidji State and Michigan Tech (both at 16 points) are likely to jockey for which finishes 10th and which 11th. UAA is rooted to the bottom at 10 points.

Quick hits

• Minnesota State has won 16 of its last 21 games after the host Mavericks swept Michigan Tech last weekend. The Mavericks toppled the Huskies 4-2 on Friday, and ninth-ranked MSU rolled to a 6-1 win the following night.

• Despite concerns of a blizzard that could drop a foot of snow on the Omaha area Thursday, the night’s exhibition game between Nebraska-Omaha and the USA Under-18 Team is still set to go ahead. The U-18s will be busing overnight into Omaha for Thursday’s exhibition from Chicago after their USHL game on Wednesday.

• Wisconsin is getting set to host a rare Sunday-Monday series against future Big Ten opponent Penn State. Madison’s Kohl Center will host the Wisconsin state high school wrestling championships this Thursday through Saturday, thus preempting the Badgers’ and Nittany Lions’ two-game set.

• Ryan Walters of Nebraska-Omaha owns the national lead in points (40), two ahead of St. Cloud State’s Drew LeBlanc, who leads the nation in assists (30). Walters, UND’s Kristo and Wisconsin’s Michael Mersch are tied with 16 goals, two off national leader Greg Carey of St. Lawrence.

• Minnesota State’s Matt Leitner is a special teams beast. The sophomore leads the country in power-play assists (14) and power-play points (17), and also has a short-handed goal.