The Usual Suspects
Is this WCHA season’s first few weeks a case of the rich getting richer?
With North Dakota sitting in fourth place with only a .500 conference record? Not exactly.
But the teams we’re used to seeing at the top are there again, and the teams we’re used to seeing at the bottom are also there again.
Wisconsin is tied for first, Minnesota-Duluth, despite having played only two games, is last and there’s a familiar scattering among the teams in the middle.
So, yes, it does appear to be status quo in the WCHA.
“I think the teams that are at the top right now are the teams that most everybody expected to be there,” said Troy Jutting, whose Minnesota State-Mankato team has a 1-5 conference record through six games.
Said Minnesota coach Don Lucia: “A lot of it’s based on schedule — who you play and when you play them.”
In that case, you have to give Michigan Tech and Mankato a bit of credit. Each is 1-5 in the league, but for each that win came against North Dakota. The other two opponents for both teams have been Wisconsin and Colorado College.
Speaking of Colorado College, the Tigers have jumped out exactly as they needed. With eight points through four games, they have leapfrogged to the top of the standings and will make someone knock them off.
They have shown they can flash the offense when needed (a 6-2 win over Mankato), win with defense (a 3-1 win over Tech), and come out ahead in one-goal games (a 6-5 win over Mankato and a 3-2 win over Tech).
Last season, that wasn’t the case.
But let’s look more at that schedule issue. CC has its four wins against teams that have a combined two wins. Same for Wisconsin (against the same teams, no less).
Third-place Minnesota has a pair of wins over 10th-place Duluth and a win and a tie against ninth-place Alaska-Anchorage. Fourth-place North Dakota split with Tech and Mankato.
Denver and St. Cloud State split last weekend’s series, and each is 1-1 and tied for fifth place.
Is there enough yet to draw conclusions about the order in which these teams will finish? Certainly not, especially in the cases of Duluth, Anchorage, St. Cloud and Denver — the teams with only two games played in the league.
But Lucia may be onto something with his line about scheduling. For the Gophers, the task becomes immediately tougher. They host Wisconsin in this season’s first series pitting legitimate title contenders.
Then they face North Dakota in Grand Forks. Then they have a home-and-home series with St. Cloud to end the 2000 part of the league schedule. They pick it up in January at Anchorage, then at home against North Dakota and at Wisconsin.
If they’re still breathing by that point, we may have ourselves a contender.
After this weekend’s series with Minnesota, Wisconsin doesn’t have a truly tough stretch of games until February, when the Badgers play North Dakota, St. Cloud and CC in successive weekends.
That affords the Badgers the opportunity to, much like last year, open up a lead on the rest of the league before February.
Later this month, Colorado College hosts St. Cloud a week before going to Wisconsin. The Tigers are one of the teams that doesn’t play at North Dakota this season, a development that could work in their favor.
Oh, yes, North Dakota. Let’s not forget about the team that has won the MacNaughton Cup in three of the last four years, and the national title in the other. Counting the Sioux out of this race because of two losses in October is like counting out the New York Jets in a Monday Night Football game.
“North Dakota will certainly rebound,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “They’re not going to stay in that position the whole year.”
But they can’t afford to lose games to the Michigan Techs and the Mankatos of the WCHA. That’s not meant to disparage those teams, but to get ahead in this league, a contender needs to beat the teams picked to finish lower in the field.
“The teams like Michigan Tech and Mankato that beat them, those are games that they needed to win so they become very important,” Sauer said. “That’s why I tried to stress the importance of those games for our team.”
You can’t say there are unimportant games for anyone hoping to win the WCHA.
The Bulletin-Board Battle?
It’s a study in contrasts.
On one hand, you have the weathered veteran. Sauer, he of 18 years of Wisconsin-Minnesota.
On the other, Lucia, a relative newcomer to the Border Battle.
Their words indicate their positions.
“I think it meant more last weekend than this weekend,” Sauer said, referring to his team going out East last weekend and showing it could play with the best they have to offer.
“That’s not the issue for me,” Lucia said in regard to his team’s 0-5 record last season against the Badgers.
“They think they’re pretty good,” Sauer said of the Gophers. “I think our schedule’s been a little tougher than theirs to start the year. We’ll see how that equals out here along the way. Our guys are anxious. We’re certainly not intimidated going up there to play.”
“We’re playing against a team we couldn’t beat last year,” Lucia said, “so the big thing for us is we have to get a game this weekend and prove that we are going to be contending with the better teams in our league.”
It’s probably safe to call Sauer “Mr. Bulletin Board” this weekend. Lucia, we can call him “Mr. Diplomatic.”
But since when has diplomacy had anything to do with Wisconsin-Minnesota? Herb Brooks and Bob Johnson weren’t exactly cordial. Sauer and Doug Woog? Forget about it.
This is apparently a new era. And, for once, this Border Battle means something nationally. Wisconsin is No. 2 in this week’s USCHO.com poll; Minnesota is No. 5.
But Lucia doesn’t exactly like that No. 5 by his team’s name.
“To be honest, we’re probably overrated,” he said. “I think we’re a top-15 team in the country. Whether we’re a top-five, I’m not sure I think we’re that good.
“We’ve got a long ways to go as a hockey team. We certainly haven’t been tested yet or played a top team, and that’s going to begin for us over the next month. We’ll find out a lot more where our program’s at and where the talent level is at at the end of November.”
They’ll find out a little something this weekend. To keep taking strides toward erasing last year’s struggles, the Gophers need to shake this futility streak.
The Badgers are undefeated in their last seven games against Minnesota, including the last five in Minneapolis (counting the Final Five semifinal last year at Target Center).
“The better team has won,” Lucia said. “They were better than we were last year; now we’re going to try to find out if we’ve closed that gap this weekend.”
For the Badgers, the first loss of the season came in a game in which they had to throw everything at Northeastern just to get into overtime. They scored twice in the last 93 seconds to tie the game at 4 before Northeastern won it in OT.
So Wisconsin stands at 7-1, but apparently not tremendously disappointed it is not 8-0.
“They were pretty resilient,” Sauer said. “The fact that we didn’t win was disappointing but I think we felt good about getting ourselves back into the game. It wasn’t like they beat us, I don’t think. I think we felt that if we played them again we certainly could beat them.”
Boy, Sauer’s all about the bulletin board this week.
Michigan Tech and Mankato may be exactly where people expected them to be, but each could legitimately state they should be 3-3 in the league.
The Huskies had a chance to win two games in particular. They lost a 3-2 game to Colorado College and a 4-2 decision to Wisconsin in which the teams were tied in the third period.
The Mavericks lost a pair of one-goal games to Wisconsin, one of them in overtime.
“We’ve played some good hockey games and played some very good hockey teams,” Jutting said. “Obviously, a couple of bounces here or there might have changed things, but you make those bounces for yourself, too. And we haven’t created enough opportunities to make those bounces for ourselves.”
Each of these teams can at least say the worst is over — for now. And each got took a victory from North Dakota.
“That was a good win for us and we’d like to think we can build from there,” Jutting said. “But I think you have to go out every night and play hard. If you do that, eventually good things will happen for you.”
The Net Effect
Mankato’s Eric Pateman will miss his third straight week of action because of a bad back when the Mavericks play Michigan Tech this weekend.
“His back is getting better, but as goes with backs, that can change in a day,” Jutting said. “Right now he’s working hard and trying to get it back in shape and it has been getting better so hopefully that’ll continue.”
Mankato can feel fortunate, though, that backup Todd Kelzenberg has played well enough to keep the team in games.
His numbers aren’t stellar — a 3.88 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage — but the effort is exactly what the Mavericks have needed to get through a tough situation.
“He’s done a very nice job for us,” Jutting said. “Todd’s worked very hard even though he didn’t get to play in about a year and a half because Eric played so well. But Todd is a great kid with a great attitude. He kept working hard and kept preparing like he was going to get a chance to play. Fortunately for him, he did get a chance and he’s done a very nice job for us.”
No Goals, No Wins
Is Minnesota-Duluth falling into the no-scoring, no-win trap again?
The Bulldogs haven’t led a game so far this season and have been outscored 27-7.
Needless to say, that’s not the way to go about winning.
And just for an added challenge, they’ll have to play the rest of the season without freshman winger Nick Anderson, who has scored two of the team’s seven goals. He suffered cartilage damage in his already injured right knee and will undergo a major reconstruction next week.
He’s expected to get a medical redshirt for this season because he played in only four games.
He Said It
“We’re sick of learning lessons…. We’re not into moral victories anymore.”
— Alaska-Anchorage captain Regg Simon, after the Seawolves lost a three-goal lead in a 3-3 tie last Saturday.
News and Views
On The Docket
The league’s only undefeated and untied team, Colorado College, puts that mark on the line against Duluth in Colorado Springs.
But this weekend’s big matchup is Wisconsin vs. Minnesota at Mariucci Arena. It’s good to see this mean more than just interstate pride these days. Should Minnesota get a pair of wins, that No. 5 ranking will look a lot better.