2004-05 WCHA Mid-Season Report
How can you be a surprise success after winning two out of the last
three NCAA titles? Simple – freshmen just aren’t supposed
to contribute this much this fast, and no home ice advantage should
be good for almost a year without a home loss.
But that’s what we’ve seen from Minnesota
thus far. The rookies have been superlative, and the team is unbeaten
(and looks all but unbeatable) at Mariucci Arena. Where some coaches
use a roster filled with freshmen and sophomores as an excuse for
early-season struggles, Don Lucia has used a similar roster to climb
to the top of the national rankings. Rookie defenders Alex Goligiski
and Derek Peltier are getting it done both offensively and defensively,
and a sophomore who had a whopping 15 games of collegiate experience
under his belt prior to the season (Ryan Potulny) is averaging a
goal a game.
Add to that the fact that goalie Kellen Briggs seems to have spent
the summer patching any holes he had in his game, and the Gophers'
13-4-0 mark is no fluke. The Gopher-haters out there (and there
are scores of them) say that the kids won’t be able to sustain
their success over a full season. Of course, they said that about
a Minnesota sophomore goalie named Stauber once too.
In a community
where some street signs are still written in English and Finnish,
Michigan Tech's Lars Helminen has a name that fits
right in among many fans in the Keewenaw. But in the interest of
full disclosure, it should be know that this flying Finn was born
in Florida and raised outside of Detroit.
As a rookie defenseman for the WCHA’s cellar-dwellers, Helminen
scored just two goals (and added eight assists). But perhaps it
was a sign of things to come that both of his freshman-year goals
came on the power play.
Halfway through another winter of discontent in Houghton, Helminen
has pretty much been the Husky fans’ only reason to cheer
as he leads all WCHA players in man-advantage points and is the
league’s top-scoring defenseman with 18 points after 16 games.
While their scoring is down and the goaltending hasn’t been
consistent enough for the Huskies to win more than a home game with
Alaska Anchorage, Helminen has been a pleasant (and rare) source
of optimism for Jamie Russell and his long-suffering alma mater.
BEST NEW FACE
Philippe Lamoureux, North Dakota. Since the last
shot Karl Goehring faced between the pipes for North Dakota nearly
four years ago, fans of the Fighting Sioux have been lamenting how
much their offensive wonders might have been able to do with more
reliable goaltending. Well, they’re no longer scoring goals
by the dozen at the Ralph, but they seem to have found an answer
to the nagging goaltending questions right in their own backyard.
Lamoureux is a Grand Forks kid with NCAA titles in his blood, after
his father Jean Pierre tended goal on a pair of Sioux teams that
won the big trophy (in 1980 and ’82). Thus far in his rookie
season, Philippe has backstopped five of his team’s 11 wins
and has some of the best stats in the WCHA through half of the season.
Perhaps his most impressive work came on Nov. 6, in turning aside
28 shots by the much-feared Colorado College offense as the Sioux
won a 2-1 defensive battle at home.
Sure, everybody likes offense, and goals are entertaining, especially
when accompanied by the bells, whistles, lasers and all of that
other Vegas-style fun in Grand Forks. But here’s thinking
that Sioux fans don’t mind seeing 2-1 or 3-2 wins instead
of the 7-3 and 8-4 victories they’d grown accustomed to in
WHAT HAPPENED TO …
17 goals in 17 games, Ryan Potulny is a big reason Minnesota
enters the holidays as the nation's top ranked team.
Duluth? When November dawned, everything seemed fine on
the western shore of Lake Superior. The beloved Bulldogs were coming
off their inspiring run to the Frozen Four, picked to win the WCHA,
undefeated (5-0-1) and ranked first in the nation. With a lightly-regarded
eastern team (Vermont) coming to town, all was right with the world
for Scott Sandelin’s crew. Seven weeks and a 3-8-1 stretch
later, the team seems to be sinking faster than the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The “glass is half full” folks will note that the Bulldogs
still have a .500 record, and that they were in a similar position
at the holiday break a year ago (9-8-2) before embarking on a 14-game
unbeaten streak. The pessimists note that with 2004 Hobey Baker
Award winner Junior Lessard toiling in the Dallas minor league system,
the team lacks the finisher needed to help the team compete offensively,
and there’s been some quiet grumbling about Sandelin leaving
the team prior to their series with Denver to coach Team USA at
the World Junior Championships.
The Bulldogs have shown some heart in recent conference wins over
North Dakota and St. Cloud State, and their rabid fans are staying
loyal, for now. Still, more trouble in January will make empty seats
at the DECC as easy to find as round rocks at Brighton Beach.
Alaska Anchorage 3, Minnesota 2, Oct. 16 in Anchorage.
Thanks to a rash of injuries, summertime defections, and a notable
locker room fight in September, the Seawolves were all but left
for dead before they dropped the first puck of the season. In their
second game of the year, John Hill’s crew served notice that
what Jack London taught us a century ago remains true – the
Last Frontier is still not a place where anything comes easy. With
a big crowd on hand for the title game of the Nye Frontier Classic,
Hill beat his former boss behind 36 saves by Nathan Lawson and the
first two collegiate goals from Shea Hamilton. Since it was a tournament
game, the Seawolves didn’t get the two WCHA points for the
win, but they may have gotten a more important boost of confidence
that’s allowed them to play near-.500 hockey thus far despite
a rash of injuries.
TOUGHEST ROAD OUT
Minnesota State, Mankato might have been ready
to concede their place in the WCHA race as early as Halloween, after
a brutal first three weeks of the season left them at 0-5-1. Suffice
it to say that with a young team full of defensemen trying to find
their footing and question marks in goal, you don’t want to
see a home series with North Dakota, then trips to Minnesota Duluth
and Minnesota on your October slate. Mavs coach Troy Jutting can
be commended for keeping his team’s chins up through that
rough patch, then leading them on a 5-0-1 tear and to a .500 record
to this point. Still, that 4-7-1 conference mark is a concern if
the people in Mankato have designs on hosting home playoff games
TOUGHEST ROAD IN
Picked to win the WCHA by many (including INCH), Minnesota
Duluth has six conference losses already, and post-New
Year’s trips to Minnesota, Denver and Colorado College looming
on the schedule. Most concerning for Bulldog fans yearning for a
return trip to the NCAAs and the Frozen Four is their team’s
early-season collapses against low-hanging fruit like Vermont, Brown
and Alaska Anchorage. If the Pairwise rankings were released today,
the Bulldogs wouldn’t even make the top 25, let alone the
top 16. It might be time for the team to forget about bringing the
MacNaughton Cup to Duluth and instead just try to ensure their third
consecutive finish among the league’s top five.
Colorado College at Minnesota, Jan. 8-9. For the
talented Tigers, all roads suddenly lead through the Twin Cities.
If they want to get to the Frozen Four, they might have to win two
games in Mariucci Arena during the NCAA West Regional. Prior to
that, if they want to win the WCHA Final Five, that’ll require
two (or three) wins at the Xcel Energy Center. And prior to that,
if the Tigers want their second MacNaughton Cup in three years,
having four points in their luggage when they leave Minneapolis
after this series may be vital. As for the Gophers, their coach
won three Cups when he was at CC, but he’s got none to his
credit at Minnesota. If his team wants its first outright WCHA title
since 1992, this will be the weekend to get it done.
BIGGEST QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Should the NCAA consider six WCHA teams for the field of
16? Each member of the league’s top sextet (Minnesota,
Colorado College, North Dakota, Denver, Wisconsin and Minnesota
Duluth) has made a strong case at some point thus far that they
may deserve the right to play after their conference tournament
has concluded. Of course, at least one of those six teams won’t
even make it to the conference tournament (they call it the Final
Five for a reason, folks), but that little bump in the road didn’t
stop Denver from claiming the NCAA title a year ago. Still, before
they make a case for a WCHA six-pack in the NCAAs, the league’s
hierarchy is well aware that the top six teams could look much different
after two more months of beating up on each other.
What’s the best student section chant we’ve
heard so far? The clear sentimental favorite is the St.
Cloud State partisans chanting “She said yes!” in response
to an in-arena marriage
proposal recently, but it’s always more fun when there’s
a little edge to them, right? For years, Gopher fans have pelted
the Bulldogs with the “Gopher rejects” refrain, but
this year we’ve heard Badger fans use that one on the Bulldogs
too. And in Duluth, the MSU Mavericks were ripped with a chant of
“Seawolf rejects” from the UMD Penalty Box. Another
fun moment came in Mankato in November when the then-15th ranked
Seawolves were called “Over-rated!” by the Maverick
backers – which Alaska Anchorage coach John Hill said was
a badge of honor. Still, our favorite came just last week when North
Dakota visited the DECC and the visiting fans who made the long
drive from the prairie were greeted with a refrain of “We’ve
anyone with designs on a NCAA title really want to win the Cup?
We’re rapidly approaching the 15th anniversary of the last
WCHA team to win the league title outright and win the NCAA title
in the same season. And the last WCHA team to do it (Northern Michigan
in 1991) hasn’t even been a member of the league for nearly
a decade. Every year, the league champs seem poised for a title
run, and for the last three consecutive seasons, the league champs
have been polishing the Cup in their dorm rooms, watching on TV
as a different WCHA team wins the national championship.
What is it going to take for Michigan Tech to be competitive again?
The Huskies remain the most patiently anticipated feel-good story
in WCHA history, but there’s no light to be found at the end
of their long tunnel just yet. Coach Jamie Russell shipped in a
boatload of good-sized rookies thinking that youth might lead the
way. Instead, their most-feared veteran (Chris Conner) is having
his least-productive collegiate season and at 1-14-1 the Huskies
have been out of the race for home ice since before the Thanksgiving
turkey was cooking. Some find hope in other small Michigan schools
that have had hockey success (Lake Superior State in the ‘90s
and Ferris State more recently). Others have gone as far as to point
to the Big East football conference which just kicked out Temple
after the Owls were uncompetitive for more than a decade, and have
suggested that the WCHA take the same tactic with Tech.
First Half All-WCHA Team
inexperienced defensemen? No worries, especially when your goalie
is playing as well as Briggs has thus far.
league’s best offensive defenseman thus far is the lone
ray of light in another long, cold winter in Houghton.
has been the blueline corps leader for the defending national
champions. He and Matt Carle form one of the country's best
an injury wiped out most of Potulny’s rookie season, we
wondered what he’d do with health. Seventeen goals in
as many games is your answer.
league’s leading scorer has members of the Sertich family
thinking that the Hobey would look good next to the Spencer
Penrose trophy at Uncle Mike’s house.
member of the “here’s what I can do when I’m
healthy” club. This kid from Pasadena and his dozen goals
have the Tigers smelling like roses.
this to a friend
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