2005-06 WCHA Mid-Season Report
With a wealth of young talent added to a team that
was already rock-solid defensively and pretty sound
offensively, we had a notion that the Wisconsin
Badgers would be pretty good. We’re
frankly amazed that they’ve been this good this
consistently in the first 11 weeks of the season.
The combination of a massive set of defensemen and
a goalie that’s making a case to have his name
mentioned alongside Ryan Miller and Robb Stauber means
that opponents rarely get a glance at the Badger net,
let alone a shot on it.
Of course, all is not perfect inside
the Kohl Center, as a surprising loss to a cellar-dwelling
team left Bucky with one WCHA loss at the break and
we’re interested to see if Brian Elliott has
the stamina to be the guy between the pipes every
night all season. But for now the dream of a two-hour
drive to the NCAA regional (in Green Bay) and a one-hour
trek to the Frozen Four (in Milwaukee) is very much
As his junior season at Wisconsin began, goaltender
Brian Elliott had just 15 games of
collegiate hockey (and a respectable 9-5-1 record,
with three shutouts) to reflect on. There were understandable
questions about what the Badgers had between the pipes.
Those questions are no more, as Elliott has played
every minute of every Badgers game thus far (save
for a few empty net seconds here and there) and is
allowing opponents barely a goal a game, with three
more shutouts. Elliott says his tutelage under legendary
Wisconsin goaltending coach Bill Howard included a
near-complete dismantling of his game, then a physical
and psychological rebuilding that has resulted in
the most dominating performances by a college hockey
goaltender this season.
At 6-3, 187, Elliott fills a lot of the space between
the pipes, and his exemplary rebound control have
even the most dangerous-looking shots ricocheting
harmlessly off Elliott’s pads and into the Kohl
Center’s corners. It takes an amazing season
for a goalie to be seriously considered for the Hobey.
Elliott has had an amazing season, so far.
BEST NEW FACE
|Some observers consider
Denver defenseman Matt Carle, an INCH First Half
All-WCHA selection, the country's best player
regardless of position.
We owe a shout-out
to Minnesota Duluth forward Mason Raymond, who is
leading WCHA rookies in conference scoring, and to
North Dakota forward Jonathan Toews, who has pro scouts
drooling with his array of skills. With that out of
the way, it should surprise absolutely nobody that
Minnesota forward Phil Kessel, while probably not
ready to join Paul Kariya in the “freshman Hobey
winners” category, has been the most-watched
and most-productive WCHA rookie thus far.
His 22 points in the Golden Gophers’ first 18
games are somehow made more impressive by the fact
he scored just one goal (on a penalty shot) in his
first five collegiate games. It’s become routine
to see Kessel thread seeing-eye passes through traffic
to waiting (and sometimes stunned) linemates. Whatever
powers of persuasion Don Lucia used to get Thomas
Vanek to come back for a second season, we’re
betting he’ll double those efforts in hopes
of seeing Kessel listed as a sophomore forward on
Minnesota’s roster one day.
WHAT HAPPENED TO …
Maybe the trouble with Ralph Engelstad Arena
(aside from the roughly 174,000 controversial logos
placed throughout) is that the place is just too darn
nice for opponents that come to face North
Dakota. Despite the etched glass and the
marble and the leather everywhere, you still are hard
pressed to find folks dying to visit Grand Forks during
those months when the prairie winds can chill you
to the bone and when reports of “snow and blowing
snow” are a mere formality on the evening weather
report. But the Fighting Sioux have lost five of their
six biggest home games already (once vs. Denver, twice
vs. Wisconsin and twice vs. Minnesota) and with six
WCHA losses are effectively out of the race for the
WCHA title. The team is very talented and very young
(especially on defense), and the results are showing
in Jordan Parise having to face many more shots than
in past years. It’ll be interesting to see what
more maturity brings in the second half for Dave Hakstol’s
Michigan Tech 4, Wisconsin 2,
Dec. 9 in Madison. After an otherwise miserable first
half of the season, Huskies coach Jamie Russell and
Co. earned a right to smile on a Friday at the Kohl
Center. According to reporters present, Russell emerged
from the Huskies locker room after this one unable
to suppress his ear-to-ear grin. "Sorry,"
Russell told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
while nearly chuckling, "I can't wipe the smile
off my face." By scoring a pair of short-handed
goals, a power play goal and an empty-netter, the
cellar-dwelling Huskies gave top-ranked Wisconsin
its first WCHA loss of the season and ended the Badgers
14-game unbeaten streak at the same time. Bucky responded
in a big way one night later, winning 7-0, but by
then the damage was done.
TOUGHEST ROAD OUT
There was no “welcome to the WCHA” note
attached when new St. Cloud State
coach Bob Motzko took over in late August and was
first handed his team’s 2005-06 schedule. The
dates assigned to the Huskies in October were an interesting
way for Motzko’s head coaching tenure to begin,
as visits to Northern Michigan and Colorado College
were mixed in with home games versus Wisconsin, Minnesota
and North Dakota.
But if you expected these Huskies to roll over and
play dead, you were mistaken. The team has emerged
with a 6-8-2 mark thus far and should head into the
holiday break with a .500 mark after this weekend’s
home series with Robert Morris. While we’re
not expecting the team to make the NCAAs, we’ve
learned to pick against Motzko at your own risk.
TOUGHEST ROAD IN
After a dismal 0-4 start, Minnesota Duluth
has gone 7-4-3 and has quietly slid into the upper
half of the WCHA standings as we approach 2006. If
they’re serious about home ice in the playoffs,
the Bulldogs should store up some points in January.
As far back as the preseason, Bulldogs coach Scott
Sandelin nearly shuddered when he noted their February
and March schedule. The Bulldogs' last four weekends
of the year will be spent at home versus top-ranked
Wisconsin, at North Dakota, at home versus Colorado
College and at Minnesota. In the midst of all that,
Sandelin’s wife, Wendy, is due to give birth
to their second child. Sounds like a stressful few
weeks in the life of one American family.
Colorado College vs. Denver (home
and home), March 2-3. Last season, they awarded
the MacNaughton Cup after both games in this season-ending
series as the Front Range rivals split the trophy.
This season, with Wisconsin already owning a nice
nest egg of league points, we have a sneaking suspicion
that this series will be the battle for second, or
third or fourth place. In a way, that makes it more
interesting as by March, the real battle is usually
to finish third and avoid the WCHA Final Five’s
Thursday night play-in game. We’re thinking
that with Brett Sterling’s previous struggles
versus Denver well-documented, this series might be
a make-or-break one for him, too, if he has serious
designs on winning the Hobey.
BIGGEST QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Does league-wide instant replay work?
Sure, in fact, it’s working perfectly if you
ask the officials. So far, not one on-ice goal call
has been ruled “no goal” after a review.
Of course, nothing’s truly perfect, as coaches
have complained about lengthy delays for reviews that
have meant de facto timeouts and some interesting
switches in momentum. But on the whole, we’ll
give instant replay a thumbs-up thus far.
Will Minnesota State, Mankato find a goalie?
Yes, and they found one in the strangest of places.
The basketball hotbed of Syracuse, N.Y., isn’t
exactly the normal stomping ground for Mavericks hockey
recruiters, but that’s where freshman netminder
Dan Tormey was raised before ending up in Mankato.
While the Mavs aren’t contending for the title
or even home ice, just yet, Tormey has helped them
be competitive nearly every night and has hopefully
made the 9-6 and 8-5 losses a thing of the past.
BIGGEST QUESTIONS REMAINING
Has WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod
ever awarded the MacNaughton Cup in December?
After Minnesota was all but anointed as league champs
at this time last year before a bizarre January swoon,
we should probably resist shipping the league title
to Madison just yet. But with just one league loss
thus far, the Badgers are already within sight of
the school’s fourth MacNaughton Cup.
Will the college hockey
world look this way to save College Hockey America?
For more than a decade as the Huskies have struggled
on the ice, there’s been talk at Michigan Tech
about maybe switching conferences. While most think
that the CCHA (where the Huskies played for three
seasons in the early 1980s) would be a logical new
home for Tech hockey, we’re wondering if the
big money being offered by CHA might be tempting to
the powers that be in Houghton.
First Half All-WCHA Team
two seasons of patience and tutelage in zen master
Bill Howard’s goalie school, Elliott has
emerged ready for prime time. With a backup that’s
still learning, keeping their starter fresh in
the second half will be key for the Badgers..
two NCAA titles already on his resume, Carle’s
stellar defense and offense in the first half
have some opponents calling him the nation’s
best at any position. More of the same in 2006
could make him the fifth defender to win the Hobey.
a nod to CC’s Brian Salcido, Gilbert’s
skills and veteran leadership have been the catalysts
for a defensive unit that has smothered opponents
en route to a commanding lead in the WCHA title
the most reliable source of offense on a team
that supposedly can’t score, the sophomore
from Plover, Wis., is quietly averaging better
than a point per game. The way Bucky plays defense,
he’s been somewhat overshadowed by his talented
linemate, Sertich’s quest to become the
first two-time Hobey winner won’t end in
disappointment for lack of effort.
critics who call him one-dimensional (Didn’t
they say that about Brett Hull too?), Sterling
leads the league in goals, points, and points
per game. Find a way to score against Denver,
and he could be the third Tiger Hobey in the past