December 15, 2005
2005-06 WCHA Mid-Season Report

By Jess Myers

Mid-Season Report

Mid-Season Reports
Atlantic Hockey
College Hockey America
Hockey East


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 alive.


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.


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.


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 club.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

INCH's First Half All-WCHA Team
Player Of Note
Brian Elliott, Wisconsin After 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..
Matt Carle, Denver With 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.
Tom Gilbert,
With 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 race.
Joe Pavelski, Wisconsin As 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, that’s enough
Marty Sertich,
Colo. College
While 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.
Brett Sterling,
Colo. College
Ignoring 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 four years.