March 8, 2006
Right Back Where We Started From

By Jess Myers


Denver defenseman Matt Carle leads the defending national champs in assists (39), points (50) and plus-minus rating (+18).

National TV Schedule

It’s a running joke in WCHA circles that being picked to win the league title by the coaches in their preseason poll is the kiss of death. History shows the coaches with a pretty brutal record of getting the eventual league champ right. So when the coaches picked Minnesota this year, we figured there’d be no need to dust off that MacNaughton Cup case that’s stored in the bowels of Mariucci Arena.

A short time later, when the Gophers lost forward Tyler Hirsch and defenseman Nate Hagemo in quick succession, lost their season opener at home to Alaska Fairbanks, and watched arch-rival Wisconsin go off on a seemingly unstoppable run, it was easy to think that the coaches had stayed consistent and gotten it wrong again.

On the first weekend of December, the Badgers came to Mariucci Arena and completely had their way with the Gophers, winning 4-3 and 4-0 and seemingly putting Minnesota in their rear-view mirrors permanently. If the Gophers were down and out then, they didn’t show it.

Minnesota was 7-5-4 at the time. They enter the playoffs at 25-6-5, which (for you math majors out there) means they’ve gone 18-1-1 since that rough weekend with the Badgers. When Brian Elliott hurt his knee in a Badger practice in January (as Wisconsin held an eight-point lead in the WCHA standings with 12 games to play) nobody thought the Badgers could fall as hard and as fast as they did. But two weeks later, their lead in the standings was gone, and today, the MacNaughton Cup resides in Minneapolis.

Not that the Gophers have touched it or anything.

In a nod to the NHL tradition which says that players do not touch the conference championship trophies, because they really want the Stanley Cup, the Gophers were offered the MacNaughton Cup after their 7-0 win over Minnesota Duluth on March 3 and treated it like it was a vial filled with bird flu virus. WCHA commissioner handed the weighty trophy to Gopher captain Gino Guyer, who skated it to center ice, set it down and skated away. The team did a stick salute around the Cup, with no other players coming within 10 feet of the silver chalice. It’s clear that the trophy they want will be awarded in Milwaukee on April 9.

For now, the WCHA coaches can head to the playoffs secure in the knowledge that it took some doing and some strange twists of fate, but for once, they nailed the preseason prediction.

WCHA First Round Matchups

No. 10 Alaska Anchorage at No. 1 Minnesota
6-25-3 (4-21-3 WCHA)
25-6-5 (20-5-3 WCHA)
Season Series:
UM leads 4-0-0

Seawolf Fact: Alaska Anchorage is the only WCHA team to have never hosted a playoff series. Their one trip to the Final Five (in 2004) came after upsetting Wisconsin on the road.
Golden Gopher Fact: The last time the Gophers won the MacNaughton Cup outright (1992) was also the last time they lost a WCHA playoff game at home.

How UAA Wins: Goaltending. It’s been an adventure to see who’ll be in goal for the Seawolves and what they’ll do this season. Having someone (like John DeCaro, the last Seawolf to win a game at Mariucci) get hot is the only way the visitors have a chance.
How UM Wins:
Get the crowd into it early. With the state's high school hockey tournament going on in St. Paul, there may be empty seats and a distracted crowd at Mariucci. Score early and they’ll make noise. Struggle, and many will be mingling in the concourse.

No. 9 Minnesota Duluth at No. 2 Denver
9-23-4 (6-19-3 WCHA)
DU: 20-13-3
(17-8-3 WCHA)
Season Series:
DU leads 2-0-0

Bulldog Fact: UMD heads into the playoffs on a woeful offensive note. The Bulldogs have been shut out in four of their last six games and have been outscored 28-3 in that stretch.
Pioneer Fact:
Since the start of the Final Four/Five era in 1988, Denver is the only road team to win a three-game playoff series after losing the opening game. The Pioneers won two one-goal games at North Dakota in 1989 after losing the series opener 7-1.

How UMD Wins: Score a goal. Sounds simple, but with the Bulldogs offense struggling and frustrated, they’ll need an early dose of offense to believe they have a chance.
How DU Wins:
Keep the Bulldogs off the board in the first. The opponents come in believing it’s a new season and the struggles of the past can be forgotten. Renew those offensive struggles for UMD, and you’re in their heads.

No. 8 Michigan Tech at No. 3 Wisconsin
7-23-6 (6-16-6 WCHA)
23-9-3 (17-8-3 WCHA)
Season Series:
UW leads 2-1-1

Husky Fact: Chris Conner enters what may be his final weekend of college hockey with 15 career shorthanded goals. He needs one more to tie the WCHA record held by Northern Michigan’s Joe Frederick.
Badger Fact:
Despite their late-season struggles, the Badgers 17 WCHA wins and their tie for second place in the league standings is their best conference showing under Mike Eaves.

How MTU Wins: Use a mix of the old and the new. A senior forward (Conner) and a freshman goalie (Michael-Lee Teslak) are the keys if the Huskies are to win two more at the Kohl Center.
How UW Wins:
Get the top line mojo back. When Elliott got hurt, the offense supplied by Robbie Earl and Joe Pavelski faltered. Get that pair rolling again and a trip to St. Paul awaits.

No. 7 Minnesota State Mankato at
No. 4 North Dakota
16-16-4 (12-13-3 WCHA)
23-14-1 (16-12-0 WCHA)
Season Series:
UND leads 2-0-0

Maverick Fact: The last two times the MSU played a WCHA playoffs series in Grand Forks (in 1998 and ’99) they weren't yet official league members. The nine-team WCHA invited the Mavs to play the league champs those years to fill out the playoff field.
Fighting Sioux Fact:
North Dakota has won its last eight home playoff series. The last time the Sioux lost a home playoff series was in 1996 to Wisconsin.

How MSU Wins: Stay hot. Aside from a team that plays in the Twin Cities, the Mavericks are arguably the hottest WCHA team entering the playoffs. If they can avoid being intimidated by the Engelstad atmosphere, they have designs on an upset.
How UND Wins:
Rookies, play like veterans. Dave Hakstol’s first team turned it on come playoff time. Now’s the time for the young Sioux to let their lack of experience be overshadowed by their abundance of talent.

No. 6 St. Cloud State at No. 5 Colorado College
SCSU: 18-14-4 (13-13-2 WCHA)
CC: 23-13-2 (15-11-2 WCHA)
Season Series: CC leads 3-1-0

Husky Fact: The Huskies are spending the playoffs in Colorado Springs for the second year in a row. Last season St. Cloud State fell 4-2 and 8-2 to CC in Craig Dahl’s final games as coach.
Tiger Fact: The Tigers have hosted a playoff series in 12 of the last 13 seasons. The one time they went on the road (2004), they upset Denver.

How SCSU Wins: Don’t just rely on your goalie. CC has too much offense to try the “sit back and let the goalie win it” tactic. The Huskies need to open things up a little and surprise the Tigers on the attack.
How CC Wins: Take an early lead. Bobby Goepfert’s game thrives when he makes a big save early and gains confidence as the game goes on. An early marker by the likes of Sterling, Sertich, Salcido, Sweatt and Co., and the Tigers could roll.


While we really like Alaska Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak and we wish him the best, Minnesota has never lost a home playoff game at the new Mariucci Arena and we don’t see it happening this year. Which sends the Gophers to the WCHA Final Five, which is particularly normal. Since the league went to the best-of-three playoffs series in 1988, Minnesota has failed to advance only once (1998) and even then it took a miracle comeback by Minnesota Duluth to keep the Gophers out. There’s no reason for the Gophers to feel anything but comfortable in St. Paul with an army of fans cheering them on and with their talent, there’s no reason to expect this story to end without Minnesota hoisting the Broadmoor Trophy.


What amazed most of us about Denver coach George Gwozdecky’s recent ejection from a Pioneers loss wasn’t that WCHA officials were playing it tough. In this year where so many checks once considered routine now draw a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct, we expect the guys in the stripes to play it tight. But Gwozdecky’s never been a big temper guy, preferring more to play it cool, hold his cards close, then come in with a big, if low-key play at the end. We like to think he’s capable of the same this year, especially after seeing how calmly he handled his team’s realistic exit from the MacNaughton Cup race a few weekend ago in Minneapolis. We think he’s probably holding a few aces, with eyes toward a big play in St. Paul and/or Milwaukee in mind.


G – Brian Elliott, Wisconsin
When you debate naming someone a most valuable player, you ask what their team would’ve done without said player in the lineup. A January injury gave us a month to see what Wisconsin was like without the league’s top goalie in the lineup, and it wasn’t pretty.

D – Tom Gilbert, Wisconsin
It’s no secret that the Badgers win with a defense-first philosophy. As important as their goaltending has been, the puck control play of one of the nation’s more underrated defensive defensemen has been a key too.

D – Matt Carle, Denver
While their archrivals in Colorado Springs have collected Hobeys in recent years, the Pioneers have been winning NCAA titles. Carle’s offense and defense – and the raves he’s drawing from opponents – give DU a great shot at its first Hobey this season.

F – Brett Sterling, Colorado College
A January/February slump which saw Sterling go several weeks without a goal probably ended his quest to become CC’s third Hobey winner in four seasons. But we’ll honor him for 100 career goals and standing up to the opponents’ checking lines again and again.

F – Ryan Potulny, Minnesota
His older brother Grant won a NCAA title but didn’t get the Hobey during four years as a Gopher. If Potulny’s scoring and his team’s winning way continue, Ryan may get both before his college career is over.

F – Danny Irmen, Minnesota
Despite missing two significant stretches of action due to an assortment of injuries, Irmen has consistently been Minnesota’s most dangerous offensive weapon, and a perfect complement to that “other” kid from North Dakota on the Gophers’ top line.


Getting your dream job of being a Division I head coach at your alma mater has got to be an exciting and nerve-wracking prospect. In that regard, maybe new St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko was fortunate that things fell into place as they did. He took over the program in late August after head coach Craig Dahl’s abrupt, unexpected departure and never really got the chance to be too excited or celebratory, as the early focus was on Dahl leaving after nearly 20 years at the helm. And since the season started roughly 20 minutes after “assistant” was replaced by “head” in Motzko’s title, he probably didn’t get much of a chance to be nervous either. On the ice (with a little help from goaltender Bobby Goepfert), Motzko led the Huskies to a surprising sixth-place finish, narrowly missing home ice for the first round of the league playoffs, a goal most thought unattainable in October.


With a nod to Brian Elliott for what he’s done when healthy for Wisconsin this season, a glance a bit farther west reveals the talents of Denver defenseman Matt Carle. While leading all NCAA blueliners offensively this season, Carle has also displayed the game-controlling moves at defense that helped win the Hobey for Jordan Leopold four years ago. Carle’s defensive skills are primary, but he’s flexed his muscle as a setup man this year as well, leading the nation in average assists per game. As the marquee player on the two-time defending national champions, Carle got used to seeing the opponents’ top player hopping the boards to face him. Despite that talent waved in his face, he led the Pioneers with a +18 mark in the regular season. It takes an extraordinary defenseman to win this award. Carle is that, and more.


The toughest decision of the season pits Minnesota’s Phil Kessel against North Dakota’s T.J. Oshie. With hype of Sidney Crosby proportions following him to Dinkytown, Kessel led all WCHA rookies in scoring, as expected, while gracing the pages of Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine. Less heralded but arguably more effective was Oshie, who came to Grand Forks directly from Minnesota high school hockey and proceeded to lead the WCHA in game-winning goals (seven) and score more goals (20) than Kessel (14) in his first season. So do you pick the kid who played well but failed in the impossible task of living up to the unrealistic expectations, or the kid who played well with no real expectations and turned out to be a pleasant surprise? In the end, we’ll go with Kessel, secure in the knowledge that his pro prospects mean this year might be the only opportunity he’ll have to win a college hockey award.


At 5-10 and 190 pounds, Denver forward Ryan Dingle doesn’t stand out physically. And on a team with offensive powers like Gabe Gauthier and Paul Stastny, Dingle wasn’t expected to stand out on the stats sheet either. But when the regular season concluded, the heretofore unknown sophomore from ski country (Steamboat Springs, Colo.) led the Pioneers with 25 goals in 35 games and has already recorded more than double the number of points that he put up as a rookie. He heads into the playoffs among the nation’s leaders in game-winners and power play goals and isn’t cooling off or tiring out, as evidenced by his first career hat trick on Feb. 25 against North Dakota. He’s also been resilient, bouncing back a one-game hiatus for a checking from behind penalty in January by scoring twice in his return to the ice.